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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with CITY OF GHOSTS, 13 MINUTES, and MANIFESTO!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Likely to be one of the finest documentaries you’ll see all year (and one likely to show up a great deal during awards season), CITY OF GHOSTS is the story of a group of Syrian-born activist journalists who lived in the once forward-thinking city of Raqqa, which was invaded and taken over by ISIS in 2014. Although none of these citizens were journalists before 2014, in an effort to expose the horrifying realities of life under ISIS rule (and undermine ISIS propaganda that painted a much sunnier version of life in Syria), these men and women formed a secret news-gathering group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.”

CITY OF GHOSTS is a film that legitimately hurts to watch at times. Director Matthew Heinemann (the Oscar-nominated CARTEL LAND) has a remarkable amount of access to RBSS footage, as well as material he has collected of the various members gathering clandestinely captured cell phone video and turning it into news stories that run on more mainstream new outlets as a way of embarrassing and otherwise plaguing ISIS. Not surprisingly, ISIS doesn’t respond well to this and has put many of those who are the focus of the film on death lists, putting out a global call to hunt these people down to murder them (which does happen during the course of the film).

Many of the leaders of RBSS have been forced to leave Syria to hide in places like Turkey and Germany, places where they have been confronted with the greatest irony—nationalist groups that want to kick out all Muslims for fear of terrorism. No sooner do many of the leadership arrive in Berlin then they are forced to endure slurs at the hands of marching skinheads. It’s a chilling and heartbreaking scene that is made all the more so when you consider what these news-gathers are fighting against in their own way.

Heinemann not only shows us some of the horrifying footage RBSS has captured but he also gives us quieter and more celebratory scenes of the journalists settling into their new homes and feeling safe (albeit briefly) for the first time in months. Of course they know full well that their job is never done and that a phone call with a terrible connection from Syria (the struggle for a clear cell phone signal and decent internet is constant) will end the momentary respite.

The film ends with a shot of one of the subject’s sitting silently in a chair, smoking a cigarette as if he needs it to breathe. He’s attempting to decompress, but he ends up trembling so hard he falls asleep/passes out. It’s rare you ever see the physical manifestation of a person’s anxiety leaving their body, but that’s exactly what is necessary after you see CITY OF GHOSTS, as powerful a profile on courage and the war on terror as you’ll ever see.

Returning to the era of World War II Germany, Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel brings us the true story of a ordinary German citizen who did something few did; he fought back. Written by the father-daughter team of Fred Breinersdorfer and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, 13 MINUTES tells the tale of Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), a man who has a gift for building and crafting things. As the film opens, we see him installing a bomb on a timer in a meeting hall in Munich, circa 1939, a place he know Adolf Hitler will be speaking shortly, and it’s difficult not to consider what the world was like if Hitler hadn’t ended his speech 13 minutes earlier than expected.

It doesn’t take long for the Nazi investigators to figure out who was responsible for the incident, and soon Elser is arrested and interrogated by Criminal Police head Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), as well as the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow), both of whom are using different methods to figure out who else conspired with Elser to commit this act—a propaganda fiction that has already been sold to the outside world, since he worked alone so as not to endanger others in case he was caught. He is tortured horribly, even after those in charge believe he is telling the truth, at Hitler’s request.

During the course of the investigation, we learn in flashbacks Elser’s history and what he witnessed and experienced that make him want to resist in such a resounding manner. He could have lived out the war in relative comfort and ease, but he was disgusted with what he was seeing and the gross discrimination going on around Germany. Much of what he saw was going on in the background of his previous life as a musician, which included an affair with a lovely woman, Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), who just happened to be married to an absolute brute (Rudiger Klink) who was more than happy to join the Nazi party as it rose in their small town. There’s also the issue of Elser’s own family, led by a drunkard father who almost loses the family farm. This backstory seems more than a little unnecessary and extraneous to 13 MINUTES, and it’s far less compelling than seeing the beginning of the path Elser takes toward planning his assassination attempt and tirelessly experimenting to get the timing right.

13 MINUTES has a distinct case of peaks and valleys in terms of holding my interest, but there were enough unique and interesting touches to give it a mild recommendation. I like the almost wordless interplay between Elser and a stenographer/secretary who is in the room during all of his interrogations. She clearly thinks that the way he is being treated is wrong, and in the tiniest ways possible, she attempts to ease his suffering, if not actually help him out of his situation. Small moments such as that help give the movie enough character to make it a curious footnote story that has never been told. The filmmakers at least don’t attempt to change the ending of Elser’s story, giving the film a bitter but understandable conclusion.

13 MINUTES is a well-meaning and good-intentioned work that wants to show that not all Germans were on board with Hitler’s politics or policies. Some may not be interested in painting any Germans in such a light during this moment in history, but I’m glad this film exists, if only as an addendum to better known tales of the period.

Probably the place that makes the most sense to watch this work is on a monitor hanging in an art museum—a place where many of the manifestos on art being recited in the film can be observed in practice around you. But for those of you (including myself) who have claimed that you would watch Cate Blanchett in anything, here’s the chance to prove yourself, since she certainly proves that she warrants such faith in her abilities in MANIFESTO, an experimental work from German artist Julian Rosefeldt. In the film, Blanchett plays 13 different characters, each with a unique look, accent and series of monologues, each taken from the writings of a great number of well-known manifestos on 20th century art movements, representing the views of everyone from Karl Marx to Lars von Trier.

One of the few films I’ve ever seen with a “dramaturgical advisor” listed in the credits, MANIFESTO covers such movements as surrealism, dadaism, pop art, architecture, creationism, abstract expressionism, performance, minimalism, and, of course, film. In one of the final sequences, Blanchett plays a school teacher instructing a class of elementary school students on the theories of Jim Jarmusch and the Danish Dogme 95 in a patient, soothing tone, as if she were teaching them to tie their shoes. Other personas taken on by the actress include a newscaster (as well as her in-the-field reporter), a woman giving a eulogy at a funeral, an exasperated Russian choreographer, and even a homeless man wandering the ruins of an unknown city.

There’s no getting around the fact that MANIFESTO is a fascinating exercise in both acting and artistic expression. It also happen to be beautifully shot and composed, but the centerpiece of the film is the anticipation we experience waiting to see what Blanchett comes up with next. It manages to be an encapsulation of all that she is capable of, yet somehow it probably doesn’t even scratch the surface. With just a new wig, or a pair of glasses, or more/less makeup, her entire personality shifts, sometimes subtly, but often quite dramatically.

It likely goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), the film is not for everyone, certainly, and as much as I enjoyed hearing these many musings on the artistic mind and theories on what constitutes pure and authentic art, MANIFESTO left me curious about what Rosefeldt’s thoughts were as well, or at least which of these writings he values the most. As a traditional film, it may leave many frustrated and confused, but as an acting exercise and thesis on the past century or so of artistic discovery, it’s captivating and, more often than you might think, quite amusing.

-- Steve Prokopy
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