AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…

 

 

The five Oscar nominated foreign films are by veteran directors who dig deep into the social and political faultlines of their country but what they find at home feels eerily familiar anywhere. The films are depressing, shocking, touching, fascinating and certainly worth seeing, all of them.  Let me start with the bleakest one: LOVELESS from Russia. Following in the footsteps of LEVIATHAN (2014) director Andrey Zvyagintsev takes another scathing look at present day Russia, focusing on the separation of a married couple and their 12-year-old son. (The unloved son is a recurring theme in his films, most gripping in THE RETURN of 2003). In LOVELESS the unwanted and unloved son becomes an unwitting witness of his belligerent parents quarreling over the question where to dump him – perhaps at the equally disdainful grandmother – when they sell the home and move in with their lovers. The son runs away and for the second half of the film the camera follows a group of volunteers searching for the boy while the parents keep bitching at each other. In a Hollywood film parents faced with their missing child would at least try to unite while searching for the kid – not in this film. The volunteers comb through cold, grey apartment blocks, a dilapidated mansion, where his classmates would hide, snowy woods, hospitals and morgues with the mother in tow while the father has to take care of his demanding very pregnant next wife. They find beaten up, disfigured kids but not the son. A harsh, chilling portrait of a fractured relationship in a fractured society. Very different from Asghar Farhadi’s A SEPARATION, the complex, painful and fascinating Iranian drama where both parents fight for custody of their girl. The film won the Oscar in 2012. LOVELESS is not as complex and fascinating, it is relentlessly depressing and not my Oscar choice.

THE INSULT from Lebanon by Ziad Doueiri starts with a minor dispute that escalates into an explosive court case with national political implications. The story pits a contentious Lebanese Christian auto mechanic with a traumatic past against an older Palestinian Muslim suffering from the ever present insults against his people. Both sides get an impassioned defense in court, very level-headed perhaps to encourage the viewer to dig deeper into the problems of present day Lebanon. An intense drama with emotions flying too high in the first half of the film and solutions offered in the second half that seem too easily to digest.

ON BODY AND SOUL, the beguiling second film by Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi that won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2017 (Her debut feature MY 20th CENTURY won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, 1989), is a love story of two misfits, Endre and Maria. It unfolds both, in a dream-like magical inner world, captured by stunning fairy tale images of deer in snowy woods gently rubbing their heads, and the brute outer world of a slaughterhouse where heads are cut off. The dueling elements embodied in the title as well as in the  juxtaposition of dream and reality, life and death, silence and sound, mental and physical world, are woven into the story without untangling all of its implications, perhaps because the soul is hard to capture on film beyond poetic, dream-like images. The film follows the slow burning attraction between Maria and Endre, two lonely workers both handicapped – physically and mentally – who cannot connect in the real world of the abattoir only in their dreams. Over the course of almost two hours the journey of the lovers looses some of its bizarre eccentricity that in the first half is marked by hilarious side plots with a company psychiatrist analyzing the workers sex life.  The story ends on a light note, Maria and Endre have finally connected in the real world and have stopped  dreaming. And as if to remind the audience to stop dreaming as well the closing credits say, “Some animals were harmed during filming, but none of them for the sake of this film.” How will Americans react to that? Shocked, disgusted or amused – like me – by the tongue and cheek Hungarian humor? The film won’t get the Oscar but it is one of my favorites.

THE SQUARE from Sweden by Ruben Östlund, won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, 2017, a festival known for bestowing his highest prize on uncomfortable, challenging, provocative, unforgettable films and THE SQUARE fits all those categories. The film pierces through  every aspect of the art world, from museums and the cultural elite who fund them, to sex, money, taste, to immigrants exploited as artistic targets and the curators and advertising people who are always searching for ideas that will shake up the audience. The plot is full of shocking surprises, weird turns, incredible funny twists that can not be explained but must be seen – it kept me glued to the screen. Östlund’s previous film FORCE MAJEUR (2014), an astute and intense story,  seems easily to digest compared to THE SQUARE where sincerity, credibility, compassion and humanity have vanished and been replaced by hypocrisy, selfishness, vanity and exploitation. A devastating critique of the 21st century metropolis that has been compared to Michael Haneke’s cold exacting eye and Lars van Trier’s sadism – but Ruben Östlund adds humor and that makes the two and a half hours more tolerable. How often have Cannes and the Academy agreed on the same film? Michael Haneke’s WHITE RIBBON comes to mind – a stark portrait of a group of religious fanatics in North Germany around World War I. THE SQUARE however, is no historical drama, it is shock therapy for the Angelenos thus hardly to be the 1. choice for the academy but it is my Oscar winner.

