Dachau diary: Schlöndorff’s vision of a lost nine days

One of Germany’s last remaining cine-excavators of Nazi-era irony, Volker Schlöndorff speculates on what happened during the nine-day gap in Luxembourgian priest Jean Bernard’s famous Dachau diary, when he was given leave to return home and attend his mother’s funeral. Thoroughly fictionalized, this anomalous incident is read as a diplomatic scheme, in which the haggard clergyman (Ulrich Matthes) is encouraged by a baby-faced Nazi (August Diehl) to dissuade the home-parish bishop from passively resisting the Third Reich. Schlöndorff and his scriptwriters (German TV pros Eberhard Görner and Andreas Pflüger) uncork all manner of fascist prevarication, as Diehl’s self-interested career man attempts to cross-pollinate genocidal social philosophy with hearts-and-minds politicking, and essentially, outrageously, sell the idea of Dachau’s necessity to the Dachau initiate. The church’s collaborationism is a looming, sordid secondary target, naturally, and in fact, Schlöndorff’s movie plays best as a dry exercise in historical doublespeak and rationalization. (Unfortunately, the scenes of arrest and incarceration are all smudged up with digital slo-mo “emphasis.”) As the traumatized hero, Matthes (Goebbels in Downfall) is nearly mute, a stunned and impenetrable cipher caught in the cogs of nationalist will. MICHAEL ATKINSON


Written and directed by Adam Bhala Lough

Palm, opens May 27, Cinema Village

Birthed from a blunt-fueled blend of Aronofskian frenzy and nostalgia for the agreeable griminess of mid-’90s Wu-Tang Clan videos, Adam Bhala Lough’s debut, Bomb the System, bears the flamboyance of a film-schooled calling card. The film follows Blest (Mark Webber), a talented, teenaged fiend for graffiti feeling pressure from the usual suspects (Mom, the cops, rival crews, dope girlfriend), forcing him to decide on his future. Owing its wildish style to Requiem for a Dream‘s elision techniques and a fuzzily saturated palette of indigos, ultramarines, ochers, and absinthes suggestive of a thugged-out Christopher Doyle, BTS captures a wee-hour, back-alley NYC of train yards, rooftops, and fire escapes thrumming with the energy only an unabashed crush on urban culture could generate—all of this impossible without Def Jux honcho El P’s trippy, ‘tronic synth score. When Lough quits auditioning for his next film, he displays talent for tonal and rhythmic modulation, crescendoing in a haunting montage cut to Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates.” A needlessly circuitous plot twist leaves a bitter taste, but not before the film’s scruffy charm does its work. PETER L’OFFICIAL


Written and directed by Eric Weber

Velocity, opens May 27, Angelika

An ugly, amateurish film that champions mediocrity in a meta-attempt to justify its own ineptitude, Second Best is an unconvincing mélange of indie earnestness and middle-aged platitude peddling. Like Harvey Pekar without even the ironic hint of splendor, Bergen County sad sack Elliot (Joe Pantoliano) publishes a weekly newsletter diatribe on the perils of self-delusion, paying a high school dropout to post his writings under windshield wipers. Holding court over his woebegone acolytes in a decrepit restaurant, the chronically jealous, morbidly resentful wiseass dishes out world-weary sermons to the faithful, but won’t lash out at “the biggest loser of them all.” What sets Elliot apart from the cast of endearing malcontents in Alan Zweig’s documentary I, Curmudgeon is that he has respect for winners, and holds out hope for his own success (in the form of an autobiographical screenplay, natch). Could a fling with a slutty crossing guard (Jennifer Tilly) and a visit from a Hollywood producer pal (Boyd Gaines) pave the path to winner-dom? Like the film itself, Pantoliano’s whiny bravado quickly turns insufferable; both are downers lacking a purpose. AKIVA GOTTLIEB


Directed by Eléonore Faucher

New Yorker, opens May 27

A teen-pregnancy drama that features sewing as its central healing activity, Sequins isn’t as cloying as it initially promises to be. Sullen 17-year-old cashier Claire (Lola Naymark) is already two months gone when the film opens. Searching for a way to conceal her changing body, she offers her embroidery services to the mysterious Madame Melikian (Ariane Ascaride), a reclusive seamstress whose son recently died in an auto accident. The two loners don’t exactly hit it off at first, but they manage to form a tentative partnership based on professional respect and a kindred anti-sociability. Director Eléonore Faucher smartly downplays the bonding clichés by deploying a series of distancing effects. Claire’s crinkly red hair is a perpetual distraction in the way it’s variously combed, concealed, and in one scene, violently yanked. Michael Galasso’s undulating string score constantly beseeches our attention, if only through its blatant resemblance to Philip Glass. Sequins hinges on its performances and newcomer Naymark is a marvel of quiet intelligence, endowing Claire with a complex mix of virginal purity and hormonal rage. Her final scene with Madame Melikian is taut and succinct, nicely cutting off the story just before the rising emotions thicken into treacle. DAVID NG

Saving Face

Directed by Alice Wu

Sony Pictures Classics, opens May 27

The Wedding Banquet with chicks instead of dudes, Alice Wu’s Saving Face is an Asian American film less about racial assimilation than respect for sexual orientation. Twentysomething medical resident Wil (Michelle Krusiec) is crypto-queer, essentially celibate yet attracted to a glamorous vixen she glimpses at one of the Flushing Chinese banquet hall events she’s regularly dragged to. Vivian (Lynn Chen) is a ballerina taking a sabbatical to do modern dance because it is more expressive. Their secret affair goes from grope city to you-don’t-spend-enough-time-with-me in what seems like five minutes, an adumbration that dilutes the central love story of its drama. Meanwhile, Wil’s widowed mom (Joan Chen) is preggers, but won’t reveal the father, resulting in her ejection from her own parents’ house and her bunking with Wil. Chen is believable as the soap-opera-watching, nagging parent—and she still gets to vamp it up. Despite a fairly explicit lesbian boobfest (projected attendance just went up!), the film is more good-natured than provocative. The most perverse thing about Saving Face may be that it’s about a dancer whom we never see dance. ED PARK


Directed by Claude Berri

Rialto, May 27 through June 9, Film Forum

I was eight years old and already a Jew,” the hero of The Two of Us recalls. French director Claude Berri’s 1967 debut is a tender comedy based on his wartime experiences as a hidden Jewish child in occupied France. Alain Cohen plays a Parisian imp whose parents send him to the countryside with a new last name and instructions not to let anyone see his (circumcised) “little birdie.” It’s good advice: The retired worker who takes him in (Michel Simon) turns out to be both an animal lover and an anti-Semite. Yet they fall for each other, as only two outcasts can. Recent French films about the occupation have labored under the pieties of historical hindsight. Berri focuses instead on the surreal quality of daily life at a time when most people got by with varying degrees of moral ambiguity. Some may find Berri’s portrait of provincial France and its prejudices too loving, but it has the ring of a truth that escapes ideologies. It screens with his Le Poulet (1962), a short about a boy and his rooster sure to warm any vegetarian’s heart. LESLIE CAMHI