Film: Block, Das / Block, The (2007)

May 5, 2011 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / B

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Film: Weak / DVD Transfer: n/a/ DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Documentary / Experimental / East Germany

Synopsis: Four inhabitants of a depressing apartment complex in the former East Germany are followed up-close, leaving no vulnerability safe from the camera’s lens.

Special Features: n/a

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Review:

Ostensibly about four people living within an aging apartment complex in the former East Germany, Stefan Kolbe and Chris Wright’s documentary is a maddening experience because the directors chose to adopt a style oddly reminiscent of Sombre (1998), Philippe Grandrieux’ meandering, out-of-focus art film which enforced a visual style that belittled the film’s characters and story.

The chief problem with The Block (which screened at the 2011 Hot Docs in Toronto) is the directors’ decision to literally focus on their subjects using close-ups and macro lenses that fetishes the characters’ skin conditions; perhaps cinematographer Kolbe wanted to create an intensely personal relationship between vulnerable, neurotic, and emotionally scarred people with audiences accustomed to cookie-cutter formulas and easy-to follow structures generally adopted by documentarians, but Hans-Joachim Werner’s chief characteristic isn’t that he’s a terribly lonely 64 year old quietly writhing in pain after a breakup with his girlfriend who may or may not exist, but the dried skin that litters every surface in his apartment after flaking off his fingers.

Pensioner Olga Anaeva’s strongest quality are the discolorations and veins crisscrossing her face and hands, rather than the lonely woman who wants to return to the vestiges of her family in Grozny, Chechnya, and not die anonymously in Germany.

Twentysomething Silvio Pforte fares better than the elder subjects because he’s followed outside of his apartment, but Kolbe refuses to reveal any wide or medium shots of the area; rather than offer details of the physically decaying environment that’s seemingly enhancing the misery of the subjects, he often gets Silvio to carry and angle the camera upwards, framing his big head and ear piercings.

The sole exceptions are moments when Silvio aims his air gun at the fixtures of an unidentified abandoned building once populated by Nazis vagrants, or shoots out a streetlamp by fading Communist billboards posted on cross-like markers, but there’s little explanation of what these places were, why they’re in decay, and whether they’re part of Silvio’s block.

Silvio remains a vague character until he takes the camera crew to the adoption house where he and his siblings lived after his father murdered his mother.

His backstory story becomes more important when he gathers DNA swabs from himself and a man his sister believes might be their father, but that also becomes confusing when Silvio expresses to the camera that he lost touch with his siblings a few years after they were adopted. There are no contextual links between his apartment block and his past; he just seems to be an intriguing figure determined to put the past behind whom the filmmakers decided would add a different generational dimension to their film about four people in a building we never see.

Hans does venture out at night one time, but it further feeds the confusion of whether the stranger who has been calling him and insulting him for years is real. Hans buys an answering machine to record proof of the man’s existence, but the only reason Hans seems to pick up the phone and talk to this mentally unstable stalker is companionship – they’re both lonely men, and as he remarks, the crazy caller may be his longest stable relationship in years.

Things become even more confusing in the end when the camera crew find a stranger in Hans’ apartment, and the way the man addresses Hans, he’s either the stalker, or a friend who’s been all along trying to use insults via the phone to shock Hans and get him to ‘move forward’ after a bad breakup. We leave Hans in tears, but with more questions about the reality he’s shown us, and the one the filmmakers (and us) seem to have taken as the truth.

The last subject is Natalya, who’s either in need of psychiatric care, or just an eccentric free spirit artist whose obsession with eyes – in art, poetry, tea cups – reflects her quasi-wiccan headspace than involves on-camera statements about favourite places, rolling in thorny thickets to cleans personal pain, and smothering herself with snow to purge mental indolence.

The directors use filmed footage of a grim overcast sky to break up the segments, and Wright’s solo guitar pieces lighten the doc’s rather tense mood, but one can’t help feeling unnerved by the invasive quality of the subjects’ on-camera addresses and confessions. The camera is always on their faces, necks, hands near faces, or the backs of heads (as when Natalya cuts her hair in front of a mirror, raining more physical human debris on a large silver serving tray).

The Block seems to have been designed as a forceful experience for the audience, pushing in and keeping the macro lens inches from the subjects’ faces, and editing their mutterings into discontinuous private moments until the film’s midpoint when each person begins to offer some personal background history. There’s not much of a payoff, however, as we leave them in varying levels of incompleteness or possible delusion. Olga is seen getting on a bus to Moscow, but her inability to differentiate a recorded operator voice from a rude person in a prior scene has one quietly suspicious she may think she’s going home but it’s all part of a delusional state stemming from deep depression.

Olga’s past, which is rooted in Russia and Germany, brings up the controversial history between Soviets and Germans due to WWI and WWII – in terms of national identity, and cruelties meted out between the two former warring nations – but like the other three subjects, it feels like a non sequitur: we’re not sure how they exclusively represent the former East Germany, because their personal pain isn’t different from ordinary Germans in the West, either young adults like Silvio, or wartime survivors. If the film isn’t uniquely about East Germans, what is its central purpose?

None of the directors’ other films appear to be available on DVD, so it’s tough to tell whether their fetish for a macro-directorial style is unique to this film, or dominates other work. The pair’s current filmography is comprised of The Progress of Happiness / Technik des Glücks (2003), The Block / Das Block (2007), and Kleinstheim (2010).

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Official Website & DVD Purchase

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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