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page added: 11/25/03

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The Journey Begins...

For the next three weeks, my fellow DVD enthusiasts, I will be traveling.

Well, I won't be physically traveling. Can't afford that right now. Rather, I will be traveling through my DVD collection.

The Home Theater Forum used to have threads doing this, people would pick countries and write film reviews based on the different countries they traveled using films made in, not necessarily about, these countries. In fact, Bill and I oversaw a contest one year. I was recently remembering how fun it was to travel the world using DVDs and so, I decided to do the same thing myself.

I'm not going to be strict about it, so if a film wasn't produced in a particular country but that country is featured there I might consider it.

That's the set up. So, if you want to travel with me, let's head off from the airport of kings, Atlanta, on route to Europe.

Hold on, while I get my bags and passport together... and then it's away we go!

The BRD Trilogy (Criterion)

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The BRDTrilogy
1979-1982 (2003) - Trio Film, de (Criterion)

We land in the place of my birth, Germany! Weeee. Make a beeline for a pub and get some of the best beer on Earth. So what to do once I'm here. I know. How about take a look at Criterion's BRD Trilogy boxset.

In its simplest definition the BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland or Federal Republic of Germany) was what Germany was after 1949 and the end of the war. They were the areas of Germany which were occupied by the British, French and Americans, which included everything but East Germany. The BRD films of prolific director Rainer Werner Fassbinder comprise three films:

1979's The Marriage of Maria Braun (a.k.a. Die Ehe von Maria Braun), looks at the life of Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla), a woman willing to do just about anything to build a new life and get out of the world she's fallen into after the war. At the beginning of the film Maria marries Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), a German officer, after a whirlwind two-week courtship. The marriage takes place during a bombing raid as the courthouse explodes around them, and we soon learn this wedding took place right as Hermann was headed back to war.

Since the focus is totally on Maria in the film, we follow her as she waits anxiously at the train station looking either for the healthy return of her husband -- or word that he's all right. Word gets back to her that he is in fact dead, and she moves on with her life exploiting her womanly charms, promising herself that she will stay true to the memory of her husband by never marring again. Things become somewhat complicated when Hermann comes home, obviously not dead, and when he catches Maria in bed with an American solider, she swiftly kills the American to prove her loyalty to Hermann. Hermann takes the fall for the murder and is sentenced to prison and Maria go back to what she knows best -- twisting men around her finger to get what she wants, so she can build a world and a home for her husband to come back to.

It's no secret that Maria Braun is in its entirety nothing but an allegory for the situation Germany found itself in the years after the war. The country was willing to do anything to get its pride back, and rebuild itself as both an economic and political power again. The choice of the government and the people of German to push forward and try to forget the past is what Fassbinder is pointing his finger at. But ignoring the past and choosing to forget, the country dooms itself. The allegory aspect shouldn't fool you though, Braun is a brilliant film, expertly acted, directed and written. It shouldn't be a surprise to find that this film was the most financially successful of Fassbinder's career.

The extras for The Marriage of Maria Braun are a full-length commentary with legendary film makers Michael Ballhaus (who was cinematographer on the film) and writer/director Wim Wenders. Because of the German accents and speaking styles of the participants, it's ultimately a difficult track to get through, although there are a few nuggets that pop in here and there. Of greater value are two featurettes, one an on-camera interview with actress Hanna Schygulla who discusses her career with Fassbinder both on-screen and on-stage and her life with him in the real. The other featurette is a discussion of the film with film professor Eric Rentschler who discusses the influence of American film on the BRD Trilogy and draws comparisons between Braun and Mildred Pierce. Ultimately a very satisfying interview.

The next film in the Trilogy was the third of the three films shot, but in terms of historical significance, falls right in the middle. 1982's Veronika Voss (a.k.a. Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss or The Longing of Veronika Voss) follows a sports writer (Hilmar Thate) who bumps into a woman (Rosel Zech) on a stormy night and helps her out. This act of kindness utterly changes his life forever as he finds out that this woman is a former superstar whose career and life have waned far out of her reach.

the most striking thing about Veronika Voss is the cinematography. The acting, the directing, the writing, all wonderful as well. But Fassbinder's choice to shoot the film in luscious black and white, like an old classic UFA film, was genius. The film is gorgeous and a marvel to look at.

Actually it's not too surprising that Fassbinder went with black in white to tell his story, actually. At least once you learn that Veronika Voss is based loosely on the life of UFA film legend Sybille Schmitz who committed suicide in the home of her neurologist. Fassbinder apparently always wanted to make a film about this, because the story of her life and death are simply made for cinema. It's a perfect tale for Fassbinder's BRD films, so firmly embanked in the world of post war Germany. I'll save the exact details of why for the watchers of the film and the documentary which appears as a supplement on the disc. Titled Tanz mit dem Tod (Dance with Death), it is a fascinating look at Schmitz' life and career. Also on board is a video interview with Fassbinder's former assistant Rosel Zech who now oversees the Fassbinder Foundation and cares for his estate and films. She is joined by Fassbinder's longtime film editor Juliane Lorenz. The two are obviously old friends and the conversation with them is illuminating and easy to follow, even in it's subtitled German. The commentary joining the film is with film critic Tony Rayns who spends more time corresponding the fabrications in Veronika with the realities of Schmitz. It's a very good listen and sheds a lot of light on the film and film history.

