This year’s Berlinale was packed with new German films. Often those films that seem to be very popular with German audiences are the ones that I don’t think will travel very well and vice versa. Having said that, a strange sort of ‘frenchness’ seems to be creeping into some features with scripts littered with neo-French cod philosophy. But as these films sell well abroad, then this may well be to the financial advantage of the latest crop of German cinema.
My personal favourite, and mercifully free from any trite French-style whimsy, was Der Freie Wille (The Free Will, director Matthias Glasner), which was running in the main Competition. It stars Jürgen Vogel, to my mind the most talented German actor around by a long shot, as a serial rapist. Vogel won a Silver Bear for Artistic Contribution, as he is credited as co-writer, co-producer and actor. In a script sparse in words but dense on visuals, his anguish, anger, helplessness, loneliness, violence, desperation and love drips off the screen. To play someone who abuses women in the extreme has to be a very frightening place to go as an actor, but Vogel doesn’t shy away from really becoming this man. The story elicited very strange feelings in me. Contrary to what I had thought would happen I found myself really wishing that Theo (the rapist) would manage to reform after his nine-year stint in jail. Every time he faltered down the path of temptation I caught myself wishing that he would manage to resist or get away with it!
This, I believe, is at the heart of Der Freie Wille, an attempt to show that demons lie in all of us but, luckily for society, most of us only think these things very occasionally and then we don’t act on them. When rapists, paedophiles, murderers are caught, they are ostracised from society, cut out like a cancer, which helps society to believe that none of ‘us’ can have similar thoughts. Vogel, in his portrayal of Theo, has given himself to these thoughts completely, which is why the character truly lives on screen. When Theo starts a relationship with Nettie (Sabine Timoteo) it is utterly credible that these two damaged human beings find solace in each other. The borders between what really is choice and what you do from conditioning are constantly blurred. It’s also interesting that the sexual relationship between Theo and Nettie indicates some coercion and violence and yet she consents to the sex and so it lacks the repulsion that the rape scenes contain. On the other hand, the stifling love that Nettie is shown by her father, Claus Engelbrecht (Manfred Zapatka) is also repellent and sickening. Thus love, hate, violence and sex weave constantly in and out of the realms of acceptability. The only let-down is the ending, a surprising cop out when everything else is tackled head on.
‘To play someone who abuses women in the extreme has to be a very frightening place to go as an actor.’
Elementarteilchen (The Elementary Particles), directed by Oskar Roehler, exists on an entirely different planet. Although the crème de la crème of German stars, including Franka Potente, Uwe Ochsenkecht, Moritz Bleibtreu (pictured receiving the Silver Bear for Best Actor for his performance), grace the screen, the central plot left me cold. Two half brothers deserted by a hippie-ish floozy of a mother, each have their problems dealing with the opposite sex. One is immersed in his work as a biologist and never has a relationship, whilst the other borders on sex addiction with a kinky slant. Both eventually meet their match, but when one of the women commits suicide (by clambering stiletto-clad over a balcony, after being crippled by a debilitating disease?!) and returns as a ghost to be with her lover, I had to suppress a giggling fit. Still the German press and public love Oskar Roehler, so I probably am simply missing the point. Hopefully if this film has a UK release I will be inundated with comments explaining to me what I failed to spot.
Byambasuren Davaa, famous for her documentary The Story of The Weeping Camel, has made another tearjerker, The Cave of the Yellow Dog , a German-produced feature film based in her native Mongolia. It is the story of a nomadic family and the conflict brought about by the little girl adopting a stray dog. Visually striking, it is an adventure into a realm that even many a world-weary traveller amongst us won’t know anything about.
The documentary Am Rand der Städte (On the Outskirts) directed by Aysun Bademsoy provides an insight into the difficulties of repatriation to Turkey by Turks who have lived in Germany for most of their lives. Large, self-contained high-rise ghettos have sprung up on the outskirts of Southern Turkey to house these Turkish people who no longer really feel at home in their own country and while away their days in the cafes or around the swimming pool of their upmarket ghetto towns. By focusing on the experience of several families, we are given a sense of the mixed blessing that a lifetime of earning higher wages in Germany has provided these people with.
Filmmakers such as Andreas Dresen can be relied upon to show us that there are real people out there and that their stories are interesting, no matter how ‘everyday’ they may seem. His latest work, Sommer Vorm Balkon (Summer in Berlin) is one of these gems. Set in the Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin in the summer, this well-crafted film has a simple plot revolving around friendship, motherhood, loneliness, alcoholism and philandering.
