Judge William Lee wants to ride his bicycle. He wants to ride it where he likes.
"What have I learned in 21 years?"
In 1988, director Cynthia Beatt and actress Tilda Swinton (I Am Love) made a short documentary for German television called Cycling the Frame. Swinton rode her bicycle around the Berlin Wall, turning clockwise from the approach to the Brandenburg Gate (then sealed behind the wall in East Berlin), with a small film crew in tow. Twenty-one years later, they retraced their path for an encore ride around Berlin and the resulting work, The Invisible Frame is both more and less than I expected. It's a fascinating view of a place with deep historical scars, but the film moves too leisurely at times.
In the earlier short film, Swinton rode through industrial sectors, past farmhouses, along meadows, over paved streets and dirt roads, and even caught the occasional ferry. The film was a meditation on the immensity of the wall and its impact on the people and the landscape. Railroads were severed and streets simply ended where the wall abruptly fractured the connections between neighbors. Swinton paused to peer at the "death zone" between East and West Berlin, watched over by guard towers. Later, she stopped for a picnic and investigated the marine life in the shallow waters. All the while, she mused on how the wall affects the inhabitants of the city. Significantly, she observed, West Berliners avoid talking about the wall. (Cycling the Frame is included as an extra on this DVD, but I'll write more on it later.)
Beatt and Swinton reunited in 2009 to make The Invisible Frame, restaging their cycling tour around the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Retracing their path and approximating many of Swinton's actions from the earlier film, it is fascinating to watch this update to the short film and note how things have or haven't changed. The opening shot of the approach to the Brandenburg Gate is a shocker as now Swinton practically rides right up to the monument crowded with tourists. The film is filled with quiet observation and it is striking to see how life has returned to some areas that were once divided. Yet, the scars of the Berlin Wall are still there in the form of cobblestones that take the path of the former concrete line or ruins that stand as memorials. Swinton can look both wise and inquisitive simultaneously and that duality serves her well as the guide on this cycling tour. She looks right at home on this journey yet around every bend she delights in the little surprises along the way. At a pond, she can still find tadpoles that swim away when she disturbs the water. At a beach, a memorable landmark is no longer found. Crossing to the eastern side, she wonders what it was like to stare westward from a guard tower.
While this project by Beatt and Swinton is admirable and the concept sounds quite interesting, even with a relatively short running time of one hour I eventually grew a little impatient with it. Perhaps locals would recognize the landmarks but I had trouble getting a sense of the geography of the city. I barely knew where along the former wall Swinton was at any given time. Not understanding how far she had progressed, the journey felt long and sometimes seemed to drift off course.
The film's message is oblique so it isn't easy to discern the filmmakers' intentions. No simple answers or trite conclusions are presented but the film does ponder life on either side of the wall both pre- and post-reunification of Berlin. "They're building another wall somewhere," our guide says in reference to Palestine. Surely, there's a lesson to be learned from the history of this wall.
The DVD from Icarus Films is only a serviceable presentation of the two films. The main feature was shot on digital video so it looks very clean. Colors are slightly dull but a few sunny scenes are rendered with a pleasing level of color saturation. It's not too distracting but video compression problems are noticeable. Areas that should be a solid color have a tendency to shimmer and the level of detail in some background scenery isn't fully realized in this standard definition treatment. However, the camerawork is impeccable (in both films) with interesting compositions in almost every shot whether we're riding alongside Swinton as she cycles or in a static shot that frames elements perfectly. The picture is mastered in 1.78:1 anamorphic but the actual screen image fits a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, leaving black bars on both sides of the screen on a 16:9 monitor.
The stereo audio on The Invisible Frame is likewise merely adequate. The soundtrack is a nice mix of music and location-recorded sounds from along the route. However, Swinton's dialogue can be difficult to hear clearly. I had the impression that her voice-over dialogue gradually grew softer as the movie progressed but that could have been a trick of the ears. Swinton speaks with a few locals in German and her poetical musings are spoken in English in a voice-over recording. Fixed English or German subtitles provide translations whenever the other language is spoken.
The short film Cycling the Frame, running 28 minutes, is included on the disc too. Originally shot for TV, the picture is presented in 1.33:1 full frame. The image has deteriorated so colors can look pinkish at times and there are occasional instances of dirt and pops dancing across the picture. Stereo audio is just fine though the sounds at the locations are more complex and more prominent in the mix compared to the newer film. English dialogue is translated by fixed German subtitles.
Other extras on the disc include Cynthia Beatt's bio and an introductory statement by the director. These are both presented as several text screens. A still photo gallery with shots from both productions is also included.
I watched the earlier short film before watching the featured documentary and I think that's the best way to experience this project. The pair of films is a terrific record of the city at two periods in time. Being able to directly compare them, the change is really interesting. The filmmaker's method is a bit too introspective, however, and long passages without dialogue did cause my attention to drift during both films. It's an unconventional pair of documentaries that will appeal to a select audience.
The pair of movies receives a suspended sentence.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
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