Michael mann retrospective in berlin: playing with conventions

The U.S. director Michael Mann was a special case in Hollywood. The Arsenal cinema is now dedicating a retrospective to the auteur filmmaker.

Subtle reinvention of the gangster film: Michael Mann’s "Heat" Photo: Warner Brothers

A man walks purposefully through the hallways of a Los Angeles hospital and steals an ambulance. Another man buys a crate of explosives at a building materials store. Preparing to rob an armored car in broad daylight in Los Angeles. With less than three minutes to rob the van and get away before police arrive, the men have no time for filigree. A tow truck rams the armored truck, and an explosive charge opens the way to the cash.

The robberies that Neil McCauley pulls off with his small team are well-planned, lucrative and as bloodless as possible. But the robbery of the money transporter is the first in which a new man is involved. Promptly, just before the gang flees, the three guards from the van lie dead on the ground.

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Michael Mann’s "Heat" shows the hunt for McCauley and his accomplices. The behavior of the criminals and the investigator are mirror images: both proceed equally systematically, both have problems reconciling their activities with their private lives. In its precision, its subtle reinvention of the gangster film, "Heat" is a milestone of 1990s Hollywood cinema. On Friday, it opens a retrospective of Michael Mann’s films at Berlin’s Arsenal cinema.

Michael Mann is a special case in Hollywood, at the same time one of the most successful genre directors, especially in the field of gangster films, and at the same time with many similarities to an auteur filmmaker who writes, directs and produces his films.

Mann’s beginnings are already unusual: while most U.S. directors studied film in the U.S., Mann went to London to study film from 1965 to 1967 after studying English literature.

At that very time, the decline of the British film industry was driving experienced filmmakers to the London Film School to teach: "The worse the British film industry was, the better the film school was." This is how Mann recalls this period in retrospect.

In yet another respect, Mann’s decision seemed a good one. Instead of being groomed from the start for exploitability in the film industry, Mann later found that aspiring filmmakers should be free, as he was, to "make two-and-a-half-minute movies, full of symbolic statements about the nature of reality that embarrass you ten years later."

Television would enable Mann to make the transition to Hollywood, at least in the medium term. Back in the U.S., Mann began writing scripts for a slew of series, but directs only a single episode, "Police Woman," until the late 1970s, when he finally gets a chance to direct a feature-length film himself with the TV movie "The Jericho Mile."

Larry Murphy sits in prison for life for killing his violent father. There he tries to stay out of the rivalries among the prisoners and instead runs his laps in the yard. When the prison authorities notice how fast Murphy is running, they try to help him qualify for the Olympic Games. Mann shot his film in prison with numerous prisoners as extras.

The 1980s help Mann achieve his final breakthrough in both film and television work: in 1981, he makes the neo-noir Thief, in which he precisely shows the work of a jewel thief. In 1983 follows the mystical-horror war film "The Keep," in which an uncanny force murders the German crew of a Romanian fortress during World War II.

Beginning in 1984, Mann is executive producer of the television series "Miami Vice," and two years later he directs the first film adaptation of a novel based on the character Hannibal Lecter. "Manhunter" shows the work of an FBI profiler in the search for Lecter.

Mann’s films are not infrequently simultaneously characterized by a surface aesthetic and distinctly bleak, precisely researched with a complex story, and yet the films seem decidedly detached thanks to Mann’s screenwriting and staging.

Over the years, Mann’s films have made a huge impact among fellow directors. Mann’s "variations on conventions" (Steven Rybin) have made a decisive contribution to the fact that Hollywood’s genre cinema has been able to renew itself again and again over many decades.

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