MEXICO una y otra vez

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

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

 

 

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BERLIN & BEYOND 2015

AfgaMarra  Klei Maria

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

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

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

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

 

 

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THANKSGIVING IN BERLIN

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

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

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NOVEMBER TRAVEL: SHADES OF GRAY

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

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

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

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WAR STORIES

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

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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

Circlephoto 1photo(1)

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

The Galapagos Affairphoto 3

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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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