Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD

Journey to Berlin and Mystery Train to Memphis – DVDs of the Week

Divided Heaven (First Run)

Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven (1964), his adaptation of the novel by Christa Wolf (no relation), was made during the brief “thaw” of the sixties, when socially daring and politically critical films were allowed to be produced. I find it amazing it got made at all even in that relatively tolerant period, where the degree of freedom can be considered lenient only in comparison to the restrictions of the past (and, as it turned out, the near future). Renate Blume stars in the coming of age film set in 1950s East Germany and she’s introduced in a state of crippling depression, suffering from “nervous break,” according to the doctor. “Thus begins our story,” informs the narrator, making this the narrative baseline: not the ideals of socialism in action, but the disillusionment of a once idealistic young woman.

The idealized past: Eberhard Esche and Renate Blume in "Divided Heaven"
Tomorrow belongs to them: Eberhard Esche and Renate Blume in "Divided Heaven"

The flashbacks take us through a whirlwind romance with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious (and older) chemical engineer with a great future and high hopes, and her own “promotion” to a teaching college (and the attendant party meetings that will ultimately pass judgment on her—and everyone else’s—commitment to the socialist ideals). While she takes a summer position building railroad cars, she watches the veteran socialist true believer, both an idealist and a realist, scapegoated for production problems and replaced by a young manager who comes in brimming with socialist slogans but little understanding of humans under pressure. Meanwhile Manfred watches science takes a back seat to politics and becomes increasingly cynical about the ideals he once embraced.

Wolf’s unusual use of widescreen, which blurs and smears the edges of certain scenes (at first I thought it a problem with the print or the digital master, but it’s too ordered and patterned to be anything but purposeful), only exaggerates the tensions of the political debates and frustrated allegiances with its dislocating visual distortions. Divided Heaven is a dense film, with politics playing out in complicated power struggles and personal conflicts, and it’s difficult to sort through the battle of political philosophies. But it is as critical and disillusioned about the reality of the petty bureaucratic squabbles and political philosophical currents of East Germany in the fifties and sixties as it is about the so-called paradise of the west, as remarkable a portrait of East Germany as you’ll see and a heartfelt requiem for the divided Germany. In German with English subtitles, with cast and crew bios.

Mystery Train (Criterion)

Previously available in a film-only edition from MGM (long out of print, and with dodgy subtitles to boot), Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989) gets the Criterion treatment this week. The title comes from the bluesy recording Elvis made for Sun Records in 1956 but the stories of wandering tourists and lost souls drifting through Memphis are pure Jarmusch: young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) arrives in Memphis to take the Elvis tour, an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi of Life is Beautiful, and not coincidentally the wife of Roberto Benigni of Down By Law) gets a surprise visit from a wandering spirit and three Memphis low-lifes (including Steve Buscemi and Clash guitarist Joe Strummer) take an aimless and ultimately fateful midnight cruise around town. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is all calm restraint the sleepy manager of a flea-bag hotel that puts them all up, doing a deadpan double act with Cinque Lee as wary, wide-eyed bellhop. Jarmusch lazily unfolds his tales at the speed of life and his unhurried rhythms give the deadpan mix of quirky Americana, pop culture, and cinematic poetry a quietly lived-in quality, while he juggles timelines in a trick that Quentin Tarentino borrowed (and, to be fair, completely reconceived in his own unique way) for Pulp Fiction. The offbeat interweaving is just another pattern to the crazy quilt, lovely examples of the mercurial playfulness of life as seen by the always idiosyncratic and individualistic auteur is a true American independent. The spirit Elvis touches each tale, but it’s the spirit of Jarmusch that gives them life.

“This is in lieu of a commentary,” begins Jim Jarmusch in “Q&A with Jim,” a 69-minute audio-only recording with Jarmusch answering fan questions submitted to him for this purpose. He brings both a sense of humor and a sense of purpose to the project and provides good company along with his answers. A 17-minute excerpt from documentary I Put a Spell on Me spotlights Jarmusch telling many of the same Hawkins stories he shares in the “Q&A” supplement, and the original 17-minute featurette “Memphis Tour” provides a social and political history behind the film’s locations. Also includes on-set and behind-the-scenes photos and a booklet with original essays by Peter Guralnick and Dennis Lim. Best of all, Criterion releases it in both DVD and Blu-ray editions at the same price point.

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Available at Amazon:
Divided Heaven
Mystery Train
Mystery Train [Blu-ray]