‘Victoria’ is a Mesmerizing One-Shot Thriller

Long-time readers know I approach contemporary German movies with a bit of trepidation. So I was amazed by Victoria, an gem of a German film from 2015.

The plot could hardly be simpler: Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish music student who’s living in Berlin and working as a waitress. She goes clubbing one night, and meets a group of four young German guys who charm her with their broken high-school English, frisky late-night hi-jinks, and friendly, non-threatening manner. Sparks fly, in particular, between one of them, nicknamed ‘Sonne’ (Sun, played by Frederick Lau). Victoria decides to hang around with them after they all leave the nightclub together at around 4:30 AM. As she gets to know them, it turns out they’re a bit sleazier than she originally thought — one hints at a criminal record, another gets blackout drunk — but that’s all part of the no-strings-attached, exchange-student experience. Then one of four gets a fateful call from an old prison buddy, and things turn rather dark. That’s all I’ll say; avoid spoilers at all costs.

Victoria is one of the very few movies made in one continuous take. And what a take it is! We follow them through the club, out on the streets of Kreuzberg and Mitte, up to building roofs, down to parking garages, into banks, into apartments, and through courtyards. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and lots is in English (which disqualified the film for the Oscar foreign-language category). Of course, the one-take movie is a bit of a gimmick, but done well, it can ratchet up the tension and drama in an organic way. Which is precisely what happens here. Further, Victoria has none of the ‘choreographed’ look of some one-take movies. The action is seamless, fluid and convincing; you never doubt for a second that you’re ‘in the moment’ with the characters. And as the movie progresses, the fact that it was all done in one take became ever more jaw-droppingly astounding.

The performances are intense, believable and moving. Costa and Lau received German film prize awards, and deservedly so. Some people have called the plot a bit hare-brained, but I didn’t: The main event is a robbery by a bunch of hopped-up amateurs which goes horribly wrong. Most robberies are done by hopped-up amateurs, and most do go horribly wrong. The chaotic, violent final scenes are the sort of thing that’s becoming all too familiar on German streets.

Victoria’s a bit overlong, but just a bit. Other than that, it’s a minor cinematic masterpiece. It avoids all the weaknesses of German movies (sermonizing, heavy-handed symbolism, lack of drama), and draws on all the strengths (outstanding set design, awesomely talented actors, convincing improvisation drawn from extensive stage experience). I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

‘Winter adé’: Soulful East Germans Talk About Life

Winter adé (g) is a 1988 East German documentary directed by Helke Misselwitz (Helke is a woman’s name) (g). It’s one of the most honest and fascinating and touching documentaries there is, and the beauty part is that it’s available online here (g) at the German Center for Political Education, of all places.* The title (Farewell, Winter) is also the title of a famous German children’s song.

What’s the film about, you ask? Well, it’s about random people who live in East Germany. Misselwitz starts at a railroad crossing in Planitz, where she was born in an ambulance in 1947. Even in 1987, the crossing bars were still operated by hand. Misselwitz, off-camera, asks the guy operating it to take his shirt off and show his tattoos, which he does.

That’s the basic approach: She travels through East Germany, meets people, begins chatting with them, forges a bond, and then turns on the camera. She asks them about their past, their relationships, their lives, their hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations. That’s all. There’s no real narrative arc. There’s no agenda. There are no political statements, although political subjects — especially the role of women — do come up. There’s only a few minutes of voice-over by Misselwitz: Most of what you hear are the subjects talking about themselves. There are a few meditative dialogue-free interludes exploring atmospheres: a dance in a village disco, induction into the East German Army, a row of televisions in a shop displaying state media coverage of an official reception by Erich Honecker.

What might sound like a self-indulgent, meandering exercise is actually gripping. Misselwitz mostly interviews women, and they come from all walks of life, from a marketing consultant (yes, East Germany had those) to a worker in a coal processing plant, to two young Goth/new wave girls who skip school and get sent to a juvenile reformatory, to the owner of a dance school and a doll hospital (two separate people), to a woman who runs a home for troubled children. Something about Misselwitz’s sympathetic, low-key approach gets these people to open up about intensely private matters. I was constantly surprised by how intimate the revelations were, since Germans tend to be very private people. The end credits thank the subjects for their “sincerity”.

