The Promise

(Das Versprechen, Margarethe von Trotta, Germany/France/Switzerland, 1995)


In an issue of the Australian magazine The Independent Monthly, I came across Helen Garner (her movie review column), expressing the overpowering feeling that she was “tired of tearing her hair over improving European films”. I’m not sure I exactly share Garner’s sentiment. I believe there are still plenty of terrific European art films being made in the 1990s. But if I find myself tearing my hair out over anything, it’s a despair over the precise selection of European films that we are allowed to see in Australia – as in many other places, I’m sure. More than ever, it is a very safe, predictable, bland, unadventurous selection. And this is not just a problem of missing out on films from Europe, but films from all over the globe – as well as some significant local films.


I have sometimes been known to complain about other film reviewers – not so much individual reviewers (although lord know there are some shockers around), but reviewers in general. When I boil down my intense feelings of aggro on this topic, they come down to this. Most mainstream reviewers – and Australia offers just one national example – tend to reflexly accept, without further questioning or research, that the movies we get to see at our local cinemas are basically a fair representation of what’s being made in the world today. That is, they acceptthat what they see is the cinema, a representative slice of the state of cinema at any given point in time. Even a typical off-hand comment like Garner’s implies that she or me or any reviewer is in a reasonable position to make that kind of judgement (i.e., “European movies aren’t any good anymore”). But that is truly a grande illusion, founded on very little actual, empirical knowledge.


I get my sense of what’s happening in world cinema by leafing through many film magazines from all over – even just by looking at the covers (if I cannot understand the language!) and noting which releases are being championed this month by critics in Italy or Vienna or New Delhi. I try to get a sense of what’s being touted in specialist film publications – magazines devoted to horror movies, for instance, or experimental films. And I know, even as a result of that cursory kind of research, that at least 50% of what seem like the most interesting films of the moment are not being picked up for distribution in other places such as Australia. This can create strange holes, odd misconceptions among reviewers and audiences alike, when certain films do pop up out of the blue.


When the great Caro diario (1994) was released theatrically, I was primed for it – because I had read a lot about its director-star, Nanni Moretti. But I encountered local reviews that seemed to automatically assume it was the first film of a newcomer, an unknown, an eccentric amateur – and that’s purely because his previous seven features, made since the mid 1970s, have never been distributed here. The same thing happened with Leos Carax’s great Les Amants du Pont-neuf (1991) – we finally got the film, thank god(ard), but we didn’t get any understanding of the huge Carax cult in Europe; we had not been allowed any entry-point into it.


When I dozed off earlier this week during an especially terrible arthouse release (don’t worry, I won’t presume to review it), I had a sudden dream-vision that crystallised all my angry thoughts on this general subject of access and availabilty. I saw a small, square patch of garden, and a meek old character bending over with a watering can, tending to this garden. It looked so calm and sweet, but it was actually like one of those unnerving images of the white picket fence and tall red roses at the start of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). The gardener is our average film reviewer, and that small patch of garden is all the films commercially available to see at our theatres. The gardener is a proud character: he tries to look after every flower in his little patch, including all the big ones, the Sylvester Stallone flowers and the like, that have been put there by the big corporate film companies. But he is especially pleased with himself when he lingers with his watering-can over what he thinks are the little, struggling flowers, the arthouse flowers, all the Hal Hartley films, gay and women’s films, leftist documentaries, and so on.


But this dream-image is telling me, with a subtle but definite punch to my psyche, that this sweet old hunchback of a gardener is a fool – a patsy. He puts nothing into this garden that isn’t already there. He plants nothing new, and he doesn’t dare demand of any of his masters that they plant something new. The gardener is there as an obedient employee of the system – to water the flowers and grease the wheels and make sure that everything cruises along just fine, with no consternation. I have to admit to you that this fool of a hunchback had a face that uncannily resembled my own. Because, to be frank, it’s hard for even the most well-meaning or militant critic not to be a patsy of the film system; it’s difficult not to become just a kind of extension of the publicity-hype department. 


As you may have guessed, there is a film at the base of all my angst on this subject. It’s the latest Margarethe Von Trotta film to get a local release, The Promise. The fact that it did get a release, while so many other better films languish in oblivion, astounds me. I think it is a poor film by almost any standards. If I had stumbled upon it late night on the “muliticultural” television channel, it would hardly have left an impression on me. The only possible reason I can imagine as to why anyone thought it was worth buying and releasing is because of its topical hook.


