At Berlinale this year few German fiction features lived up to their expectations. The documentaries on the other hand were stimulating, thought-provoking and entertaining. Interestingly, these contained far less overly shaky hand-held camera acrobatics than the features. (This technique is becoming so prevalent and irritating, that I experimented to see how much I would have to move to achieve this type of effect in my everyday life. I recommend vigorous jumping or skipping.) The point that the majority of this year’s crop of documentary film-makers understand, which evidently feature film-makers don’t, is that cinemagoers want to see films about people with whom they can identify, or people that are quirky. They want to watch lives and places unfold before them on screen, not be fast-forwarded on a journey down a motorway via the perspective of a handheld camera.
The documentary Actually I Wanted To Be A Forester – Bernd From Golzow, Barbara Junge, Winfried Junge, 2002 (Eigentlich Wollte Ich Förster werden – Bernd Aus Golzow) is part of an ongoing series that is the longest long-term study in the history of international cinema. It was started in 1961 in Golzow, East Germany and follows the lives of several children. This episode depicts the life of Bernd Oestreich who works as a foreman in a smelting plant in former East Germany. The film-makers admitted that they had thought Bernd was the least interesting of the children and that they would probably make a 30 minute film about him. Although he is quite ‘ordinary’ and has not achieved any of his childhood dreams or ambitions, Bernd leads a very contented life. He genuinely seems at ease with himself, which unexpectedly compels the viewer to keep watching. The documentary also gives an insight into a generation of East Germans who grew up in the communist GDR but are now citizens of the democratic BRD. On numerous occasions Bernd Oestreich and his family pointed out that in terms of everyday social injustices the GDR may not have been as bad a place to live as the West would like to believe.
Far removed from the conventions of documentary film-making was Goff In The Desert – Photography And Beyond – Part 7, Heinz Emigholz 2002/03 (Goff In Der Wûste – Photographie Und Jenseits – Teil 7). The film is the biography of architect Bruce Goff (1904 –1982) shown through film footage depicting 62 of his buildings. Shot in long exposures on 35mm, the only sound that of the immediate surroundings, this documentary sparked off the longest Q&A session that I experienced at the Berlinale. The lack of explanatory voiceover seemed to have left viewers with ample space to formulate their own thoughts. Those that lamented the dearth of verbal information about Goff were pointed in the direction of the website (www-bruce-goff-film.com). Surprisingly few members of the (almost capacity) audience walked out during the 110 minute film, a comforting sign that cinema can be purely about showing film.
The documentaries From Dachau With Love, Bernd Fischer 2002 (Grûße Aus Dachau) and My Life Part 2, Angelika Levi 2003 (Mein Leben Teil 2) used two entirely different approaches to Germany’s National Socialist past. The former deals with the conflicting views held by the residents of Dachau with regard to the dark history of their concentration camp. The struggle between trying to forget the past and remembering it is shown by interviewing locals involved in both conventional tourism and the tourism centering around the concentration camp. This conflict is constantly brought to a head over the issue of whether to re-establish the original entrance to the Dachau concentration camp as used by its prisoners. Opponents fear that this would cause disruption to the town. On-screen the opposing parties verbally battle it out. Various towns-people would prefer Dachau to become known for its more ‘pleasant’ aspects, such as architecture, good restaurants, etc, rather than its ‘unpleasant’ past. Humorous touches in the form of an overly well-turned out member of the tourist board presenting the ‘pleasanter side of Dachau’ sales pitch leave no doubt as to whose side Bernd Fischer is on.
My Life Part 2 depicts the personal journey of the director, Angelika Levi’s Jewish mother who has left her with an autobiographical audio cassette. The documentary deals with the mother’s conflicts contained within her Jewish-Germanness and by virtue of the bloodline, the daughter’s attempt at making some sense of these conflicts. Some astonishing details of practices within the Third Reich are discussed, such as a parade featuring villagers dressed up as Jews including, ‘the last Jew in a glass bottle’. Interestingly this parade had been organised by the villagers on their own initiative. Much of the mother’s conflict emanates from change of personal relationships and career choices, as well as outside political forces. Although a very personal documentation, the film goes towards explaining some of the conflicts that exist in the current generation of Germans, especially if they are from Jewish backgrounds. The subject of marginalisation is referred to in various guises. Even the children of this woman are marginalised (or feel marginalised) in their own way, as the director is lesbian and her brother is gay. There is little attempt at traditional documentary objectivity, which in this case seems acceptable as the director has made an autobiographical statement.
Martina Döcker’s film Think German! 2003 (Bernau liegt am Meer) deals with the current crop of right wing radicals. In particular, it tells the story of 21 year old Daniel, who is getting the chance to reform and build a new life for himself. His past is littered with alcohol fuelled violent behaviour within a radical right wing network. The framework of this documentary is an interview with both Daniel and the people working with him: a social worker and a judge. At various intervals all three were asked to give their views on topics such as ‘race’, peace’, ‘colour’, etc. Although each individual usually had interesting and quite starkly contrasting thoughts on these subjects, I started to be able to predict the next question and the format became plodding. In addition, although I understood the director’s mission of trying to show that rehabilitation may be possible, I did not find the main subject Daniel as interesting as the juvenile court magistrate Andreas Müller, whose own past was littered with stark familial problems. A difficult subject, but if a different format had been used or perhaps someone other than Daniel had been chosen, this documentary may have been more effective.
Last but by no means least, Thank God I’m In The Film Business! Lothar Lambert 2003 (Ich Bin, Gott Sei Dank, Beim Film!) impressed with its octogenarian ‘heroine’. Eva Ebner seems to be well known in Berlin and has been in hundreds of student films as well as working as an assistant director for decades. To me she was a dream choice for a documentary; eccentric, open-minded, funny, charming, sometimes wilful and utterly open to living life. There were also extreme moments of pathos. During one of these she reveals that she was gang raped by ten Russian soldiers after WWII. When they were caught and lined up in front of her for identification, she recognised in their eyes that they feared for their lives. Seeing this she took a deep breath (and told herself I’ll live through this’) and instead said that she did not recognise any of them.
Running simultaneously throughout this documentary is a fictional trashy flesh flick also starring Eva Ebner and directed by Lambert. The bonus of this is to see how readily she participates and how interesting she is to watch. Apparently this film, which started out as a quirky throw-away idea, is now actually in production – eat your heart out Andy Warhol! Eva Ebner: a real living heroine and proof that you really can live the life that you want. This documentary was a bright, glaring ray of dazzling sunshine and hope whereas many, many features were drowning in self-pitying angst.