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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MEXICO una y otra vez

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The first stop on my recent trip to Mexico was Oaxaca which I remembered from 40 years ago as a charming, colorful, vibrant town. Would I recognize the zocalo and the large mercado where we had sopa de ajo, chipulines (grasshoppers) and less identifiable foods? The zocalo has turned into a big shopping area for tourists, the mercado still offers whatever your tongue might desire, big heaps of spicy chipulines are sold like potatoes in Germany. 40 years ago we stayed in an adobe house close to the mercado, now I would recommend to leave the area by sunset and don’t wear any jewelery when strolling  around there – my small golden rings were ripped off my ears from behind. The handbag with passport and wallet still over my shoulder I saw the young guy run across the street and disappear in the crowd. It could have been much worse. Popular neighborhoods for tourists have moved toward Santo Domingo, adjacent to Oaxaca’s huge cultural museum and beautiful Mexican gardens. Also worth a visit is the textile museum with samples of fabric dyed in rich colors and crafted into clothes that I would love to wear if I were born in that part of the world. Restaurants and shops off M. Alcalá are tugged away in courtyards with water fountains, exotic flowers and birds in beautiful colors. They offer Oaxacan specialities and handmade designer clothes, all very tasteful and artsy. Your next vacation to Mexico should include an art class in Oaxaca, or even better, a cooking class to learn all about the different moles, not just the brown one with chocolate from Oaxaca but red ones, black, green, orange and yellow moles, the colors of Mexico.

Sleeping under a mosquito net was desirable in our cabaña close to the beach of Zipolete. I don’t mind bats at night high up under the ceiling but the palm roof over my head was not that high, I could reach it if I stretched out standing on my bed, and the tarantula that watched me through the netting might have come closer if it had had an opportunity. I was glad that only tiny spiders and ants could make their way into my skin. The temperature  at the beach was 20 degrees higher than in the city of Oaxaca and once we had survived 6 hrs of curvy bus ride to Pochutla without getting sick, life in paradise could begin. 40 years ago the trip over the mountains took 12hrs, to Puerto Angel, the final stop where we arrived at midnight. Looking for a place to sleep in the pitch dark we stepped on pigs lying in the dirt road and ended up in the back yard of a family whose young son was most interested in my husband’s mickey mouse wrist watch. My husband didn’t want to part with it but when we put up our hamaca under a palm roof on the beach of Zipolete the next day the watch was gone. My compliments to the poor kids for stealing so professionally then and now. Now Puerto Angel and Zipolete can best be reached by a taxi collectivo via Mesunte, a long trip but less mountains to cross. Puerto Angel is still a small fishing village now with a concrete road and no pigs in the street, Zipolete however has changed drastically. Instead of hamacas on the beach hotels have popped up all along the water and across the street on steep hills. Where are the hot springs we visited 40 years ago with a bunch of hippies? Nobody could tell us. A university with fabulous views has been built on the highest hill above Puerto Angel, perhaps that’s where the hot springs now terminate. Life in our cabaña at the beach of San Agustinello consisted of bathing in the morning, eating tons of fresh fruit, fish and tortillas, drinking coconut milk sometimes spiced with tequila, lying in a hamaca reading all afternoon, watching the sunset and doing yoga. Yoga classes and workshops are offered everywhere between Puerto Angel and Puerto Escondido, mostly for expats, rarely do Mexicans participate. After a while you get into the swing – no need for wifi, movies, TV, theater, just sun, food, yogis and books. I discovered Penelope Fitzgerald’s THE BLUE FLOWER, a fascinating portrait of the time and life of Novalis, Germany’s quintessential romantic writer. I didn’t see any films but can highly recommend my daughter Milena’s short I FEEL STUPID now available online after it toured through the US on PBS. Check it out http://nobudge.com/main/2015/2/16/online-premiere-i-feel-stupid

 

 