Unter dem Eis (Under the Ice) directed by Aelrun Goette concerns the dark pact that is made between a mother, Jenny Niemayer (Bibiana Beglau) and her seven-year old son Tim Niemayer (Adrian Wahlen) after she discovers that he is directly responsible for the death of a little girl. It is a compelling study of the debilitating effect of lies. Even the death of the little girl could have been avoided if Tim’s father Michael Niemayer (Dirk Borchardt) had been honest about a crime scene photo the kid had seen. The stakes of secrecy are screwed even higher as Michael is in fact a detective and is made responsible for solving the child murder case. The psychological games are fascinating and Adrian Wahlen as the kid is more than convincing. Coupled with a credible screenplay and cinematography often reminiscent of Don’t Look Now this is one to go and see if a UK distributor is savvy enough to pick it up.
Other films that seemed to go down well with German audiences included Sehnsucht (Longing) directed by Valeska Grisebach, which centred on a couple that had been childhood sweethearts, but where the man suddenly strays. The plot is long and drawn-out and the film looked to me as if it had been made for television in the 70s, thus leaving me rather baffled as to why it was running in competition.
‘Watching a blank TV screen would be equally exciting.’
Also popular was Requiem , directed by Hans-Christian Schmid and based on a true story. Set in the 1970s and also with feel made-for-TV 1970s film from that period, it’s about a girl, Michaela, finally managing to escape her very religious Catholic family by going to university (Sandra Hüller won the Silver Bear for Best Actress for her portrayal of Michaela). Here her epilepsy gets worse and when she begins to hear voices she seeks comfort by consulting with priests. They decide to subject her to an exorcism that leads to rather a lot of disturbing, from-the-gut screaming, but unfortunately there are no revolving heads in sight that may have livened things up a bit. My personal favourite contender for the worst film is Durch Diese Nacht Sehe Ich Keinen Einzigen Stern (Through This Night) directed by Dagmar Knöpfel. This is about the last days of the Czech writer Bozena Nemcová, apparently a woman "who in the mid-19th century dared to live a life free of social constraints." Well, there is no evidence of this in the film, as she is virtually imprisoned and impoverished by her bullying, alcoholic husband who has no redeeming features whatsoever, making it impossible to imagine why she ever married him. Bozena Nemcová (played by Corinna Harfouch) is dying and focuses her remaining strength on her writing. There are scenes of her visiting people, although I neither knew, nor cared, whether she was hallucinating or not. The rest of the time she is writing, often by candlelight, or slumped over her desk, exhausted from writing. Watching a blank TV screen would be equally exciting.
Wim Wenders’s latest film Don’t Come Knocking , starring Jessica Lange, Sam Shephard and Tim Roth in a cameo, made a welcome change from such dross. Sam Shephard plays a lonely, hard-drinking, hard-partying actor, who absconds in the middle of yet another Western shoot, in search of a son he never knew he had. The film is entirely shot in an American copper mining ghost town, so keep your eyes peeled for the uniformly empty shop windows and an aerial shot of the largest expanse of polluted water (as a result of the mining) in the world. To my mind the town was as much a star of the movie as the actors.
‘Interestingly, German films are now full of young characters called Jenny, Julian, Jane, John, Jessica, Mike, Maggy, Gordon, Charlie and more.’
To end on an upbeat note, I think I should mention four films, which were all entertaining and showed that German films can be funny. Komm Näher (Happy As One), Vanessa Jopp’s new film, is populated with characters struggling to cope with their lives, but their stories are told in such a way that we can both laugh at them and sympathise with them. My personal favourite was Mathilda, played by Meret Becker, a blaspheming, fire-spitting vixen, the embodiment of an urban Tasmanian devil. Eoin Moore’s Im Schwitzkasten (No Sweat) gives an interesting insight into how Berliners are (or aren’t) coping with their flagging economy and unemployment, by following a group of people who are connected by their visits to a down-at-the-heel mini health club. Eden directed by Michael Hofmann, about a top-class chef who cooks for a tiny but appreciative public in his own small restaurant. It follows the impact of his ‘Cucina Erotica’ on a married waitress and ends with a surprising and humorous twist. Not to everyone’s taste (the chef, played by Josef Ostendorf seems at times a bit creepy), but quite fun if you’re a foodie. The last one is Bye Bye Berlusconi (a title that certainly needs no translation!), directed by Jan Henrik Stahlberg. Go and see this film if it comes around, if only to show support for the cause of getting rid of Berlusconi. The opening showing I attended was heralded by the arrival of a full brass band and a party atmosphere. It is a tongue-in-cheek staged documentary littered with facts about Berlusconi’s government’s dodgy activities and even includes the kidnapping of the Italian prime minister (played by the Berlusconi double Maurizio Antonini).
Interestingly, German films are now full of young characters called Jenny, Julian, Jane, John, Jessica, Mike, Maggy, Gordon, Charlie and more. I’ve never noticed this as much before but am told that there was a fashion in the 1970s and 1980s in the German Democratic Republic to give children English names as a form of silent protest against the government. All in all a satisfying selection of German films, but will it be enough to convince distributors that the image of German films is changing and that non-German audiences are ready to go and see them?
Next week Elke de Wit gives us the lowdown on the German selection at the last month’s Alpe Adria Festival in Trieste, Italy.