This summer, the Carolina Theatre in Durham exhibits an exclusive series of films from around the world, every one of them worth seeing. These are movies that Triangle filmgoers would not otherwise have a chance to see, including the controversial The Piano Teacher (to be reviewed next week), Jan Svankmajer’s extraordinary Little Otick, and an acclaimed new film of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with the redoubtable Charlotte Rampling.
The film that kicks off the series is an edgy but finally good-natured German film, a romantic comedy for the age of the Euro. In July is about a street vendor named July (Christiane Paul), who uses a magical ring to predict the future of a staid physics teacher, Daniel (Moritz Beitbrau), telling him that he’ll meet a beautiful woman at a local bar. July’s had her eye on him herself, and expects to be the woman he meets, but Daniel instead thinks he’s meant for another (Idil Uner), whom he decides on a lark to pursue across Europe, to Turkey. Hoping for the best, July hitches a ride with him. But with whom will he end up?
The answer is not as clear as you might think. The movie’s too laid-back to express much anxiety, but it seems a little nervous about appearing either too old-fashioned or too self-consciously hip. At its worst it’s both, but whenever it saunters into one, you can feel it trying to shoot for the other. Moritz Beitbrau played Lola’s errant boyfriend in Run Lola Run, and In July could be the anti-Run Lola Run: loose and ambly, where that film was frenzied and overwrought. If anything, In July is a little underwrought, and when it’s most resisting its own Run Lola Run tendencies, it starts bearing a sickly resemblance to Amelie.
What originality the film has hovers on the margins, in a performer’s sly double-take, a brief, sudden lunge into fantasy, a stray detail of the frame. An opening corpse-in-the-trunk bit makes you think queasily that you’re in for a Euro-Tarantino knock-off, but it’s a red-herring, a quick salvo to try to defer your realization of how sweet the whole enterprise really is.
Fifteen years ago it would have made some sense to see In July as a post-“New German Cinema” exercise. This frothy confection bears little relation to the lugubrious, angst-ridden films of Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders and Von Trotta, the films that defined post-war German film in an effort to deal with the trauma of Germany’s past, combining Weimar-era Expressionism with wartime social realism. From the easy, druggy atmosphere of In July you wouldn’t know Germany had a past, let alone a tumultuous one, and the impulses of the New German Cinema seem so long gone we’re not even post-them any more.
Still, it’s undeniable that the look of those films, their visual textures, have influenced modern cinema immeasurably, and In July inherits it. The exteriors are crisp and precisely detailed, uncannily bright without being luminous, surfaces rendered with a sharpness that makes them look hard and indurate: petrified earth, cobalt sky, marbleized clouds. The noir-ish, dark interiors are bathed in gaudy colors–Fassbinder by way of Douglas Sirk–a deep green in the foreground meshing with a deep red in the background.
Though it’s legitimate to associate this look pretty directly with New German Cinema, it’s worth noting that those chiefly responsible for it ranged across nationalities. Ed Lachman, for instance, a key cinematographer who worked with Herzog and Wenders, was American, and Michael Ballhaus, Fassbinder’s main photographer, also worked in Hollywood on films like The Fabulous Baker Boys and GoodFellas. As happens routinely in mass culture, the distinctive style of one national moment gets internationally dispersed almost instantly, and In July, in its happily promiscuous internationalism, seems highly indicative of current trends.
The film’s status as a “road” movie, ranging geographically across southeastern Europe, connects it to Hollywood, where that genre took shape as a testament to the wide open spaces of Hollywood’s America. It’s not that there weren’t road movies in Europe, but that they were typically allegorical or interior, like Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), where the road trip is a journey through the main character’s memory. With its love-hate relationship to America, the New German Cinema changed all that, contributing such classics as Herzog’s Stroszek (1977), where the characters take to the road and end up in Wisconsin, or Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976).
You could say that the movement returned a sense of place to European cinema, where previously nationality was defined through sensibility, not geography. Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991), in retrospect, was the real post-New German Cinema foray: With its international cast, globe-spinning geography, and self-conscious treatment of global issues, it broke away from the nationalist model of filmmaking.
In July doesn’t have to break away, because it’s clear that that model isn’t the only game in town any longer. The movie’s director, Fatih Akin, was born in Germany of Turkish parents, and the film’s funding came from Germany, Bavaria, America and other countries. Its wryly cheerful version of internationalism has a global-village feel to it–there’s a whimsical hostility in how people from other countries interact, but we’re meant to see that their differences are mostly rhetorical. Outside America, globalization is often spoken of as a code word for America’s cultural conquest of the world, and as this trend of internationalism continues in European cinema, it will be interesting to see whether it can forge a viable alternative. In July is a fresh start.