Festival of German Films 2010 – part 2

It’s been a Fatih Akin blitz this week, having watched his new comedy and two older films – a music documentary and his dramatic feature debut.  I’ve also revisited The White Ribbon, the must-see film of the festival (though it has a cinematic release just after).  All up, there’s six films reviewed.

  • Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin, Germany, 2009)
  • Das Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Austria, 2009)
  • Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, Germany, 1999)
  • Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 2005)
  • Kurz und schmerzlos (Short Sharp Shock, Fatih Akin, Germany, 1998)
  • Die Päpstin (Pope Joan, Sönke Wortmann, Germany/UK/Italy/Spain, 2009)

Soul Kitchen
While Fatih Akin’s latest film, a comedy, is being described as very different to his earlier works, it has much in common with his first film, Short Sharp Shock in terms of place, characters and themes. In both films we see signs for Altona, a suburb of Hamburg that appears to crime-ridden and rundown. The restaurant in Soul Kitchen‘s title looks much like wharf warehouses we see in the earlier film. Adam Bousdoukos plays a petty crim in the earlier film, and the lead in Soul Kitchen, while Moritz Bleibtreu takes on a role similar to Bousdoukos’ in the earlier film. And crime and trying to get ahead (honestly for some, by any means for others) are themes in common to both.

Bousdoukos’ role in Short Sharp Shock provided welcome comic relief to a fairly dark story – in this film the comedy takes front row and he play a fairly boofhead sort of role that, despite the somewhat slapstick element, works quite well because of the authenticity of both his role and that of Bleibtreu, who plays his brother recently released from prison on day-release. Bleibtreu’s performance is particularly effective, given that he has no Greek background yet channels the characteristics perfectly. I was a bit surprised at how well he resembled both in appearance and behaviour some of my Greek in-laws.

Birol Ünel played an acclaimed role in Akin’s Head On (which I have yet to see). In Soul Kitchen, he plays my favourite character – a chef, somewhat like the soup Nazi in Seinfeld – and we don’t see enough of him. I like that despite making a light comedy, Akin uses heavy-weight actors like Ünel and Bleibtreu who play it largely straight, while the comedy is in how the story is constructed.

There’s actually a lot going on in the story, which I won’t detail here. It becomes quite convoluted and one doesn’t have to be too astute to see some of the set-ups with the array of characters. The mood of the film is instantly upbeat from the start and never really lets up for its duration. Akin obviously has a fascination with music (his 2005 music documentary Crossing the Bridge is also screening at the festival) and I was impressed with how well a very diverse range of music styles is incorporated into the film.

As someone keen to see more of Akin’s films (there’s three at the festival and I’ve now seen them all), the film is definitely worth seeing. However, it’s more of a curiosity and I much prefer his more dramatic work. I think the biggest mistake in the film is an overt sex scene which pretty much rules this film out as suitable for children – it’s actually a little gratuitous and quite unnecessary. Otherwise, the comedic elements would have made it good for children. This film should appeal to a more mainstream arthouse audience (ie, Palace, etc), and it opens in cinemas on 6 May.

The White Ribbon
As I wrote in my FoGF preview, this was my favourite film at MIFF last year and, outside of the pressure cooker environment of MIFF, it was a joy to revisit it. This time I made more of an effort to follow which children belong to which families, to try to get a better handle on the intrigue. Haneke films frequently raise more questions than they answer, and he provides all the keys to unlock the mysteries he creates, but it’s never simple at first glance.

While the film is relatively long (144 minutes) and even though there are long Haneke-signature static takes, it is always compelling. The camera’s dwelling on a door while we hear what’s on the other side of it is just a beautiful thing to behold. I noticed on this viewing how well constructed and edited the film is. Haneke quite cleverly and seamlessly blends one scene with children into another. It actually taxes the audience and one is forced to take mental count. I love a film that involves the audience, that doesn’t hand things on a silver platter and make one work for it.

The film’s elderly narrator in the present (one of the young characters in the story) makes a lovely comment at the start – what we are seeing cannot be entirely trusted because the truth is obscured over time. It adds uncertainty to a story which – even based on what we see – is already uncertain. At one stage, we see this character questioning another as to why he is engaged in risky behaviour. The answer to this question might offer insight into some of the mysteries that unfold, but the other’s silence frustrates his pursuit of the truth. The whole film is like a ‘whodunnit’ where we try to solve these mysteries. And yet, that’s not really what the film is about – it’s really a parable about the nature of people, the causes of evil culminating in two world wars, and ultimately an examination of current world events – all without a mention of war. This is my kind of film – one of the three best to be released in theatres for the year so far (the others being A Prophet and Animal Kingdom, opening in June). The White Ribbon opens in cinemas on 6 May.

