"I don't try to have a particular style which I impose on each project as a kind of ready-made concept. I experiment and try to develop a form based on the material. I'm not interested in representing a social milieu, but in describing the mental state it produces."
Photo: Reinhold Vorschneider (l.) and Thomas Arslan (r.) at the shooting of "Bright Nights"
Almost like a documentary, Thomas Arslan’s Berlin trilogy (GESCHWISTER, DEALER, DER SCHÖNE TAG) shows Turkish-German youths in Berlin in the 90s and describes their everyday surroundings. The accuracy with which he explores new milieus was already evident in his dffb short film AM RAND. He moves along the German-German border, but is less interested in the actual Wall than in the wasteland around it. From this various observations, a picture of the time or of a city – which is a particular time space – emerges. As in his Heist thriller IM SCHATTEN, where the city only reveals itself through the movements of its gangsters.
Between genre film and Berliner Schule, the new straightforwardness of American cinema à la Michael Mann or Don Siegel and what France for its part made out of the influences of US genre cinema, his work appears to be heterogeneous, finding itself anew with each film, but retaining the basic tone of a precise observation.
Filmgalerie 451 has been releasing films by Thomas Arslan on DVD since 2007. Now seven of his films can be rediscovered in streaming in the 2K restored version.
Opening to the World
A portrait of director Thomas Arslan, Michael Baute, German Films Quarterly 2/2013
Thomas Arslan is one of only a few German directors who have worked with continuing success for 20 years now. Since “Mach die Musik leiser” – his graduation film at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB), where Arslan studied from 1986 to 1992 – was premiered in the Panorama section of the Berlinale in 1994, he has realized seven full-length films as an author and director.
Initially, most of Arslan’s work was done with non-professional actors that he discovered through a complicated casting process in the actual milieus where his stories are set. For example, “Mach die Musik leiser” portrays a group of youths in Essen, the Ruhr city in which Arslan himself grew up. In this film he already applied a style of discreet observation, inscribed with a strong photographic interest in the action’s locations: “In my work the actors should play as simply as possible. I always try to be fully aware of whatever expressions are permitted by the space in which they are acting.”
He continued to develop this style alternating between concrete documentary recording and laconic observation in his “Berlin trilogy". In these three films made between 1996 and 2001, Arslan – the son of German-Turkish parents himself – shows the everyday lives of youths with Turkish origins in Berlin.
“Geschwister – Kardeşler” (1996) tells of the plans cherished by two brothers and a sister. The subsequent film “Dealer” (“Dealer”) is a minimalist narrative recounting the disillusionment of a petty criminal, slowly being pulverized by conflicting demands from those pulling his strings, the police that are stalking him, and a fragile family life. This was the film (shown in the Forum of the Berlinale 1999 and awarded the FIPRESCI Prize) that made Arslan’s reputation beyond the borders of Germany: “That’s when my international reception began, mainly in France at first, where my films were attributed to the Nouvelle Vague Allemande proclaimed there.”
Nationally as well, people became more aware of the “Berlin School” – the group of filmmakers and friends who enabled German cinema to link back into international developments in author film. Its core group included Arslan and his fellow DFFB students Angela Schanelec and Christian Petzold – and his final film of the Berlin trilogy, at the latest, highlighted their place in contemporary German film: “Der schöne Tag” (“A Fine Day”) was premiered in the Forum of the Berlinale 2001 and shown at many international festivals afterwards. It is regarded as one of the central films of the “Berlin School". A summer film about the urban love affairs of a young dubbing actress, clearly echoing works by Maurice Pialat and Eric Rohmer.
After the documentary film “Aus der Ferne” (“From Far Away”) (2006) about a journey Arslan made through his home country Turkey (he also wielded the camera), he left the Berlin location of his previous films for the family drama “Ferien" (“Vacation”) (2007). A portrait of generations is developed in a precise and detailed way by this film – in which Arslan also worked exclusively with professional actors for the first time – the micro and macro levels of a family being interlaced in a quiet but nonetheless highly emotional manner.
Arslan says of his staging method: “I attempt to work with the camera as objectively as I can. I see the camera as an autonomous part of filmmaking; it is not there primarily to trigger emotions. I am interested in letting the emotions evolve more indirectly, not in forcing them through the media. This has also something to do with respect for my characters. A close-up shot is not the only way to convey closeness to them.”
The same respect for his characters and the autonomous logic of the context in which they operate is shown in “Im Schatten” (“In the Shadows”), which was presented in the Forum of the Berlinale in 2010. This precise, enigmatic neo-noir depicts the everyday life of a gangster just released from prison, who takes up precisely where he left off before being arrested. In this case, Arslan works – in a similar way to in the film "Gold” presented in this year’s competition at the Berlinale, a late western variation about a group of German emigrants in Canada – with the layers and set pieces of conventional narrative form. But he transposes such elements considerably, using the given framework to focus on inner mental states and the cinematographic articulation of physical realities: “I don’t make any real distinction between genre and non-genre. In genres you have a set of templates implying a kind of public agreement between the film and its viewers. In each case, it is the variations of detail that interest me particularly. The genre elements shouldn’t be so densely concentrated that they do no more than continually reference film history. Instead, they have to enable an opening to the world.”
HELLE NÄCHTE ("Bright Nights"), 2017, 86 min
GOLD, 2013, 101 min
IM SCHATTEN ("In the Shadows"), 2010, 85 min
FERIEN ("Vacation"), 2007, 35 mm, 91 min
AUS DER FERNE ("From far away"), 2005, 89 min
DER SCHÖNE TAG ("A fine Day"), 2001, 74 min
DEALER, 1998, 74 min
GESCHWISTER ("Brothers and Sisters"), 1996, 82 min
MACH DIE MUSIK LEISER ("Turn down the Music"), 1994, 87 min
IM SOMMER – DIE SICHTBARE WELT, 1992, 41 min
AM RAND, 1991, 24 min
19 PORTRAITS, 1990, 20 min
RISSE, 1989, 32 min
TEST 2, 1986, 6 min
EINE NACHT, EIN MORGEN, 1984, 9 min