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BERLIN & BEYOND 2015

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For the first time I was not familiar with any of the films in the program of Berlin & Beyond 2015 even though I saw films while in Germany and at least one, DAS LABYRINTH DES SCHWEIGENS would have fitted well into this year’s theme of truth. The films I picked took me from Afghanistan to Mexico City with stops in Marrakesh, Austria, Switzerland and Berlin – in six films around the world. Where else can you travel so fast so far getting deep insights into foreign countries, only at film festivals, and if it’s at the Castro Theatre it feels like traveling business class. Things can go wrong though, also in business class. DIESES SCHÖNE SCHEISSLEBEN/THIS LOVELY SHITTY WORLD started 45 minutes late because of technical problems but filmmaker Doris Doerrie proofed that zen practice has worked for her. She stayed calm and collected and in the end answered lots of questions from the audience responding, as always, lively and engaging. The documentary is about women mariachi players in Mexico City, old ones who peaked thirty years ago and young ones who leave their family every night to play at Plaza Garibaldi (named after the Italian hero’s grandson who  came to Mexico from Australia to fight in the revolution of 1910-20). At Plaza Garibaldi you can find mariachi players 24/7 for hire for your wedding or dia de los muertos, or just to enjoy the music. Tourists are sparse at the plaza, said Doerrie, it is not a safe place. But thanks to her courage and curiosity we have this beautiful film about women who discovered that they can sing and play and then never left the plaza despite kids and family, religion and tradition. Doris Doerrie recorded their stories and their beautiful voices not trained in mariachi schools, she said, there are schools in Japan and in the US but not in Mexico. I would have liked to hear and see more about Plaza Garibaldi and the history of mariachi. One of the film’s areal views of Mexico city could have zoomed in on that plaza with a few more comments about its uniqueness compared, for instance, to Mexico City’s zocalo. But I will be there next week and check it out.

AMOUR FOU, a film by Jessica Hausner about Heinrich von Kleist’s suicide ends like LOVELY RITA (2001), an early film of hers I remember vividly, with gun shots. Rita shot her parents, Heinrich von Kleist shot his soul mate Henriette Vogel and then himself. It was well planned in Kleist’s case. An outsider on Germany’s literary scene he had been thinking about suicide for half of his life (he died at age 34), especially during the last years, (1810-11) after being rejected by publishers and public. Finding a way out through suicide, not by himself but with a companion, is the focus of this film. Henriette, a married woman, mother of a young girl and diagnosed with a growing tumor in her belly, was a good candidate to accompany him. Ending her life together with Kleist became more feasible than doing it by herself, and eventually gave in to his lures of love and death. Was is love that drove Kleist to do it? Not love for a specific woman, he had asked somebody else to die with him who had declined. He needed a companion not a lover. He wanted to leave the world that had no place for him but could not do it by himself. Was he weak, a coward who loved himself more than any of the women he asked to die with him?  Well researched with authentic quotes, costumes and settings, I wonder though why Hausner altered history slightly at the end of the film.  Henriette’s autopsy confirmed cancer of the uterus, in the film, however, the doctor reported that no tumor was found, suggesting that her problems were mental. Hausner’s reductionist approach to complex problems is what made this and all of her films fascinating. I came home and wanted to read Kleist again and everything I could find about his life. And what about Henriette Vogel? There is not much besides what is said in the film. She was married had a several babies that died very young, one daughter survived. She liked to sing. But the letter she wrote to her husband the day before she died (together with Kleist’s farewell letter, both not mentioned in the film) now belongs to Germany’s canon of romantic literature.

In EXIT MARRAKECH, by Oscar veteran filmmaker Caroline Link (BEYOND SILENCE , 1996, NOWHERE IN AFRICA 2001) we accompany 17 year old Ben to the less touristic parts of Marocco. A gifted child of divorced, successful artists, Ben came to Marokko to mend fences with his father whom he has not seen in a while. Bored with school and life the advice of the school’s headmaster for his pet student is to do something exciting, get involved. And that’s what Ben does. He falls in love with a native and thereby discovers a culture that is so foreign to his sheltered, privileged life in Germany that he lets himself fall deeper and deeper into it until his father rescues him. In the end father and son overcome their problems, Ben’s diabetes is under control again and most important of all, he experienced what was missing in his teenage life. He stepped into adulthood. Beautiful photography of Marocco where it was shot, of the desert, the people, the family life on the country side. All seemed very authentic, impressive acting by Ben (Samuel Schneider) and his father, starring Ulrich Tukur, one of Germany’s best. The story about finding excitement and passion by going native in an exotic country has been told many times. Always great to watch but I had expected something less predictable from Oscar winner Caroline Link.

