Children’s Films and Films for Children


Final triumphant scene of father and son in “Somewhere in Berlin”

I have been writing on children’s films specifically for half a decade, and began to include them in my general work more than a decade ago. Yet, the more I write about, research and watch them, the less confident I am in my answer of what a children’s film is. Part of the dilemma is that filmmakers seldom know what their target audience is, evening arguing the point with studios up until the point that a film is premiered (in which case the audience seems to have the say). The third film in the East German film production company DEFA’s repertoire, Irgendwo in Berlin  (Somewhere in Berlin, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, 1946) has consistently been included in volumes about East German children’s films. The story of a boy struggling to understand his despondent father, returned from World War II, the film might well have spoken to other young children after the war who despaired at ever seeing the “real” return of their fathers – the letters of a young Brigitte Reimann who described her Vati’s disheveled appearance at the train station where the family went to meet him after his release from a Soviet POW camp come to mind. Certainly, Somewhere in Berlin has enough pedagogical messages to instruct young boys (never mind the girls) as to how to push their fathers to re-assume their roles as heads of household and the nation. Still, given the choice between that much reality and the brilliant colors and fantasy of the Soviet folklore film The Stone Flower (dir. Alexandr Ptushko, 1946), released the same year in German cinemas, would children or even their parents willingly have chosen Somewhere? Or does Somewhere merit the category of children’s film more because of its subject matter – the everyday tragedies and victories of young people – than does a film that must make its appropriateness for a children’s audience explicit by framing the movie with an old man who tells the tale of the “stone flower” to a group of excited children?

A History of the Future that Never Was, but Should Have Been

interkosmos_posterThis past week I had the opportunity to watch the 2006 fake documentary Interkosmos, part of  Jim Finn’s “Communist Trilogy”. How could one not be taken with the idea of a GDR-sponsored cosmonaut program that got buried when the spaceships went missing? Even better, the female cosmonaut’s codename was “Seagull,” the same codename of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. Tereshkova made it back to Earth and the USSR in 1963, but Interkosmos and its many allusions to the (lack of a) woman’s space program were uncomfortably close to being accurate. After being hailed by Khrushchev as his daughter and proof that socialism was the only system in which women and men had equality, Tereshkova lived to see the USSR’s women’s space program dismantled and her own role changed to being a spokesperson for the destined role of women as mothers and wives. The U.S. did not even bother competing with the Soviet Union on that space race metric.

Fake documentaries call into question the definition of a documentary, authenticity, fake, mocumentary…. the list grows. In the end, I saw Finn’s work as an extension of the German cabaret tradition, or perhaps the medieval court jester, in which the “fool” makes the rest of us laugh with his silliness. But the entire point of being a court jester is to undertake a balancing act of making the court (or the film audience) realize that the fool has told us an uncomfortable truth, without resulting in the death of the messenger. As we laughed at Finn’s imaginary “Seagull,” we also were lamenting her only possibility of resurrection – as a fictitious character on the Big Screen. Tereshkova, after all, had hoped to go to space once again, even as an elderly woman, but was never a serious candidate for any country’s space program. Therein lies one truth of Interkosmos: Seagull was as much a figure of the public imagination as was a film caricature.

Rome and Titus: End of the Millennium Movies

TitusDVDCoverMovies have much to tell us about beginnings and endings. Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus is an example of an end of one millennium/beginning of a new era movie. Based on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the film portrays a political world informed by a dystopian National Socialist-style “modernity” with Rise and Fall of the Empire motives. At times, the Empire in question references an American anti-Bildungsroman tale of juvenile delinquency turned violence, combined with powerful women turned greedy – or perhaps, greedy women turned powerful. The difference is not insignificant, since the film rests on Jessica Lange’s character, “Tamora,” a conquered queen turned victor’s consort: Tamora is a woman who is enraged at the consequences of war only when they affect her kith and kin. And she has reared sons who must constantly feed their cruel passions – a genetic trait, apparently –  with drug-induced visions of grandeur, marked by sadism and, consistently, stupidity.

The film is filled with so many dramatic heights that it becomes a surreal embarrassment of riches to decide where the turning point actually happens. Should it be when Titus voluntarily allows his hand to be cut off in a ruse that was to bring back two of his sons? Or when Tamora sends instructions to her servant/lover Aaron, the “Moor,” to kill the dark-skinned baby – his son – whom she has given birth to? And then there is, of course, the banquet with Titus as chef, when Tamora learns that she is eating a delicious savory pie made with the flesh and blood of her sons.

Of all the scenes of seemingly endless horrifying realizations, where blood and violence vie with sadness and despair as central themes, the film’s most dramatic point comes when Titus kills his daughter, Lavinia. Some reviews from critics like Roger Ebert have found this moment too incredible to be taken seriously. Tamora had helped orchestrate the rape of Lavinia by her two surviving sons, and much of the movie is spent with Lavinia literally trying to find the words to give details about the crime – since they had cut her tongue out and sliced off her hands, she has few means to communicate either the story or her pain. But critics who cannot understand Shakespeare’s and Taymor’s decision to force a father to murder his violated daughter are not paying attention to the message. It is the new emperor of Rome, after all, whom Titus quizzes as to what would be the appropriate course of action should a man find out that his daughter had been sexually abused, and it is the new emperor who gives Titus the answer: the father would be so devastated by his daughter’s own pain and his inability to render things right that he would have to kill her to put her – not himself – out of misery.

Unfair, unjust, a misallocation of fault and victimization? Yes, then (historically, twice over) as now. And yet, it is this scene, in which Lavinia willingly places herself in her father’s arms to be killed, that defines not only the movie, but Taymor’s message to Titus from the gods, and to the audience: There is no justice, good does not always prevail, evil does not always need a reason to be, and some fates cannot be gotten over. In this manner, Taymor’s millennium ends with a desperate gasp of what has not been accomplished, and what would seem to have little hope of resolution in the next centuries, either. To complain that the father should not have killed his daughter is to complain that Titus lives in a world governed by a system of illogical deistic and state justice that he accepts, is complicit in, and sees no way to escape. It is, in other words, to lament that Titus, his family, his friends, his enemies, and his fellow Romans followed the code of ethical behavior that they knew – one that did not allow for mercy, one that placed the perceived needs of the greater good over the desires of the individual, one that Titus could escape from only by turning to it, and forcing it to its most extreme conclusion. Titus had lost so many sons in war, then killed another who, in Titus’ belief system, had brought dishonor upon the family by disobeying the wishes of the emperor. Titus, ruined physically and psychologically, ready to reject the system that had betrayed him and his family, escaped the cycle of brutality by forcing the emperor to “innocently” pronounce Lavinia’s death sentence, in turn setting into motion a blood bath that would end the reign of terror that Titus had once defended.

If the final scene, in which Titus’ grandson carries out Aaron’s and Tamora’s son towards the dawn of a new day, appears hopeful, it is only so in contrast to the fates of everyone they leave behind. Taymor’s view of the next millennium found an ideal vehicle in the tragedy of Titus and the loss of his family’s role in a New Ancient World Order. To suggest that Shakespeare’s original play or Taymor’s adaptation for film is too over-the-top to be credible is to remove the film from its place in the history of media documentations of prevailing world views from the many historical turning-points that come together in Titus. Taymor’s view of the end of the millennium rested on the echoes of the twilight of Ancient Rome and Shakespeare’s commentary on the end of a century .