The last film in the trilogy is Lola from 1981. Shot second, but placing last, Lola is a pseudo-remake of Josef von Sternberg's 1930 film The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich, itself based on Hermann Mann's novel Professor Unrat. The interpretative leap-off is an older man in power falling in love with a singer/"dancer" named Lola. Aside from those similarities, the films are unlinkable. Lola is about two people. One is Herr von Bohm (Armin Mueller Stahl) who has just taken the job of building commissioner is a very corrupt city looking to rebuild as a post-war power. The main source of the corruption is a man named Schuckart. He spends most of his free time in the cabaret/brothel with the other focus of the story: Lola. Lola (Barbara Sukowa) is a singer at the cabaret and Schuckart's mistress. Whether she's also an official whore isn't really discussed, but the assumption is that she is. Lola is told stories about von Bohm by Schuckart as well as her own mother who works as von Bohm's housekeeper. Her interest peaked by the unifying statement from both lover and mother: that she's too low class for von Bohm. So she makes it her mission to show everyone, especially herself, that she can get anything she wants, even if she has to pretend she's something she's not in order to get it. Does she get the man? Do they live happily ever after if she does? Watch the film.

Lola is shot with so much pure color that it intoxicates you. Bright pink, deep reds, full yellows and the most beautiful blue ever put on screen. The film itself is deeply engaging and well structured. Fassbinder was almost effortless in his ability to draw you into the world of his characters, and this is definitely a film where you need to be invested.

On DVD Lola comes to life with a commentary from filmmaker and Fassbinder's friend, Christian Braad Thomsen. Thomsen spills an almost endless series of stories about Fassbinder: his work, his life and his stage career -- which ultimately influenced his film work. It's another great track. Also here is a video interview with Barbara Sukowa as well as screenwriter Peter Märthesheimer who helped write all the films in the BRD Trilogy (including the unfilmed fourth film in the series Rosa Luxemborg which was to star Jane Fonda). He helps make Fassbinder more "flaws and all" human, reeling him back from the level of legendary filmmaking genius. It's nice to have our heroes leveled every once in a while.

The Marriage of Maria BraunVeronika VossLola

While we're talking about the extras, it's probably a good time to look at the fourth disc in the set. Devoted to nothing but supplement, this disc features all the trailers for these films, as well as another video interview with Fassbinder's editor Juliane Lorenz who discussed the style of Fassbinder as well as some interesting nuggets of trivia. We also get a very nice interview with cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger who worked on two of these films (Voss and Lola). The most interesting thing here is a very long and very rare interview with Fassbinder. Last, but most definitely not least, is the documentary Ich will nicht nur, dass ihr mich Liebt (I Don't Just Want You to Love Me) which contains friends and collaborators discussing Fassbinder along side clips his films.

The video quality of all three films is stellar. All of the visual choices made by Fassbinder are here, and they look great on these DVDs. The prints that were used are virtually free of any damage and show some very nice detail. Lola especially looks great in all of its Technicolored glory. But the other two aren't shabby either.

Audio for all three films is also quite good. These are presented in their original mono and in German. It's probably good to note that all of the extras (aside from the commentaries) are in subtitled German. So put your reading glasses on. On these films, you'll here a few pops and a hiss or two, but it's certainly not distracting.

As a set, considering the greatness of the films, the vastness and value of the extras and the packaging in general, easily replaced Brazil as the ultimate Criterion DVD set. This is without a doubt, the best thing they've ever produced. Easily, one of the best DVDs ever brought to life. If you love film, you owe it to yourself to pick this set up and spend as much time as possible with it.

The Cathedral

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The Cathedral (a.k.a. Katedra)
2002 (2003) - Pol Art (Platige Image)

But as deep and as time consuming all of that was, we don't have forever to spend in Germany. Next we take a long bus trip to Poland where we check out Academy Award nominated animated short The Cathedral. The movie honestly defies explanation. A man, on a planet next to a dying sun, walks into what looks like a cathedral made of trees and vines. Then something happens that might explain how the cathedral came to be. It runs a whopping 7 minutes and looks damn cool.

What is coolest about it is what you find out in the hours worth of making of material. In the Making of The Cathedral commentary by Tomek Baginski, Baginski takes us through the process of making the film. We learn that most of the truly impressive parts of the film are nothing more than matte paintings with effects thrown in to fool us into thinking the image is totally animated. It's all so very brilliant in a Hanna-Barbera kind of way.

This is seen more fully in the featurettes: The Techniques Used on The Cathedral. Rounding out the disc are some unused takes with optional commentary from Baginski, a cool trailer for Fallen Art Baginski's next film (a poster insert is in the case), sketches and storyboards gallery, the complete soundtrack with two additional compositions as well as additional DVD-ROM material. It's a very cool disc, especially for fans of animation and CGI. The best place to pick this us is through Amazon. Do check it out.

I think I'm done with Europe for now. Best we go for some summer vacation. Next week we'll head to Australia and New Zealand.

Until then, keep spinning those discs.

Todd Doogan

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