Perhaps the most affecting portrait is of Christine, a 37-year-old woman who works in a coal plant. Her job is to walk through the plant and use a large hammer to bang on various chutes and ovens to dislodge coal dust and prevent blockages. Misselwitz follows her around, bangbangbang, through hallways and over catwalks and under rows of boxy metal chutes, all against a deafening wall of background noise.. It’s hypnotic. And after Christine does one tour of the factory, she only gets a few minutes before she has to do the same exact tour all over again. It might seem stultifying, but she seems to enjoy her work.

After her shift, Misselwitz follows Christine and her fellow women workers into the showers, where they wash the coal dust off their ordinary workers’ bodies. Later, at home, she talks about her life: finding herself in a troubled marriage in her late teens, the marriage didn’t last, now she’s a single mother. One child has a mental illness. She would like to find another partner, one who loves animals as much as she does. She seems a kind and thoughtful soul, you want her to find her way in life.

Another standout interview is with the two goth girls. Misselwitz meets them under a train overpass, and follows them to a house, presumably a squat, where they do up their hair in painfully 1980s frizzes and paint the walls with their hand-prints. This segment is on Youtube:

As if its discreet charm weren’t enough, Winter adé is also beautifully shot, in pristine, carefully-framed black and white. The sound mixing is also spot-on: we hear the train clattering or the factory booming or the music throbbing in the background, but the voices come through clearly.

This warm, funny, unpretentious slice-of-life from the latest stage of East Germany has hidden depths; it will stay with you long after you watch it. Continue reading “‘Winter adé’: Soulful East Germans Talk About Life”

The Slow Death of Movie Theaters

German movie theaters experienced a 15% decline in ticket sales in the first half of 2018 (g). This is part of a long-term downward trend:

Bildergebnis für besucherzahl deutsche kinos

The linked article says the 2018 results were mainly due to the lack of “Hollywood blockbusters” like the Harry Potter franchise, but industry insiders also pointed to long-term trends: better home theater experiences, excellent TV series, the usual suspects.

Some of this, though, is the fault of movie theaters themselves. Germany early on adopted a strange culture of movie-going: the main feature invariably starts 20-30 minutes later than the advertised start time. The delay is taken up by an endless series of trailers, promos, and advertisements, and is often interrupted to give the audience time to go buy more snacks. Sometimes ushers even walk the aisles offering treats.

Most Germans seemed to take this for granted and obediently show up on time. Back when you could only see movies up close in the theater, it was a place for like-minded people to gather and socialize, so why not treat it like part of a night out?

Now, though, movies stream excellent quality in your own home, and quite a few people, like me, don’t want to be hit with advertisements when you’re captive in a movie seat you’ve already paid for. Further, there’s it’s hard to get in the mood for a movie you want to see by being forced to watch 5 trailers for movies you don’t want to see, including some movies whose very existence makes you question the wisdom of further human procreation.

I love me a good movie, but only see flicks in a theater maybe twice per year anymore. When I do go, I visit only funky, subsidized art-house theaters which are just plain fun places to be (often because they’re part of/next to a lively bar). Multiplexes are going the way of the video store for many reasons, but the annoying over-dependence on trailers and advertisements surely is one of them.

Dorm-Room Bullshit Sessions, Lovingly Filmed

http://cineuropa.org/en/videoembed/348080/rdid/345445/

Above is a trailer for a German movie, ‘303’ (link here if the embed doesn’t work). The English-language description is:

When biology student Jule finds out she’s pregnant, she sets out for Portugal to find her boyfriend Alex, who works on an organic commune there. Traveling in a Mercedes ‘303’ bus, she picks up hitchhiker Jan at a gas station outside Berlin, who’s traveling to a Spanish fishing village to tray [sic] and find his biological father. They’re both passionate and not very diplomatic, very interested in world affairs and philosophy, and while they’re “on the road”, they have impassioned and deep conversations about capitalism, human nature, love and relationships and the meaning of life. They trip becomes an emotional roller coaster, which finds them falling in love with each other? [sic]

Middle-class kids who inexplicably have months of free time on their hands conversing earnestly about “capitalism” and “the meaning of life”?

Alas, my pressing schedule will not afford me time to see this film.

Mitten in Deutschland — German History X

A huge conglomeration of public and private foundations put together a three-part series on the early 2000s murder spree of the National Socialist Underground called Mitten in Deutschland (In the Middle of Germany) in Germany and German History X when it was released by Netflix with English subtitles.

It's basically a trilogy of feature-length movies. I found it surprisingly good. German television and movies punch below their weight in general, but have shown some intermittent signs of improvement in recent years. Deutschland '83 is much more than watchable, and so is German History X. 

