WAR STORIES

Dipl Paris Bando

 

 

 

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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CALIFORNIA DREAMING

August 2014

California Dreamingphoto 2(1)cemetery in Pescadero

Super Moon

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For the first time in many years I spend the month of August around San Francisco, in the sun with occasional trips to fog city not to miss the summer highlights in the movie theaters. Housesitting at my daughter’s condo in Lanham Village was my first destination. How boring, I thought, too hot in Novato, nothing happening besides old people walking  little dogs and screaming kids at the close-by playground. How would I survive three weeks in that place. Well, I not only survived but I can’t wait to do more housesitting up there. The days were warm and sometimes hot, the nights quite cool, very pleasant weather for long evening walks with little Cleo, the dog that came with the house, when the sun set over the hills and the moon rose over the wetlands. An elderly lady walking her dog – that’s me. Cleo and I discovered nature: the wild blackberries, so delicious; snakes lying next to the thorny bushes in the midday heat; the many different types of trees growing in Lanham Village built in 1942 for Hamilton Air Force personnel; the wetland recovery project with birds and plants and water ways; and last not least the small artist community around the museum with open studios every first Sunday of the month, almost as in San Francisco. I didn’t have time to visit the public pool and the huge hangars that were transformed into public spaces and offices. Next time.

Another summer hang-out of mine was Pescadero and the beaches south of the lighthouse. Hardly anybody has discovered those beaches about ten miles north of Año Nuevo. No prominent sign anymore, the six feet high tree trunk disappeared, no long lines of parked cars that will hint at what lays behind the street. To get to the beach you have to walk 10 minutes through beautiful dunes, which might discourage visitors. If you find the path you will be rewarded with long sandy beaches and walks along the cliffs where we discovered hidden well protected spots in the rocks to lie down and watch the seals and pelicans zooming above our heads. For a late lunch I recommend Duartes in Pescadero. There we gorged on warm crusty sourdough bread and lots of butter (no extra cost), and their trademark dishes, thick artichoke soup and olallieberry pie a la mode, of course. And if you like cemeteries, I do, then don’t miss the hill on the right side of the road toward San Gregorio. Beautiful views, old tombstones with dates going back to the early eighteen hundreds. Last stop before you get back to highway 1,  was the General Store in San Gregorio. It features life music on Saturdays, an unusual selection of everything, from books to hats, overalls, kitchen utensils, soaps, and a full bar.

 

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IDA & THE LAST MENTSCH / Der letzte Men(t)sch

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IDA (shown in Bay Area Theaters), beautifully shot in black and white, tells the story of a young novice, not quite nun yet, in Poland around 1960, who has to confront her Jewishness before taking the vows. THE LAST MENTSCH (shown at the SFJFF) describes the journey of a concentration camp survivor who needs proof of his Jewish identity in order to get a spot at a Jewish cemetery. Both, Ida and the old man, are searching for their Jewish identity in a hostile environment.  The old man, driven by a young, impudent Turkish woman to his birth place in Hungary, needs a rabbi’s signature that confirms his Jewishness. But all he finds are officials who go by the books and do not accept either the concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm, nor his memories. They want a living Jew who can testify his identity. (No DNA testing offered to him). Ida, on her quest for her parent’s grave, is led by her aunt, a lawyer for  communist Poland, who fends off her memories of prosecution and murder with alcohol and eventually suicide in one of the most powerful performance I have seen lately.

Ida, however, chooses the convent as refuge from a the horrible past she is too young to remember and a bourgeois future with house, baby, and dog that her boyfriend is projecting for them. A jazz musician in 1960 grey Poland, playing American music in small venues, is already anticipating the “Wirtschaftswunder”.  A brief film, with a story so spare and truncated that we have to fill in half of it ourselves. Why is Ida saved when the rest of her family is slaughtered by the greedy son of the neighbor who had been their savior? We will find the answer in THE LAST MENTSCH: “There is always a survivor,” says the rabbi to the old man (portrayed impressively by 80+ year old  Mario Adorf) who has lost everybody. On his quest to find that last survivor more and more details are dug up, more and more weird characters introduced, like a Greek junk yard owner who does remember him, but he is not Jewish. Then we meet a blind woman, part sorcerer part clairvoyant, played by Hannelore Elsner. From there on things fall apart.  It all ends with the concentration camp number tattooed on the young Turkish guide’s forearm. A fashion statement for the last survivor?  Less would have been more in this film that starts out witty and focused but then tries too hard to get us emotionally geared up  by adding too much, even a T to Mentsch – I have never seen it written that way.

