Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 25, 2011 10:10 pm 
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Steel, glass, money, ambition, sex

Christoph Hochhäusler is one of a group of younger German Wave (by locals called Berliner Schule or Berlin School) Teutonic directors whose work is marked by an icy coolness and a stern look at the modern world. Here his examination of the machinations of a cutthroat banking firm and its intersection with high-level adultery is so tense it feels like a muted thriller. There are hints at direness, while the fine acting keeps us riveted and the crystalline widescreen images ravish us. Emotionally, we're unnerved rather than moved, kept at a certain distance from principals whose motivations and backgrounds remain mysterious to us -- and probably to themselves.

New couple in town Svenja and Oliver Steve (Nicolette Krebitz, Mark Waschke) have only been in Frankfurt a few months for his job at Löbau Bank. Unemployed herself and seeking work, but doing something with large photographs, Svenja is at an art event when the cigarette she puts down for a minute is grabbed and puffed on by none other than Löbau's CEO, the icily elegant Roland Cordes (Robert Hunger-Bühler). This is the beginning of a mutual attraction the much younger Svenja is going to fight for a while, then succumb to.

The City Below concerns a high rise, megabucks world of passion and manipulation not unlike that of Alain Corneau's recent corporate noir, Love Crime. And there's murder here too, but at one remove. A Löbau executive in Jakarta has been mutilated and killed by kidnappers, though the Frankfurt managers decide to hush it up. They're going to move base to Singapore, but meanwhile it's decided to shift Oliver, Svenja's spouse, to manage the Jakarta office on a temporary basis, without his knowing the fate of his predecessor. Meanwhile things have finally heated up between Svenja and Roland -- it's not till an hour into the movie that they go to bed. The affair may be Roland's mad passion, but it's Svenja's whim that allows it to happen. Yet she doesn't at all want Oliver sent away from Frankfurt. Her world is too fragile. In the new steel and glass apartment she shares with Oliver some of the sparse furniture is still shrouded in plastic wraps. It seems the only stability for Svenja is her regular jogging.

While the affair continues its slow burn, other players move about in the chess game. Claudia (Corinna Kirchhoff) is Roland's elegant, handsome wife, unlikely to tolerate her husband's amour fou. Werner Löbau (Wolfgang Böck), the firm's president, is a bull-like, unpredictable man given to sudden tantrums. Andre Lau (Van Lam Vissay) is an Asian with perfect German who hails from Tampa, Florida. He is passed over for the Jakarta replacement job under suspicious circumstances.

All the while the Löbau partners are engineering a dangerous and destructive merger (or takeover, who knows?) that will put thousands out of work, a process they arrive at in the course of two meetings at a restaurant table. An early sign of the film's visual sensitivity is the way, as this deal is first sealed, the camera sneaks outside and views the men from the space outside the window. At the same time, despite the prevailing chilly mood, extreme closeups tend to heighten the most erotic moments between the illicit lovers.

Part of the distancing comes through Roland's feeding Svenja totally false information about himself, and using the fake name "Ritter" when they first go to a hotel (and that time do not make love). He has strange proclivities, such as liking to watch IV drug users. She has a burn scar from a risky past, and may have kinks of her own; yet she is intense about defending her husband when she thinks he's been used, and she has too.

Hunger-Bühler is an imposing actor with an off-putting presence. He seems every inch the rich, powerful man ready to make use of that power whenever he wants to. He tends to linger menacingly behind the shiny glass of his chauffeured Mercedes. When he asks Svenja if she's afraid of him it feels like she should be. But Krebitz conveys an instant sense that even in this world one need not be endowed with wealth to be formidable. She has, of course, the power of youth and style, but it's her utter self-possession that counts most. Svenja is definitely Roland's match, and is so by sheer chemistry. The mystery of the two people and the magnetism that links them is underlined by light and shadow, reflected glass and exposed flesh in Bernhard Keller's assured, elegant camera work.

The drama continually builds. Yet things never quite gel. The moment of chaos signaled in the final shot may seem tacked on. But this is not altogether a failure. Hochhäusler is clearly more interested in sowing the seeds of disquiet and in cutting away economic power to show the animal passion underneath than in unspooling a thriller like Corneau's. On the other hand, while the coldness impresses, the rigor chokes off some of the passion that's crying out to be released. "Cold German" is a tired cliché that may sometimes still be true.

The City Below/Unter dir die Stadt, in German, 105 min, co-written by Hochhäusler and Ulrich Peltzer, debued at Cannes in May 2010. Theatrical releases in France December 15, 2010 and in Germany March 31, 2011, with three showings at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review.

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