SF Jewish Film Festival 2017

Here what I saw of the half-dozen or so German-language films in the program – FRITZ LANG, BYE BYE GERMANY and TRACKING EDITH. Gordian Maugg, director of FRITZ LANG, was a frequent guest at Berlin & Beyond when I ran the show and his best films – Olympischer Sommer, Zeppelin, Hanns Warns and the 20th Century – are still on my mind.  Watching them felt like I was examining an old photograph under a magnifying glass until the photo looked back at me in a new, hardly recognizable way.  Maugg has a special way of mixing seamlessly archival footage with new material – how would he apply that to FRITZ LANG, who, unlike the common people in his earlier films caught in the crosshair of history, was by 1929, Germany’s most famous filmmaker. FRITZ LANG starts in 1928 when Lang was at a low point in his career. His latest film,  FRAU IM MOND was not as successful as the earlier hits, he had no good idea for a sound film, the love for his writer/collaborator wife Thea von Harbou had ceased long ago. That’s when he reads in the paper about Düsseldorf’s hunt for a mass murderer and the inspiration for “M”, the first great, perhaps greatest, sound film of film history, was born. Although Lang denied any parallels between Kürten in Düsseldorf and “M” in Berlin Maugg’s film, based on extensive research, goes that path. Lang takes the train to Düsseldorf and alongside Berlin’s famous Kommissar Gennat, starts his own investigation into the motives, character and past of the murderer and the more he uncovers the more similarities he sees between his own past and that of Kürten: both shared a painful childhood with a violent father, both committed murder – Maugg’s Lang shot his first wife in the chest when, in 1920, she surprised him in bed with his then secretary Thea von Harbou (Gennat worked on the case and it was closed as an accident). The film suggests that Lang’s crisis of the late 1920s started when his wife was killed, may be before, and it was only resolved when he confronted his own past. The story is embedded in an intricate collage of archival footage from newsreels, the real Fritz Lang, and clips from “M” resulting in a brilliant montage that, like Maugg’s earlier films, mix old and new so perfectly that it can not be distinguished. An assembly of great actors –  Samuel Finzi as Kürten, Thomas Thieme as Gennat and Heino Ferch as a stoic, arrogant Lang – tell a story that is not always based on the truth, but it opens up unchartered, enticing territory that should not be dismissed. Jay Weissberg of Variety gave the film a devastating review, describing it as a “luridly fictionalized mess”, “an embarrassing  pseudo biopic”.  I however agree with Andreas Kilb (Frankfurter Allgemeine) who says that Maugg’s thriller (not a biopic) is an enrichment for the German cinema. And Rüdiger Suchsdorf asked why was this inventive Berlin-film not shown at the Berlinale?  Good question, Herr Kosslick.

BYE BYE GERMANY, a Holocaust survivor dramedy was accepted by the Berlinale. Since TONI ERDMANN we know that Germans do have a sense of humor and this film proves it again with a story not often told – about Jews who survived the camps and chose to stay in the devastated Germany. Only about 4000 stayed and “None of them could ever tell their children why they did it” say the end titles. “Es war einmal in Deutschland” , the German title, seems to do just that, tell the fairy tale stories of the survivors as if it happened a long time ago and doesn’t concern us anymore. Misleading but capturing what happens in this film. Fast talking hustler David Bermann (a perfect fit for Moritz Bleibtreu) is recruiting Jews from the camp of displaced persons in Frankfurt for a shady business venture. It involves selling linen – what the Bermanns did before the war – to highly inflated prices to the Germans who helped sending them to the camps.  The horror stories of the survivors – told in flashbacks by everyone of them – of course totally justify the scam. Only David’s story is different. On suspicion of having been a collaborator he is interrogated by American special agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue) – who does not believe what he tells her –  that he survived the camps by telling jokes and he was so good at it that an SS commander sent him to the Berghof to teach Hitler how to do it. Based on two of Michel Bergmann’s novels inspired by his own family history, the film by Sam Garbarski is a 100 minute tour de force of many funny – and sad – stories that never reach into questions of guilt, collaboration and justice. Instead we are presented with a neatly reconstructed, destroyed city of Frankfurt, tailored suits and a perfect mustache of David Bermann, Yiddish words throughout the dialogues supposed to add authenticity – but they feel tagged on. Just like the last of the interrogation sessions with Sara, the stiff, special agent, who decides to move it to her bedroom. Nice, pretty, entertaining but unfortunately not much else.

TRACKING EDITH follows the colorful, adventurous life of photographer and communist spy Edith Tudor-Hart from her birth place in Vienna (1908) to the Bauhaus in Dessau where she studied art, to London where she worked as a teacher with Maria Montessori and became involved in left-wing politics, to Berlin where she married Alex Tudor-Hart and fled back with him to England in1933 when the Nazis came to power. Told by filmmaker and great-nephew Peter Stephan Jungk we hear about his aunt’s tumultuous love affairs, her career as a photographer and her activities as a spy recruiting the Cambridge Five that gave atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Very impressive are the photographs she took – always with a Rolleiflex – of her friends and colleagues, of herself and on assignment documenting her social and political ideas. Her face looks intense, her life seems intense, devoted to a cause and always on the edge from early on – she left her family at age 16 to be on her own. To fill the narrative gaps the filmmaker added animation to the interviews – and Edith’s face lends itself beautifully to being animated – but it adds another layer of distraction to her turbulent life. I would have preferred to see the story hinged on her photographs, rather than the curator’s comments about her photos. I would have liked to hear more about the ending of her spy involvement and less from the people in Moscow who didn’t allow the filmmaker access to the archives. Why was she not arrested after her activities were uncovered?  Several of the Cambridge Five ended up in the Soviet Union, poor and miserable because they refused to accept money for work they passionately believed in. Edith stayed in England and took care of her schizophrenic son. Eventually she opened an antique store in Brighton. Her life ended in 1973 in a hospice and with a funeral that no one attended.

