The films of Peter Nestler

Last week, Close Up cinema in east London showed a retrospective of the German filmmaker Peter Nestler.

Nestler’s films are beyond documentaries. He is not engaging in mere journalism. Nor are these films essays, whereby Nestler expounds on working class life or the ravishing changes of industry.

Rather, Nestler is a kind of poet connecting the dots between environmental shifts and the resilience of human beings. Whether it is the innocence of schoolchildren, or the contemplative suffering of community elders, Nestler presents us with the enduring joy of the human heart.

Dike Sluice tells the story of a seaside village undergoing the changes brought by post war development, but from the point of the small river itself.

Through the slightly ironic monologue of the sluice, Nestler captures the fragility of man’s place in the wider ecology, and without preaching he emphasises the loss of that place through technological change. The film shows us what is being lost, without descending into polemic of Jeremiad.

In Up The Danube, we return to the subject of rivers. This time the beauty of the east European landscape is shown to us in grand, wide shots as a narrator tells the stories of uprisings, peasant revolts and battles that have shaped the personalities of culture.

Ordinary working people are seen going about their daily tasks, working the river as they have done for centuries. Children play on the banks. Castles and fortresses rise up from the lush greenery and pierce the grey, historic skies.

What results is a testament to the many thousands of years of suffering and bloodshed that have formed the beauty and peacefulness of the European countryside. Nature and culture don’t just exist side by side, they create each other and augment each other. Where there is beauty, there has been death. Where there is change, there is the durable consciousness of history.

A Working Men’s Club In Sheffield was the masterpiece of this programme. Shot in and around the Dial Working Men’s Club in Sheffield in 1965, we are transported to way of life that was already vanishing at the time of filming. This is a moving and at times breathtaking account of the vibrant community that surrounded the dark metalworks and factories of Sheffield before the collapse of British industry.

Nestler immerses himself in this community, resisting any temptation to sentimentalise working class life, or to rage about the injustices of the grinding toil at the heart of this way of life. As always, Nestler is interested in the personalities that create the world he is filming, whether it is the personality of the city or the people that populate it.

There is humour and joy, pathos and melancholy, but all presented in an intimate way, never distancing us from the subjects of the film, but bringing us closer to them, and to ourselves.

For all the hardship and graft, the lives of these talented and forgotten people were untouched by the homogeneity and toxic noise of brand coffee shops and pedestrian high streets. This is an England of a calm, dutiful work ethic, a witty, unselfconscious endurance.

Local people take to the stage throughout the film, each displaying their own talents for song or performance. The level of ability it striking. One man, perhaps a recent immigrant to England, has a voice like Frank Sinatra. A young couple sings a Bob Dylan song with aching promise, captured in the glamour of a 16mm glow. A pedal steel guitar player plays daring and rambunctious lines of music with the steady glance of a butcher cutting his daily meat.

All of this is spliced with shots of the dark furnaces of metal factories, or the smokey backstreets of city slums. The flower of the human soul bursts open wide despite the blackening creep of industrial life.

Instead of sitting round a TV showing Pop Idol, people lived their lives as actors upon a self-made stage. Obscured by class and back-breaking work, they nevertheless were able to walk with dignity. Today, working life is luxurious and dull in comparison, but one wonders whether we have the same room for personal flourishing and self-respect that people did 50 years ago.

Nestler achieves a masterful voice through remaining responsive to his subjects. He does not impose an auteuristic vision upon the world he strives to capture, but instead listens to that world, searching for the stories want to be told.

This is a director who makes films in the same way Woody Guthrie wrote songs. There is a humility and simplicity in his technique, a sense of service towards the human spirit for its own sake.

 

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NETFLIX REVIEW: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

From the opening, dreary and drizzled scene at Checkpoint Charlie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold creates an atmosphere of muffled, bureaucratic routine. Like all wars, the Cold War was characterised by constant waiting, a meandering sense of paranoia and anticipation, before the inevitability of cruelty and death.

The first time we see Richard Burton, we don’t confront the the Hamlet-like handsomeness of his presence, but rather his back, a rain-stained trench coat of a man in a lifeless booth, pouring whisky into his coffee. The almost contemplative, lingering shots of Burton’s concentrated gaze are then punctuated violently by a spy being gunned down after trying to sneak through the checkpoint.

Burton’s character Alec Leamas is everything James Bond is not. He manifests the strained brow and air of degeneration of the post-war British man, a rotting soul kept alive by a residual, near-forgotten sense of duty. His job is to lie and charm his way through the underworld, to forget himself, to be become a nihilistic foot-soldier, to kill, drink, abuse and deceive, all for Queen and country.

The scenes in the purlieus of Hammersmith and South Kensington are beautifully dreich, the landscape of dusty libraries, secretary’s offices, cold bus stops, dull and silent grocer shops and the Labour Exchange. Burton scowls and hunches his way through this atmosphere with a tensed, terrified glare in his eyes, the ragged emotions of a man clinging to himself.

The spies who surround Leamas are equally strained and disillusioned. ‘Control’, played with diffident subtlety by Cyril Cusack, is not the M of Ian Fleming, a far cry from the clipped, decisive, self-assured British Colonel type. Rather, you get a sense right away of a glorified clerk, a functionary, someone who is not really in control at all, but equally as beholden to murky, unspoken agendas as Leamas.

This is a theme through the whole chain of espionage. As Burton’s character travels further into the bowels of Communist Europe, he meets a string of sophisticated-seeming spies and goons, each of which turns out to be another lost soul, patronised by the next, higher-ranking link in the chain of command. The fetish of rank, and the pettiness of superiority is a subtext throughout the plot.

As a love interest, Nan Perry, played by Claire Bloom, is the only character who seems to capture anything of the idealism of the sixties. This reveals the fact that the nostalgia we have for the cultural revolution suffers from an amnesia about the boredom and ennui most people seemed to feel in that time. The Britain we see in this 1960s classic is more 1950s-kitchen-sink than the swinging London of Antonioni’s Blow Up, which came out only a year or so later.

Perry’s character is brimming with intelligence and hope, and a worldly sexuality brought to the role by Bloom saves it from sentimentality. Bloom’s kindness and womanly affection for Burton are indeed the result of an aloneness and desire for emotional adventure, and the fact that Leamas is equally drawn to her reveals the remaining streak of humanity in Burton’s otherwise tormented and condemned cynicism.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, in some sense Leamas’s nemesis. Werner plays what could have been a very routine and stereotype Communist flunky, as a deeply human, confused, determined and vulnerable man. He is ambitious and cruel, but Werner gives the character a positive charge, not loveable, but accessible and sympathetic. You can tell that affection for Leamas and the sense of duty that drives his own machinations are both real and rooted in a sincere vision of life. Fiedler, is far more than a product of his ideology or social conditioning.

The film is a brilliant spy movie, and a captivating example of British noir. But it is also a spiritual portrait of a society hollowed out by the collapse of empire and the punishing consequences of war. The result is a panorama of thwarted, depressed individuals who struggle to navigate a grey, prosaic Britain stripped of pretension and romance.