The first movie, about the formation of the 2-man one-woman 'trio' which formed the core of the NSU, shows the protagonists coming together in the 1990s neo-Nazi scene in Jena. The three core performers are stellar. The film also does a fine job of demonstrating how young people in the damaged, demoralized East often sought fellowship and a sense of purpose in violent Nazi groups. The second movie focuses on the victims, and is held together by a strong performance by Almila Bagriacik, who emerges from adolescence under the shadow of the murder of her father. The police immediately seek the killer in the 'milieu' of foreign small businessmen, without considering the possibility of a terrorist motive even after numerous other foreign shopkeepers are killed with the same weapon used to kill the first victim. 

The final movie, which focuses on the investigation, is the slackest of the bunch. This is hard to avoid, since the subject is, by definition, an investigation that went nowhere. The early-2000s murder spree of the three NSU members was discovered only posthumously, when two of them committed suicide after a botched 2011 bank robbery, and the murder weapon was found in their accomplice's apartment. The third movie paints a picture of detectives who develop solid leads, only to be frustrated by the machinations of the Thuringia state Verfassungsschutz. The Verfassungsschutz claimed to have deeply infiltrated the groups supporting the NSU trio, and fought against any arrests, questioning, or surveillance which could theoretically blow their agents' cover. Which meant, in the end, that they provided an enormous amount of cover, and even financing, to out-and-out Nazis who were committing sundry violent crimes. The movies' clear implication is that the Verfassungsschutz was operating at least in part out of sympathy for the right-wingers' goals.

The English translation of Verfassungsschutz in the movies was "secret service", which obviously doesn't do justice to this peculiar organization. English-language viewers certainly missed many of the implications of what was shown in the third film. Basically, the "Agency for the Protection of the Constitution", as the title means in English, is an originally West German domestic spying and intelligence agency. As its name implies, it is theoretically supposed to monitor, document, report on, and suppress any nascent threats to the German constitutional order. This includes right-wing and left-wing extremists, religious organizations, and cults. Each German state has one of these agencies, and there is a federal one as well. To call them controversial is an understatement — they are often accused of putting far more energy into surveillance of left-wing militants than right-wing groups, and are also accused of chilling free speech by singling out politically-charged organizations and publications for scrutiny in their public reports. In fact, the right-wing weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit – successfully sued to prohibit the Verfassungsschutz from mentioning them in its reports.

The agency has also been involved in innumerable scandals involving — at the very minimum — incompetence. The most recent in a very long list is the hiring of Roque M. (g) — a German citizen of Spanish descent who was hired as a Verfassungsschutz spy in the State of Northern Rhine Westphalia despite a history of mental instability and bizarre behavior, such as acting in gay porn films even though he was a married father of 4, running his own gay porn publishing house, running a website selling "German Military Underwear. Strong. Manly. Sexy.", and converting to radical Islam. The Verfassungschutz – apparently unaware of the possibility of running a Google search — only found out about him when he bragged about being a mole in the agency and working on plans to destroy it in an online forum which was being monitored by his co-workers.

In fact, the picture of the German law enforcement authorities in all of the films is devastating. The Keystone Kops of East Germany let the three neo-Nazis go underground even after finding bombs and weapons in one of their hideouts. Cops invent a hare-brained drug-smuggling conspiracy theory to explain the totally unrelated murder of ethnic-minority shopkeepers all over Germany with the exact same weapon. (Although this isn't mentioned in the film, they also chased a phantom serial killer whose existence was based on botched DNA testing). Their attitude toward murder victims' surviving relatives is callous in the extreme; Germany still has only a vestigial state infrastructure for providing counseling and care to surviving family members of murder victims. And in the third movie, the police actively allow and sometimes even assist neo-Nazis to commit violent crimes and spread propaganda, either out of incompetence or covert sympathy for their goals.

The general portrayal of police agencies is counterbalanced by sympathetic portrayals of individual cops, but they are seen as constantly having to fight against institutional blindness, rivalry, and silo-mentality thinking. When they're not fighting against moles in their own and other agencies who actually intentionally assist the neo-Nazis. The picture of police is probably a bit exaggerated, but there is no doubt much of it was justified — there are still dozens of very strange unanswered questions surrounding the fruitless investigation of the NSU murders. And, given the authorities' mania for secrecy and the lack of a culture of vigorous investigative journalism fed by leaks from inside the government, they'll probably remain unanswered forever.

A Short Review of ‘Poem’

Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.

This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem — perhaps any Heine poem — superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)

The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.

'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively — the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.