https://sfjff.org/films/film-guide

 

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Spring Movies

The few films I picked out of many I saw since spring arrived in full force to San Francisco have been shown in theaters or at SF’s 60th Film Festival. Let me start with the biggest production, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, that felt like SCHINDLER’S LIST with a zoo as hiding place for Jews instead of factories. Based on a true story of heroic acts by Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the zookeepers of the Warsaw zoo who helped hundreds of Jews escape the Warsaw Ghetto, the film rings true, said one of the survivors still alive in Canada. I wish however that the director Niki Caro had resisted the Hollywood touches, like the mating of the bisons or the boy shouting “Hitler kaput” and at the end a make-believe murder by the Nazi’s head zoologist. Jessica Chastain does not need the bright red lips in every scene or the stylish clothes and perfect hairdo, it makes her sensitive portrayal of Antonina touching but not burning into the heart. Certainly a wrenching story but told so beautifully that it turned into a handsome period drama that left no deep footprints on me.

TRUMAN, a much smaller production about friendship in the face of dying is a film I saw twice, not only because my Spanish is not good enough to not read subtitles but because there is so much going on between the two friends that you can easily miss at the first screening. This is not your typical end-of-life drama anchored in grief and suffering but a life affirming film full of wry humor, humane and canine love, as well as heart-affecting drama that never turns sentimental thanks to delicate directing and superb performances by Javier Cámara and Argentina’s great Ricardo Darin. It took two years to get this jewel from Europe to American theaters.

EVERYTHING ELSE, an Argentinian film portraying a woman’s disconnect with the world around her reminded me of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Both, Dielman and Doña Flor, are stuck in their daily routines, Dielman unable to connect to her son, Flor seeing her cat pass away and dumping the left-over in a garbage can. But both make attempts to break out of their solitude – Dielman forcefully selling her body which leads to a dramatic ending, and Doña Flor takes timid steps at a swimming pool where she stares at women of all shapes and forms undress and shower until everything else is scrubbed off and being touched becomes a powerful and real experience for her. With a masterful, controlled performance by Adriana Barraza.

EL MAR LA MAR, a poetic journey of desperation and haunting beauty along the Mexican border in the Sonoran Desert is far removed from the commercial filmmaking I started with. This film (by the filmmakers of THE IRON MINISTRY) weaves together long photo-like shots of 16mm footage of the desert, disturbing off-camera interviews with people we never see, recitation of poetry from the 16th century and lots of black screen accompanied by an eerie sound track. It all captures movingly the unimaginable suffering of those who try to make it across the Mexican border.

More films I saw at the festival and that are worth mentioning: THE FUTURE PERFECT – evolved from a tedious beginning to an innovative way of telling a story. YOURSELF AND YOURS, another light hearted film about booze and breaking up by Hong Sang-soo, faux- French with a touch of Buñuel. HERMIA & HELENA tried too hard to include too much in what was announced as a take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream – more confusing than entertaining. DUET felt like an attempt to copy Asghar Farhadi’s powerful family dramas but it did not get under my skin. NEXT SKIN (filmed in the Pyreneés), GOD’S OWN COUNTRY (filmed in the Yorkshire hills) and THE CHALLENGE (filmed in the deserts of Qatar) are worth mentioning because of the beautiful country side being important players in these films – just as in the powerful short THE RABBIT HUNT (taking place in the Florida’s South) which is still haunting me.

If the festival had managed to give me an accreditation (I applied late and never got a reply) then I might have seen many more good films. Next time.

 

 

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WOMEN’S DAY AT SF PLANNING’S BOARD OF APPEALS

Dear Ms Lazarus and Ms Wilson,

a huge disappointment it was for me tonight, International Women’s Day, that you ladies didn’t show any interest in my issues, serious mistakes that the architect and men in the planning department had done in regard to the project next to my historic cottage (the yellow dot next to the monster project) on 20th Street. It happens that a woman and expert in the field, Mary Gallagher, had discovered a miscalculation of height (the big box on my doorsteps is 2 feet too high. Of course, it has a roof deck on top just like the other box, but 2 feet less on the big box might dramatically devaluate the view) and I had pointed out the errand in previous hearings but the men got the upper hand. Mr. Sanchez, the zoning administrator, confused the issues until nobody – except Mr Fung – asked for readdressing the height calculation and height variance that should have been sought for going beyond the height limit.  It took you ladies only a minute tonight to say no to my plea — on International Women’s Day, the day when we women should have supported each other against the developers and the men in the planning department who go for the biggest they can squeeze in below and above grade with no concerns for the neighborhood, leave alone a small historic cottage next door.

Thank you Mr Fung and Mr Honda for at least questioning the plans but blame on you, ladies, who, decked out in red as a sign of solidarity on this special day (also my granddaughter’s 4th birthday), turned your back on this woman’s cry for due process.