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SFJFF 34 Opening Night

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THE GREEN PRINCE (Jul 24, 2014 at the Castro Theatre)

A daring choice to open the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival with a documentary film (produced mostly in Germany) about Hamas & Israel  who are involved right now in another deadly war that does not seem to have an end insight. For more than 10 years Mosab Hassan Yousef , son of one of the founders of Hamas, is lured into spying on his father by Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a shrewd “handler” of the Israeli secret service. Mosab was 17 years old, loved his father, hated Israel, was arrested for an illegal weapon’s deal and ended up in the prison his father knew too well. And then something happened, Mosab was turned around to spy on his father. This crucial moment in his life unfortunately gets lost in the film. Yes, he was tortured by the Israelis, yes, he was faced with death and saw that Hamas was doing the same, ordered by his father. But something else must have happened. We can only guess. Years later when Mosab is a US citizen and Gonen, who was fired by the secret service for becoming to close to his “source” and is now enjoying family life as a lawyer in Israel, Mosab decides to go public and writes a book about  those years, the basis for the film. Director Nadav Schirman turned the book into a thriller, at least for the second half of the film when the story of the two talking heads becomes more and more dangerously entangled. I wondered how will they ever find a way out of this tangle of competing concerns, of hunting and being hunted without getting killed. We know they will survive because they are talking to us, straight into the camera, no ahh, hmm, aee, well… very fluently told as if their lines were well rehearsed or they simply are talented speakers. Shown as headshots in the same position throughout the film they are set up as being interrogated with sharp angled light casting shadows like in Dr. Caligari. “Handler” and “source” not only survive but showed up for Q&A at the Castro for another suspenseful performance. What kind of person is this Mosab, I thought, he betrayed his father, his family, spent crucial years of his life being his father’s right hand and revealing the secrets to his deadliest enemy. A life of hiding, lying, mistrusting, living with death. The father broke with his son, of course, but Gonen and Israel seem to have replaced what Mosab lost. Hmm, really? What exactly did he loose? On the stage of the Castro Theatre Mosab came across as an articulate, experienced speaker who took over the Q&A and only answered the questions he wanted. Had Jesus anything to do with his quest for peace that supposedly motivated his spying for Israel? He didn’t answer. Has he perhaps turned from Christianity (documented in the film) to Buddhism, I wondered. When he walked down the aisle to the Castro stage,  slim, trim, in t-shirt and jeans, so different from the chubby, mute informer we had just seen in archival footage, he greeted the enthusiastic crowd with palms pressed together. He is not following any religion, he said, although it would make sense. To find a human being that will ever trust him again might be difficult, but Jesus and Buddha will.

What the audiences wanted to hear in these desperate times the film, as well as  Mosab and Gonen delivered: the impossible became possible – the son of Hamas loves Israel and Israel loves him; Mosab and Gonen became closest friends; Gonen is now a happy father of three and Mosab found freedom in the US. That deserved a standing ovation.

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FRAMELINE WINNERS – June 29, 2014

SomethingLiltingApprop Behav

As a member of the jury for the Outstanding First Feature Award, sponsored by the ever so generous Wells Fargo, I want to add a few personal comments to the official announcement. The amount of $7,500, attached to the winning title, should be enough for the director to jump start the next low, low budget project, or to go on a much deserved vacation with a loved one. The three jury members deliberated hard since we had different first choices. What tipped the scale toward SOMETHING MUST BREAK (left photo) was Swedish director Ester Martin Bergsmark’s fresh and powerful voice anchored by a compelling performance of Saga Becker whose stunningly beautiful features dominated the screen. R.W. Fassbinder’s “Ich will doch nur, dass ihr mich liebt,” (I only want you to love me) seemed to reverberate through this face while searching for love and acceptance.

A close second “Honorable Mention” was awarded to LILTING (center photo), Hong Khaou’s exploration of love, loss, memory, cross cultural barriers and the power of language. My favorite film of the festival – now I’m allowed to say it – is delicately wrought of past and present, depth and lightness, mourning and joy with outstanding performances by Ben Whishaw and Pei-Pei Cheng. The film will come to the movies this summer, don’t miss it.

And two more unofficial honorable mentions: APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR (left photo) directed, scripted and performed in the lead role by Desiree Akhavan, who portrays a 20+ young woman trying to sort out her dysfunctional (sex)life. A familiar topic, here explored with humor and honesty, a fresh, crisp script and an engaging performance. And last not least, kudos to THE WAY HE LOOKS, the audience award winner from Brazil. Director Daniel Ribeiro expanded his short film about a teenage love triangle – one of the three is blind – into a full length feature, beautifully shot and well acted, a coming out and of age story with a twist.

