DVDs for the new dark ages

Two gems cast a welcome light across cinema's bleak landscape

Technology marches on, but even the best home theater system still can't quite simulate the experience of taking in a movie up on the big screen. That said, we have to take our pleasures where we find them these days.

Times are tough out there, with venues specializing in nonmainstream cinema closing up shop all over the country. Of the few remaining "arthouse" theaters, most manage to survive by making ever more conservative programming choices, often paying the rent by allowing lucrative crossover hits a la The English Patient to play forever. All of which leads us to where we are today, a parched cinematic landscape with big, wannabe blockbusters everywhere but not a drop to drink.

For those of us with a thirst for something less common — by which we're basically talking about anything that isn't Snakes on a Plane or Van Wilder — the DVD phenomenon has become not just a godsend but an absolute necessity, a basic staple of life. Sure, we no longer have theaters like Madstone or Sunrise to provide local screenings of that obscure little foreign gem that maybe only played a week in New York and then promptly disappeared. But the odds are that the film in question hasn't been lost to us forever, since we can now assume with some degree of accuracy that it will show up, eventually, on DVD.

So relax. In times of need, we can now simply retreat to the comfort of our caves, pop in a shiny little disc of something fantastic, and forget about culture crumbling just outside our door.

With that cheery thought in mind, let's proceed directly to Tickets, a remarkable little film from last year that wasn't even granted the dignity of a theatrical release in this country. Tickets, which can finally be seen here thanks to a first-rate DVD edition, is an international coproduction in the fullest sense, a collaboration between three of the most brilliant directors working today: Italy's Ermanno Olmi (Tree of Wooden Clogs), Iran's Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, The Wind will Carry Us) and England's Ken Loach (whose Wind That Shakes the Barley just snagged the Palm d'Or at Cannes).

Taking its cue from that old childhood game where each player completes the sentence of the person before him, the three chapters that comprise Tickets were written in sequence, with each director creating a segment that adds and reacts to what precedes it. Characters appear and then reappear during the film's three individual narratives — all taking place on a train making its way across Europe — and even without the benefit of some grand, unifying theme (other than the obvious metaphor of the train as a microcosm in motion), this charming little omnibus feels as cohesive as it is graceful.

Olmi opens the film with a bittersweet sketch of an aging professor lost in idle, romantic reveries, even as a mini-class war brews just outside the doors of his first-class compartment. This segues neatly into Kairostami's playful tale of an abrasive old widow who drives her young traveling companion into the bowels of the train, where he has a brief encounter with a teenaged girl from his hometown.

Loach brings it all home with an incisive account of three rowdy Scots whose act of spontaneous kindness toward some fellow travelers (a poor Albanian family introduced in the first segment) leads to suspicion, betrayal and, Loach being Loach, some profound personal revelations.

The Tickets project was initiated by Kiarostami, whose gentle, observational approach (a sharper contrast you won't find to the hateful spewing associated with his homeland) has everything in common with the work of Loach and Olmi. The filmmakers' individual styles are clearly discernable, but ego is subservient to art here, and all three of these stories-within-stories deliberately blur into a satisfying whole, blending small moments of pleasure and pain into a richly poetic slice of life.

The ride ends at the Rome station, but the beauty of Tickets is that its characters become so fully human to us that we sense their journey continuing well past the moment the train arrives at its destination, even beyond the film's final credits.

Facets' DVD presents Tickets in a lovely widescreen transfer, complete with an outstanding 55-minute documentary that walks us through the project from conceptualization to final editing. Even more fascinating (and daunting) is that none of these three great filmmakers speaks the others' languages, so watching Olmi (jovial and touchy-feely), Kairostami (a sphinx in shades) and Loach (a brittle Brit with a mug out of Wallace and Gromit) collaborate through workshops, rehearsals and planning sessions ultimately becomes a sort of master class in the fine art of communication.

An even more extreme case of a movie we'd likely never have seen were it not for DVD is the legendary East German production Born in '45 (Jahrgang '45). Completed in 1966 but promptly banned for its supposedly unflattering view of life in the former GDR, Born in '45 received only one public screening in the past 40 years, a fact that makes its considerable reputation and influence all the more noteworthy. The film is finally available for the world to see, thanks to the recently released DVD produced by First Run Features, a company to be applauded for shedding light on the long-forgotten but often spectacular projects of DEFA, the GDR's state-run film company.

The only feature film directed by Jurgen Bottcher (know primarily as a painter, under the pseudonym "Strawalde"), Born in '45 introduces us to bored twentysomethings Alfred and Lisa (Rolf Romer and Monika Hildebrand), married only a few months but already contemplating divorce. Influenced by both the documentary-esque leanings of Italian Neo-Realism and the subversive quirks of the French New Wave (chiefly its playful approach to continuity and frequent spontaneous musings from young, self-possessed characters), Born in '45 is composed largely of long takes where nothing much seems to happen and yet everything does.

Turning his back on both melodrama and the resolutely positive role models of Social Realism, Bottcher gives us a rigorously unsentimentalized view of real people with real problems, setting his film in the actual places where life plays out. Filmed completely outside of the artificially controlled environment of a movie studio, Born in '45 takes place in the public spaces and the cramped, claustrophobic apartments of dreary, mid-'60s East Berlin, showing us characters wandering through a series of construction sites, public parks, markets and subways.

A study in contrasts, the film is visually lyrical, sexually frank and often very funny, but the world the characters inhabit is a pretty oppressive one, where conversation is mostly mundane muttering about dead-end jobs and frustrated romance, and people chew with their mouths open. By 21st-century standards, Born in '45 isn't exactly controversial stuff, but it's easy to see how it flipped out Communist censors in 1966.

First Run's DVD not only gives us a crisp, meticulously restored transfer of this four-decade-old film (looking smoothly appealing, with just a hint of film grain), but it also places Born in '45 in its proper historical and cultural context through an extensive series of well-chosen extras. The issue of censorship is thoroughly addressed in both the 36-minute documentary Forbidden Films in Retrospect, offering an overview of banned DEFA films, and in a 10-minute interview with Born in '45 cinematographer Roland Graf, who also speaks to the film's influences.

Rounding out the package is a text essay by film historian Rolf Richter, who offers some very personal reflections on Bottcher, and three mid-'70s newsreels focusing on the densely populated Berlin neighborhood where Born in '45 was shot. It all makes for a fascinating time capsule and a terrific showcase for yet another film that almost got away.

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