Last week, I reviewed Z For Zachariah, the latest film by director Craig Zobel (read it here), which is based on Robert C. O’Brien’s posthumous 1974 novel of the same name. I had planned to reference an earlier adaptation of the book, a production shot by Anthony Garner in 1984 for the BBC program “Play For Today.” The two-hour movie is much closer to the source material in plotting but is also not without its faults. Most significantly, it feels very much like a dated product of its era: Cold War dread of nuclear fallout.

In his adaptation, Zobel does a fine job cutting out the dated concerns that played on Cold War era fears, so it’s a shame he doesn’t magnify the more primal tensions of the drama to make for a more timeless film. Though there’s a sense it was designed for it, I doubt this film will be remembered come Oscar time, considering some of the movie’s fine performers, who ultimately couldn’t seem to rise above the scant material.

In my review, I pointed out Zobel’s weak grasp on the film’s mood as a great issue of his version. Not so for the BBC version. What succeeds with this adaptation is that you feel a creeping sense of disquiet that surrounds the idyllic zach01farmhouse, spared nuclear annihilation because it happens to sit in a valley. Solitary farm girl Anne Burden is played by TV actress Pippa Hinchley, making her acting debut. Here’s a fun bit of trivia: she happened to have played a minor role in the Chris Pine vehicle People Like Us (2012). Pine plays a third character in Zobel’s adaptation of the film who was never in the book nor the BBC version.

There’s a darkly wonderful moment in the BBC version establishing Anne’s response to the loss of her family after they leave her alone at the homestead to search for other survivors but never return. After waiting for who knows how many days, she weeps for them, gathers their toothbrushes and some dead flowers, and tosses them all into the garbage. It’s an interesting gesture. Just when you think she will become sentimental about her loss, she does not. For what use is sentiment when there is no one else left alive?

Eventually, a survivor arrives at her house. John Loomis (a scenery chewing Anthony Andrews) first appears at a distance, emerging from a white tent in a radiation suit. He gradually moves the tent closer and closer to Anne’s house. This version of Z For Zachariah indeed takes its time with both atmosphere and character development. In Zobel’s film the chemistry and trust between John and Anne seems too simplistic with a sense of little at stake. Garner’s version genuinelyzach03 considers the chasm of trust that would lie between a teenage girl and a shady looking man, taking its time to reveal a sense of trust with John that is doomed to failure. There’s a profound sense of ambivalence between Anne and John from the start, something Zobel’s version so sorely needed early in its drama. In the 1984 version Anne keeps her distance for days. When she does approach, John has gradually been weakened by radiation poisoning. His sickness only enhances the specter of death that looms over the film. Meanwhile, in Zobel’s version, it only takes a few injections of a handy serum for John to recover from his illness.

In this 1980s version, John also gives soliloquies about the horrors of radiation poisoning, how it gradually eats away at a person’s body as well as revealing what happened to set off the nuclear holocaust that brough Anne and him together. This element of suspense feels remarkably zach04dated in today’s post-Cold War era, and Zobel is right to cut it back. He instead focuses on the personal drama of alienation from society. There’s an unnerving sense of the inevitable power of a man who invades on a world of a woman who thought she was alone in the world. She is getting by, but she can hardly fend for herself, lacking the skills and knowledge to get the lights back on and clinging to her precious faith for survival.

A sense of the grim inevitable in the early version is revealed during other scenes of dialogue, as this film seems more concerned with death than it is the dynamic between the man and the teenaged girl. In one scene, crippled by radiation exposure, John dishes advice to Anne on how she might survive on her own by rotating the crops. He slowly goes mad, and a third man does appear, but as a figment of his delusions, as he feverishly rants about his past, revealing to Anne deeper and darker secrets. Things get scarier from there, but the movie also tumbles over a cliff by dragging out a hackneyed turn in the plot. But one more plus: the dog figures into the story till its grim ending, unlike Zobel’s version, which inexplicably drops the dog out of the narrative a mere quarter of the way through. Both films are mediocre adaptations, but this older dated version really isn’t as weak a film as the more recent version.

Without further ado, watch the 1984 adaptation of Z For Zachariah here:

And the new version of Z For Zachariah is currently playing in our Miami area exclusively at Sunset Place. It’s also available on VOD. Again, here’s my review: 

Z For Zachariah can’t overcome shortcomings to live up to its concepts — a film review

All movie stills in this post are courtesy of TV Cream. I’ll leave you with the trailer for the new movie, which I should note also stars Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Barbara (2012) Movie PosterCold War Germany has inspired many a depressing movie about humanity’s struggle in the face of oppression. The much-acclaimed Barbara offers something refreshingly different without dumbing-down the stark atmosphere that stays true to the dark era of the 20th century. It has deservedly won over those in the film’s native country, garnering top awards (see its recognition on IMDB).

