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. (The film will be at the theaters after the screenings at the MVFF)
Vor der Morgenröte, a film about Stefan Zweig’s last years is directed by Maria Schrader in collaboration with Jan Schomburg who directed Sandra Hüller in another sterling performance in Über uns das All (shown at German Gems 2012). Zweig 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 been added to the long list of forbidden writers and when he committed suicide in 1942 he was remembered as a Jewish writer prosecuted by the Nazis. The film unravels the last years of his life with all its contradictions – a writer, deeply connected to and longing for old Vienna 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 devoted women who make his life comfortable, nothing else. Portrayed persuasively by the great Josef Hader, the many layers of Zweig inspired me to reread Schachnovelle and Die Welt von gestern, written in exile in the last years of his life.
Fukushima, Mon Amour, Doris Doerrie‘s latest film, I saw on my way back to the US on Air Berlin. A wonderful beginning with a light touch–clowns trying to cheer up an aged community left behind in Fukushima after the disaster — the film turns melodramatic and predictable when a young German woman who could no longer do the clown act because of her own troubled past, decides to help an older Japanese woman to clean up her house in the disaster zone surrounded by toxic waste. How can you even think of living in an area where the geiger counter constantly pushes beyond the limits, I asked myself and came to the conclusion that the film has to be viewed as a fairy tale. The old woman longs for her home, nothing will stop her from moving back into the devastated house. The spirits of the past are haunting both, the young German woman and the older Japanese one, they show up at night in the ghost-like landscape. Both women break down when confronted with their past, and both grow out of it and eventually find closure with a little help from their friends. Filmed beautifully on location in black and white. (also shown at MVFF)