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FRAMELINE 38

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Here a selection of German films at this year’s Frameline festival – all in German with English subtitles and there are more than these three that I can recommend for very different reasons. Let me start with THE CIRCLE / DER KREIS ( photo left) by Swiss director Stefan Haupt, who some of you might remember from UTOPIA BLUES, the audience favorite of the 2002 Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. Throughout his career as filmmaker, Stefan Haupt has tackled a variety of topics and genres, from music film (Utopia Blues) to documenting the phases of dying of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who did exactly that in her groundbreaking work, and this recent docu-drama retelling a little known chapter of postwar gay history in Switzerland. Once I got over the fact that the actors did not resemble Röbi and Ernst, who lead us through the story (the actors should have been switched), I got into the captivating history of The Circle, a magazine and their subscribers so far ahead of what was happening elsewhere in gay circle in the late fifties. In Germany homosexuality was outlawed by infamous paragraph 175, in Switzerland a law against homosexuality was abolished in 1942 but around 1960, when Swiss authorities realized what THE CIRCLE subscribers in Zürich were up to, they cracked down on them and eventually drove them underground until the late 1990s. The love story between Röbi and Ernst closely attached to the ups and downs of THE CIRCLE finally comes to a happy end with gay marriage fully legalized in Switzerland in 2008.

Watching this film I was reminded of what happened in Switzerland during the second World War. The country had officially declared neutrality but Jews who thought to be save there, were shipped to the camps and neighbors reported Jews to the authorities. DAS BOOT IST VOLL, an Oscar nominated film from 1981, told the harrowing story. The Swiss seem to be more than just law abiding, they sense what it is that the authorities might object to and, being afraid of doing the wrong thing and being punished, become voluntary informers. After all, in 1943 they didn’t want Jews living next door and 20 years later they didn’t want gays as neighbors. In Germany, the situation was clear, there was a law and if you break the law you commit a crime. Paragraph 175 was abolished in 1988 and finally revoked altogether after unification in 1994.

OF HORSES AND MEN from Iceland still fresh in my memory, I was curious to see what veteran German filmmaker Monika Treut had to add to the majestic animals and their human companions. OF GIRLS AND HORSES is a different story. Horses are shown in their full glory – more so than in the Icelandic film – they are not sacrificed, they are treated with respect and love and, like in the Icelandic story, they bring about change, here to a troubled girl that, in the end, will find her calling and a new love. Shot by Birgit Möller, director of VALERIE, (winner of the Best First Feature of Berlin & Beyond 2008), the images immerse us into the green, flat, endless landscapes of north Germany. I got home sick watching the film – the horses, the colors, the horizons touching the sea, beautiful. The story of the troubled teenager being reigned in by an understanding and attractive female horse trainer didn’t touch me much, but the cinematography did.

FEUCHTGEBIETE / WETLANDS adapted from the bestselling novel by Charlotte Roche starts with a reader’s comment published by Bild online: “This book shouldn’t be read or adapted to film. It is not more than the mirror of our sad society. Life has much more to offer than the disgusting perversity of the human heart – We need God.” Touted as the craziest, most outrageous film at Sundance this year, WETLANDS will attract the unsqueamish, for sure. A teenage girl’s fascination with bodily fluids and odors leads us through vulgar anatomical explorations and sexual misadventures. Director David Wnendt picked the right face for this unusual tour de force, the innocent, cute looking Swiss actress Carla Juri. Wnendt’s first feature, the haunting neo-Nazi drama DIE KRIEGERIN /COMBAT GIRL, catapulted Alina Levshin into stardom, and rightly so. That he continued his directing career with WETLANDS came to many as a big surprise, but again, Wnendt made a big splash, only this time with very different fluids.

More to come about narrative features eligible for the Best First Feature Award — lots of great ones not to be missed.