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Berlin & Beyond 2017

Strong women and weak men stayed with me from this year’s Berlin & Beyond. I only saw a few films, some of them revisited – Vor der Morgenröte, Fukushima Mon Amour (comments see in the post below), Eva Hesse (touching, insightful – has been shown in Bay Area Theaters) and Close to Your Heart (a star-studded TV film portraying in “Berliner Schnauze” a lonely woman’s path to independence). My new discoveries were In Love with Lou – A Philosopher’s Life and Frantz. Directed by veteran French director François Ozon, Frantz is loosely adapted from the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch drama Broken Lullaby, a World War I story of guilt, grief and hate most of it taking place in a small German town. A young German woman, mourning her fiancé killed in the war follows the man seems to be the last one who had seen her fiancé alive from Quedlingburg to Paris and beyond. On her journey, an emotional roller coaster full of surprises,  she discovers a new life in the country that killed her lover. Shot mostly in black and white this quiet and contemplative film takes us back in time and addressing big timeless questions of prejudice, guilt, grief and forgiveness. (Shown at Sundance and soon to be released.)

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the strongest of all the women I saw on the screen of the Castro, seems to belong to a different category. Fiercely independent from early on she paved herself a path that nobody understood, leave alone, followed. When studying literature I came to know Lou Andreas-Salomé as a writer, philosopher, psychoanalyst who was loved and admired by famous men. We never read any of her works only what Rilke and Nietzsche and Freud wrote about her. The film, directed by Cordula Kablitz-Post, enforces that image. Beautifully shot with postcards marking the journey of her life and well acted by the three women we follow from adolescence in Russia (Liv Lisa Fries) to the femme fatale (Katharina Lorenz) surrounded by famous men to the seventy-year old (Nicole Heesters) dictating her life story to a young man. Friendships with women are not mentioned in this film, her work as a writer and psychoanalyst barely. How could it be included? Rilke wrote beautiful poems for her but what did she write about him? Letters, for sure, some were quoted. And what did she discuss with Nietzsche? His philosophy, for sure, that has a prominent place in literary studies  – but not the works of Lou Andreas-Salomé. I liked the film even though it did reinforce a Lou I had known many years ago.

 

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BERLINER LUFT

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September was the warmest month in decades in Berlin — at times too hot to do anything but escape to a museum, a movie theater (only the big ones have AC) or to see a play — and that’s what I did. Let me start with an intriguing production of Max Frisch‘s  Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän that opened the fall season at Deutsches Theater. Herr Geiser, (Ulrich Matthes), sits center stage, silent, turning his back to the audience while watching a man play one piano after another scattered around the stage; then he looks at a group of tourists and their guide passing by him; then he turns to a small chorus singing Italien folksongs. He tries to say something but is cut short when he opens his mouth. Eventually he turns his chair around and starts talking to the audience in single words, short sentences, disconnected phrases. We find out that a storm has cut his village off from the world, a bigger one will come. Things around him are declining, even scientific facts and encyclopedic knowledge, something reliable he has pinned on the walls in his house to hinder the decline, but he knows that in the end it will also vanish. Herr Geiser is 74, retired, alone; knowledge calms his mind, he says but he knows that everything will go to pieces,”kaputt”. There is hardly any plot line, no suspenseful action in this quiet, intriguing contemplation about time, aging and the end of all things. Director Thom Lutz has created a wonderful, dream-like atmosphere that will still resonate long after Herr Geiser and his damaged world have disappeared behind many layers of fog-like gauze.

Toni Erdmann, the film everybody has been talking about since it premiered at Cannes to critical acclaim. I saw it in Kreuzberg, in a theater full of young people ready to watch the almost three hour long film on a late Monday night. The audience laughed their heart out — I did not. Not my kind of humor, although humor, they say,  has a lot to do with culture, with language and class and perhaps with age, and that’s where I differ most obviously from Maren Ade, the director, who is my daughters age. Actress Sandra Hüller is fabulous as a young career woman who has lost almost all connections to her father but is willing to give it a try when he visits her at her work place in Bukarest, first dressed in his usual outfit of shirt and jeans carrying a canvas bag over his shoulder, then, after his attempts to connect with her fail, he returns in suit, wig and false teeth. He likes to dress up, it’s part of his job, we know from the first scenes of the film, and in costume he seems to trigger not just laughter in the audience but also some sort of reconciliation with his daughter. It’s the only way he can approach her who is wearing her own costume, a tight business suit, that she eventually needs to shed in order to find some common ground with her father. It does not last. A long close-up shot of the daughter’s troubled, anguished face at the very end of the film does not predict change. Unfortunately, for me the joke with the false big teeth and the wig wore out after 15 minutes, and the ice cold glass and steel business world of the career daughter became repetitive. There is a birthday party full of surprises, a turning point, that makes sense. Not so funny, however, is the encounter between Toni Erdmann and a poor Bulgarian family that tries to find humor in juxtaposing the poor but happy people with the well-to-do but unhappy Germans — more deceiving and awkward than funny. The film has a huge following, especially in France, where Ade’s previous films, Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen and Alle Anderen were more popular than in Germany. (Shown at MVFF, Oct 2016, and in release in 2017)

