It’s 1966, and the growing middle class of Hamburg, Germany, is dancing to rock ‘n roll music, buying new cars, jetting off to somewhere warm and wearing the latest fashions. But that’s not happening to Gisela Werler (Nadeshda Brennicke). The drab, 30-year-old is watching this new world pass her by as she toils away in a wallpaper factory. She’s still living at home with her aging parents and tending to their medical needs, which were probably souvenirs of World War II. She can only dream of looking as glamourous as her boss’ red-lipped secretary, who seems to have no trouble getting noticed by the men in the factory and probably everywhere else.
Her relationship with meek, taxi driver Uwe (Andreas Schmidt) is about as steamy as last night’s dishwater. He promises to buy her a washing machine after they get married but Gisela wants what every girl wants – fun. She wants to go to Capri. She wants the exciting life that she sees on the billboards and in the magazines.
Her dull life starts to change when she meets Uwe’s friend, Peter (Charly Hübner), who charms her off her feet. When she discovers that the two guys are two-bit bank robbers, she wants to join in. Peter is not convinced that Gisela is cut out for that kind of excitement but he decides to give her one chance anyway. As he says to her before her first heist, “If you go in there now, you’ll leave as another person.” Truer words have never been spoken because Gisela relishes her new life as well as the lifestyle that her ill-gotten wealth has brought her.
Overnight Gisela becomes a media sensation, being dubbed the “Banklady”. Until she came along, Germany had never had a female bank robber. Peter and Gisela committed 19 bank robberies in Germany over a two-year period and the rest, as they say, is history.
Brennicke came up with the idea to make a feature film about Germany’s darling bank robber after seeing a documentary about Gisela a few years ago. “I think the most interesting thing is that this story is absolutely true,” Brennicke said in a Q&A session after the film was screened last year in Chicago. A few facts (such as specific locations) were apparently altered in the film but the rest is as it was.
It is fun to watch Gisela robbing banks in her chic Jackie Kennedy-style outfits and wigs. She bathes in the notoriety that her alter ego is getting. For anyone who didn’t live in the 1960s, it’s hard to believe that banks didn’t have security alarms or that money was freely placed on the counter for anyone to snatch and run but that was the norm back then. There is a scene where a bank employee takes a photo of Peter using a Kodak Instamatic camera, which is laughable in today’s age of ubiquitous digital photography. Up to that point, the police had only relied on artists’ impressions of the two. How times have changed!
Some critics have taken director Christian Alvart (8 UHR 28 – 8:28, and also starring Brennicke) to task for not making BANKLADY into Germany’s response to Hollywood’s BONNIE AND CLYDE or even PULP FICTION. There are obvious similarities to these films – in the storyline with the former and in the directing style with the latter – but I would think that if Alvart had made an homage to either of these two films, he would have received even more criticism. These critics need to get over themselves. BANKLADY is a charming, enjoyable film, plain and simple. I don’t think it intended to be great art and that’s okay.
BANKLADY will be screened by the Goethe-Institut as part of their Kino/14 film festival. You can catch it this Sunday afternoon at 2 pm at the Grand Cinema at Elements and again on Saturday night, November 1st, at 7 pm also at the Grand. For more information, check out their website at http://www.goethe.de/hongkong.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 35:00.)