 

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FILMS & FESTIVALS

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The International Film Festival ended a few weeks ago and I only saw a few films that I picked because of country–Iceland, language–Spanish, title–Happiness. There was much more that piqued my interest and, mea culpa for not trying harder, perhaps with granddaughter snuggled up on my arms it would have worked just fine. Let me start my comments with THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN, because it is about crazy Germans, a film shown in SF theaters during the festival by local filmmakers Daniel Geller and Danya Goldfine. I had expected beautiful shots of the islands, of birds, turtles perhaps even Darwin’s stop at the Galapagos, but the filmmakers did not go that way. They focused on what the German couple experienced when they escaped Berlin of the late twenties to live in solitude and barren nature. Looking for Eden they soon found more like-minded people who brought with them what everybody had hoped to escape: trouble. The story turned into a murder mystery that took too long to be solved. We knew the culprits early on and didn’t need everybody’s view of what might have happened. I would have preferred to hear more about the island, what was growing there, what did the Germans plant for daily food supplies, who was living there before them. The limited archival footage had to cover four years of the adventure(1930-34) in a long two hour film. Less would have been more.

Next: Iceland, another remote island. I went there two years ago and loved every bit of it. Did ride the horses, almost got stuck in quick sand, but my strong, little horse made it.

OF HORSES AND MEN, a German co-production – reminiscent of OF MONSTERS AND MEN, an Icelandic pop group, is an homage to the horses, not the men. The horses are used as mirrors for human failures and then punished for it. It is all presented with a light touch, we can laugh about it but still, the horses are castrated and killed to save man in his pursuit for alcohol, sex and horseback riding. In the final scenes, however, the horses are paraded in their full beauty.

CLUB SANDWICH, by Fernando Eimbcke from Mexico City, was supposed to help my Spanish – 3 weeks before the final of Spanish 10c I took at City College. Alas, I didn’t understand a thing, although there was very little dialog in the film. Mother and 15 year old son spoke little and always the same few sentences, but still hard to grasp. Dialect, said my Mexican friend, who had a hard time to understand himself. I was glad. The film was slow, very slow and I like slow films. But something has to happen inside my head to prevent me from getting bored. And I got bored. A mother who could not let go of her son. Shot in the same low budget hotel with no extras around except for an even more taciturne family that arrived half way through with a 14 year old daughter that is active enough to take the son away from his mother. The film was shot on 35mm but shown in a digital format, too bad 35mm projection might have saved it.

HAPPINESS, a touching, poignant statement about civilization, progress and misguided happiness. Beautiful Bhutan, simple people attracted to what many of us have tried to get rid of: TV. The final shots of the film, a European co-proction for ARTE, will stay with you for a long time: a poor family in the high mountains of Bhutan, with open, smiling faces, lots of missing teeth, shiny, black hair that hasn’t been washed in ages, sitting in front of a TV, watching an American ballgame, not understanding a thing but HAPPY.

PS FROM NEW YORK

Ground Zero pools

Ground Zero

Below Dreams

Below Dreams

 

 

 

 

 

 

BELOW DREAMS, a film that my daughter Milena shot, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival when I happened to be there in April. Lucky mom. I had just seen the new memorial built on Ground Zero, walked between glitzy highrises and dark pools that sucked in, not just water but the dreams dreamed in the two towers that once stood above. The title of the film I was about to see could not have been more fitting for the memorial. BELOW DREAMS is a first feature directed by Garrett Bradley, a multimedia artist, who took us on a road trip from New York to New Orleans where three young people tried to put together their shattered dreams. A mother of three, homeless, jobless, wants to be an actress. A black man would would take any job offered to him, and a twenty-something man from New York who arrives by Greyhound in search of his girl friend. Gritty, rough images alternate with long shots of a sunset behind a gas station, or the mother’s distraught look into an uncertain future. A small gem that might not end up in movie theatres but in the New York Times and other print media that noticed it’s beauty.

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SAW IT ON TV : GENERATION WAR & WEISSENSEE

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It was easy to miss the week-long run of GENERATION WAR. It screened for a week at Embarcadero and then no place else in the Bay Area. For the US release by Music Box, the hugely successful TV (ZDF) mini series, originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, was edited into a 2 part 280 min-long film. A war movie with all the great production values we are used to by now; perhaps with the “best representation of close combat ever filmed” says David Denby of the New Yorker. We follow five young Germans, 2 brothers fighting in the Wehrmacht, a nurse, an aspiring singer, and her Jewish lover, through 4 years of war and witness how they are brutalized by what the war on the Eastern front and the Nazis put them through. Three of them survive, including the Jew. A WW2 film trying to give a collective portrait of a generation, highly acclaimed by the German media for opening up a dialog between old and young about accountability and forgiveness. I hope it did. I would have preferred a documentary addressing these issues that are so painful, so complex, so explosive that it calls for much more than a popular melodrama like approach. The film includes every possible horror of the war, from close combat to executions, hangings, betrayals, to partisan cruelties and field hospitals with lots of screaming and blood. Nothing has been left out – except concentration camps. The 5 protagonists celebrate in Berlin the night before leaving for the front and we know that at least a few will survive and come back to that same bar, changed and in rubble. On the vast Eastern front they keep bumping into each other. The brothers, one a bookish war hater turns into a killer, whereas the responsible, stern lieutenant becomes a deserter. The young Jew hides in the woods with Jew-hating Polish partisans and survives against all odds – it makes for good story, but we don’t get much inside into the only Jewish character in the film. The roles of the two women, a naive nurse that for no apparent reason betrays a Jewish doctor urgently needed at the front, and the singer, carrying on with an SS officer to save her Jewish lover and advance her career, are bordering on trite stereotypes. Five hours of too much that left me with too little.

