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The Parallel Road (Die Parallelstraße)
1961 | Germany | 86m | Beta Sp with PowerPoint subtitles | color | sound
One of the most mysterious and unjustly forgotten pioneer films of the New German Cinema. It was produced by GBF, a production company that made innovative industrial and promotional films and received awards in international film festivals. French critic Robert Benayoun called it “a philosophical thriller, a western of meditation which compensates for a whole year of inevitable manifestations of stupidity,” and Jacques Rivette named it one of the most important films of 1968.
“Few would ever get the chance to see The Parallel Road. It premiered at San Sebastian in 1962, screened at Cannes in 1964, and opened in Germany two years later in just one city, without the support of a distributor, where it was met with near-unanimous hostility from the intellectually inclined and hacks alike. After that, it vanished.
It begins almost at the end of its story. The number 188 appears on screen, followed by a sound collage over black and finally by a black-and-white overhead shot of a sparsely furnished room, with five people (referred to as Participants) lined up at the bottom of the frame. A character known as the Minutetaker sits to the left of them. The Minutetaker informs the Participants that the second night’s final “Document” screening is over and that they are dismissed for the day, but must come back for the third and final session. Switching to color, end credits begin to roll.
Then, during a parenthetical sequence consisting of freeze-frames and leader, the Minutetaker, in voiceover, says: “The next 90 minutes will be the last for five people. Their lives will end because they don’t fulfill their task. Just like all those who have sat here before them. I’ve lost count of how many. Every third night there’s a new group. I just know they all fail. I worry about them as I take minutes and observe them. I observe the way they deliberate without ever reaching a conclusion. I wonder what makes them so blind. Their task is to assess and order the Documents of a Person in Question. These Documents are simply mirrors of their own existence. Why don’t they recognize themselves? They are in an absurd situation . . . But something helps me stay with them until the final bell rings. They reflect, as if reflection were more important than the goal that they hope to achieve. I think they would continue to reflect and speak to each other even if they knew for sure they would never reach a conclusion.” After about five minutes of this you realize that it’ll be impossible to make sense of anything that happens in The Parallel Road.
Over the course of the film’s 83 minutes, 16 Documents are presented and discussed. The Documents are short films assembled from material Khittl and his cameraman Ronald Martini shot on two around-the-world trips taken in 1959-60. Most of them feature voiceover commentaries that are referred to as “Notes” by the Minutetaker (the audio-only #188 is the only Note without any visuals). These Notes are dazzling, outré, eccentric prose poems that, without imitating or parodying any particular style or writer, somehow sound super-modern—the white noise of an era. While dismissing the film, the great critic Helmut Färber found echoes of Ionesco, Kafka, Sartre, and Camus in the film’s basic setup, but it’d be more precise to cite the German postwar literary movement Group 47 because The Parallel Road sounds as if their collected works have been put in a blender and then cobbled together with only vaguely coherent results. Put another way, the Notes suggest someone trying to make sense of the ultra-accelerated social progress of the German economic miracle while mentally still inhabiting its bombed-out ruins.
Take this particularly opaque passage from one Note, which accompanies a brief, innocuous scene of three Brazilians riding on horseback toward the camera: “Plunderers. Where’s the fourth? / Pathetic horse-traders. / All four of them. / Or what comics. / All four of them. / Or obnoxious comedians. / All four of them.” To German speakers there is a ridiculous gap between what is seen on screen and what is uttered by the Minutetaker with his self-important cadence. The English subtitles lack abruptness and strain for a flow and coherence that the German original refuses outright. Mention should also be made of Friedrich Joloff’s standout performance as the Minutetaker: his matter-of-fact Fifties-style official delivery of these lines (subtly tongue in cheek) is a true feat.
Bleak as The Parallel Road might initially sound, it is elating and exhilarating. What you walk away with is not so much the existential conundrum as the freewheeling humor of the Notes, the glowing colors of the Documents, the liveliness of the Participants’ discussions, and the overall high-spirited go-for-broke attitude. The Parallel Road is a sui generis work that in its day functioned as an unintentional critique of such travelogue chestnuts as Hans Domnick’s 1958 Dream Road of the World and its 1962 sequel—and today looks like a poignant anticipation of globalization.”—Olaf Möller, Film Comment