Vor der Morgenröte, a film about Stefan Zweig’s last years in exile, is directed by actress turned filmmaker Maria Schrader in collaboration with Jan Schomburg (director of  Über uns das All, – also starring Sandra Hüller – shown at German Gems 2012). Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular writers in the 1920s and 30s, has been accused by fellow writers that at the height of his career when his books were still in wide circulation in Nazi Germany he did not speak out against the Nazis. Was he a coward? Did he not want to spoil his successes? When Zweig left for Brazil he had helped many Jewish writers to emigrate and by 1940 when he himself had been added to the long list of forbidden books, he had not suffered persecution. Still celebrated in the Americas he had settled in a small town in the jungle of Brazil,  lived a relatively comfortable life with his young wife – his former secretary – writing his autobiography Die Welt von gestern, attending receptions in his honor, socializing with emigrants living in the neighborhood, and then, without warning, took his life and that of his wife. The film unravels the last years of his life with all its contradictions – a frail, tormented writer, deeply connected to and longing for a peaceful Europe without borders choses his exile to be in the jungle of Brazil; a writer who refuses to say what the world wants to hear from him; a man, surrounded by admirers begging for help, and by devoted women who make his life comfortable. The great Josef Hader portrays the many layers of Zweig by just blinking an eye or moving a corner of his mouth to indicate that the three-piece suit he wears daily, hides a troubled soul. In six episodes, taking place between 1936 and 1942, the film creates an intense, historically anchored and beautifully shot, sequence of Zweig’s last years that do not try to answer the question: Why did he commit suicide. To shine more light on what tormented him we need to read his works, especially Die Welt von gestern. (Shown at Berlin & Beyond in Feb 2017)

Fukushima, Mon Amour,  Doris Doerrie‘s latest film, I saw on my way back to the US on Air Berlin and then again at the Castro – what a difference! The wonderful beginning–clowns trying to add lightness and laughter to an aged community left behind in Fukushima after the disaster — framed the screening at Berlin & Beyond when San Francisco’s own Moshe Cohen came up on the stage of the Castro Theatre after the screening. He didn’t perform his clown acts – alas – but talked about how they had changed many people’s hard lives. I wish the film had focused more on that and less on the story of the young German woman who could no longer do the clown acts because of her own troubled past. She decides to help an older Japanese woman to clean up her house in the middle of the disaster zone where the geiger counter constantly pushes beyond the limits. How can you even think of living in the middle of high toxic waste? The film might be seen as a fairy tale: an old woman trying to rebuild her past – a home and her life as a geisha – not in the deep woods threatened by wild creatures but on a wide plane poisoned by nuclear waste. She  finds unexpected support from afar, a young woman from Germany. Both need to come to terms with traumatic experiences. Haunted by the spirits of the past that show up at night in the ghost-like landscape they eventually, with each other’s help and that of good friends, find closure and a new beginning. Filmed beautifully in black and white on location in Fukushima. (Shown at MVFF, Oct 2016, and Berlin & Beyond Feb 2017)

 

 

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SFJFF 2016 – Germany and the Nazis

Worth watching: THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER & A GERMAN LIFE

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THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER translated from the German title DER STAAT GEGEN FRITZ BAUER misses a small detail, it is not the people – das Volk – but the government of Konrad Adenauer and its legal representatives all still with close ties to the Nazis that attorney general Fritz Bauer is fighting against. A thriller that dramatizes everything to the max from the obstacles Bauer (portrayed powerfully by Burghart Klaussner) faces in trying to hunt down Adolf Eichmann to his personal life of being Jewish and gay the film feels more like TATORT than an historical drama. Especially the gay part leaves room for improvement  – to add a fictionalized young gay state attorney who recognizes his counterpart by the colorful socks and then sacrifices himself adds more melodrama than necessary. Director Lars Kraume rekindles a conversation that was addressed in the strong 2014 film LABYRINTH OF LIES (see my comments further down on this blog), where a young  public prosecutor initiates the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963 (with Fritz Bauer played by the late Gerd Voss). Although Kraume’s film does not quite succeed it is significant because it deals with German history that has long been skewed in order to accommodate those that had lots to lose. Most of those are dead now but the next generations need to be reminded again and again that Chancellor Adenauer and Mercedes Benz and the whole justice system were entangled with the Nazis and that paragraph 175 continued until 1994! what the Nazis had perfected: criminalizing  homosexuels.

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A GERMAN LIFE also reframes a conversation that had reached a highlight with engrossing 2002 film BLINDSPOT – HITLER’S SECRETARY by Austrian filmmaker, artist André Heller. The title told us what would follow, a testimony of the woman who had worked for Hitler as his private secretary. Traudl Junge ended with him in the bunker where he dictated her his will. I remember the film’s premiere at the Berlinale and waiting full of anticipation for Traudl Junge then eighty-one, the first and only eyewitness close to Hitler I would ever see live. She did not appear on stage. She had died a few days before the film’s premiere – her testimonial of not knowing anything about the atrocities was preserved on film and in a book she had written right after the war. A GERMAN LIFE is another testimonial by Goebbel’s secretary. Stark images in black and white portray Brunhilde Pomsel as a forceful, eccentric, intimidating woman who seems to have lived in a black and white world. At 103 and still very lucid, articulate and thoughtful she describes herself  as an ordinary German albeit close to one of the highest ranking Nazis but, like her friends and colleagues, ignorant of what was going on around her. She excused her lack of interest with a disciplined upbringing that focused on honesty, obedience and a work ethic that would never question her superiors. How close was she to Goebbels? She talks about his impeccable, elegant  appearance and manners that could change suddenly into a brute screaming “Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?” At one point she says that she never saw Goebbels – the propaganda ministry was a huge building – but she spent the final weeks with him in the bunker. Traudl Junge’s interview was powerful because of her closeness to Hitler, Pomsel, on the other hand, spoke through powerful black and white images. At 103 she might not remember if or how often she saw Goebbels in person. In the 30 hours of conversation reduced by the filmmakers (also from Austria) to one hour and thereby creating a narrative that implies that Pomsel had gained some insights throughout the interview, she comes to the conclusion that God does not exist, there is only evil in the world. There is no justice. Does she feel guilty? No, she says, then all Germans would be guilty. Her confessions of ignorance and innocence are frequently intercut with archival US propaganda / educational footage about Nazi ideology and concentration camps. A bit heavy handed, I thought, unnecessary “eye openers” that sometimes cut Pomsel off in the middle of a sentence. I would have preferred to hear her speak uninterrupted, unpolished with all the contradictions that a historic document might reveal.