Very different is WEISSENSEE, a TV (ARD) series of 12 episodes. 45 min ea. that premiered in 2010.

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An East-Berlin love story, taking place around 1980 and flavored with everything we know from The Lives of Others, focuses on two families at the opposite end of the political scope. The Kupfers main players are the father (Uwe Kockisch) belonging to the old Stasi bosses who wanted to change society for the better. His two sons, the older (Jörg Hartmann) following the party line faithfully not because his father knows Honecker, but because he is overly ambitious and can’t deal with failure. In different times he would have made a great bank manager. The younger brother (Florian Lukas), a police man (VoPo), has no intention to rise in his job except into the arms of his lover (Hannah Herzsprung), who belongs to the Hausmann family on the other side of the fence. Her mother (Katrin Sass), a wonderful Lieder-singer, who like many of the GDR Liedermachers in the late seventies (Wolf Biermann comes to mind) openly critiques the system. With a rebellious daughter who is in love with the son and brother of party bosses, with performing anti-regime songs and a former love affair with the father of her daughter’s lover, the question is, how will she and her daughter have to pay for it all. Like Generation War, the story depends on conventions of popular melodrama – a Romeo/Julia love story, contrasting brothers, a singer, betrayal, pregnancy, spying, murder, prison, forgiveness – but no painful clichés, no obvious good guys versus bad guys, all characters, even the party-faithfuls, do not come across as creations of a smart script writer, but as humans who, under pressure, do not resist the temptation to be human. Once you start watching, you can’t stop. Too bad that this series has not made it to the big screen in the US.

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TO THE LIGHTHOUSE

A shuttle bus from Drakes Beach visitor center drops you off less than half a mile from the Point Reyes lighthouse. Walking under storm-bent fir trees with views of beautiful beaches, featuring elephant seals fighting for the best place in the sun (or fog), you come to the top of 302 steps leading down to the historic lighthouse. Built in the 1860s with the latest lens technology (Fresnel lens from France) it started operating in 1870 and has not changed until it was decommissioned in 1975. A windy spot, often so foggy that many ships could not be saved by the powerful beacon, but many crews members got rescued by the coastguards on duty. Today the lens is replaced by a solar powered beacon located below the lighthouse. Going up the 302 step is a workout that will justify a delicious lunch at Drakes Bay Oyster farm. It was a bit chilly but you quickly forget when slurping piles of fresh oysters, and close the meal with local cheeses from Nicasio Valley. Don’t forget to bring a bottle of wine and sign the petition to save the oyster farm from government take-over.

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A WEEKEND AT BERLIN & BEYOND

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Shores of Hope

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Measuring the World

At the Berlin & Beyond film festival in the beautiful Castro Theatre, my old stomping ground. Friday night’s program in a packed house started with plenty of long speeches followed by a short live performance of a Wagner song to introduce LUDWIG II, the centerpiece piece film. Good to be reminded that without Ludwig Bayreuth, which was not mentioned in the film, might never have been built. Veteran director Peter Sehr, who died of brain tumor shortly after the release of this film, focused on Ludwig, the pacifist, who hated politics and loved art, music and, of course, Wagner. The 2.5 hrs long film felt long, although it was fascinating to watch Sabin Tambrea’s dexterous portrayal of young Ludwig. No time was wasted with the construction of the castles, all stages of mad Ludwig’s life up to his mysterious death in Starnberger See at the side of his physician were included. Still, something was missing, or less might have been more, as the Dubini brothers demonstrated in their Ludwig 1881, shown at B&B 97. Perhaps Visconti and Syberberg are simply hard acts to follow.