A FANTASTIC WOMAN from Chile is Sebastián Lelio’s second film about a  strong woman (GLORIA, 2013) who fights for her own dignity, her respect and the right to be different. The film begins with a glimpse into the love life of a happy couple, Marina and Orlando who is about double her age. He suddenly dies and then her trouble begins. We find out that he has left wife and family for Marina, a trans woman whose mourning for her lost love is hindered at every turn by his family, by the institutions she has to deal with in order to assert her right as his companion and lover. A straight-forward story that focuses on the compassionate performance of Daniela Vega, herself a transgender woman whose portrait of Marina is at once defiant and noble, heartbreaking and somber. Now and then Lelio branches out into noir mysteries, reverie and surrealism and in those moments we catch glimpses of Marina’s mystery – we see her strain against a storm to the sound of baroque music, and in another imaginary scene at the crematorium a red-lit embrace of Orlando like engulfed by fire. How did she meet him? How did his family react when they first found out about the affair? I wish the film had started with the beginning and not with the end of the love story but, I believe, that the transgender topic and Daniela Vega’s powerful performance will assure the Oscar.

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

ICELAND IN WINTER

First stop the Blue Lagoon at 8am to recover from the 12+ hour flight with fuel stop in Edmonton, Canada. Pitch dark, the worst rain storm I can remember and driving in no man’s land. In pouring  rain the water of the blue lagoon must have cooled off compared to five years ago when I visited in the summer and it was a magical experience. This time it was too cold, the entrance fee steep ($80 per person towels not included) and too many visitors. What happened to Iceland? Even in the winter so many tourists from all over the western and eastern world. Too many for the Icelanders to take care of so they opened their doors to guest workers, mainly from Poland. Young, friendly people who speak fluent English, get paid much better than in Poland and can stay as long as they want.

Next stop: Reykjavik. Our airbnb was as expensive as what I rent out in SF, only smaller. The food was more expensive and eating out much more. But we visited the happiest people in the world – it was worth it. The city has about 150,000 inhabitants, the whole island about double of that. There are many more sheep and puffins but they are only around in the summer. We visited the Harpa, an amazing cultural center with small mirrors as walls, created by Olafur Eliasson; the Hallgrímskirkja, straight grey lines inside and out pointing into grey heavens; walked up and down the main shopping street and even bought an Icelandic sweater in the Red Cross’ second hand shop ($80) where all the natives looked for bargains. A fabulous dinner at the “Fish Market” by the harbor, worth the price.

Our road trip south took us to the well known tourist spots – the Strokkur geyser that unexpectedly spits hot water high up in the air, in the winter you can only see steam rising to the ahs and ohs of the many tourists ready for the photo op. The breath taking Gullfoss waterfall nearby broke its path through snow and ice. Like the Niagara Falls, said my daughter, an amazing  natural wonder. In Vik at the southern coast we stayed at an airbnb by the church. It was Sunday, terrible weather but that did not prevent the villagers to walk up the steep hill in wind and rain without umbrellas. The church was warm and with a room to change into Sunday clothes. We took the car and drove east on highway 1, hoping to get a glimpse of the mossy landscape – backdrop for some of Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits – of icebergs and glaciers. But just the moss appeared through the mist. Our reward at night, a dinner at the best restaurant in Vik (perhaps the only one) that had delicious Skyr – cheesecake – so light and smooth, worth to return just for that. Snow was in the forecast and we canceled the place we had booked near Höfn. Driving on snowy roads is no fun. Milena living in LA did a great job but we agreed that it is better to walk in the snow – and that’s what we did in Hveragerdi, our last stop before getting back to Reykjavik. A sleepy, small village outside of Selfoss, with greenhouses everywhere lit up like Christmas decoration, hot springs, hiking trails and pools, great to visit again when the snow is gone.

