Sunday, 21 September 2008

Steffen Schäffler "The Periwig-Maker"

Sunday Classic
Steffen Schäffler

"London, 5th September, 1665. I can hear the the death bells tolling night and day. The plague rages dreadfully and the weekly bill of mortality must be higher than ever.” The Animation Blog feature animations I enjoy, it’s my prerogative. Therefore I have resisted reviewing The Periwig-Maker, directed by Steffen Schäffler sombrely narrated by Kenneth Branagh. The movie is undoubtedly a triumph of puppet-based animation though I found the film distressing on first viewing; there's always been something else to write on. The Periwig-Maker has received a host of accolades, notably being nominated for an Academy Award, Best Short Film, in 2000. Together with co-writer, sister and producer Annette Schäffler, Steffan took six years to make the movie at his Berlin studio. Based on The Plague Years by Daniel Defoe, a work I studied long ago for my degree, Steffen has made a remarkable film. It is a grim saga however. The wig maker is in a stage of siege in his home as all around the plague rampages through the city of London. As he muses on the latest solution for freshening up the air in his room he sees a body being lowered from the upstairs window opposite. A red headed girl stands watching as her mother’s corpse is summarily dropped into a cart. As an afterthought the men grab her and board her inside the now empty house. The girl manages to escape her prison, elude her guard and plays with a rag doll in front of the wig maker’s window. He notices her just as she is grabbed and imprisoned her again. From being a chronicler and remote observer, the wig maker becomes involved. The melancholic nature of the film is made the more grotesque given the historical context. In 1665 a law decreed that entire households containing an infection would be locked and sealed. From the opening, haunting images of the Thames and gravediggers at work, the brooding darkness of the set, lit only by candlelight and lantern, is something of rare quality in any film. Phil Dale who, as well as doing the animating here also worked on one of my favourite longer movies, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, gave a terrific interview for the forum at in which he revealed that the "puppets were very simple. They had ball and socket armatures and hollowed fibreglass heads". Only the 12 inches tall wig maker was given extra detail with "a tiny amount of eyebrow movement and that was it, yet, people say he is so expressive". The set that took the Schäffler family an age to construct "was about to 8 meters long by about 2 to 3 meters wide". The interview with Phil was also revealing in its interpretation of the central character. At first I viewed him as a somewhat repellent figure, fiddling whilst Rome burns so to speak. Of course, as he becomes caught up in the tragedy of the girl left to die he undergoes a transformation. The emotional force of his dilemma is not achieved by facial movement; he is actually very still as events unfold, though the camera centres on his face. Phil's view is the intensity of emotion is due to "the narration feeding and informing the visuals, telling you what is going on inside his head". (Another link with Corpse Bride was that fellow Cheshire based Mackinnon and Saunders employee Carlos Grangel designed the characters in both films.) Despite my initial reluctance to review the movie I stand corrected. This is a deeply moving film. As the wig maker lies in his bed having contracted the plague he wrote about with such dispassionate objectivity he utters the final words of the film. They are worth noting for they act as summary: "Remove the animosities among us and bring us to see with different eyes than those with which we looked on things before."

Biography: Annette and Steffen Schäffler commenced their film-making in 1993. They have produced six live-action shorts, one animated short and one 60 minute documentary. Usually Annette acts as producer, Steffen director, but both of them are author and editor. In 1994 they founded their own production company Ideal Standard Film in Berlin.They are pretty low profile for I am unable to discover an adult photograph of the pair, their website confining the visuals to minuscule images of them as children.

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