One of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, it’s already apparent, is a retrospective of the work of Dominik Graf, a genre specialist mostly unknown outside his natve Germany, who has worked in both film and TV, specialising mainly in crime dramas. The program also includes other German crime TV shows selected by Graf to contextualise his work (including Sam Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street and uber-rare work by Czech emigre Zbynek Brynych, best known otherwise for The Fifth Horseman is Fear).
Graf’s work includes pieces from the seventies to the present day. By working in TV he has been able to work regularly, something denied most feature directors, and seems to thrive on the tight schedules and budgets. Nightwatch, a 1993 episode of the long-running series “Der Fahnder”, comes on like Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin, with a cop guarding a gangster’s moll who doesn’t want to testify and a barrelful of twists and reversals crammed into an hour’s screen time. The threat of a limping offscreen killer getting ever closer like an invisible angel of death adds a giallo touch, and the sheer exuberance of the storytelling is breathtaking.
Die Katze (The Cat), an earlier film made for the big screen, has a similar approach to genre, compressing its convoluted heist/hostage scenario, along with as a relentless progression of suspenseful set-pieces, until plausibility begins to show hairline cracks.
We begin in a brown hotel room, where a musclebound man with a mustache and tinted shades (Götz George, looking like a Tom of Finland porn painting) is assembling a telescopic rifle beside the brown curtains, in the brown light. Already there’s a feeling that the seventies lasted longer in Germany than in most places. One starts hoping for something with the griminess and grit of Get Carter or a good blaxpolitation film, and one is not disappointed.
Eric Burdon of The Animals sings under the credits, adding to the retro-retro vibe, and then two hoods argue about the lyrics on their way to do a job. The funny, inane and seemingly irrelevant mondegreen dialogue plays like the ghost of Tarantino yet to come.
The caper is a novel one: two heisters inside the bank to take hostages, one outside to see that the ransom money can be whisked out from under the nose of the cops, who are led by a suitably sour Joachim Kemmer, the kind of dyspeptic misanthrope who thrives in TV dramas but rarely gets to shine in cinema.
While we’re trying to anticipate the details of the bad guys’ secret plan, or predict how the cops might manage to get ahead of them, there’s also a sneaky subplot involving the bank manager’s sexy wife, who is having an affair with George, obviously intended to play a part in the caper somewhere along the way, but who has a hidden agenda all her own. Gudrun Landgrebe, looking like a trashier Isabella Rossellini of around the same period, makes an effective femme fatale.
The driving pace keeps you guessing, but the scenario by regular Graf collaborator Christoph Fromm (via a novel by Uwe Erichsen) impresses by the way it juggles dozens of narrative questions without causing confusion or indifference. It all makes you very sweaty, especially in a tiny unventilated back room in high summer in Edinburgh.
There isn’t much space for deeper examination of character or socio-political subtext, which exist in abundance in other Graf films, but the combination of reckless energy and narrative cunning elevates the pulse and exercises the mind. In fact, a sense of both personal and social disaffection informs the film’s characters, and the critique becomes more apparent the more you see of Graf’s work: he is the model of a genre filmmaker, with each film working as a standalone piece while also forming part of a mosaic whose subject is nothing less than the entirety of post-war Germany.
– David Cairns
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