Iceland’s attraction is NATURE:  glaciers, volcanos, waterfalls, geysers, green hills and black cliffs with puffins and sheep, and to experience that to the fullest it’s better to visit the island in the summer. In winter the light is very special and Milena, my daughter, filmmaker and photographer who took most of these photos, was ecstatic about the light, although we didn’t even see the northern light. And if you go in the winter make sure to book only places with 24-hour cancelation policy, severe weather can surprise you suddenly.

 

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

BERLIN & BEYOND 22

 

The 22nd BERLIN & BEYOND opens with WILLKOMMEN BEI DEN HARTMANNS, a “Familienkomödie” by Simon Verhoeven, son of Senta Berger who plays Frau Hartmann, and Michael Verhoeven, well known to B&B audiences and co-producer of the film. Since Western Europe opened its doors to refugees from Africa and Asia countless films have dealt with the hardship of the migrants, among my favorites are FIRE AT SEA, an outstanding documentary from Italy and the light-hearted, quirky film from Finland, THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE. Verhoeven’s film, hugely successful in Germany, is about a wealthy family in Munich that takes in a refugee from Nigeria for therapeutic effects. Frau Hartmann needs company after her children have left home to pursue questionable careers and her doctor husband, searching for eternal youth, doesn’t want to retire. Enter Diallo who first shakes things up not only in the family but around the neighborhood, and eventually brings the Hartmann’s back together.  A feel-good comedy with predictable plot lines and characters that fit the comedy mold played by Germany’s best, beloved Senta Berger and Heiner Lauterbach, Elyas M’Barek, the star of Fak ju Göte, and Florian David Fitz, special guest at B&B a few years ago.

Jan Zabeil’s DREI ZINNEN / Three Peaks follows the path of his 2011 film, DER FLUSS WAR EINST EIN MANN /The River used to be a Man, also featuring Alexander Fehling in a great performance of losing himself in the marshland of Botswana. Here it is the dolomites where a drama between mother, son, and boyfriend unfolds with nature stepping in as major player. Long shots of foggy, snowy mountains that seem to swallow up our protagonists create a stunning poetic landscape that stayed with me – in contrast to the story that had an adverse effect on me, a divorced mother of two.  Lea (Bérénice Bejot) wants Tristan, her 7-year-old son (Adrian Montgomery), to bond with her boyfriend Aaron (Alexander Fehling), the ideal father who is strong, courageous, loving, caring, handsome, talented, but the boy should not get too close to him, since there is a father she left 2 years ago. He still cares, calling constantly, and he should not be replaced, says the mother. Hinged on this contrived plot line of love and guilt the little boy is carrying a burden that seems too hard for him to , albeit in three languages. In the end Zabeil moves into melodramatic territory that only Fehling knows how to cope with. Grade:

Egon Schiele died in 1918 at the age of 28 three days after his 6 months pregnant wife. The closing night film depicts his art and life seen through the lens of Schiele’s last few days, when tormented by the fever of the Spanish flu that killed 20,000 000 throughout Europe, cared for by his beloved sister and still sketching his wife on the deathbed (omitted in this film). The work Schiele is most known for depicts the body of women, his sister, models, lovers, his wife, in naked, erotic, pornographic, twisted, disturbing poses. He was arrested for seducing a 13 year-old girl but after 3 weeks in prison and many of his drawings destroyed by the police, the charges were dropped but he was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings in places accessible to children and one of the art pieces was burned by the judge in front of Schiele’s eyes. Dieter Berner, known for acting on stage and in films, including Michael Haneke’s, directed DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, the short life of a passionate, obsessive artist played by Noah Saavedra, a new face from Austria, in a seductive, beautiful performance. The young Schiele can’t live without paper and pencil and not without Wally, his long-time model and love of his life who left him when he decided to marry one of the sisters from a well-to-do family. He had hoped to survive active service in WWI with his wife’s support and still continue a relationship with Wally, but his life took a tragic turn. Wally never saw him again. The film’s title refers to one of Schiele’s most disturbing paintings showing a woman – Wally – in the throes of death. I wish this image had been shown longer on screen.

JOSEPH BEUYS by veteran German documentarian Andres Veiel is definitely worth seeing, especially since the focus is not so much on Beuys’ art but on his political activities as an agitator. Composed by an array of collages that stir up his fraught life the viewer will hardly find time to take a deep breath and put the puzzle of all the images together – but that’s Joseph Beuys.

