This year the Trieste Film Festival in Italy included a section entitled ‘Update Deutschland’ and showed a cross-section of films from directors working in Germany today.
The spotlight was on three films by Christian Petzold: Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I am in), Wolfsburg, Gespenster (Ghosts) and three films by Angela Schanelec: Plätze in Städten (Places in Cities), Mein Langsames Leben (Passing Summer), Marseille. These two directors make films that couldn’t be more different.
Petzold’s plots are tightly woven and often resemble psychological thrillers. Characters smoulder and when they come into contact with each other sparks fly. In Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I am in), Jeanne (Julia Hummer), the daughter of terrorists living underground, falls in love and starts to buck the status of living in secrecy. Wolfsburg is the story of a tentative romance between two people who only meet as the result of a hit and run accident. Laura (Nina Hoss), still wrecked with grief by the death of her son, is not thinking clearly and is taken in by the charming and caring Philip Wagner. We know right from the beginning that he is the driver who killed her son but this in fact heightens the suspense we feel when following Laura’s journey of discovery. Gespenster (Ghosts) depicts the lonely Françoise (Marianne Basler) looking for her long lost child who she thinks she has found in the equally lonely orphan Nina (Julia Hummer). Their two worlds collide briefly and we witness how psychologically damaged both Françoise and Nina are.
Angela Shanalec’s three features throw the spotlight on the everyday lives of individuals. Closely resembling documentaries they amble along sometimes at a snail’s pace. I must admit right away that Shanelec’s films are not my taste at all, punctuated as they often are with long exposures of people sleeping or sitting, kids playing in the distance, someone eating a sandwich, drinking a coffee or simply standing there watching someone else.
Often, interesting characters or situations are introduced and then not developed. Marseille, for example, has an apartment swap between two people, one in Berlin and one in Marseille, at its core. When Sophie (Maren Eggert), returns to her flat in Berlin, however, she realises that the woman from Marseille hasn’t even used her flat. Where has she been? Why did she want to swap her flat if she didn’t even go to Berlin? Is she dead? Missing? All unanswered questions which are dropped in favour of Sophie’s everyday life in Berlin and a decision to go back to Marseille a second time.
In Plätze in Städten (Places in Cities) the main protagonist, a nineteen-year old schoolgirl Mimmi (Sophie Aigner), goes on a school trip to France, sleeps with a French boy and on her return to Germany realises that she’s pregnant. Here, too, the main protagonist decides to return to France, but rather than having a showdown with the father-to-be, she hangs out in the corridor of his apartment block, watching him through the windows. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer a bit of actual conflict in feature films. Checking my notes afterwards to find comments such as ‘At one point my own snoring woke me up’, is a pretty good indication of a film’s dullness. But Germans I’ve talked to like Shanelec and the Italian audience seemed to enjoy her films too. If you relish slow, contemplative studies about the quotidian then Shanelec’s work is for you.
Both Kroko(pictured), directed by Sylke Enders and Netto directed by Robert Thalheim, are set in Berlin. The former is about the ultra-cool, untouchable teenager Kroko, played by Franziska Jünger and the latter is about Marcel Werner, (Milan Peschel), who has not been able to adapt to the new conditions in Berlin after the fall of the Wall. Krokoat first looks like a teenager flick but quickly transforms into a well-crafted piece of cinema. The film shows the transformation of a horrid teenager through her enforced contact with a community of mentally challenged people. A clever script and gradual softening of the lead character turn this film into a credible and likeable story.
Netto treads the now-familiar territory of how wonderful it was in the old East Germany and how difficult it all is now The Wall has come down. Only in this case we soon realise that everything wasn’t so rosy for Marcel in the old East Germany either, since he always suffered from self-delusion. His grand plans for advancement in the ‘new’ Germany are destined to fail through his non-acceptance of the new reality and preference for either living in the past or getting drunk. When his son, who lives with his mother and her new West German partner, comes to seek him out, an uneasy alliance is formed and things start to change for both father and son. This plot is, I suspect, a far more realistic appraisal of the life for former East Germans than Goodbye Lenin, but the humour veers toward pathos and as a result will probably not appeal as much to a non-German audience.
Das Goebbels Experiment (The Goebbels Experiment) directed by Lutz Hachmeister, Land Der Vernichtung (Land of Annihilation), by Romuald Karmakar and 2 oder 3 Dinge, die ich von ihm Weiss (Two or Three Things I know About Him) by Malte Ludin are all excursions into the understanding of German History during the Nationalist Socialist era.
Das Goebbels Experiment is fascinating as the voice-over consists of excerpts from Goebbels’ own diary, which he kept from 1924 to 1945. A psychological minefield is opened up and is accompanied by actual historical footage.
On a different level, Ludin tries to uncover what kind of a man his father Hanns Elard Ludin was. Hanns Ludin was sent by Hitler as ambassador to Slovakia and after the war he was charged by the Czechoslovakian authorities with having played a central role in the extermination of Slovakia’s Jewish population. The filmmaker Malte Ludin, through interviews with three generations of his own family, uncovers many different versions of his father’s past. So many, in fact, that we are left guessing where truth ends and fiction begins. I suspect that his sisters may no longer be on talking terms with him as they staunchly defend their father despite all the evidence uncovered by Malte Ludin.
Land Der Vernichtung (Land of Annihilation), by Romuald Karmakar was actually supposed to be a research for a different film. It is, quite literally, a walk through several concentration camps and places that the Hamburg reserve police battalion 101 was deployed to. Stripped of refinement, it’s surprising how heart-rending it is to see, through a glass window, a huge pile of old shoes belonging to concentration camp victims.
All the three films above mark another stage in Germany’s contemplation of its recent and ever-present past. In general, Trieste showcased an up-to-date selection of films that reflect current trends in German cinema. Could this mean that we may be moving towards a time when German cinema becomes recognised beyond Germany’s borders? If nothing else, then at least the Trieste public learnt that German cinema is not just Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders.