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Film

Review: In Times of Fading Light

15 May 2018

In Times of Fading Light, opening this year’s German Film Festival, is an intensely historical picture, capturing a microcosmic vignette of 1989 East Berlin. Boasting a sweeping 2.31:1 aspect ratio, an extensive ensemble cast, quiet camerawork, and the sullenness of a negligible soundtrack, the film captures neatly but shallowly a fragmented series of monotone dinner party conversations, social indictments, and bourgeoisie tactics.

The film circles the politically dogmatic, faintly senile family patriarch Wilhelm Powleit (Bruno Gatz), as he celebrates his 90th birthday party amongst a mixture of relatives, friends, neighbours, officials, and misc., all nervously clutching a multitude of bright, depressingly effervescent flowers, as he tells them, with humorous unintelligibility, to “take the vegetables to the cemetery”. Leading man Bruno, now ripely 77, still emanates the soft, statuesque stage presence that immortalised him in Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, Wings of Desire (which, closing the festival, is an absolute must-see). Though this quality, mixed rudely with hard-line communist didactics, a sullen, ambiguous determination, and the infirmity of a 90-year old, strips him of much likability, and he spends much of the movie falling asleep off-screen. Besides Wilhelm, there is his dissatisfied, matriarchal wife (played by Hildegard Schmahl), her standoffish son (Sylvester Groth) and his unstable, alcoholic wife (Angela Winkler). Then there is their black-sheep son Sascha (Alexander Fehling), and his wife (Evgenia Dodina), and their son, and so on and so forth.

Behind them all, a crowd of supporting actors spill around the room as grey and blue suited non-entities, forming part of the set and sound design. Here, the pitfalls of a mishandled ensemble cast are crudely exposed—the characters are not given enough time to draw empathy, and the scenes, shuttered into a 100-minute runtime, are short and undeveloped, such that every single strand of narrative feels like a digression.

These theatricalities are performed from dawn til dusk. When the guests fade to silhouettes and start to give their farewells, you think, is that it? And that is it.

This enormous thematic vacuity is more curious than anything else: this does not seem like a film for the sake of art, nor a film for the sake of entertainment— instead, it has somehow created an entirely new third category—film for the sake of film. The whole picture seems propelled by nothing more than the commitment of a thin spectrum of light and sound to celluloid. There are no great ideas, no heavy characterizations, no poignant narrative or perceptible style; the film is forgettable reverie of an event that tinkers on the brink of plausibility, falling neither to the imagination or to reality. It is a film that lacks an aftertaste. It doesn’t feel good, nor does it feel bad. It just feels like nothing, really.


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