Thoughts on ‘Funny Games’

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A few days ago I watched Funny Games, Austrian director Michael Haneke's 1997 succes de scandale — which he remade in the U.S. a decade later. Since there will be spoilers, the rest comes after the jump.

The plot could hardly be more simple: a wealthy bourgeois German family retires to their sprawling lakeside second home. There's the father, the mother, and a boy about 10 years old. Two young men named Peter and Paul, apparently acquaintances of one of the neighbors, appear at the house. They're dressed in what looks like tennis whites and are wearing white cotton gloves like antiquarians. They insinuate themselves into the home, take the entire family captive, cut them off from the outside world, and torture and kill all three after playing bizarre mindgames with them. All for no discernible reason, except twisted kicks.

Funny Games is a patholological, cynical, ugly masterpiece, because it's a bundle of paradoxes. On the one hand, it's remorselessly faithful to its premise of bleak honesty: this is going to be a movie in which nobody heroes up, the bad guys win, nobody escapes, and there is no justice or accountability. Haneke almost taunts the audience by setting up story lines that start moving into the familiar grooves of resourceful-rescue stories. For instance the plucky, adorable son, Georgie, manages to escape from the house where his family is imprisoned and get to a neighbor's house — only to find the neighbors have all been massacred, and Paul is waiting there to bring him back. Peter and Paul dunk the family's cellphone in water to disable it, but later Georg, the father, painstakingly blow-dries the phone until the display finally re-activates — to show the phone's battery is dead.

On the other hand, though, Haneke continuously undermines his own premise by breaking the fourth wall. Paul, the smooth, cunning home invader, occasionally turns to the audience and winks during the cruel escapades. He asks us, the audience, who we think will survive the movie, and chides us for predictably siding with the innocent family. At about the 1 hour point, he addresses the viewer and reassures us that we shouldn't imagine the film will be ending soon, since that would be much too short for a feature film. He then tells us that he and his friend Peter will leave the house for a while, to give the remaining family members time to try to and escape, thereby increasing the suspense. After the wife suddenly reaches for a gun and kills Peter, Paul finds the remote control, 'rewinds' the plot as we watch, and takes the gun away from her. Haneke also has his fun with the smugness of the bourgeois family. Like all good high-bourgeois Germans, they have surrounded their home with carefully-maintained fences, walls, and gates — which paradoxically lock them in when they most need to escape.

Some reviewers found this to be a cheap gimmick, while others suggested it made the audience somehow 'complicit' in the barbaric fun. I don't really agree with either suggestion. The asides to the audience add another layer of chilling, alienated weirdness to what is already an intensely unsettling movie. The underlying point of Funny Games is to mock the lazy conventions of kidnapping/rescue dramas (especially the audience's expectations), and sabotaging the mimetic effect does that nicely. Yet, paradoxically, these asides actually enhance the suspense: they show that Haneke is blowing the conventions of the genre wide open, which means the audience can no longer rely on the assumptions it brings to 'psychological thrillers'. They are one of the first clues that are probably not going to see a heroic last-minute rescue, or a heart-to-heart in which the kidnappers gain insight and relent, or any of the other convenient knot-tiers used in dramas.

At the same time, the asides don't really make us 'complicit' in the pair's actions, anymore than a drunken barfly's leering makes a woman 'complicit' in his seduction plans. Rather, the asides set up an uncomfortable dichotomy: the family members are not in on the joke, and their suffering is 'real', but both the viewers and the home invaders are on the side who 'know' the whole thing is a game and who need not suffer any consequences. We're the voyeurs, they're the dungeon masters, and the family's ultimate humiliation, perhaps, is the fact that they never realize they are mere toys. That's also the key to the movie's title, which is in intentionally stilted English, not German. The end of the film, in which Paul charms his way into a neighbor's house, starting the cycle of murder once again, is about as brilliant and bleak as the famous ending of Cure, another deeply disturbing movie.

Funny Games is perhaps the archetype of a polarizing movie: the negative reviews treat the movie as if it were not just bad but soiled, debased, harmful and toxic. Those reviews may be the true yardstick of Haneke's achievement.

