Film Review: ‘In the Dark Room’

In the Dark Room Review

Nadav Schirman's flattened-out portrait of Carlos the Jackal's wife proves more indirectly revelatory than immediately engrossing.

Paradoxically, by choosing as his subject the revolutionist wife of uber-terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Israeli documentarian Nadav Schirman emerges with a flattened-out portrait of a docile, unemancipated spouse heedlessly following her man. Magdalena Kopp, once an active member of an explosive 60s/70s German terrorist cell, here stares directly into the camera in the red light of a darkroom, looking back with regret and passivity, unable to comprehend her choices or, like those of an earlier German generation, to think, see or remember beyond her own guilt or innocence. This curious historical footnote proves more indirectly revelatory than immediately engrossing.

Kopp’s dry recitation reveals remarkably little about her youthful ideals or aspirations, beyond her alienation from her bourgeois innkeeper parents and a feeling that her Bavarian hometown was “too small” to fit her self-image. She does wax poetic about her first lover, Michel, who brought her to Berlin and was himself politically engaged. Even her supposed passion for photography, in the judgment of interviewed sister Gerda, reflected Michel’s vision of her rather than any inherent artistic calling. Indeed, though the darkroom setting provides helmer Schirman with a neat way to dramatize extant photographs, Kopp apparently limited herself to forging passport pictures.

But Kopp’s is not the only voice heard in Schirman’s film. Left-wing bookseller Gerd Schnepel and a surviving member of the revolutionary cell, turncoat Hans Joachim Klein, satisfactorily evoke the emotional context of the period so remarkably absent in Kopp’s self-involved account. Schnepel quietly laments his generation’s defeated fight against injustice and mourns his dead comrades, killed in the El Al hijacking that ended in Entebbe. Meanwhile, a disillusioned Klein, gesticulating wildly, waxes indignant about the group’s wrongheaded direction; he is horrified by the notion of Germans fingering Jews for extermination in the hijacking and labels Kopp’s published memoir of her years with Carlos a “fairy tale.” If Kopp maps out a perfect blueprint of repression and denial, Schnepel and Klein supply alternate glimpses into the passionate commitment of the radical German Left in the ’70s.

About two-thirds into the film, helmer Schirman switches focus, introducing a second protagonist, Rosa, daughter of Kopp and Carlos. Mother and child rhapsodize about their close relationship. Not entirely buying Magdalena’s version of her father, however, Rosa undertakes a pilgrimage. First she travels to Jericho to meet with PLO activist Bassam Abu Sharif, who regards the young Carlos as a committed freedom fighter. Then she disappears behind the closed door of a Paris prison to meet with Carlos himself, a man she hasn’t seen since she was 5. But with Rosa, as with Magdalena, questioning only brings confusion. In the absence of any broader political context beyond personal guilt or innocence, German history again remains a moral enigma.

Schirman’s use of various styles and cinematic formats to match archival footage and evoke the periods spanned by his subject might have been more effective if Kopp’s reminiscences of the various stages of her life were less uniformly gray.

Film Review: 'In the Dark Room'

Reviewed at New York Film Festival (Motion Portraits), Sept. 30, 2013. Running time: 87 MIN.


(Documentary — Germany-Israel-Finland-Romania-Italy) A Pandora Film production in association with July August Prods., First Floor Prods., FLS Filmproduktion, Hi Film Prod., Palomar, in co-production with ZDF/Arte, Yes Television, YLE Documentaries, with the participation of HBO Romania. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Karl Baumgartner, Stephen Limbach. Co-producers, Eilon Ratzkovsky, Yossi Uzrad, Guy Jacoel, Pauli Pentti, Ada Solomon, Carlo Degli Esposito.


Directed, written by Nadav Schirman. Camera (color, HD, 16mm), Tuomo Hutri; editor, Joelle Alexis; music, Lasse Enersen; production designer, Stephanie Brenner; visual effects/sound, Andre Zacher.


Magdalena Kopp, Rosa Kopp, Gerd Schnepel, Hans Joachim Klein, Gerda Gunther, Bassam Abu Sharif, Wilheim Dietl.

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