Reviews

The Second Track

This is something of a late East German addition to film noir: a downbeat tale of moral corruption and heartbreak across an entire society.


The Second Track

Director: Joachim Kunert
Cast: Albert Hetterle, Annekathrin Bürger, Horst Jonischkan
Distributor: First Run
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1962
US DVD Release Date: 2008-03-25

One night at the railroad yards, an inspector named Block (Albert Hetterle) flashes his light across two employees in the act of stealing goods from a boxcar. They flee. Block gets a good look at the older man but, when everyone in the yard is gathered for a line-up, they exchange a glance of semi-recognition and Block fails to finger him.

They mutually cover each other's secrets, which have to do with World War II. Block finds himself unable to face his past or risk telling the truth to his daughter Vera (Annekathrin Bürger), but she begins her own investigation into the truth of her background. She has meanwhile become romantically attached to the second thief (Horst Jonischkan). He's lying to her about himself but, like her, he belongs to the younger generation who doesn't quite know the truth that shapes the middle-aged men around him, and the two of them may pay for the older generation's guilt. Thus, one broken generation breeds mistrust and deception in the next.

This is something of a late East German addition to film noir: a downbeat tale of moral corruption and heartbreak across an entire society. There are good people, but they suffer. The final shots, which feature characters separated by the omnipresent railroad tracks and moving ambiguously in directions that might or might not unite, deliberately evokes the ending of The Third Man, which is also about the legacy of WWII.

Joachim Kunert directed this film and co-wrote it with Günter Kunert. It's shot by Rolf Sohre in a style of "New Wave" black-and-white self-consciousness marked by almost uncomfortable sharpness (except when a moment of focus-shifting is necessary), an eye for reflections and imprisoning compositions, and bits of hand-held freedom that suggest disorientation by looking upward to characters at an extreme angle or even tilting upside down. This is surely one of the few films scored for harp (another nod to The Third Man with its zither?), though this is played with modernist colors that don't sound harpish.

What's remarkable about this East German film isn't that it's well made or even that it's downbeat, but that it seems to have escaped official censure. To be sure, the DEFA state film studio (known as UFA before the end of WWII) was encouraged to make anti-Nazi films and did so, especially just after the war, and these display the same expressionist flourishes that had been perfected at UFA in the days of Fritz Lang. Examples are Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us and Rotation. You can also see Peter Lorre's salute to this in his finely Langian Der Verlorene (1951), made in West Germany, and which explores a situation similar to The Second Track of guilty recognition leading to flashbackery.

But the potential problem with this film, from the state's point of view, is that it implies this supposedly closed chapter of history is still haunting and infecting the modern, progressive workers' state, and also that the whole paranoid-power vibe common to this genre lends itself all too easily to contemporary political interpretations without admitting it. This is the guilty secret of why so many anti-Nazi films were made behind the Iron Curtain.

The subject of fighting fascism was worthy of official approval, and it gave filmmakers a covert freedom. Other East German films about WWII made during the '60s are the great I Was Nineteen, The Gleiwitz Caseand Naked Among Wolves, which all recount true stories with astonishing intelligence and clarity, while the motif of WWII film as secret contemporary critique becomes especially apparent, for example, in Czech films like the magnificent The Fifth Horseman Is Fear. According to the DEFA Film Library website at University of Massachusetts Amherst, The Second Track is "the only East German film which explores the theme of former Nazis leading normal lives in the GDR. This sensitive subject matter was one reason why the film was rarely shown in theaters."

Still, this movie seems to have escaped the troubles that greeted other downbeat films of this time in East Germany, and which indeed led to the banning of almost an entire season of films in 1965-66. These have been called the Rabbit films because one of their number is Kurt Maetzig's The Rabbit Is Me, now also available on DVD.

That movie centers on a teenage woman whose college plans are derailed when her brother is convicted of unspecified subversion. She gains insight into the justice system when she has an affair with the married judge who sentenced her brother. Aside from this problematic subject and the dour sense of an independent woman being hemmed in by society, the style is brisk and modern, with actions and sentences beginning in one location and finishing in another. These were all seen as good reasons for the Communist Party to ban it; they were sensitive to anything critical, anything modern, anything "foreign". The politics behind the decision and some of the other banned films are discussed in the extras on that disc.

Meanwhile, Kunert's film fell into obscurity until recently, having been overshadowed by the great commercial and critical success of his WWII epic, The Adventures of Werner Holt (1965), which also escaped trouble except that it had to be re-edited out of chronological order to avoid too much sympathy for the antagonist. So reports Sohre, who also shot that film, in an interview provided as an extra. The package says there are also unsubtitled newsreels about the film but I didn't find any.

6

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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