Condition: Berlin Film Review

Stately record of a papal visit and its elaborate preparations strikes quizzical, oblique notes.

Thomas Heise’s doc about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to an east German city focuses on the elaborate preparations for the event.


After spending three decades chronicling those on society's margins, veteran documentary-maker Thomas Heise now trains his sights on no less an eminence than Pope Benedict XVI in Condition (Die Lage), an austere but quietly droll record of the holy father's 2011 visit to an east German city. Though more concerned with the meticulous and very Teutonic preparations for Benedict's arrival in Erfurt than with the man himself, the ever-topical papal angle makes this a slightly more accessible affair than Heise's usual output. Festivals specializing in non-fiction will be keen to check it out, likewise TV channels receptive to edgy auteur essay-cinema.

The Berlinale premiere of the opaquely-titled Condition means that there are now two artistically-minded documentaries on Germany's Pope, both by acclaimed German film-makers, doing the festival rounds - Romuald Karmakar's The Flock of the Lord, a two-part study of tourists visiting Benedict's birthplace and mourners attending his predecessor's funeral, was unveiled at Venice last September. But Heise's followup to last year's Argentina-set Solar Systemwould also make an ideal double-bill companion for a rather older cinematic antecedent - Lance Comfort's 1945 British comedy-drama Great Day, in which the imminent arrival of Eleanor Roosevelt throws an English village into a frenzy of anticipation.

In Great Day, the First Lady herself is only fleetingly glimpsed - and for much of Condition it seems that Heise is going to pull a similar trick, coyly withholding any image of the Pope himself until 55 minutes into this 73-minute film. Instead his main focus is on the elaborate preparations which go into organizing the visit - and which are likely to be repeated all over the world whenever any major VIP makes a personal appearance. Of course, the fabled German traits of efficiency and attention to detail ensure that the trip to Erfurt - slap-bang in the middle of the country, and a city closely associated with that great enemy of Catholicism, Martin Luther - is executed with truly military precision.

While narration - along with explanatory captioning - is largely avoided, one exception is made when Heise relates, via Volker Spengler's robotic voiceover, the specific timetable for the Pope's arrival at the local airport while the camera minutely examines a schematic map of the area. "15 bishops to remain at hangar," the voice intones - typical of Heise's emphasis on the slightly surreal, absurd elements of activities which are usually kept well away from public view.

Heise evidently enjoys something akin to an 'access all areas' latitude here, breezing through what must be layers of security - or, as some would cynically call it, 'security theater.' At only one point - "don't record this!" snaps a harassed member of the welcoming-committee - is any attention paid to the presence of his camera(s) or any limitation placed on his work. Reportedly commissioned by the state of Thuringia, Condition is therefore a particularly unusual form of official record, ambitious in its scope and uncompromising in its stark aesthetic.

Quizzical detachment is the order of the day, the somber tone set by a prologue featuring an extract from an 18th-century religious poem and low notes from jazz-trombonist Conny Bauer. Cinematography by Peter Badel, Robert Nickolaus, Maxim Wolfram is executed in chilly, slightly boxy monochrome digital, de-colorizing all red carpets and rendering the papal yellow just another off-white shade.

The effect is often striking, as when his Holiness - looking fatigued under his heavy mitre - is filmed by long-lens through a mild heat-haze, listening drowsily to sermon barked out in the most stentorian of German accents. Is Heise emphasizing Benedict's humanity, or pointing out the unfairness of exposing an octogenarian to such a schedule? It's one of the intriguing aspects of Condition that religious viewers will experience the film in one way, atheists and agnostics very differently - from the depiction of Benedict, to the significance of “grace notes” like the stately take-off of bulky helicopters, or a child's impromptu hopscotch as she walks down a city street.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 13, 2012.Production company:
Director / Screenwriter: Thomas Heise
Producer: Heino Deckert
Directors of photography: Peter Badel, Robert Nickolaus, Maxim Wolfram
Editor: Mike Gürgen
Music: Konrad Bauer
Sales Agent: Deckert Distribution, Leipzig, Germany
No rating, 73 minutes.