J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

KINO! ’14: Banklady

It is hard to blame Gisela Werler and her accomplices for their spree of bank hold-ups. In 1966, Hamburg was practically begging for it. None of the banks were alarmed and only three patrol cars were equipped with radios. They were easy pickings for Werler and Hermann Wittorff. Of course, since we know who they are their luck must have run out eventually. True crime gets groovy in Christian Alvart’s Banklady (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 KINO! Festival of German Films in New York.

Drab, mousy Werler yearns for a more exciting life, while laboring in a wallpaper factory behind a hulking piece of machinery that looks like it was designed to mangle up hands and feet. Uwe, the factory sad sack, tries to put the moves on her, but she wants someone better. She thinks she has found him when she meets Uwe’s outlaw friend, Wittorff. Initially, she knows him as “Peter,” but what’s in a name? After holding some loot for the pair, Werler is determined to replace her less than steely suitor as Wittorff’s main stick-up accomplice.

Her first job immediately launches the “Banklady” media feeding frenzy. Soon she is enjoying her new chic persona and the attention she always so craved. She is also rather taken with Wittorff. She wants them to be Bonnie and Clyde, but he wants things to be strictly business—more or less. Conflict slowly escalates as Hamburg’s only competent copper, junior police commissioner Fischer doggedly follows their trail.

Banklady’s stranger than fiction tale of crime and self-reinvention looks ripe for a Hollywood remake on paper, but it is hard to see a studio greenlighting a picture with two such earthy, down-to-earth leads (the closest you could conceivably pitch might be Tilda Swinton and Nathan Lane, but that does not really say boffo opening weekend). However, it is easy to understand why Werler would risk so much for such an unprepossessing rake.

In fact, there is something very compelling about her ill-fated empowerment through Jackie O bobs, pill box hats, mod pattern dresses, and guns. Alvart revels in the 1960s period details, even employing Thomas Crown Affair-ish split screens (which seem rather bafflingly underutilized, considering how effective they can be).

Still, Alvart (having survived Hollywood) never lets his style overwhelm the cast’s substance. Severely glammed-down TV star Nadeshda Brennicke puts on an acting showcase as the ferociously romantic-minded Werler. There is also something intriguingly Runyonesque about Charly Hübner’s Wittorff. Frankly, the rest of the cast is just swimming in their wake, but so be it.

Werler’s story is grabby in several respects and Alvart realizes its cinematic possibilities quite thoroughly. It seems like a perfect match for an art house distributor like Music Box Films, who seem to handle more German releases than any of their competitors. Regardless, it is an energetic but mostly serious period crime drama that just about any mainstream viewer will enjoy, except for those who happened to be Hamburg cops in 1960s. Recommended accordingly, Banklady screens this Friday (6/13), Saturday (6/14), and Monday (6/16) at the Quad Cinema, as part of this year’s KINO!

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