Will it make the translation in the US? As the film seemed to have missed recognition during awards season stateside, I cannot say that it will, but it should. Cinephiles who should most not miss this film are those who appreciate the compact, concentrated moral tales by the Dardenne brothers (see: ‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). Using the backdrop of Cold War era East Germany in the year 1980, director Christian Petzold presents a film designed to reveal something much grander than a single person’s struggle for freedom, but a story of sacrifice and grace under oppression.

The film’s titular protagonist (Nina Hoss, who won a Silver Bear for her performance) is a doctor banished from Berlin to the hinterlands after she committed some crime under the communist regime. Barbara_04_HFThe drama glazes over her wrongdoing (applying for an exit visa), which befits the film. As we know from history, many of the laws in East Germany were morally suspect and infringed on human rights. Applying for a visa no longer constitutes a criminal act in the eyes of today’s democratic Germany. But it is testament to the film’s strength that, with a few compact scenes, Barbara is established as a morally suspect person who must in the end win the audience over, despite her seemingly trivial moral divergence— a bold move in confident storytelling by Petzold, who co-wrote the script with Harun Farocki.

The first day at work for Barbara is all about establishing her as an outsider. Her enigmatic quality, as she maintains a distance from her landlady and co-workers, serves the film well. When she first appears on screen, the camera maintains an appropriate distance, as citizens in this era and place treated one another with suspicion, above all else. Barbara_05_HFThe first shot of her in the film is a high angle through the leaves of treetops. The gaze looks out as if from a window a couple of stories above ground, as two unseen men chatter about her behavior and make assumptions about her personality. We later learn the voyeurs are the man who will be her boss, André (Ronald Zehrfeld) and a fellow named Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), a member of the Stasi, police who spied on citizens waiting for them only to slip up, so they might be thrown back in jail.

Though the camera placement of this opening scene will never return in the film, the distant gaze haunts much of the film’s action. Barbara constantly looks over her shoulder while sneaking around to meet a lover who visits her from free West Germany bearing gifts and cash. Meanwhile, Klaus shadows her and pops up more than once sitting in a chair in her own apartment. As a colleague rummages through every nook of the modest dwelling, Klaus only studies Barbara, eyes fixated on catching behavior that might betray her. If that does not seem invasive enough, he does not leave until a female colleague shows up to strip search Barbara.

The stark situation, removed from the usually gray city of Berlin to the bucolic countryside, is punctuated by scenes like the one depicted above. The film maintains the mood without melodramatic angles or music but via consistent images. BARBARA  Regie Christian PetzoldThe desolate road Barbara travels by bicycle on her way to work always appears windswept. Never does a rainy day occur to change the mood. It’s all in the darkness of the situation. A moment given to strangers who turn to stare at Barbara is enough to establish the mood of oppression of East Germany, during this era.

Like Hoss, cinematographer Hans Fromm has been a consistent collaborator with the director. The three of them have made four other films together, and Barbara reveals a clear harmony in their craft that only experience can bring. Fromm maintains a steady, static camera throughout the film. Though there are no attention-grabbing pans, tracking shots or zooms, the images are loaded with irony, depth and color, which might seem an ironic cocktail of visual tones. Though often color-saturated, settings are always simple, yet loaded with information that push the story forward and maintain mood. The film’s mise-en-scène reveals the hospital as ill-equipped to handle some cases, but it also reveals the simplicity of life in the country disrupted by the government’s complicated, heavy-handed need to keep people in line. Barbara_02_HF 2The colors are so dynamic and brilliant they not only make up for the film’s static camera but also the fact that the director chooses to use only diegetic music for mood enhancement within the scenes. The film almost feels like a Technicolor experience, standing in dramatic irony against a gloomy way of living.

As Barbara creeps around to meet her lover, her supervising doctor always exudes an amiable distant charm and has to work against a natural suspicion to gain her trust. They ultimately bond while taking extra steps to care for separate patients. Trust in these oppressed people is established outside their relationship. Before that, a conversation over a Rembrandt print, (The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp) whose brilliant colors meld into the world of Barbara prophetically, finally begins to thaw the ice between the two of them.

In the end, morality will trump a self-serving need for freedom for our hero who will have to make a crucial decision during the film’s climax, which is handled with as much low-key grace as can be expected by the filmmakers. That may read as rather heavy-handed, but the power of the film to go against melodrama and sentimentality for such a profound statement, reveals the talent of Petzold. Beyond the Cold War era period, this poetic, modest film ultimately reveals that trust is found outside relationships, and we are all more than the sum of the other’s perceptions, a human lesson beyond era and language we should all learn from.

Hans Morgenstern

Barbara is Rated PG-13, runs 105 min. and is in German with English subtitles in the US. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Feb. 8, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL

Feb. 15:
Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)