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

WINNERS AND LOSERS at the Golden Globes

IN THE FADE / Aus dem Nichts,  the great German director Fatih Akin’s less great film just won the Golden Globe Award. (It will open on January 12 in San Francisco.) Wondering if I might have missed something at the first viewing I watched it again and felt  that Diane Kruger’s performance had not lost any of its power but the story, especially the last act, had became more problematic.  Akin builds the plot around the NSU murder- trial in Munich where a number of young terrorists belonging to that extreme-right group and were acquitted of murder. The film starts with a bomb explosion in Berlin and then follows Katja, the woman who lost her husband and young son in the attack by neo-Nazis. During the trial in act two we find out more about the young couple that planted the bomb, but the focus remains on the victim, her anger when she is confronted with the perpetrators, her outrage when she hears the acquittal. The judge made the right decision, said a lawyer friend, there was not enough prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In the third act we follow Katja to Greece where she confronts the perpetrators and their accomplices and decides to build and explode the same kind of bomb that killed her husband and son. Is this a thriller with a jolt of political relevance? Or a psychogram of a terrorist victim?  The credits show numbers of murders committed by the neo-Nazis and the NSU and I wish Akin had given more political  context,  more political weight to the attack, the loss, and trial. When justice is taken into the victim’s own hands the plot derails into little more than suspense that keeps the audience glued to the screen for another fifteen minutes or so without reaching a convincing conclusion. The ending reminded me of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI, nothing but a revenge story with Francis McDormand dominating the screen just like Diane Kruger, and not better. It won several Golden Globes – very disappointing.

The winner of the evening was Oprah Winfrey with her inspirational speech about changing the world to a better place where significant woman – many of whom sitting in the audience, she said – and some pretty phenomenal men fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say again “me too.”  The rousing address received an immediate sobering response from Nathalie Portman who announced the five nominees for Best Director and added loud and clear – they are all male.

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

BERLIN BABYLON – Weltpremiere in Berlin

Donnerstag, der 28. September 2017, 18.30h,  Berliner Ensemble. Alles, was Rang und Namen in Film und Fernsehen – besonders Fernsehen – in Deutschland hat, war versammelt und ich hatte das Glück dabei zu sein, dank Ingo, meinem ehemaligen Praktikanten nun erfolgreicher Regisseur für ARD und ZDF. Die Weltpremiere des größten Serienprojektes, das es im deutschen Fernsehen je gegeben hat – so die Ankündigung – wurde in dem Theater, wo Brechts Dreigroschenoper die Premiere vor fast 100 Jahren erlebte, gefeiert, denn offensichtlich gibt es Gemeinsamkeiten: beide spielen im Berlin der wilden 20er Jahre, in beiden geht es um Verbrechen, Armut und Revolte, um Gier, Drogen, Sex und Politik. So sind die 20er Jahre in der Hauptstadt der Sünde immer beschrieben worden, in Fassbinders Berlin Alexanderplatz, in Cabaret, in der Trilogie über Anita Berber, Magnus Hirschfeld und Hanussen am Goethe-Institut, San Francisco, was ich in den frühen 90er Jahren unter Ulrich Sacker mit inszenieren konnte, und vielem anderen. Haben die Regisseure und Drehbuchautoren Tom Tykwer und seine zwei Kollegen Achim von Borries und Henk Handloegten in Babylon Berlin das Thema neu gestaltet oder anders beleuchtet? Ich war gespannt. Gereon Rath, die zentrale Figur aus den Buchvorlagen von Volker Kutscher, ist Kommissar in Köln, der nach Berlin geholt wird, um einen Fall bei der Sittenpolizei zu lösen, in den auf der Kölner Seite sogar Konrad Adenauer verstrickt  sei, sagt Polizeischef Benda, gespielt von Willy Brandts Sohn Matthias – ein netter Touch. Rath selber hochgradig drogenabhängig tasted sich in den ersten zwei Stunden der langen Serie ins Berliner Milieu vor, das in allen Schattierungen gekonnt, spannend, kontrastreich, von großen Schauspieltalenten auf hohem Produktionsniveau vorgeführt wird. Geld steckt dahinter, das kann man sehen und geniessen, wenn man polierte Bilder, perfekte Inszenierungen, große Dramatik und glitzernde Unterhaltung mag. Ich hätte lieber ein paar Schrotkörner im Brot gehabt, an denen man sich die Zähne zerbeissen kann, statt Feinkost von Dreisterne-Chefs serviert zu bekommen. Dennoch, ich möchte gern wissen, wie es weitergeht und was wohl auf dem Pornofilm zu sehen ist, nach dem alle suchen, und wie Adenauer darin verstrickt sein könnte. Erstmal wird die Serie auf Sky, einem Privatsender, gezeigt, dann auch auf ARD und, so wurde von Produzenten und Geldgebern versichert, die Superserie wird in der ganzen Welt zu sehen sein – dann sicher auch in San Francisco. Darauf freu ich mich.

