Given that the characters of Mike and Alfred have yet to gain international recognition, a brief introduction is perhaps in order. The creation of Markus Mischkowski and Kai Maria Steinkühler (who variably serve as writers and directors, and invariably as performers), the pair could be described as a German Jay and Silent Bob. They’re long-haired, jobless and spend most of their time hanging out at a local beer kiosk, although the lack of any immediate differences between the two perhaps puts them a little closer to Beavis and Butthead. Either way, they’ve made four appearances on the big screen to date courtesy of three shorts (Westend, Was Tun? and Wolga) and a feature which shares the title of the first short as well as a number of its ideas. This particular release, the latest from Edition Filmmuseum, collects all but Was Tun? and as such represents both the perfect point of entry for the newcomer and the near-definitive package for the fan; over the course of the disc we’re able to see Mike and Alfred develop as characters even as the style remains the same. Blown up from Super 16 to 35mm, the films have that grainy black and white look which characterised Kevin Smith’s Clerks, whilst the deadpan, minimalist sense of humour is pure Kaurismäki. There’s even a character named Kati, seemingly a blatant nod to the Finnish director’s favourite actress.
And much like Kaurismäki’s efforts, these are films which aren’t particularly straining in the plot department. The short form Westend takes in a brief, intentionally uneventful road trip and some wonderfully observed business with a filofax, whilst Wolga - the most recent of the Mike and Alfred ventures – sticks to a single location and must surely have less dialogue than an early Schwarzenegger performance. In-between we find the feature Westend, although even here events are hardly forthcoming. Admittedly, we do find the pair seeking employment as well as getting mixed up with some petty criminals, but this is essentially neither here nor there. As with Clerks it’s all about the trials and tribulations of being your standard twentysomething: everything revolves around jobs, drink, girls and little else. As with any buddy movie you care to mention, it’s also about whether their friendship can endure the cracks the following 80 or so minutes will lay in their wake.
In other words, it’s the situations which are important, not so much the storylines, and in this respect the Mike and Alfred films stand up as quintessentially indie productions. They’re character based, spend a great deal effort cataloguing the ennui of small town life (the title, incidentally, comes from a suburb just outside of Cologne) and are remarkably unassuming. Their rhythms come not from any great dramatic impetus, but from the drink breaks our leads continually appear to be taking. Furthermore, when Mischkowski and Steinkühler do decide to insert a ‘big scene’ as it were, it’s all done decidedly tongue-in-cheek and not once meant to be taken seriously.
Indeed, there’s a smallness to Westend and its companions meaning that it would be pushing things to say that they’re made up of vignettes, let alone scenes. Much like Kaurismäki (and early Jim Jarmusch for that matter) there’s a stripped down quality which focuses on telling us that which we need to know and then simply moving on. Wolga is the perfect example of this inasmuch as it’s predicated entirely on a few telling looks; as said, there’s hardly any dialogue here and, more to the point, there’s hardly any need for any. Certainly such an approach, which perhaps borders on the formally daring, does work better when confined to the length of 15 minutes, say, but that’s not to say it’s unappealing; an acquired taste of course, but then that’s no bad thing. Moreover, Mischkowski and Steinkühler never force the issue. In fact there’s nothing forced about their film per se, least of all the humour. In terms of a style, it doesn’t really aim for anything concrete – it’s sometimes dumb, sometimes absurdist and so on – rather it simply just is. We’re free to take it or leave it, to get it or not, and surely that’s as succinct a definition of a potential cult as you’re likely to find.
Whilst it may seem a mite odd to have Westend getting released by Edition Filmmuseum alongside such bone fide classics by Vertov and von Stroheim, they’ve nonetheless done an excellent job of getting the film onto disc. In presentation terms we really couldn’t hope for better, with the graininess of the blown up Super 16 image intact and the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of its theatrical showing maintained. Westend also comes anamorphically enhanced, taken from a spotless print and demonstrating superb contrast levels. Of course, the clarity isn’t always there, but then that’s to be expected as it was hardly going to be inherent in the original. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original mono present as DD2.0 and in similarly fine condition. The score by Haifaboys comes across especially well and the dialogue never once struggles for audibility. Indeed, all told we’re getting a presentation which looks to be offering the film as good as gets.
Furthermore, the special features content is similarly impressive. As well as the two shorts films (both of which would have made for a fine extras package in themselves), we also find a pair of interviews, the chance to listen to a number of songs from the soundtrack in their entirety, a brief photo gallery and even some DVD-ROM content. The major piece is the first interview which sees Mischkowski and Steinkühler taking turns to discuss Mike and Alfred’s developments and relate various anecdotes from the films’ respective productions. And though only 15 minutes in length, it proves to be a mine of information as we hear about the manner in which Westend has been interpreted by Spanish critics (it’s all about Catholicism, apparently) to the various rejection letters the pair received from potential financiers. The second interview is more technically minded given that it’s director of photography KaPe Schmidt who is doing the talking. At only five minutes, this piece is understandably the lesser of the two, but nevertheless Schmidt proves to be a succinct speaker and always gets straight to the point. Moreover, his technical input also adds an extra dimension not found in the other interview. The other additions are less essential than either the shorts or the interviews, but welcome nonetheless – as said, it’s a fine all round package. And as a final note it’s also worth pointing out that English subtitles are available on all special features where applicable.
Please note that the ratings in the sidebar have been apportioned as follows: the film rating refers to the feature-length version of ‘Westend’ only, whilst the two shorts (both of which earn eight out of ten ratings) have been taken into account as part of the extras package.
This disc is available direct via the Edition Filmmuseum website.