Funder on the Impossibility of Das Leben der Anderen

Anna Funder, author of the excellent Stasiland (which I reviewed here), writes in The Guardian that despite Das Leben der Anderen‘s appeal as a movie, the assumption it’s based on — that a Stasi spy might take pity on the subjects of his surveillance and shield them from persecution — just could not have happened:

The ex-Stasi are vociferous in their claims of being "victims of democracy". But the truth is that, by and large, they are doing much better in the new Germany than the people they oppressed. They have the educations and solid work histories they denied their victims. Many of them were snapped up by security firms and private detective agencies eager for their considerable expertise, or they went into business, skilled as they are – to perhaps an unholy degree – in "managing" people. Surprisingly often, they sold property and insurance, occupations unknown in the Soviet bloc. (I think they had a head start here – after all, they were schooled in the art of convincing people to do things against their better judgment.)

[Dr. Hubertus] Knabe [director of the Hohenschoenhausen memorial (G)] is no doubt correct about the internal surveillance of the Stasi making it physically impossible for a Stasi man to try to save people. But in my experience, the more frightening thing is that they didn’t want to. The institutional coercion made these men into true believers; it shrank their consciences and heightened their tolerance for injustice and cruelty "for the cause".

Von Donnersmarck spent four years researching the film, and knows as well as anyone that there is no case of a Stasi man trying to save victims. He has said: "I didn’t want to tell a true story as much as explore how someone might have behaved. The film is more of a basic expression of belief in humanity than an account of what actually happened." The terrible truth is that the Stasi provide no material for a "basic expression of belief in humanity". For expressions of conscience and courage, one would need to look to the resisters.

German Joys Mini-Review: Netto – Alles Wird Gut!

Anyone who spends more than a few days in Germany will meet an unemployed alcoholic. In Germany such people get meager state benefits which keep them afloat financially. This exposes them to an unexpectedly demoralizing fate: having much more time than they can ever use. They spend a lot of it hanging about in the dark recesses of pubs. They come alone, but soon gravitate to any table whose denizens don’t project the metal-plated wariness of the city dweller. When our watery-eyed friend plants himself at the table, the rest of the company will be in for some long, perhaps not particularly intelligible discussions about life, work, broken marriages, troubled relationships, petty government bureaucrats, and maybe art. (A surprising number of the ones I’ve met take up painting, and even bring their canvases along).

Netto_motiv2_gNetto – Alles wird gut! (roughly: "In the End, Everything’s Gonna be OK!") takes us into the life of Marcel Werner (Milan Peschel), a former East German who, like millions of his countrymen, never quite found a place in the unified Germany. Werner, who’s been unemployed for years, conducts long, one-sided conversations with the chef in his local Vietnamese restaurant, mostly concerning personal protection and security, the field he has utterly formless plans for conquering. Before his ship comes in, though, he supplements his government benefits by the modern German equivalent of rag-picking: taking in broken old computers and VCRs (yes, VCRs) for a pittance, fixing them, and re-selling them for a slightly higher pittance.

One day, his 15-year old son Sebastian (Sebastian Butz), whom Werner hasn’t seen in two years, comes knocking on the door of "TV Werner," Marcel’s dusty, chaotic ‘store.’ Turns out Marcel’s ex-wife has moved to the suburbs with her rich West German boyfriend, and wants to take Sebastian with her. Sebastian’s not too keen on moving to Squaresville, so he drops by to see how Dad’s doing in Prenzlauer Berg. Dad lives in one of those apocalyptic, graffiti-strewn, plastic-furniture, pit-bull terrier social deserts that pockmark Berlin. Like his neighborhood, Dad’s a wreck. He’s got no real friends, he drinks too much, his apartment is "germy" (as Sebastian puts it) and his job applications teem with outdated jargon and grammatical mistakes.

Nevertheless, Sebastian doesn’t turn and run. Marcel, for all his many flaws, can be pretty entertaining. The wholesome, gravelly-voiced optimism of American country music (as embodied in Peter Tschernig, the "Johnny Cash of East Germany") provides the spiritual soundtrack to Marcel’s life, and he generates a sort of halfway-convincing rhetoric about the world of work, responsibility, and success that convinces the naive that he really might just turn things around. Although nobody believes his claims to be constantly rushing from one appointment to another, he can occasionally summon enough charm and focus to make you believe in him. Marcel grudgingly accepts some career advice from his bright, introverted son (such as attributing a two-year stint of joblessness to an overseas posting with "Belgium Security International"). Despite misunderstandings and resentments, the two glue together a surprisingly strong relationship.

The director, Robert Thalheim, used a small crew and a semi-improvised script to keep everthing vivid and fresh. All of the performances are lived-in and affecting, and many of the scenes (such as Marcel and Sebastian clowning around in Sebastian’s apartment, pretending to be Secret Service agents, or Marcel hanging about in front of government buildings, pretending to be a bodyguard to departing ministers), are memorable. The sub-plot involving Sebastian and a neighborhood girl’s attempts to deflower him is charming.