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

Ich war dann auch mal kurz weg: ON THE CHEMIN DE SAINT JACQUES

One week or 120 km on the Via Podensis in France was a short introduction to the Camino of more than 1500 km that ends in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I flew to Lyon’s super modern, sleepy airport with impressive TGV station (1st photo), from there by local trains and bus to Le Puy-en-Velay, a small town far away from everything. Hiking the Chemin is “en mode” which has vitalized rural regions and brought additional income to farmers that had no part in the tourist boom.  The first night in a youth hostel like room with bunk beds and a snoring neighbor was forgotten when we sat down for an unusual breakfast with yoghurt, cereal, cheese and cold cuts – enough to pack a lunch. From then on it was  baguette, butter and jam for petit déjeuner. Off we went with our day pack full of goodies into a grey cold morning and followed the hikers/randonneurs who seemed to know the way of Gr 65 marked by red and white signs. Soon the hikers disappeared and we were on our own, walking over gentle hills full of happily grazing cattle and sheep, through forests and small villages with noone in sight to ask for the way when we couldn’t find the markers. But by late afternoon we would always find our next auberge or gîte to where our luggage had been transported – we had opted for the easy way to hike. A stunning first dining room with view (see photo) was a big surprise – we had expected a simple hostel. Lentils (the specialty of the auvergne) with sausage made of the happy cattle, most delicious cheeses served with red wine, of course, and tarte aux pommes, set the standard for the next 6 days that could only be surpassed by boeuf and veau raised at the farms where we stayed a few times. It’s good to know French if you do the camino in France – neither hosts nor the randonneurs at the dinner table spoke English and the French love to talk over dinner. Plenty of opportunities for me to refresh my French but I couldn’t follow the fast talking hostess when she explained that the green bean salad was just for the vegan couple sitting next to me.  I thought it was for all of us and ate it with gusto. A faux pas, but I enjoyed the salad! Then came a rainy, windy day and my flimsy bicycle poncho from Berlin (see photo) didn’t really do the job. Soaked and cold I made it to the next village and swore to buy good rain gear – but there was no store, just a church and a few farm houses built around 1650 and no people in the streets, no children, just dogs watching us.  Most of them were a mix of border collies, smart, loyal (see photo with farmer Martin) herding sheep, cows, cats – beautiful dogs. I would have taken the black one (photo) with me but he decided to follow a randonneur dog. Yes, some people took their dogs on the long hike, some pushed shopping carts over the hills or tested the ground with magic sticks to find the best resting place. A colorful mix of hikers sets out with us for Santiago de Compostela and most of them seem to reach their goal even if it takes years. A seventy year old woman from England joined us along the way. She had promised her mother on her deathbed to do the hike in one piece – three more months to go. There are great WCs along the chemin, toilettes sèches, so much better than anything I have used on hiking trails in California. You have to pump the pedal 5 times to clean the plate and it really works – not even bad odors. From Saint-Alban where poet Paul Eluard spent the winter of 1943-44 in the resistance finally to our destination Aumont-Aubrac. We had booked an airbnb for the last night and had to wait for our hostess in the cold rain outside of her house. A gîte with cows and dogs and randonneurs with whom to share the last supper would have been better.

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

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

 

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

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.

 

 

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

BERLINER LUFT

img_4343img_4346img_4356 1 zweigunspecified

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)

 

 

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment

SFJFF 2016 – Germany and the Nazis

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

IMG_4156IMG_4158IMG_4160

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.

IMG_4148IMG_4153IMG_4146IMG_4147

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.

 

Posted in German Gems | Leave a comment