At the end of the Q & A at the Castro Theatre someone said that it is time, especially in this election year of turmoil and uncertainty- to hear from those who questioned, fought back or resisted oppression. Yes, I agree.

 

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59th SF FILM FESTIVAL

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The festival took place in my neighborhood – all theaters in walking distance and I admit, with that easy access I should have gone to many more films, should have applied for an industry pass and not paid the $14 per senior ticket. It adds up, and some of the films I saw will soon, or have already, come to a theater where I can see them for nearly half the price. But it was fun walking up and down Mission Street seeing smartly dressed people and almost always get a ticket (online with no extra charge! or at the door). I hope the festival will return to the Mission — my thumbs are up!

The films I picked for comments (I saw a few more) are all worth seeing, even if some won’t get my highest marks. I will follow the photos above. WILD was the only one on the program all in German directed by Nicolette Krebitz, who is better known as acclaimed actress. She came to Berlin & Beyond about ten years ago with her first feature JEANS and what I remember most vividly was the after screening gathering at Twin Peaks where Nicolette asked everybody at the table to perform something – a song, a poem, a sketch. We hesitated, but after a few drinks followed her orders and had an hilarious evening. She was born to direct and WILD is a testimony that. The film portrays a sexually frustrated, disturbed young woman who turns toward nature and finds in her urban environment a wolf that gives her what she is looking for. It becomes a messy, bloody affair — at times compelling, especially when the subplots with ill grandfather and nasty boss fade away. A new take on Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood), however, not to be recommended for my little granddaughter. NEON BULL, another intimate portrait of man and beast, explores the erotically charged life of a small group of cowhands (including a young girl), traveling with their bulls to rodeos in Brazil’s northeast. Unforgettable images drifting between gender-bending characters and the animals string together a tapestry that might pass for a story, but the focus of the film is on the visuals and their subtext — beautiful long shots capture entire scenes without moving into close-ups. PETER AND THE FARM belongs to that group of man and beast. It reminded me of my life between wheat fields, cows and pigs on a small farm in North-Germany that had been in our family for hundreds of years. Here it is the beautiful rolling  hills of Vermont. Peter tells his story — moving through 35 years that began in paradise with wife and children and friends but descended into loneliness, alcoholism and depression. He likes to talk, only occasionally interrupted by questions from the filmmaker or by showing his art and reading his poetry. He can not live without his land and his animals (like my father) although Peter can’t work the land by himself anymore,  barely slaughter a sheep — it takes two bullets to splash its brain. He plays with the idea of suicide and keeps inviting the filmmaker to document his end. A sad story of a cantankerous, rueful farmer who, for me, was not charismatic enough to keep me glued to the screen. The next three films on the list — THIRST, MOUNTAIN and THE SUMMER OF FROZEN FOUNTAINS — all have location as a leading character. MOUNTAIN takes place at the vast Jewish cemetery on Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.  A well-known story — frustrated housewife struggles with her husband’s lack of interest in her — here with unexpected twists and turns. It’s an Orthodox Jewish couple living among the dead, the only place the wife can escape to from cleaning and cooking in her claustrophobic house. Walking a fine line between the predictable and the most unexpected the filmmaker has created a beautiful first feature graced with that amazing locale and a remarkable lead performance. THIRST, another impressive first feature takes place in a beautiful mountainous area of Bulgaria where water is scarce and urgently needed for a family of three that barely survives by doing the laundry for the hotels in the valley. When a well driller arrives with his teenage water diviner daughter love enters the scene and emotions are reshuffled. The dramatic ending seems to say that five people together won’t work – one has to go. Well, good endings are hard to come by — see MOUNTAIN’s open twisted ending. THE SUMMER takes place in Tbilisi, Georgia, a city that, in contrast to the Georgian mountains, was never on my A list. This film of intertwining love stories, culminating for me in the romantic first love between two teenagers and the touching last love between an elderly man and a cute kitten, have moved Tbilisi up on my travel list. MORRIS FROM AMERICA is the coming of age story of a black teenager transplanted with his father to – of all places – Heidelberg. It didn’t really ring true to me. Would the Germans hire a black soccer coach from America? May be. Would a black teenager who looks much younger than his German classmates and is dreaming of becoming an American rapper be invited to the inner circle of the most attractive blond girl in his class? What’s her interest in him? The exotic – the erotic? She has a handsome blond boyfriend and, sure enough, will soon drop her black friend like a hot potato. And the pretty blond German teacher –  what was her role? Not to teach him German – they hardly spoke it. Good performances, lots of good rap music and lots of teenage American humor that, I hope, will fare well when the film opens in Germany. SALERO in another stunning locale, a vast saltlake in Bolivia, focuses on one of the saleros who, like his forefathers, has shoveled salt from early on and loves the work. The arrival of lithium mining has changed everybody’s life — for the better or worse? A few other questions regarding environmental impact and the life of the family were left open. Years ago I saw a film called the SALTMEN OF TIBET by a Swiss woman who worked for years to be allowed, as a woman, to accompany one of the last treks of the saltmen to a far away salt lake. A compelling film that has stayed with me because of the vivid portrayal of the saltmen and their arduous trek – something this film did not quite succeed in.