Friday night’s film IN BETWEEN WORLDS / Zwischen Welten was dedicated to Ronald Zehrfeld, starring in the leading role and honored for his work with the Spotlight Award in Acting. (Lots of awards were given this year with lots of speeches). War films have been rampant in the US, even directed by women. Katherine Bigelow’s Oscar winner, THE HURT LOCKER is one of the few I have dared to see. Feo Aladag  the director of IN BETWEEN WORLDS (also of DIE FREMDE, her previous award- winning film) has a different approach. Her protagonist, Jesper, is not a shameless killer, he is reluctant to even kill a cow. His compassion for the wrong side and hesitation to make decisions gets him into trouble that eventually will end his career as a soldier. Why did he come to Afghanistan in the first place, I wondered throughout the film. He was not made for being a commander of his troupes that was to protect a village against the enemy. His supervisor asked him the same question at the beginning of the film and all we hear from Jesper is that his brother was killed in Afghanistan. He could have opted out but decided to go back for a second time. We never find out why. And did he really have to be the one driving the pick-up truck to the hospital, leaving his command post to save the life of the interpreter’s sister? Couldn’t he have sent one of his soldiers to drive the truck? I don’t know much about the rules and would have liked to ask these questioned during the Q/A that followed the screening, but the audience never got to ask questions. It was a talk in the dark, host and actor sitting on stage of the Castro where the lights could not reach them exchanging long statements about Germany’s involvement in that war and the authenticity of the film which was shot on location in Afghanistan. It felt authentic, yes, and for Ronald Zehrfeld shooting in the war zone was a deep, memorable experience, he said. His questions about the war were answered, not mine.

 

 

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THANKSGIVING IN BERLIN

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Mein Thanksgiving fing mit einer Radtour an, denn zum ersten Mal seit Tagen schien die Sonne, aber es war kalt, fast null grad. Erster Halt in Schöneberg – Besuch beim Zen Center in der Akazienstrasse www.akazienzendo.de -, dann Mittagessen Ecke Merseburger Strasse in Mutter’s Stube, so sah das kleine Restaurant an der Ecke aus, von denen es soviele in Berlin gibt mit  Selbstgekochtem und Gebackenem, lecker. Um 16h über Tempelhof zurück nach Kreuzberg. Die Sonne war hinter kaltem Dunst schon verschwunden, kurz nach vier wars dunkel.  Abends statt Turkey etwas Türkisches, dazu Festtagssuppe, Tomatensalat mit grünen Zwiebeln und Joghurt und guten Wein. Hab den Truthahn nicht vermisst. Statt zum Shoppen am Black Friday geht man in Berlin auf den Weihnachtsmarkt. Jeder Stadtteil hat einen, wo Essbares aller Art, besonders Weihnachtsbäckerei, selbstgemachte Geschenkartikel von Strohsternen zu gestrickten Mützen und der traditionelle Glühwein angeboten werden. Am Brandenburger Tor gabs keinen Markt dafür eine Demonstration von Expats, die für Ferguson, MO,  ihre Stimme erhoben. Es war kalt und windig, trotzdem hatten sich einige hundert Menschen eingefunden. Der Nachmittag endete mit einem Besuch im neueröffneten C/O Berlin, was von der Oranienburger Strasse ins Amerikahaus umgezogen ist. Statt Altbau nun Neubau mit tiefen Decken und vielen kleineren Räumen. Die Eröffnungsausstellung zeigt den oft schwierigen Prozess des Auswählens eines Fotos von Kontaktblättern. Che Guevara mit Zigarre und “power” Blick oder mit attraktivem  Lächeln? Keine Frage. Meine Wahl stimmte fast immer mit dem des Fotografen überein.

