WINNERS AND LOSERS at the Golden Globes

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

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

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BERLIN BABYLON – Weltpremiere in Berlin

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

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

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

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SF Jewish Film Festival 2017

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

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

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

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

 

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Spring Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Dear Ms Lazarus and Ms Wilson,

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

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

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Berlin & Beyond 2017

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

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

 

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BERLINER LUFT

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

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

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

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

 

 

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SFJFF 2016 – Germany and the Nazis

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

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

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

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

 

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59th SF FILM FESTIVAL

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

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

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20th BERLIN & BEYOND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WHAT’S ON MY MIND?

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

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