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20th BERLIN & BEYOND

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A 20-year-anniversary  deserves a few words about the beginning and since I was there when it started let me reminisce a bit before I say a few words about the films I saw last week. Berlin & Beyond opened at the Castro Theatre on January 11, 1996 with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s MARTHA.  Not a cheerful opener but Anita Monga was the program adviser and she pushed hard to get the newly discovered MARTHA to open the series. A mesmerizing, disturbing film that set the tone for the years to come.  The 2nd B&B opened with SEXY SADIE by Matthias Glasner who came back 10 years later with THE FREE WILL; Tom Tykwer’s WINTER SLEEPERS opened the 3rd B&B, his DEADLY MARIA was shown at the first one.  I remember a packed house when Doris Dörrie presented NAKED, an attractive title, and when Bruno Ganz stopped by for DOWNFALL on his way to the Academy Awards.  Equally memorable were the best first feature films  by young talents – APRIL CHILDREN (Yüksel Yavuz), VALERIE (Birgit Möller), WHEN THE RIGHT ONE COMES ALONG (Oliver Paulus & Stefan Hildebrand), BUNGALOW (Ulrich Köhler), FASHION VICTIMS (Ingo Rasper).  Since 1998 Kinofest Lünen presented their often quirky audience award winners – 7 BROTHERS, AM I SEXY?, or JEANS, actress Nicolette Krebitz’s debut film (as I’m writing she is presenting her 3rd feature at Sundance). And there was our wonderful side-kick in Point Arena and Oz, the apple farm where talents and guests stayed for a weekend in rustic cabins with out-houses, mice, starry nights and, in January, often lots of rain. Those were the days… Oz has been sold, the theater in Point Arena is still showing films, sometimes with subtitles.

What happened to those edgy, quirky, dark, brooding films coming from Germany, Switzerland and, of course, Austria? I can’t find them in the more recent B&B programs. Ulrich Seidel is still making movies, so is Nicolette Krebitz, Christoph Hochhäusler  and all the filmmakers belonging to the so called Berlin School. Last week at the 20th Berlin & Beyond I saw 4 films and I had previously seen 2 more listed in the program – not really enough to talk as an insider about trends and changes, but just as a film friend who for many years was very involved.

I like the graphic design, especially on the big screen of the Castro Theatre. The program itself is hard to navigate, no page numbers next to the films, no alphabetical order. A GERMAN YOUTH, was one of my favorites. A  collage of historical footage that re-created the story of Germany’s Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof group, here with Ulrike Meinhof at the center. An amazing editing job that produced an insightful, comprehensive, even touching picture of the historical events. Why was it shown on the small screen of the Goethe-Institut and not at the Castro, I wonder. Just because it was on the program of the SFIFF last May?

Another film portraying more recent history – WE ARE YOUNG. WE ARE STRONG. – I saw at the Castro. A narrative feature film about the riots in Rostock in 1992 that shocked Germany. How could a whole town attack asylum seekers, Gypsies, as well as hard working foreigners that even the police did not grant protection. The film focuses on a group of young people and their part in the riots. Shot in black and white for the first half the images create an atmosphere of boredom, disconnect, neo-nazi violence and sexual competition among the youngsters that ends abruptly when the riots begin. A sudden change to color shows the events unfolding chaotically, the police all of a sudden disappears, politicians are clueless. My friends confirmed that the sequence of events as told in the film is correct. Those of us who don’t remember could have greatly profited from a Q&A after the film with  an historian, or politician or an eye-witness.

A COFFEE IN BERLIN (OH BOY) and BERLIN, SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY are also 24 hour portraits but of a very different nature. The silent classic is always worth seeing again, here accompanied by ALP, a rock band. The musicians played their hearts out and sounded great but the music was not really in sink with the images of this film. OH BOY was shown as part of the Spotlight Award presented to Tom Schilling, a young talented actor who told me that his favorite role was in the TV mini series GENERATION WAR (see my comments further down from last year). I liked his portrayal of young Hitler in  MEIN KAMPF (2011) a farce adopted from a popular play of the same name by George Tabori. The film was so controversial that is not even listed on Schilling’s Wikipedia page.

I also saw 2 comedies – Til Schweiger’s HEAD FULL OF HONEY, another one of his hugely successful comedies in Germany, this time focusing on a serious topic – Alzheimer.  MS. MUELLER MUST GO features special guest of B&B 20, Anke Engelke, who I remember  from the opening ceremonies of the Berlinale where she not only gave witty, lively intros with festival director and old-time B&B guest Dieter Kosslick, but she also looked fabulous in daring designs on very high heels. Last week I finally met her in person and found that she was just as personal, open and funny as I had imagined her to be.

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WHAT’S ON MY MIND?

