Festival of German Films 2010

The Festival of German Films 2010 is now open in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, with Brisbane and Adelaide to come. It’s the 9th year of the festival and this year there are 33 films to be screened.  I spoke briefly to festival director, Klaus Krischok from the Goethe Institute, about his criteria for selecting films for the festival. This year for the first time, there are different streams. ‘Culinary Comedies’ is headlined by Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen, a light departure from his usually more serious fare (such as The Edge of Heaven and Head On).  Akin fans also have the chance to see earlier films: Crossing the Bridge – The Sound of Istanbul, a music documentary from 2005, and Short Sharp Shock, an inter-cultural drama from 1998.

Another stream is ‘Berlin Based’, films focusing on Berlin. I’ve seen the first episode of The Wolves of Berlin, reviewed below, and hope to see the remaining two episodes during the festival. In answer to my question about his criteria for the ‘German Currents’ films, Klaus said that history and politics are strong themes that he feels that make German cinema distinctive. His three top recommendations for the festival are: When We Leave, Soul Kitchen and My Words, My Lies – My Love.
Of the following films that I’ve previewed, my pick are the multi-award winning The White Ribbon as ‘must-see’, and Whisky with Vodka, Vision, Storm and The Wolves of Berlin as ‘worth-seeing’. I’m also looking foward to the three Fatih Akin films.

  • Die Tür (The Door, Anno Saul, Germany, 2009)
  • Die Standesbeamtin (Will You Marry Us?, Micha Lewinsky, Switzerland, 2009)
  • John Rabe (Florian Gallenberger, France/China/Germany, 2009)
  • Schwerkraft (Gravity, Maximilian Erlenwein, Germany, 2009)
  • Whisky mit Wodka (Whisky with Vodka, Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2009)
  • Die Wölfe: Nichts kann uns trennen (The Wolves of Berlin: Part One – Nothing Can Part Us, Friedemann Fromm, Germany, 2009)
  • Sturm (Storm, Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany/Denmark/Netherlands, 2009)
  • Vision – Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen (Vision, Margarethe von Trotta, Germany/France, 2009)
  • Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Austria, 2009)

The Door
An artist loses his young daughter and gets another chance at making things right when he finds a doorway that takes him to another place. I suppose this paranormal thriller has parallels with films like The Terminator or Donnie Darko (without the sci-fi or special effects), with ideas that could have been used more effectively than they are here. On a micro-level, the acting is generally proficient, and the film looks nice enough. The problem is in the difficulty that a discerning audience will have in suspending disbelief at certain key moments, and it’s the writing that is the weak point. Ultimately, the film should be entertaining for a mainstream audience but disappointing for cinephiles.  It’s pretty much like a long episode of The Twilight Zone (which I’m a fan of).

Will You Marry Us?
A civil celebrant is having marital problems and is asked by an old love interest to perform his marriage ceremony. This Swiss film is more romantic than comedy, though the film’s premise and English title certainly suggests romantic comedy. The nature of markets, I suppose, means that distributors or film programming requires that genre labels be applied. All the contrived devices and predictable trajectory of the rom-com are employed. Yet the film remains a touch above the Hollywood standard by slightly understating the narrative and keeping the humour to a minimum. The visuals are lovely and there’s a deliberate production theme using yellow primarily and the occasional use of the other primary colours. Anyone who enjoys romantic comedies shouldn’t be disappointed with this.

John Rabe
This is a big studio film, a kind of cross between two Steven Spielberg films – Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List. It certainly looks good, depicting John Rabe, a German industrialist living in Nangking when it was invaded by the Japanese in 1937. He is credited with the saving of some 200,000 Chinese lives through his part in creating a safe zone. The ‘Rape of Nangking’ is a contentious issue between China and Japan. Japan has yet to fully acknowledge the extent of its wartime atrocities which include pillage, rape and mass murder – some 300,000 are estimated to have been killed in 6 weeks.

The film certainly works well cinematically if you’re looking for a Spielberg-like war film. The more brutal aspects are largely sanitised for the big screen, though we do see glimpses of beheadings and mass executions, but very little is hinted at about the extent of rape.