The Promise is a tortured love story set against the history of the Berlin Wall. The Wall goes up while Sophie (Meret Becker, then Corinna Harfouch) and Konrad (Anian Zollner, then August Zirner) are passionate teenage lovers in the East Berlin of 1961. They try to escape through the sewers, but Konrad – who is a little nervy and fearful – hesitates, and is trapped on his side of this terrible divide. Sophie goes off, with a heavy heart, to her new life in West Berlin. Twenty-eight years later, Sophie and Konrad will meet again in a moment of pure freedom – yes, you guessed it, the moment that the dreaded Wall is coming down! But it’s not all separation for these two characters during the years in-between. In 1968, they manage to get together for a passionate tryst. But it happens to be Prague (!), so this time the tanks roll in, just like in the film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and they are separated again. Tragic!


I have never regarded von Trotta as one of the best filmmakers of her generation. Her films are highly uneven in quality, one to the next – but, watching The Promise, I realised what is usually always dissatisfying to me about all of them. I take von Trotta’s main subject to be the intertwining of big political history with small personal history. This is very much a theme that emerged in the women’s cinema of the 1970s, and especially in Germany. I fondly remember films such as Jutta Brückner’s extraordinary Years of Hunger (1980), or Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany, Pale Mother (1980). These works juxtapose the details of women’s intimate dysfunctions (such as the pain of anorexia) against the horrors of Nazism or the sterility of Germany society’s so-called “economic miracle” of the post-war era.


There is a familiar, binary division of sex/gender in many of these films. Men are aligned with war, with industry and technology, with the grim march of history and progress; while women hold the fort of home and hearth and the private life of the emotions. The screw is twisted tighter still by these women filmmakers when they portray the male characters as cowards, repressive, violent, latently fascist types – completely out of touch with themselves. The women characters may have their own blocks and dysfunctions but, essentially, they are presented as inherently more integrated beings, more progressive on the political front because they are both passionate and pragmatic. The men, on the other hand, are either just bullies, or dreamers, or both. This is very much the diagram of masculine and feminine values that determines the narrative of The Promise. Sophie is brave, angry, free, a political visionary, but also a realist; Konrad, by contrast, is evasive, hesitant, duplicitous. He’s apolitical for too long and, when finally he rebels just a little, he suffers mightily for it.


Don’t get me wrong: I’m not playing the old “women don’t present men fairly on screen!” card. I have a weakness for these grand melodramas about the tearing conflict between political ideals and the stirrings of the heart. And I find them particularly moving when it is the woman who is the more radical idealist in the couple. That’s a situation running through Lillian Hellman’s novels, through to Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in The Way We Were (1973). A few years ago, there was a barely released, unanimously derided film of this type that I completely adored. It’s Andrew Birkin’s Salt on Our Skin (aka Desire, 1992), starring Greta Scacchi as a French feminist historian grappling with her life-long, politically incorrect passion for a rather brutish working man (Vincent D’Onofrio).


But there’s something so mechanical, so drearily predictable, so locked-down and determined about the way this personal-political melodrama is presented by von Trotta in The Promise. The characters (female or male) have no internal, individual reality; they are just pieces on the chessboard of History, moved around either side of the Wall in a rigid, relentlessly symbolic game-plan. They are not Konrad and Sophie but Man and Woman, East and West, reactionary and progressive … and so on. There is no breath of life in the movie, no sense that anybody’s passion or pastime or belief escapes the simplistic, symbolic net of this History Lesson.


On top of all that, The Promise is sloppily directed. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the ragged camera moves – every time two people hug or kiss, the camera goes for a quick spin around them, and the effect is clumsily executed. Von Trotta’s style is full of these sudden, rather silly expressionistic touches – low angles for moments of threat, birds flying to signify freedom – that are contrived and often cliché. And when she’s not doing that, she falls into a bland television style – a dull procession of predictable, conventional wide-shots, two-shots and close-ups. No zing at all.


But I guess I’m just tending the garden again by even devoting my time to this resolutely poor movie. Last week at Melbourne’s modest film club Cafe Bohemio, they showed a Werner Schroeter film, Dress Rehearsal from 1980. You may well have never have heard of Schroeter. He started making movies around the same time as Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders and von Trotta, and he deeply influenced several of them (Schroeter and von Trotta both appear in Fassbinder’s amazing Beware of a Holy Whore, 1971). In his book New German Cinema: A History, Thomas Elsaesser categorically calls Schroeter “the German cinema’s greatest marginal filmmaker”. But Schroeter has never been picked up on the international arthouse circuit, and his films have virtually no circulation at all in many countries. I thought I should mention the name of Werner Schroeter in public at least once, in case someone with the power to plant a brave, new flower in the film garden happens to be listening.

MORE von Trotta: Rosenstrasse, Dark Times

© Adrian Martin November 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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