Der Felsen A Map of the Heart
(Dominik Graf / Germany / 2001)
Katrin and Malte sitting at a table drawing lines on a handkerchief. A topography of their lives, their hands touching, their gazes meeting. Both totally different, and yet equal in this moment, where one mirrors the other. A reflection of the whole in a moment, the playfulness in a serious situation. Katrin severe, unsmiling, disturbed, bursts into momentary laughter. Fragility and permanence sitting at a table, next to each other.In comes another situation, the next moment.
When Der Felsen premiered at the 52nd Berlin Film Festival in 2002, critics seemed undecided what to make of it. There were those who dismissed it as pretentious, arty and self-indulgent showoff - a failed enterprise - while others claimed to have witnessed a new beginning, an initiation into a new form of filmmaking, wich may have begun in the mid-90s with the dogme manifesto, but had only now come under closer scrutiny. Whatever the answer (I would claim that it lies closer to the latter), it becomes clear while watching the film, that Der Felsen poses important questions about filmmaking in general, and more specifically, about its possibilities after the dawn of the digital revolution.
The film is definitely an experiment, and while it is as radical as No's Irrversible (2002) or Gallo's The Brown Bunny (2004) the main difference (and probably also the reason why it didn't get the international attention it would have deserved) lies in its playfulness, its deliberate assembling of contrasting film styles, of methods which are traditionally said to not fit together, but are in this case presented as equal. The collecting habit of one of the film's characters can be thus seen as representative for the whole film. It is obvious, that such an attitude can be troublesome not only for your average critic, but also for a cinema purist who is looking for a focused gaze, a directorial style that strips off the unnecessary ballast to arrive at a clearness of vision that is completely its own. All that can be said of Dominik Graf's Der Felsen, and yet it is a different film than the stringently executed minimalist enterprises mentioned above. Although shot on digital camera and with a minimal budget the films aim is not reduction, but aggregation. As such it is closer to a Godard film than to one by Bresson, and has taken more clues from Beineix's Diva (1981) than from von Trotta's Die bleierne Zeit (1981).
One problem may be, that the story is presented basically as a melodrama, spiced with some thriller elements. With the feverish camera-movements and the fast-paced editing always aiming at the maximum emotional response, and a direction that at first glance seems anything but subtle, one can be tempted to see the film as a low-budget genre exercise, filled up with an underdone mixture of personal ideas and obsessions. A deliberately "scandalous" sex-and-crime picture that wants to garner some attention, but comes off as only mildly interesting. But while Graf takes a plot standard as a starting point that could have been taken out of any german TV-movie (a husband on vacation with his lover, while his wife is awaiting a child), he continues to free himself from all the cliches inherent in his story through a subversive use of the classic devices he never abandons. When he comes full-circle at the end of his film, it is not a giving in to expectations, but a fullfillment of the premises he has set out to explore. Like the abandoned lover, sitting at a cafe, going through some collected items that are part of her past, the film has achieved an innate freedom from cinematic conventions through a re-assembly of formal elements which led to an independent standard of its own. Rich with cinematic references - from the picture postcards of Marker's la jete (1962) to the frenzied camera-movements in Wong Kar-Wai's Hong Kong films - the whole is nevertheless entirely Graf's making.
The professional actors are used alongside newcomers and amateurs whose impact on the screen can be felt equally. Carefully composed moments stand alongside improvised vignettes, the film at times lyrical and airy, an impressionist poem, and a few moments later, like life itself, the weight of the characters destinies, their utter loneliness and desperation can be felt, witnessed on screen, as if they could leap out of the canvas into our lives. The film has the look of a documentary, although cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels often used filters and distancing effects, to create the unreal and magical feel of a film, which can also be seen as a dream, a dream from which no human being can ever really wake up. Initially intended to be shot on 35mm, the digital camera came in due to budget constraints. Nevertheless it feels like it was intended that way from the beginning. Godard once said that all he needed for a movie was a girl and a gun. The patchwork of symbols used in Der Felsen is immense, the concept being that every item which is introduced has to be connected with the next. The Metaphor of traditional african storytelling with an unknown end being the basis of the structure - what we hear is as important as what we see. Like Godard in some of his films, Graf is using a mixture of sounds and voices. Direct sound recorded on locattion, a monumental orchestral score that is contrasted with music that comes from the street, and the use of a monotonous voice-over by a narrator who is present at times where it seems like she isnt needed, while at others her absence can be clearly felt. The films time and place everything happens over a weekend on the island of Corsica giving the characters both an immediateness in their actions, and a detachment from their surroundings, reminiscent of Antonionis Professione: reporter or Rivettes crime-mysteries from the 70s.
The film doesnt seem to evoke our present , the melodrama being timeless. Still the fates of the characters are tied to the present conditions in the world, their behaviour and thinking being dominated by the patterns they have adopted in the current german society. As it is, their psychology and motivation feels very german, foreigners attitudes, in sharp contrast with the locals. The old and the young, the traditional and the new, everything gets connected, entering a symbiotic relationship which is beneficient for both. We are able to see the old in a new light, with every effect that is added enriching the one that came before. Shimmering like the colors of the rainbow, the beauty of each color is given its due place (every element in Der Felsen is presented as complete in its form), but while every moment is always essentially a moment in itself, the technical proficiency of the staff is able to bring the diverse colors not only together and making them radiate from within, but also succeeds in sending them through a prism which illuminates the canvas in a way that the truths inherent in every one of them form a coherent whole. Thus the world behind the apeearances can be felt not only in moments of greatness, but throughout the film as a whole. As such, Der Felsen is a work of remarkable qualities.
Der Felsen is available on DVD in Germany, and can be purchased at any online-shop. Offering biographies and filmograsphies of the actors and the director, and an interview with Dominik Graf, the disc comes without any subtitles. This would be a risky pick for a foreign distributor, but hopefully someone will take this chance. Otherwise the film might sink into an oblivion which it doesnt deserve.