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Our review of The German lesson: the duty in question


Adapted from Siegfried Lenz’s bestseller, filmmaker Christian Schwochow signs a strong and poetic film which stages a child torn between the authority of a policeman father and his affection for a painter whom the Third Reich has forbidden to work .

The first sequence of The German Lesson works like a slap of cold water in the face. The shrill sound of a siren tears through the silence of a reformatory for young delinquents. Prisoners dressed in white are taken to an amphitheater to work on an essay: “The joys of duty”.

All are working. Only a boy raises his head, petrified. Not because he lacks inspiration but because he has too much to say, Siggi Jepsen remains frozen for a long time. The title of the dissertation woke up a deep trauma in him. Placed in solitary confinement after returning a blank copy, it is in a monk’s cell that the terrible memories that turned his life upside down will come to the surface.

In 1943, Siggi was 10 years old when his father, a police officer from the Rugbüll police station, got on his bike with him. Their tiny silhouettes stand out on the horizon on the German moorland which merges with the Elbe at the mouth of the North Sea. Wrapped up in a raincoat, the zealous brigadier braves the storm to deliver a letter to his childhood friend, the painter Max Nansen (tremendously played by Tobias Moretti). The child attends the scene. The Third Reich definitively forbids the exercise of painting to this artist whose art is described as “degenerate”. Torn between submission to paternal authority and his affection for a free artist (directly inspired by the expressionist painter and watercolourist Emil Nolde), the young Siggi lost himself in the depths of reflection and suffering.

SEE ALSO – The trailer for the film “The German Lesson”

Trailer: the German lesson – Watch on Figaro Live

Poetry, beauty and violence

After having erected Paula (2016) the portrait of Paula Modersohn-Becke, qualified as “Camille Claudel from beyond the Rhine”, Christian Schwochow adapts the German bestseller by Siegfried Lenz The German Lesson appeared in 1968, and became a classic of post-war European literature. It is undoubtedly his most ambitious film to date. The most pictorial too, so much the ultramarine tints, the controlled frame, and the sought-after plan compositions, prove that the seventh art can sometimes be confused with painting. We will particularly remember this incredible dreamlike image of a row of paintings lined up on the beach, the easels half sunk in the sea, between dog and wolf… and the flames licking the canvases according to the gusts of wind!

Bathed in poetry, beauty and violence, the film asserts itself first as a terrible family story. Literally torn between his father and his painter godfather, the young Siggi highlights the conflict between the sense of collective duty and our own individual responsibility. All bathed in a grandiose, implacable decor, which perfectly symbolizes open-air oppression. But beyond this visual breadth, The German Lesson is given as a vibrant indictment against blind obedience, as well as a deep meditation on the guilt of the German people indoctrinated by the Nazi regime. Art is highlighted as a symbol of resistance and freedom. It is also this lesson that we will remember…

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