A few of the scenes did verge a little too far into after-school special territory for my taste. However, Netto doesn’t airbrush its subjects, and eschews a happy end. In the end, Netto‘s an unpretentious, involving story about a sidetracked human being trying to pick up enough speed to rejoin the rushing freeway of life and love.

German Joys Review: Forklift Driver Klaus

It’s time for a subject that doesn’t get enough attention on German Joys: industrial safety.

Yesterday I watched Staplerfahrer Klaus: Der Erste Arbeitstag (‘Forklift Driver Klaus – The First Day on the Job’), a 10-minute long industrial-safety film directed by Jörg Wagner and Stefan Prehn. Forklift Driver Klaus opens in an office of a warehouse complex in some industrial suburb of a German city. All the forklift driver trainees are assembled; they’ve all passed their test, and all receive a badge signifying that yes, they too may join "the 37,000 specially-trained people in Germany who can rightly call themselves forklift drivers."

Klaus_the_happy_welladjusted_forklift_drThe camera focusses on Klaus, a cheerful, innocent-looking blond-haired young man, beaming with pride as the firm’s president pins his forklift-driver badge onto the lapel of his blue work overalls. Accompanied by peppy, burbling industrial-training-film music, Klaus walks confidently to his designated forklift and puts it through an initial safety inspection. Everything works. Klaus is about to start his new career as a forklift driver!

A near-accident at the warehouse entrance isn’t Klaus’ fault, it’s the fault of the foolish pedestrian who ignored the sign clearly marking separate paths for motorized and pedestrian traffic. Unfortunately, Klaus cannot so easily be absolved of blame for the series of "cruel but informative accidents" (to quote the film’s English-language website) that happen next.

As a favor to another worker, Klaus hoists him up on his forklift. He ignores his industrial-safety conscience (embodied by the voice-over actor Egon Hoegen), which tells him this is a bad idea. Sure enough, the poor guy loses his footing, and falls to his death. Then Klaus fails to notice a knife perched insecurely on the edge of a box, which plummets into the brain of another worker. Fortunately, this fellow’s quite resilient — he just breaks off the projecting portion of the knife and staggers off to lunch.

You’d think Klaus would have learned his lesson by now, but sadly, he hasn’t. Again violating clear safety instructions, Klaus lets a colleague — not "a factory-qualified mechanic" — repair the engine of his forklift. As soon as Klaus turns to key to check whether the repair works, we hear the sickening crunch that can mean only one thing: hands being hacked off and ground into meat by a forklift engine. "No Hands Günther," (Till Huster), stares uncomprehendingly at his stumps, before they begin spurting blood everywhere. An even worse fate awaits "Bisected Herbert" (Dieter Dost), when Klaus forgets to securely fasten a razor-sharp metal sheet to the front of his forklift.

Forklift Driver Klaus reaches its gory denouement when Klaus ventures — where else? — into the chainsaw section of the warehouse. After many further horrifying accidents, divine justice finally reaches Klaus himself: one of the two screaming, gesticulating, men impaled on the front of Klaus’ forklift — the worker with the chainsaw — inadvertently causes Klaus to be decapitated. The film ends with the screaming men being driven by Klaus’ headless, blood-spurting corpse into a glorious sunset.

Forklift Driver Klaus is an important movie, but, as you might guess, not one for the whole family.* The film remains impeccably loyal to the safety-film genre: the grainy, late-70s visual texture; the chirpy music; the gravelly-voiced, cautionary voice-over; and the animated interludes displaying proper forklift-handling technique. There’s an English version of the website, but I can’t tell whether there’s an English version of the movie. If not, I hereby volunteer my services as a translator.

If it saves just one forklift-operator’s life, it’ll be worth it.

* The DVD contains plenty of bonus material, including an interview with the two young directors. The highlight of the interview is the story of how the directors found their filming location. Of course, they told the warehouse owners they approached that they were making an, er, "industrial safety film." One owner finally agreed, and shooting was scheduled for Easter, when the directors assumed they would have the warehouse to themselves. However, the boss had put signs up all over the warehouse inviting workers to come watch the making of the "industrial safety film." The son of the warehouse owner showed up just as the two screaming, impaled men were being driven out of the warehouse. Fortunately, he understood the importance of the project, and became so involved that he ended up playing Klaus’ headless, blood-spurting body!