Aimée & Jaguar
This moving 1999 film is part of the festival’s ‘Berlin Based’ stream and was followed by a Q&A with the author of the non-fiction book (Erica Fischer) that the film is based on. It’s about a woman whose soldier husband is absent and who takes a lover that is not only a woman but a Jew. The story is so fantastic that, were it not true (and reportedly accurate), one might have trouble swallowing it.

I don’t recall seeing any Holocaust depictions in Germany during the war. There have been many films from many countries depicting the subject and I always assumed that Jews were pretty much eliminated from Germany – or the cities at least – by the time the early stages of World War II had commenced. Certainly there was a nasty round-up of Jews well before that time in Germany. So it came as a surprise to me to see that Jews were still very much a part of a clandestine life in Berlin so late during the war (late 1944).

The cinematography is excellent, giving a strong feel for the period and the performances are mostly good. The story seems just a little melodramatic at times.

The author of the book, Erica Fischer, fielded questions after the screening. She mentioned that there were some elements of the story she wasn’t entirely happy with but accepted the director’s discretion in changing some details to make the story more cinematic. She said that the dialogue is very true to the book. She made up some of the dialogue in the book, but it’s all based on interviews she did with the real-life Lilly Wust (d. 2006) and research she did on historical documents. The film is mostly concerned with the relationship between Wust and Felice Schragenheim, but the book contains much historic material such as photographs and documents.

Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul
I really enjoyed this Fatih Akin music documentary. Perhaps in tracing his own ethnic roots, Akin is exploring the soul of the city of Istanbul. Music is clearly important to him, and he treats the subject with much respect in this film. Many artists of various styles – traditional, modern and in-between – are depicted and interviewed. There is much crossover or fusion between styles and it’s quite moving to see rap artists talk with respect about pop artists. Or the meaning and significance of their work. Rap in Turkey, for example, eschews the gangsta elements of American rap and is more interested in contemporary social and political issues. The film is not particularly coherent in telling a story, but works as a sort of map of the different styles and influences in Istanbul.

Short Sharp Shock
This is Fatih Akin’s feature debut and has a lot in common with the Australian film, Cedar Boys. Gabriel (of Turkish background) has just got out of prison and hooks up with his petty thieving mates Costa (Greek) and Bobby (Serbian). Bobby wants to go big-time and work for the Albanian mafia while Gabriel wants to go straight and maybe return to his homeland.

As mentioned above, Costa provides some light relief to what is fairly dark material – not surprising given it’s a film by Fatih Akin, and this early piece shows all the hallmarks that he has mastered in his more recent films. Akin also has a cameo role as a drug dealer (that’s him on the right in the photo), also as a bit of light relief.

Akin’s films always seem to be on the go, with a lot of energy and music to match. This is quite an ambitious debut, grabbing quite a lot of dramatic elements – there are various dynamics with sisters and girlfriends complicating matters, parents and religion, and of course multiple ethnicities. The various ethnicities of the three mates were almost irrelevant in the sense that these guys bonded regardless, and is very reminiscent of major Australian cities (certainly mine, Melbourne).

Having seen Akin’s more recent work first, I come to this film from a different perspective than someone who saw this one first. I still think that I would have liked it for its themes and it definitely signposted the talent that has further developed. It’s a very worthwhile film.

Pope Joan
The audience seemed to be enjoying this film, laughing in all the right places, etc. It looks very nice as a period film (9th Century Europe) and has an impressive international cast (including David Wenham in a significant role). But it did nothing for me and I could tell pretty much from the start that I wasn’t going to like it (but I tried, I swear!).

The biggest problems for me were a lack of subtlety, over-theatrics and plausibility. The story is about a woman who pretends to be a man and ultimately becomes the Pope. The director, who answered questions afterwards, said he believed the story may be based on truth, but now doubts it. I think it’s highly implausible, and the way much of the story panned out required a pretty big stretch in suspending disbelief.

I really didn’t like the way characters were almost caricatures. It betrays a distrust in an audience’s ability to perceive the obvious, that everything has to be spelt out in huge letters, so to speak. A father isn’t just unreasonable, he’s not just brutal, but he’s massively brutal. Bad guys looked like bad guys, really bad guys. And so it continued throughout the film, and it all felt so theatrical – actors performing on a stage. But that’s me, and a mainstream audience will lap it up.

Looking at both this film and Visions, and seeing what a black history the Church has, one has to question why any sane person would want to be part of such an organisation. So much of its history has been founded on violence and treachery.

Cross-posted on Melbourne Film Blog

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