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Moving pictures

European cinema on the road and in the streets

The sky is exploding, popping with a thousand whirring lights. The camera travels through the night, the sky over Berlin flashes by, television tower aglow. We’re left unsure: are they fireworks? Are we in a war zone? Strange neon-drenched landscapes, beautiful and sinister, pass over the screen. This is how Philip Gröning makes his introductions.

Gröning’s L’amour, l’argent, l’amour unfolds like a fairy tale for a jaded age – two kids on the run, lost in a world that offers as much magic as it does terror. It’s one of the offerings at the Goethe Institut this fall as part of Cinema on the Move, a new series showcasing road movies and films that take the action onto the street.

On the road

Postwar Europe has had a solid tradition of road movies – films where the protagonists take off into the unknown, leaving the familiar behind and renegotiating their relationship to the world they pass through along the way.

Since 1989, there have been even more of them. “Europe is expanding,” said Michael Cowan, a professor in McGill’s German Department. As road movies tend to deal with crossing boundaries and shifting identities, “it’s not by chance that there’ve been so many in the last decade.”

The street as a setting also has an important meaning in the history of European film, from the street films of Weimar Germany to the Italian neorealists’ shots of bombed-out roads. Cinema verité itself took off when cameras became small enough to be carried into the streets. As charged locations where people are forced out of their private spaces and into uncertain situations, streets have fascinated film theorists from Bazan to Krakauer. “They all claimed the street is a place where cinema becomes authentic,” Cowan said.

Cowan is one of a group of McGill professors organizing Street Takes, an academic conference organized in conjunction with the film series. Taking place over four days – with events at McGill and the Cinémathèque Québécoise as well as those at the Goethe Institut – Street Takes is the product of a new interdisciplinary research group called the Project on European Cinemas which unites scholars at McGill and the Université de Montréal.

The Project came together, Cowan explained, because European Cinema is increasingly less defined along national lines. “So many of these films are just de facto produced in many different countries,” he said, citing as an example Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, one of the films in the series. With its Italian setting, German director, and English lead, it’s the kind of multi-national production that’s so common in Europe today. “Is this a German film? An Italian film?” Cowan asked. “It’s definitely a European film.”

Here in Montreal, it became clear that scholars specializing in the cinemas of particular European countries could benefit from an exchange. Cinema, the group posits, could be a powerful medium for forging a new European identity. “It’s an open question,” Cowan said.

Though Cowan expressed hopes that more universities would become involved, for now the Project is mostly a McGill phenomenon – a fact that indicates that cinema at McGill is on the rise, despite the lack of a full-fledged film program.

Uncomfortable encounters

Christian Schlingensief is a political rabble-rouser. In 2000, as the ultra-rightist, xenophobic FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, or Freedom Party of Austria) was gaining a foothold in government, Schlingensief cooked up a public “happening” that would bring Austria’s socio-political skeletons out of the closet and into the streets.

Right on time for the Vienna Festival, Schlingensief erected a “concentration-camp-like” container in the middle of the city and filled it with asylum-seekers recruited from refugee camps all over Europe. Tapping into the Big Brother phenomenon, he set up a web site where viewers could vote out their least favourite foreigner each day.

Paul Poet’s documentary, Foreigners Out!, covers the controversial event from a number of angles. The result is a political carnival, a tumultuous, fiery conversation on art and politics, public space, old prejudices, and the paradoxes of activism.

Austrian director Michael Haneke also forces his characters into the street, where conflicting backgrounds and worldviews collide. In films like Code Inconnu, he forces his protagonists towards encounters that they might not be ready for – particularly his white European characters.

Space and non-space

The rise of neo-liberalism has been bringing out new anxieties in Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Yella, Christian Petzold’s 2007 feature exploring the shady world of venture capital, addresses some of these fears. Cowan commented on how some of Petzold’s shots blur landscapes into indistinct, impersonal planes of colour. “Petzhold tries to render all space into non-space,” he said, “[into] transitory spaces that people have no intention of inhabiting.”

Gröning’s L’amour, l’argent, l’amour, on the other hand, breathes life into the impersonal “non-places” its protagonists pass through. Marie and David, a prostitute and a kid who works in a scrap-yard, meet one night and take off together.

They camp out in a bank lobby and threaten the surveillance camera. Alienating urban landscapes become intimate and infused with meaning.

Following in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde couple-on-the-run films, it comes off like a social realist Pierrot le Fou. Things only seem right when they’re on the road, somewhere between coming and going. Apparently a world in flux can produce beautiful things.

Cinema on the Move runs from September 11 to October 31 at the Goethe Institut, 418 Sherbrooke O. for more details.

Street Takes takes place from September 17 to 20. Lectures and screenings are open to the public. Check out for locations and times.