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My house (the pink cottage in the garden) and my neighbors house (the yellow one) has been on my mind ever since a rich developer bought the yellow house 3 years ago and has been working on turning it into a monster home. I live on 20th Street in a historic district and never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that a  developer would dare to triple the size of the footprint of this old Victorian from 1870 (from 2300, see pic 2,3&5, to 7200sqft pic 4,6,8) by digging 25ft into the ground, building the 2nd unit underground on top of a huge garage (1 & 2nd layer of drawing on pic 5) and adding 2 big boxes on the south side toward my cottage. Yes, developers, no matter how wealthy they are and how much civic consciousness they proclaim (Justin McBaine’s father once was the president of the International Film Festival and his son, the developer of the yellow house, does show up at cultural events), they will put a monster house into the smallest lot as long as they get the permits. And that was the biggest shock for me, the Historic Preservation Committee approved the plans. At the first meeting they acted as if they did not like the deep pit and the big boxes. I was hopeful. But a few months later something had changed. Suddenly they only cared about the facade and were happy with minor changes — smaller window, “gracefully” terraced pit (that now takes away most of the garden), slightly lower decks. What happened? And what about me? Living in the oldest (1867), smallest (1000 sqft) house on the block and the only one in the back of the garden right next to the yellow house. Too bad for that woman in the cottage, said one of the commissioners, but this is life in the City, get used to it.  Of course, I could appeal the decision – hire a lawyer, pay a ton of money and in the end the developer will get what he wanted – he has done it many times before all over the city, knows the commissioners. No chance for people like me. I can sell my house to him, yes, he suggested it, and then move to a place where I can live in peace and quiet, far away from life in the City, from movies, concerts, opera, theater, swimming pools, friends and from greedy developers.

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3 GERMAN FILMS — in a Theater near you

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THE LABYRINTH OF LIES, PHOENIX and VICTORIA.

The more evocative German title IM LABYRINTH DES SCHWEIGENS focuses on the silence after the war, most Germans chose or were forced to. In Guilio Ricciardrelli’s film a courageous young public prosecutor (Alexander Fehling) takes it upon himself to sue 8000 people that worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The year is 1962, when  the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem had riveted the attention of Israel and Germany but the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, where Germans uncovered what their fellow countrymen did in the camps, were practically unknown. Nobody wanted to talk about it or know about it. Fifteen years after the war the name Auschwitz, according to the film, was unknown to lots of Germans. I remember that my father turned off our new TV when the trials came on, but I also remember seeing Alain Resnais’ film NIGHT AND FOG with my high school. We fifteen year-old students knew about Auschwitz. Ricciarelli’s film unveils a historically significant story that should be told again to the next generation who did not participate and don’t remember the Frankfurter trials – like most of my generation. Exploring heavy weight themes and complex moral issues the screenplay could have left out a few subplots (the Mengele story, the visit to Auschwitz, a few details about women in post-war Germany) but Alexander Fehling’s forceful performance as a driven, ambitious and inexperienced young prosecutor keeps us focused. THE LABYRINTH OF LIES is Germany’s bid for the 2016 Academy Awards — soon in the theaters.

PHOENIX by veteran filmmaker Christian Petzold is a very different look at post-war Germany and how the regular Germans handled the camps. The film has been described as a thriller (compared to VERTIGO but not quite as good), or as a contrived, unconvincing, unbelievable love story, or a spellbinding mystery of deception and illusion, tense, complex and drenched in atmosphere. I saw the film twice because friends of mine whose opinion I regard highly, came out of the theater with very critical comments about the irrational twists of the plot. After my second viewing I liked it even more and was not a bit bored by those twists and turns that indeed did not really make sense, but perhaps were not meant to make sense. Nina Hoss plays Nelly who survived the camps with a destroyed face but unfaltering love for her husband Johnny she is desperate to find in the ruins of Berlin. He is convinced that she is dead and does not even once think it is Nelly when she tracks him down. He sees a resemblance to his former wife who, as the only survivor of her family, is now rich. Johnny is after the money and needs the woman that looks like his former wife to help him get at least part of the money. Nelly does not reveal herself and plays along — why? Johnny acts as if he is blind, not admitting that this woman who is more and more like his former wife, is his Nelly – why not? Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny does not look like the conniving type but rather like the big-eyed cuddly bear who would not squeeze money or anything else out of woman. After years of hiding her he divorced and denounced her when the war came to an end — a coward afraid of the Nazis. I thought Johnny slowly realized that the woman he is trying to turn into Nelly is indeed his former wife. But the coward pushes those thoughts away, he focuses on the money, not on the obvious. And Nina Hoss, in a powerful performance, emanates so much pain, love and sadness that you forget about her irrational actions. Watching her try to reconcile what can not be reconciled, is heartbreaking and thoroughly moving. If you keep asking why, said Petzold in an interview, you don’t like the film. (playing at Opera Plaza)

VICTORIA by Sebastian Schipper is a 140 minutes film in one take. No editor, no cuts, there were three takes to choose from, said Schipper in an interview. I thought of Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARCH from several years ago, the 90 minute walk through Russian history in St. Petersburg’s Heremitage. A very different film, the only thing the two films have in common is the lack of an editor. VICTORIA is about a young Spanish woman experiencing a night in the city that starts out in a club and ends – 140 minutes later – when the sun rises in Kreuzberg.  She meets a bunch of young men, one of them speaks a little English everybody else is fluent in “Berliner Schnauze”, very entertaining, very real. I saw it in a small theater in Berlin at Kottbusser Damm filled with those who live there and talk exactly that way. The audience was thrilled. But how can suspension be kept up for  140 minutes without cuts, without changing the scene, and characters — you have to add drama and action. So the 2nd part of the film turns into a thriller. The young men got entangled in a bank robbery and Victoria who had become attached to one of them went along all the way to the bitter end. The film was awarded top prizes at the Berlinale 2015 for best Cinematography, and at the German Film Awards for best cinematography, directing, and acting in the leading roles. Definitely something for the Guiness Book of World Records. (at the Roxie on Sept 27 as part of B&B’s fall preview)

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Menschen am Sonntag

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There are lots of things to do in Berlin on a sunny Sunday afternoon: stroll along the Paul Linke Ufer; play boule with yourself or whoever might join you; take a boat ride on the many canals and of course, have coffee and cake / Torte. My favorite spot is the Kuchenmanufaktur on Pannierstrasse — all baked right in front of you and delicious.