I’ve never been particularly cognisant of this chapter in history, and it seems that Rabe has been an under-appreciated hero, despite his Nazi-party affiliations. Mind you, he hadn’t lived in Germany for some thirty years prior and after his return to his homeland, he was silenced by the Nazis, had his diaries confiscated, and died a pauper in 1950. However, he remains a well-known hero in China.

The film benefits from an international cast, many of whom I recognised in films from their respective countries. Much of the dialogue is in English. I’m in no position to judge the film’s historical accuracy, but it succeeded in prompting me to do some cursory research on its content. John Rabe‘s wins include best film and best actor at the German Film Awards last year.

Gravity
This is a strange film, strange as in I can’t quite work out what the director is trying to achieve. A sociopathic bank loans officer experiences an existential crisis after a customer blows out his brains during a meeting to call in his loan, and takes to part-time crime with a former associate, while simultaneously trying to reignite an old relationship with a woman who he’s been stalking.

The film looks nice enough, the acting is certainly adequate, but the story is just weird. It plays out mostly as drama and thriller but it doesn’t quite cut it as either genre because there’s a strong level of unreality (largely due to massive implausibilities), and one senses there’s an attempt at black comedy, perhaps styled on the Coen brothers. The film is clearly aimed at a young, hip audience, evidenced by the music choices and other visual elements but there’s still something not quite right. Comedy works best when it’s based on fundamental reality but this film seems to ignore human psychology with characters, reactions and scenarios not feeling quite real.

The film makes some social commentary in passing, like equating business with crime, but is never – to it’s credit – didactic. I think to enjoy it, one has to really suspend disbelief to a degree that some might find difficult. It will probably appeal to the target audience of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Like that film, for me this feels better suited for television. It’s OK for a debut feature, and it’ll be interesting to see what Erlenwein does next.

Whisky with Vodka
This is quite an endearing film about film-making that is like a cross between Catherine Breillat’s Sex is Comedy and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children. Like Breillat’s film, the film depicts the difficulty a director (and indeed, the whole film crew) experiences dealing with actors. And like Father of My Children, the film depicts the difficulties for the producer.

In Whisky with Vodka which, despite its description as a comedy is more drama with just a touch of wry comedy, a film’s completion is threatened when it’s aging and popular lead actor can’t control his fondness for alcohol. The producers insist on two shoots, one with the original actor, Otto Kullberg (Henry Hübchen), and one with the possible replacement, a younger Arno Runge (Markus Hering).

The director Martin Telleck (Sylvester Groth) objects to this scenario, insisting he’s “not a bucket for everyone to shit in”. The film manages to both entertain without falling into parody (which it easily could have done) and remain thought-provoking and awfully close to the bone. There are a number of good lines in which characters describe their craft. The film also gives a glimpse at how one person’s ego can cause grief to dozens of others, and how dysfunctional an environment a film set can be. The characterisations and scenarios are very good. I found the film quietly satisfying.

The Wolves of Berlin: Part One – Nothing Can Part Us

The Wolves of Berlin is a three-part made-for-TV miniseries that centres on life in Berlin at three important points in time: 1948, 1961 and 1989. I’ve only seen the first episode, but I can say that it’s well put together and looks good on the big screen. I hope to see the remaining episodes during the festival.

The story follows a group of teenagers in post-war Berlin, struggling for survival and who make a pact to stick together. The film focuses on the personal impact of the changes that were taking place at the time, as Berlin was divided into four sectors and blockaded.

The film has a clever visual style – sometimes black and white, sometimes slightly tinted and other times muted colour. Inserted from time to time is historical footage, also of varying qualities, which appears organic to the rest of the film. It lends an authentic and pleasing feel to the film. Because the film opens in the present, in a tense situation, we know there’s bad blood, some of which will be divulged in later episodes. Recommended viewing.

Storm
This political thriller by German director, Hans-Christian Schmid, illustrates some of the difficulties in bringing war criminals to justice. Here, a former Serbian officer is accused of atrocities against Bosnian civilians. With an international cast, the predominant language is English and centres on a Hague prosecutor Hannah Maynard (Kerry Fox) in her oft-thwarted attempts to collect evidence. It also features Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in a convincing role as a surviving witness.

