Sunday, December 5, 2010

Marcel Ophüls - November Days (1991)

NY Times Review by Vincent Canby
Toward the end of "November Days," Marcel Ophuls's fine, wide-ranging documentary about the reunification of Germany, there is an uncharacteristic moment when the person being interviewed turns on his interviewer, Mr. Ophuls, and seems to stop him cold.

Until that moment, the film maker has received almost fawning respect from his subjects, especially from those former Communist Party officials who governed the German Democratic Republic and presided over its collapse. Not from Kurt Masur, though.

Mr. Masur, the new music director of the New York Philharmonic, has been the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra since 1970. Though one of East Germany's most prized cultural figures, he played a leading part in the 1989 liberalization movement, only to become the victim of a later backlash when it was suggested that his liberal politics were opportunistic.

The charges did not stick, but they appear to be in Mr. Ophuls's mind when he asks the conductor if he feels betrayed by the former regime that once was his employer. Mr. Masur's response is chilly. He tells the film maker that he sees no need to answer such questions put "in your ironic and superficial way." He says, "You just want your story."

It's a tough, specific, unpleasant exchange in a film that, made during and shortly after the events it is considering, is no less effective for being often generalized and impressionistic.

With Mr. Ophuls in attendance to answer the audience's questions, "November Days" will be shown tonight at 6:30 at the Loews Village Theater VII to open the 1992 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. "November Days" will be presented three more times in the course of the festival.

Because of legal problems with the German interests that control the worldwide film rights, "November Days," which was shot on film, is being exhibited here in the video version that was presented by the BBC. Big-screen video is never the perfect way to see a theatrical film, but the format does little to diminish the impact of "November Days."

This new work is quite unlike Mr. Ophuls's monumental "Sorrow and the Pity" and "Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie," both of which look back to the Nazi Occupation of France during World War II. Those films have the advantage of time's perspective and, indeed, they are as much about the effect of time as about the events they recall. The fine-grain images of film suit the subject: extraordinary and terrible events recollected in comparative tranquillity.

"November Days" is about initial impressions, expectations and apprehensions. It's an attempt to record the contradictory readings of a particular series of events as they are happening. It is contemporary history and, as such, the grainy video images reinforce the sense of immediacy.

More than in any other of his films that have been shown here, Mr. Ophuls is an on-screen presence in "November Days," probing, sometimes needling his subjects, occasionally offering a personal response. At one point he notes that he was lucky that his father (the noted German director Max Ophuls) fled west from Nazi Germany and not east.

Implied is his uncertainty about how he might have behaved if, like his old friend Barbara Brecht-Schall, the daughter of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, he had been brought up in East Germany. The two reminisce about their childhoods in Hollywood during the war, before she returned to East Germany with her father in 1949.

She insists that she remained non-political throughout the Communist era, saying that the only dealings she had with the regime were connected with the business of her father's theater company, the celebrated Berliner Ensemble. Old friends or not, Mr. Ophuls doesn't hesitate to punctuate that statement with a clip showing her socializing with Erich Honecker, who was the head of the East German Communist Party from 1971 until his forced resignation in 1989.

Mr. Ophuls's taste for irony and sarcasm is also evident in interviews with Markus Wolf, the former head of the East German secret police; Egon Krenz, former general secretary of the Communist Party, and Gunther Schabowski, a former party leader and member of the Politburo. A lot of these people are obviously self-serving, but there are some who, while admitting the failures of the Communist regime, insist that those failures do not necessarily mean the attempt was wrong.

One of his subjects suggests, sadly, that East Germans equate freedom with money, and then asks Mr. Ophuls what he would prescribe as a substitute for the former East German state. The director says that all Germans should be able to choose their way of life "like anyone else." It's a rather flat, limp response from someone who has been pushing everyone else to answer his questions directly and in detail.

That Mr. Ophuls has not seen fit to edit himself from the material, in this way to adopt a bogus anonymity, is to his credit and to the advantage of "November Days." Behind all of his reporting there are references to the personal memoir that fuels the passion to see and hear and, with luck, to comprehend. November Days Produced and directed by Marcel Ophuls (in German with English subtitles); director of photography, Peter Boultwood; edited by Sophie Brunet, Albert Jurgenson and Catherine Zins. At the Loews Village VII, Third Avenue and 11th Street, Manhattan, as part of the 1992 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Running time: 129 minutes. This film has no rating. With: Barbel Bohley, Barbara Brecht-Schall, Werner Fischer, Stefan Hermlin, Pastor Uwe Hollmer, Egon Krenz, Michael Kuhnen, Kurt Masur, Walter Momper, Thomas Montag, Heiner Muller, Gunther Schabowski, Markus Wolf and others.

Single Link Days.avi
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included: English (hardocded)
no pass