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November 17 - 19, 2018

On Performance, and Other Cultural Rituals.
Three Films by Valeska Grisebach

Although Valeska Grisebach (b. 1968) remains, internationally, one of the lesser-known filmmakers associated with the celebrated Berlin School, she has recently begun to be recognized as an innovative and alternate voice of that loosely defined yet useful film-critics-invented category. Together, Grisebach’s three films to date vigorously renew the promise of the early Berlin School films of Arslan, Petzold and Schanelec to define a critically engaged national cinema able to rigorously debate the vexing question of German-ness and able, moreover, to scrutinize the stakes and means of a national cinema itself. With her breakthrough feature Longing, Grisebach proved herself fully up to this task with a remarkable documentary-style portrait of tragic love in a small town that reoriented the general style and approach shared by many of the Berlin School filmmakers. In Longing, Grisebach specifically challenged the realist ideal grounding the Berlin School with an enigmatic coda that rendered the film’s veracity and meaning richly ambiguous. As in her debut film Be My Star, for Longing Grisebach again cast local non-actors through a process of extended interviews that she calls “radical observation”—embedding herself within the community in order to channel the shared language, hopes and imagination into a deeper sense of place. 

Grisebach’s third film, Western, seems at first to move in an alternate direction from her previous work by openly engaging the language and legacy of a genre most closely associated with classical Hollywood. Yet Western can also be seen as an unexpected return to a recurrent concern across Berlin School films for the lingering ghosts of the East, although now displaced to farther Eastern Europe, to a remote Bulgarian village near the Greek border. As much an “Eastern” as a Western, Grisebach’s new film bends Hollywood’s most traditional and pliant genre in ways that recall the stylish neo-thrillers of Petzold—simultaneously embracing and keeping at a careful distance the recognized narrative tropes and expectations at the heart of genre cinema. In Western and Grisebach’s earlier films, a sharp, jump-cutting montage style inspires a subtle confusion of action and place, partially obscuring causality and continuity in ways that cut against the grain of the Western as an action genre. Despite their surface documentary-inspired tone and appearance, and most especially despite their notable use of non-actors, Grisebach’s films together define not an observational but rather an intellectual cinema, grounded in the same strong commitment to question both cinematic realism and illusionism as her Berlin School colleagues. 

The Harvard Film Archive is thrilled to welcome Valeska Grisebach for an extended visit to present and discuss her work and also to meet with undergraduate and graduate filmmaking students. Grisebach comes to Harvard as a 2018 Baby Jane Holzer Visiting Artist in Film. – Haden Guest

The screening of Western is part of the festival And the winners are ... featuring recipients of the German Film Award and FIRST STEPS Award. Films in the program are also screening at the Brattle Theatre, November 7 – 9. Organized by the Goethe-Institut and the German Film Academy.

Special thanks: Robin Kelsey, Dean of Arts and Humanities—Harvard;Lucien Castaing-Taylor—Film Study Center and Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard; Marina May, Karin Oehlenschläger—Goethe-Institut Boston.

Text and notes by Haden Guest, adapted from a 2017 Film Comment article.





$12 Special Event Tickets - Harvard Students Admitted Free
Valeska Grisebach in Person

Saturday November 17 at 7pm


Directed by Valeska Grisebach. With Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov
Germany/Bulgaria/Austria 2017, DCP, color, 121 min. German, Bulgarian and English with English subtitles