And if you have a car pay a visit to Teufelsberg, about 20 minutes west of Hauptbahnhof, a real mountain, the highest one in the area made of the rubble from the war. The history is fascinating – a high security spy station of the allies during the cold war – the cupolas that covered the antennas, now look like a buddhist temple with prayer flags torn by the wind. A sky resort and luxury apartments were planned but in the end it was ART that survived. Today artists can sign up for a space on one of the huge walls – they are all covered and then painted over from time to time. Teufelsberg is also a hot location for films, and tourists get guided tours, the only way to see the place, either with a talking guide for 9 Euros, or a silent guide for 7. Our elegant “silent” lady did answer questions though. IMG_20150718_145626_editTeufelKuppel3 IMG_20150718_145454_editTeufelZenkuppelTeufelBlick BerlinTeufelKuppelTeufelIngrid1

 

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SFIFF 2015 – MY FILMS

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Another year, another 2 exciting weeks of tons of films to pick from. My very small selection – due to other commitments, like babysitting granddaughter Ella and fighting the building of a monster home next door – I chose 7 films and here my favorites: THE POSTMAN’S WHITE NIGHTS (Russia), EL CORDERO (Chile) and A GERMAN YOUTH (France, Germany), not necessarily in that order.

A GERMAN YOUTH, a documentary film about the Baader-Meinhof group that wracked Germany in the ’60th and ’70s, is a compilation of only found and archival footage, no voice over, no narration. Focusing on Ulrike Meinhof, the articulate, intellectual center of the group, French director/editor Jean-Gabriel Périot reveals her increasingly radical actions by following Meinhof’s more and more radical statements to media and public. Her story becomes the powerful narrative of the film, dramatic, intelligent, destructive and deadly. From the two dozen or so films made about Baader-Meinhof this one sticks out not just because of an amazing editing job of tons of material but because this film stays with you, definitely with me who lived in Germany in the ’60s and ’70s, and saw Ulrike Meinhof live what she preached: “Protest is when I say this does not please me. Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.”

EL CORDERO tells the story of Domingo, a devoted family man and Christian missionary whose uneventful life takes a turn when a fatal accident leaves him, disturbingly, without a sense of guilt and nobody, not the priest, not his family, not a wicked convict, seem to get him back on a moral track. As my friend Victor pointed out, Chile’s dictators also used the church as convenient cover-up for guilt. Like Domingo they added more and more atrocities with the blessing of the church; and like Domingo, the outside world accepted them as save guards, not responsible for the horrors. Spiced with sardonic humor and excellent acting this dramatic thriller reverberates deep questions about Chile’s past.

THE POSTMAN’S WHITE NIGHTS feels like a documentary with real people playing real people in a remote corner of northwestern Russia. Postman Lyokha brings the mail and the pension checks to an aging community of island dwellers who spend their days fishing, complaining, remembering the good old days, and drinking vodka. A boat with an off-board engine is what everybody needs to get around the lakes, especially the postman. When he finds his boat one morning without engine he knows that one of his neighbors must have stolen it. Nobody is willing to help him, rowing is the only way now to get to the post office on the other side of the vast lake. Breathtaking cinematography, humorous encounters with the authorities, with village folks and city dwellers, as well as surreal outings into fairyland-like landscapes imprint ravishing imagery on the viewer’s eyes that are hard to forget.

A few words about the runner-ups. STATIONS OF THE CROSS/KREUZGANG follows 14-year-old Maria in 14 scenes of mostly fixed shots on her way to the cross, sacrificing herself like Christ. Formally rigorous and fascinating the film’s characters, especially the mother, are too one-dimensional. Too soon we know how each of the characters will  contribute to the sad ending.  Remember REQUIEM, also about religious fanatics; that was a great film. THE TRIBE, another interesting experiment with deaf actors playing deaf young people who have to go through torturous initiation rites in order to become part of the “tribe” ultimately failed because the focus on the cruel “rites” did not allow the characters to develop into anything but victims of each other, of the delapidated school they are attending (in Ukraine) and the system. But the outside world is hardly addressed. THE WONDERS, a coming of age story with a much happier ending than STATIONS OF THE CROSS, centers on a young girl helping her family to keep the beekeeper business against all new developments that might ruin them. Rural life in northern Italy, a dysfunctional family, adolescence, humor, fairy tale surprises and lots of open ends – too many. BOTA felt to me like a film about Albania made by Albanian film students living in the US. The filmmakers were looking for the unusual, a place where no one lived, music that no one knows in Albania, characters dancing in an internment camp, an old woman showing all the wrinkles of a hard life but happily drinking an espresso every day.  That would have made a great center piece uncovering Albania’s years under the horrible dictatorship through the face of that old woman. The film touched the past only on the sideline.

 

 

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