Das Wochenende klang aus mit zwei Filmen, die im Rahmen des Festivals “Around the World in 14 Films” im Babylon Mitte gezeigt wurden, ein Festival ganz eigener Art, wo ich immer wieder auf interessante Filme und Menschen treffe. Der russische Eröffnungsfilm, LEVIATHAN, ist eine scharfe Gesellschaftskritik, was der Filmemacher im anschließenden Q&A mit Ulrich Matthes aber verneinte – immerhin ist ein Drittel des Filmes vom russischen Kulturministerium finanziert. Korruption, Erpressung, Gewalttätigkeit, Machtgier gibt es überall, sagte Regisseur Andrey Zvyagintsev (“The Return” war sein unvergessliches Erstlingswerk). In diesem ergreifenden Film wird die russische Variante vom Staat als Leviathan mit viel Wodka und auch ein wenig Humor gezeigt. Weniger korrupt aber auch ergreifend auf ruhigere Art war der türkische Film WINTERSCHLAF von Altmeister Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once upon a Time in Anatolia), der von Wim Wenders eingeführt wurde. Er erinnert an Ingmar Bergman, sagte Wenders, mit seinen ausgefeilten Dialogen, die immer tiefer in die zwischenmenschlichen Probleme hineinziehen und nie zu einer Lösung führen. Beide Filme spielen in abgeschiedenen, faszinierenden Landschaften – im russischen Norden am Meer und in den beeindruckenden Bergen Kappadokiens – Natur als Gegenspieler und  Vermittler zwischen den Figuren. Beide Filme haben in Cannes und anderswo grosse Preise gewonnen.

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NOVEMBER TRAVEL: SHADES OF GRAY

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Not every day was gray while traveling in Holland – no, we saw the sun break through layers of fog on our way to Texel island, we saw the sun rise like a fire ball out of the North Sea, did a walking tour through modern Rotterdam on a sunny afternoon and ended the Dutch part of our trip in picturesque Delft, strolling along canals and sipping hot chocolate on the sun- soaked market square that by now will have been turned into an ice rink. Christmas season in Holland starts long before Thanksgiving.  –  My daughter Milena was location scouting for her next film and I went along to discover a country that I grew up next to, had visited a few times without feeling attracted to it. As a North German I always traveled south to Greece, Spain, Italy, France where you not only would find the sun but also great food and attractive people. Dutch people are tall and strong. They seem to be sure of themselves, don’t need to throw around compliments, are not used to thank or being thanked for every move. The women are considered to be among the happiest in the world. Highlights of the Dutch cuisine are French fries with mayo and catch-up —not my food of choice – and herring, delicious when eaten fresh in May or June, not available in restaurants in November, not even previously frozen. In Rotterdam we found the best food in Turkish restaurants and there are plenty, like in Berlin. The two cities seem to have much more in common than good Turkish food – both, badly destroyed during WW2, still have neighborhoods that survived the war and preserved their old charm, but many quarters were replaced by “Wohnblöcke” reminiscent of East Berliner “Plattenbau” or by glass and steel constructions of exciting designs. Don’t miss the “Markthal”, colorful, busy, with huge round entrance gates, Rem Koolhaas’s glass cubes next to the Erasmus bridge, and  the “Centraal Station” an amazing design with angled sharp lines turning into bends and points, walls made of metal rippled like water, and inside a huge video projection of life at Rotterdam’s harbor, the busiest in the world. Rotterdam seems to be a city in motion, walking around downtown made me feel a little seasick, like being on a ship with a heavy cargo full of surprises.

Fifteen minutes away from Rotterdam is Delft, a charming old town of canals lined by  trees (and cars – not like Venice), picturesque bridges hardly made for cars, and houses, narrow and high, with stairscases so steep and barely anything to hold on to that walking upstairs feels like climbing a dutch mountain. How do old people move around in those houses, which are all over Amsterdam and The Hague as well. Vermeer had the luxury of living in his mother in law’s large house with eight rooms on the first floor. Were there steep stairs to the upper floors? He had 15 children, four died before being baptized but 11 grew up around him while he was painting  in his atelier, the front room on the second floor. The house was destroyed and eventually replaced by a building with a tourist shop where Vermeer’s paintings decorate posters, eye-glass cleaners, table clothes napkins and, if you want, your own face with blue scarf and pearl earring.

Delft’s porcelain factory was closed on Sunday. No blue and white plates for me this time, but I will be back since there is so much more to discover in Holland than beautiful gray November days .

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WAR STORIES

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Three films about events that are worth remembering when you visit Paris or Japan again. Why Paris was not burned, as Hitler had ordered, has been told in a powerful French film of 1966 and is now the center of Volker Schlöndorff ‘s latest. The story about a Japanese POW camp from WW1 in which the German prisoners were treated friendly and humanely by their victors, might have been overshadowed by what the Japanese  did to their prisoners during WW2. From 1917 to 1920 the POW camp in Bando was under the rule of a sympathetic director, who allowed the 1000 prisoners to lead a life according to their German heritage with butcher shops, bakeries, nurseries, houses and gardens that they designed and constructed themselves. Bando was obviously the exception to the rule. The documentary film shown at Berlin & Beyond ‘s autumn showcase, followed one of the prisoner-stories, reconstructed from letters and photos found in the attic of a house in Germany many years after his death. Filmmaker Brigitte Krause spent much time on the box in the attic, the people who found it and the wonderful products the German POWs left behind. I wished she had included more historical context which perhaps would have opened up more cultural depth, differences and conflicts the Japanese women experienced.