Storm has a social-realist feel to it, underscored by lots of hand-held camera (slightly more shaky than required, but not fatally so) and has a feel to it more akin to films of this genre from Latin America than Europe. The film’s arc is quite relevant, especially given recent attempts to bring an alleged war criminal to trial from Australia. One problem the film points out is that such people are often considered war heroes in their native lands. This is a solid film without being showy.

Vision
Margarethe von Trotta has had some hits (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975) and misses (I Am the Other Woman, 2006). This latest film, an historical biopic, falls more into the camp of the former. It’s beautifully photographed, depicting the life of a twelfth century Christian mystic and prominent author, Hildegarde of Bingem. Tithed to a monastery at the age of eight, she eventually became the leader of her nun community and went on to found two other monasteries.

Vision underscores for me how much suffering the Christian church (and religion in general) has forced upon humanity. It’s not really religion to blame per se, but human nature, which uses religion as an excuse for inexcusable behaviour – and not much has changed over the millennia.

Different schools of Christianity developed over time that speculated or concocted their own brands of the central teachings. Some (as depicted in this film) felt it a virtue to punish themselves by flagellation, “to suffer as Christ did”. Others focused on theological or intellectual studies while others became involved in dastardly Inquisitorial ‘activities’.

Hildegarde was very fortunate to escape the latter, after her revelation of mystic visions. Many thousands of others perished throughout the Middle Ages (from around Hildegarde’s time, and especially during the reign of Pope Gregory IX, 1227-1241). Perhaps what saved her was her noble background and the support she had from prominent members of the Church.

Von Trotta does a good job of telling the story, though a bit of restraint in pointing out the obvious would have been welcome. Other than The White Ribbon, this has the best visuals of any film that I’ve previewed from the festival.

The White Ribbon

This Haneke film was my favourite at MIFF last year and also made it into my list of top films of the year. It’s simply stunning and demonstrates a master film-maker at the peak of his game. I love how Haneke creates a riveting human story which is about what it appears to be about, and yet there is so much important sub-text which doesn’t consume or overwhelm the primary story. It may well be that Haneke’s underlying themes are more important to him than the apparent story, but it’s never didactic. This is in direct contrast with Lioret’s Welcome, currently on theatrical release. I’m writing more comments having just seen it a second time, but for now here are my original comments, posted during MIFF last year:

The White Ribbon is perhaps Michael Haneke’s most mature and entrancing film. That’s quite some claim, given the awesome body of work he has created (in my mind, there is no such thing as a bad Haneke film). It encompasses or flirts with a number of themes and genres already covered in his earlier films (such as social realism, horror, crime, thriller, supernatural), perhaps playing with our expectations and yet subverting them, but never in a cheap, contrived manner. Haneke plays it straight with the audience, but you never really know where he’s going. What’s important with this film is to focus not on the destination, but the journey.

This is a film in which you really need to concentrate, take note of who is who (and there’s a lot of people to keep a track of) and which children belong to who. There’s also a lot of children, who play some stunning roles. Some of them may be victims, some of them innocent bystanders and some of them something more sinister. If evil exists, can you blame the children? Or the often well-meant but deluded parents. Some of the imagery used is amazing, in particular the chastised boy with the simple cross on the wall behind him. Many times the camera takes a point of view shot to very good effect. The characterisations, period detail and reproduction of mannerisms and social mores are all at the very highest levels of achievement and it’s not hard to see why this film was awarded Cannes’ highest honour.

The story is superficially much more conventional than one associates with Haneke. At first it seems a slightly rambling, rustic, rural tale. A subversion of expectations? Maybe.

Eventually, like Hidden, the film has something to say about politics, and more besides. There are broadsides at religion and society in general. At the outset of the start of World War I, Haneke seems to suggest that the brutality of the next two wars over thirty years could perhaps be traced to the cruel ways that humans treat each other on the micro level: within villages, communities and families. The film is shot in black and white, a bold choice by Haneke, but it works very well. It resembles a Carl Dreyer film (think Gertrude) or even Bergman.

Festival of German Films dates:

Sydney: 21 April – 2 May
Perth: 22 April – 26 April
Melbourne: 22 April – 2 May
Brisbane: 28 April – 4 May
Adelaide: 7 May – 9 May

Cross-posted on Melbourne Film Blog

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