True to its bold declarative title, Western offers an original, often provocative, engagement of Hollywood’s long-enduring and richly problematic genre. Throughout her story of migrant German workers sent to rural Bulgaria to break ground on a hydroelectric facility, Grisebach revives key tropes of the Western, most notably in the lanky figure of the film’s mysterious horse riding hero, Meinhard, and the simmering duel that threatens to explode between him and the broad-chested, black-leather-vested foreman Vincent. And yet it would be wrong to label Grisebach’s new film simply as another revisionist Western. Traditional signposts of the Western are gently unmoored throughout her film, allowed to float with a rich ambiguity that gives new meaning and even a certain levity to the genre’s traditional weighty themes. Like Kelly Reichardt, whose films are often considered reinventions of the Western, Grisebach brings a sharp yet understated feminist perspective to her alternate survey over the genre’s well-chartered territories. Awkwardly embodying the beer-bellied, sunburnt indignities of midlife machismo, Grisebach’s isolated workers are just as likely to speak amongst themselves about hair conditioner and declining testosterone levels as about women and guns. Like Reichardt as well, Grisebach embraces a bracingly unsentimental vision of the frontier landscape as a stubborn terrain haunted by powerful anachronistic myths whose deeper sociocultural and ritualistic patterns are revealed through a detached and, at times, almost topographical perspective. DCP courtesy Cinema Guild.

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$12 Special Event Tickets - Harvard Students Admitted Free
Valeska Grisebach in Conversation with Gerd Gemünden

Sunday November 18 at 7pm

Longing (Sehnsucht)

Directed by Valeska Grisebach. With Andreas Müller, Ilka Welz, Anett Dornbusch
Germany 2006, 35mm, color, 88 min. German with English subtitles

Centered around a fatal love triangle that endangers, and possibly destroys, a small-town couple’s happy marriage, Longing’s plot borrows from countless screen romances. Grisebach’s detached documentary style, however, allows her to also observe and comment upon the love story as a kind of genre, a narrative and cultural product that crystallizes deep-seated myths of gender and devotion. This sudden documentary coda gives new meaning to Longing’s bleak but genuinely touching tale of tragic love, retrospectively lending it an almost fable-like quality. An early conversation between the husband and wife—comparing a pair of failed double suicide attempts to Romeo and Juliet—suggests Grisebach’s provocative layering of naturalist drama and fatalist romance to make a further point about cinematic narrative as a mode of popular storytelling in which are inscribed the desires—the longing, if you will—for cinema as the portal to a magical world where intractable conflict and indecision can be neatly resolved. Print courtesy GI Munich.

Gerd Gemünden is the Sherman Fairchild Professor of the Humanities, and Professor of German Studies, Film and Media Studies, and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. He currently serves as Chair of the Program in Comparative Literature. His most recent book, Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema, 1933-1951, was published by Columbia University Press in 2014.

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$12 Special Event Tickets - Harvard Students Admitted Free
Valeska Grisebach in Person

Monday November 19 at 7pm

Be My Star (Mein Stern)

Directed by Valeska Grisebach. With Nicole Gläser, Monique Gläser, Jeanine Gläser
Germany/Austria 2002, 35mm, color, 65 min. German with English subtitles

Inaugurating the innovative methods used in her subsequent films, Be My Star efficiently establishes a documentary sense of place and character by assembling a cast of non-actors from the same Berlin neighborhood where the film takes place. Like her later work, however, Be My Star also places into subtle question the very tools and assumptions of the cinematic realism she so skillfully controls. In this case, the “natural” performances of her young non-actors are shown to be tightly scripted, not by the filmmaker per se, but by the society in which they live. A striking lack of freedom and agency informs language and gesture in Be My Star, which gives a hard double meaning to the teenagers’ words and actions by inflecting them with a generic familiarity, a distinct sense of clichéd “dialogue” heard elsewhere. While on the surface Be My Star resembles a romantic coming-of-age story, Grisebach refashions that narrative formula and genre to instead reveal the rigorously constructed and constricted world inhabited by the teenagers whose every next step and stage in life seems to have been already predicted and prepared. And in keeping with that world, Grisebach’s film is itself far more meticulously constructed than it first seems. By devoting close attention to such telling details as interior décor and clothing, Be My Star suggestively reveals how surface appearance signals the predefined societal places and roles assigned to the teenagers—from the bright red and white uniform that announces Nicole’s new employment at a bakery to the rhyming athletic logo sweatshirts that unite the young couple as similarly oriented consumer-citizens. Print courtesy Austrian Film Commission.

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