We will always have Paris, the most beautiful and beloved city on earth. According to Schlöndorff’s film it was not destroyed because the Swedish Consul Nothing persuaded General Choltitz, in charge of the city, to save the place and the people. A night-long conversation between two very different men, a general in uniform, expected to follow orders, (played by French actor Niels Arestrup), and a diplomat, manipulative, persuasive, dressed in black, entering through a hidden door ( played by André Dusollier). Both speak  in perfect French, both understand each others arguments. Half way through the film the two don’t seem so different anymore. They merge into cultured, well educated human beings who love the same things, Paris. The conversations never took place although the historical timeline is accurate. Based on the play by Cyril Gely, DIPLOMACY is less a docudrama than a chamber play that tries to distill the moral and psychological essence of a complex historical moment. IS PARIS BURNING? on the other hand, tried to encompass that complexity by focusing more on the resistance, their internal problems and their fight against the Nazis than on the talk between the General and the Consul.  A huge international co-production directed by René Clément, the script written by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola, the Swedish Consul played by Orson Welles, the German general by Gert Fröbe, a stellar cast which also includes Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Simone Signoret, Leslie Caron, Charles Boyer, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Perkins etc. At the end of almost three hours of a peculiar mix of comedy and tragedy we see the real General de Gaulle, surrounded by jubilant Parisans, walking tall and straight through his beloved city.

 

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37th MILL VALLEY FF

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The 37th Mill Valley Film Festival Oct 2-12, shows many films in different programs from the usual narrative features, docs, and shorts, to a variety of sub focuses, like World Cinema, Humor, Science, Viva El Cine! and more. It has always been hard for me to decide what to see  across the bridge considering heavy traffic and no parking. So here my 2 recommendation: Die geliebten Schwestern / Beloved Sisters, (playing Oct 10 & 12), the only German language film (there are a few other films with German spoken in them) and Plastic Man, (Oct 5 & 8), a film that could have been listed under “Humor” because the stuff that Jerry Barrish has made out of found objects, is very funny.

My background is in literature, I have read Goethe and Schiller, know about Goethe’s interest in women throughout his long life (at 73 he proposed to an 18 year old) but I never heard about Schiller’s women. He was poor when he married Charlotte von Lengefeld had several children (4) and died early (age 45) from tuberculosis. A rather short, productive life devoted to poetry, political causes, to duty and beauty (ethics and aesthetics) and to a collaboration with the older Goethe,  Schiller’s story gets a new spin in BELOVED SISTERS. Director/writer Dominik Graf connected the few known pieces of a largely unknown puzzle to a passionate love story between Schiller and his wife’s sister Caroline who had a husband and money but was bored with life until she met Schiller who not only ignited in her a passion for love but also for writing. The problem was how to include sister Charlotte who felt more love and loyalty to Caroline than to her husband and had no interest in a menage a trois. She would rather sacrifice her own sex life with her husband (the first child was born 3 years after the wedding) than demand from her sister to end the love affair. Rewriting the biographies of famous people who simply did not leave enough traces of their love life behind has fascinated filmmakers for decades. From Beethoven’s “Ferne Geliebte”  to Georg Trakl’s  relationship with his sister (Taboo – The Soul is a Stranger on Earth), Beloved Sisters gives a compelling account of the largely unknown triangle. Beautiful period details, breathtaking landscapes, great acting, especially by Hannah Herzsprung (Caroline) dominate the endless exchange of coded letters, perhaps included to  lend authenticity to a speculative drama. It worked for me.

Jerry Barrish is anything but a “Plastic Man”. Made out of real stuff he has for decades supported independent film, art, and independent people, he has created an oeuvre of films and unusual sculptures that makes you wonder what kind of a guy he really is – pedantic collector of plastic, whimsical artist, cultural critic, creative activist. His art does not just document a passion for perfection but a touching insight into life’s bearable lightness of being.

 

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