Film Review: Cathedrals of Culture

Omnibus documentary presents six landmarks of architecture in exceptional 3D cinematography. Essay approach ranges from breathtaking to perfunctory, with Wim Wenders' 'Berlin Philharmonic' and Michael Madsen's 'Halden Prison' the standouts.
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With Pina, director Wim Wenders brought 3D cinematography to new levels of sophistication while showcasing the work of choreographer Pina Bausch. Cathedrals of Culture takes a similar approach to a half-dozen examples of innovative architecture.

Wenders sets out a central conceit—buildings have souls that can express feelings— and gives five fellow directors the opportunity to prowl at will through their sites for roughly 20 minutes each. Their resulting footage plays out behind narrations that can be brusque, child-like or obscure.

All of the segments have a seductive technical sheen. Hidden viewpoints reveal spectacular panoramas, day contrasts with night to transform spaces, and gliding tracking shots taken with Steadicams and Technocranes pull viewers into an unexpected intimacy with the buildings.

To a comical degree, the segments adopt the characteristics of their host nations. Michael Glawogger's National Library of Russia is surly and antagonistic, unfolding in dark, curving corridors overflowing with books, pamphlets and index cards while a narrator angrily recites passages from Russian authors and the Bible.

Karim Aïnouz's Centre Pompidou simmers with existential angst, the museum worrying over its decaying looks and increasing irrelevance. Margreth Olin's Oslo Opera House is more about the people who use the building than the building itself, a striking performance hall on the city's waterfront. Robert Redford offers a dry, straightforward history of Louis Kahn's Salk Institute, a compound that inserted Brutalist forms into the La Jolla countryside.

Directed by Danish documentarian Michael Madsen, the stunning Halden Prison takes viewers from the walls surrounding the maximum-security facility in Norway into the cells and lives of its inhabitants. With prison psychologist Benedicte C. Westin as a guide, Madsen shows how architecture regulates space, from exercise yards to isolation cells. In a few terse, scalding images he shows the "why" behind Danish architectural firm EMA's choices. A phenomenal crane shot that starts in a trailer for conjugal visits is among the most audacious and satisfying in the entire movie.

The highlight of Cathedrals of Culture is Wenders' own Berlin Philharmonic, a fascinating blend of history, politics and art, as Wenders and cameraman Christian Rein take us around, above and finally into Hans Scharoun's remarkable concert hall. Wenders knows exactly when and how to move from the tessellated lobby floor to the conductor's inner sanctum, from Nazi degenerate art to the Berlin Wall, from a piano tuner to the astonishing central hall itself, built around a pattern of interlocking pentagons.

Berlin Philharmonic is as good an introduction to Scharoun's architecture as cinema can offer, and a surprisingly pleasurable experience in 3D. One complicated, beautiful tracking shot up an open lobby staircase in itself is worth the price of admission.

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