Surrounded by the verdant landscape of the German countryside, the backlit silhouette of a woman fills the screen. Between the repetitive interventions of a radio signal, panicked voices of our Zeitgeist score the image, preaching sermons about imminent catastrophes: Coronavirus, Jewish lobbies, fake news, Satanism, cannibalism. Then, curiously enough, a small grey taint appears in the background, gradually swelling into a black hole that winds up engulfing the whole frame. Echoing the image of Saturn devouring his own son, this scene masterfully captures how discourses evolve in our contemporary societies. As socially constructed entities, they conquer the minds of their creators and infest them with moral panic.
In Gianna Scholten’s Two Giants That Exist Here – A German Fairytale, this scene is only one of several fascinating instances where visual elements with metaphorical connotations serve as a means to build a strident critique of Germany’s relationship with some of today’s social and political realities at home and abroad. Awarded the Alice Guy Prize in FIDMarseille, the Swiss-born filmmaker centres her first short on two symptomatic issues that, according to her, characterise German society. First, the conspiratorial tendencies that mushroomed among people during the COVID-19 pandemic and led to a resurgence of the country’s ever-latent antisemitism. Second, the metaphysical aspect of German romanticism, which glorifies nature and aims to shape a national identity around legends, myths, and fairytales.
All through Two Giants, Scholten leaves a few intellectual breadcrumbs behind—hints and references that guide the audience, à la Hansel and Gretel, through the narrative. Names like Goethe, Hildegarde de Bingen, and Sophie Scholl pop up, while a soft piano rendition of Beethoven’s “An die Freude” accompanies the visuals. Crucial among these references is Bertolt Brecht, whom Scholten seems to invoke as she skillfully sneaks his alienation effect into the short via intertitles and abrupt cuts between scenes, chipping away at the more familiar and comforting aspects of fairytales. Echoing the passage in the Grimms’ fable where Hansel and Gretel pick mushrooms, and Granny watches them behind the bushes, the camera cuts to the inside of a mouth, triggering a visceral reaction that negates the bucolic and peaceful atmosphere established in the preceding shot.
Two Giants is also strongly aware of the alteration in modern viewers’ attention span. In an audiovisual landscape whose dominant formats have recently been adjusting to the aesthetic and pace of TikTok videos, Scholten challenges this shift with a style that puts forward rhythm, stimulation, and movement, which is not to peg ‘Two Giants’ as a work of agitprop. On the contrary, Scholten skillfully balances the short’s critical rhythm with more static shots, creating a solid visual base for her multilayered conceptual framework.
The fragmentary and unpredictable structure of the film demands an active state of consciousness from the audience, drawing us into the meaning-making process. Two Giants can often feel like a cerebral exercise, but it is not an alienating watch. Chaos is the primary catalyst of our times, and to see that dramatised through the film’s form and subject makes for a dizzying experience that leaves one at once sober and sharp.
At some point in the short, the radio sputters COVID conspiracies and an utterly misconstrued definition of freedom of speech while two champagne flutes sit on a window sill, the wine fizzing erratically against the glass. Once again, a metaphor; this time, depicting the contained chaos. It is nonetheless a familiar pandemonium for those familiar with the worlds of Jean-Luc Godard, Alexandre Kluge, or Radu Jude, whose audiovisual alphabet is built on the tensions and contradictions between sounds and images. By employing a similar alphabet, Scholten proves that she’s fully capable of understanding and speaking the language of political cinema; her Two Giants promises that she has many things to say still.
This text was developed during the European Workshop for Film Criticism #2—a tandem workshop set during Lago Film Fest and FeKK Ljubljana International Short Film Festival—and edited by tutor Leonardo Goi.
The European Workshop for Film Criticism is a collaboration of the European Network for Film Discourse (The END) and Talking Shorts, with the support of the Creative Europe MEDIA programme.