SHORES OF HOPE /Wir wollten aufs Meer, by Toke Constantin Hebbeln (his wonderful debut film NEVERMORE was shown at B&B 2007), tells the story of friendship and betrayal among shipyard workers in East Germany. Stasi surveillance, torture in State prisons, good inmates, bad guards and even worse Stasi officers, love and lies, all that felt like it could have been a film about the Holocaust. Ever since The Life of Others hit the screen films about life in East Germany often became interchangeable with Holocaust films. SHORES OF HOPE is one of them. I much preferred watching the German TV series WEISSENSEE about the same topic with a more sensitive and clever story. A very different and more compelling way to approach the subject is shown in WEST by Christian Schwochow (his debut film NOVEMBER CHILD was screened at B&B 09). After having lost the man she loved and the father of her child, Nelly tries to escape from the past and start a new life in the West which turns out to be much more difficult than expected. Not only is she confronted with the usual humiliations but with the suspicion to be a spy and accusations that turn everybody around her, even the man she loved, into a suspect. Is there no escape from the past? Powerful, touching, with great performances, especially by Jördis Triebel (Nelly) who some might remember from EMMAS GLÜCK.

MEASURING THE WORLD concluded my B&B weekend. I love the book by Daniel Kehlmann and was warned that the film does not hold up to it. I agree but it was not a waste of time. Kehlmann, the screenwriter, was not able to translate the insightful, historically rich and often hilarious interaction between Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt onto screen. Two scientists, albeit geniuses, do not make for a compelling film. Nature becomes the third major player in this 3D film, which reminded me of THE WALL, another difficult translation from book to film that worked well because the breath taking Alps featured as companion and counterpoint for the lonely woman. Here it is uncharted territory in Latin America around the turn of the 18th century that keeps the story alive.

I would have liked to see the amazing cinematography of MORE THAN HONEY on the big screen of the Castro – it was shown at the Goethe-Institut. The Q&A with Christian Schwochow after WEST could have been longer (there were many more questions and plenty of time), but I remember how difficult it is to please everybody.

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ZWEI LEBEN – OH BOY – DER FALL – DER GESCHMACK VON APFELKERNEN

 

 

 

 

 

I saw a few German or German-language films, over the last months, all of them award winners, critically acclaimed or included in a film series here in San Francisco. OH BOY was an add-on and the only German film, I noticed, at the Mill Valley Film Festival; DER FALL the opening film of Sister Cities: Zürich-San Francisco, presented by the SF Film Society; ZWEI LEBEN, Germany’s Oscar bid, and THE TASTE OF APPLE SEEDS with its high profile cast opened in German movie houses this September. DER FALL, a Swiss film from 1972, that never made it into the international festival circuit – thus not subtitled until its screening in SF a few weeks ago – will be pretty impossible to find. A black and white film taking place in a grey, cold Zürich full of unattractive industrial buildings and train tracks – not the Zürich we know with perfectly restored old houses around a beautiful lake with high-end designer stores where even Oprah is tempted to shop. It is a Zürich populated with failures, hippies (who don’t smoke – my friend noticed that nobody was smoking in this film from 1972), sick people, jealous husbands, and a pathetic private detective who makes his living snooping around other people’s lives. When he falls for a young chick that has already destroyed at least one marriage, the detective is doomed. Why is he attracted to her? God only knows, I couldn’t figure it out.

ZWEI LEBEN kept me glued to the screen. A twisted story about a mother (Liv Ullmann) who thinks that the young woman she has been living with (Juliane Köhler) is her daughter. There are many movies about unknown fathers but mothers would know, we think, unless their babies have been switched in the hospital. Here the mix-up points at disturbing politics of both, Nazi and Stasi Germany . Great performances by both Köhler and Ullman. A complicated beginning – because the plot is complicated – and an ending that seemed too constructed, but altogether a powerful film. — DER GESCHMACK VON APFELKERNEN, with an impressive cast of Germany’s best – Hannah Herzsprung, Marie Bäumer, Meret Becker, Florian Stetter. They had too many stories to tell covering too many generations, places, relationships. I gave up after the first half hour to figure out what was going on and got bored. — And last but not at all least OH BOY, Tom Schilling’s 80 minute screen appearance. He must have been in almost every shot but it didn’t feel forced, boring or overpowering like Michael Gwisdek’s soliloquy – well articulated although drunk – about life and death and politics. Schilling’s face is innocent, young, honest, not changing much while we accompany him over 24hours through Berlin. Yes, it has been done before, many times, but this film felt fresh and touching, like a deep breath of Berliner Luft.

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