Berlin & Beyond at 13

Michael Fox January 10, 2008

In their eagerness to anoint the latest moviemaking hot spot – Bucharest last year, Mexico City in 2006 — critics consistently relegate the steady standbys of Hollywood, Bollywood, Paris and Berlin to the sidelines. German cinema, in particular, rarely gets much love, despite turning out a stream of exciting directors such as Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), Fatih Akin (“Head On”) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”). Thanks to a combination of government support, a large and far-reaching German-speaking population and adventurous public television stations, the industry is exceptionally broad and deep, encompassing everything from mainstream romances to edgy documentaries. But the issues that occupy German moviemakers are anything but parochial: immigration and identity, fractured families (and the ad hoc creation of new ones), economic injustice, the rivalry and resentment between West and East (and occasionally North and South), and the pull of history and tradition. These are the dominant themes of filmmakers all over the world these days, which makes the general coolness toward German cinema even more mystifying. The Goethe-Institut’s annual Berlin & Beyond festival at the Castro, now well established in its 13th year as one of the most electric events on the San Francisco movie calendar, offers a pointed reminder that Germany, Austria and Switzerland aren’t just in the center of Europe, but smack in the middle of international cinema.

Eschewing the glossy, cheerful and forgettable flicks that most festivals covet for opening night, Berlin & Beyond kicks off with Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven,” an intricate saga of three parent-child relationships that overlap and bleed into each other. Akin was born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, and all of his films deal with cross-culture liaisons and the simultaneous fluidity and rigidity of borders. “Heaven” balances a harsh story with picturesque locales and an unwavering impulse toward healing and redemption; it aspires to a state of transcendence that it doesn’t quite achieve. But Akin’s worldview is always worth sharing, and his soundtracks are never less than fabulous.

The award for lifetime achievement in acting goes this year to Ulrich Mühe, who garnered hosannas for his portrayal of the Stasi agent with a dormant soul in “The Lives of Others.” Mühe passed away last summer, in the wake of perhaps his greatest acclaim, but he left behind a number of uncompromising performances. The festival tribute includes “Others,” the 18th-century costume drama “Half of Life” (1983) and Michael Haneke’s 1997 chiller “Funny Games,” a film so harrowing that to this day I still haven’t mustered the courage to see it. (Best to catch this version before Haneke’s shot-by-shot English-language remake, starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, opens in March.)

Haneke’s unflinching eye for life’s petty (and grand) humiliations is shared by the Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, who’s represented here with the terrific “Import Export.” Seidl moves smoothly between documentaries (“Jesus, You Know”) and features (“Dog Days”), and is less encumbered by the line between fiction and nonfiction than anyone working today. He rarely moves the camera in this dark but deceptively rich tale of two frustrated souls — a single mother who leaves her baby in the Ukraine in hopes of a better life in Austria, and a brooding, rough-edged young Austrian guy — whose paths never cross. Seidl’s sensibility lies somewhere between indifference and cruelty, but he doesn’t miss any opportunity to crack an absurd joke.

One such “joke” is that the West is as hopelessly grim as the East that Olga flees. Likewise, director Christian Petzold suggests in “Yella,” an emigré can never completely leave the East behind. Nina Hoss took the best actress award at last year’s Berlin Film Festival for her performance as an abused, skittish wife who barely escapes with her neck to Hanover, then finds her calling as a cold-blooded negotiator of business deals. An austere, stripped-down re-imagination of the 1962 creepfest “Carnival of Souls,” “Yella” has a political subtext that may be too submerged for American audiences to fully grasp. Petzold sees the struggling cities of the East, whose denizens have gravitated to greener pastures, as ghost towns. ‘Nuff said.

The relationship between Germany and its eastern neighbor, Poland, informs my favorite work in the program (based on a sampling of about a third of the lineup). In Robert Thalheim’s partly autobiographical “And Along Come Tourists,” an aimless, nerdy German arrives in Auschwitz to fulfill his civil service obligation. Mocked by the Poles he meets, and treated like a half-wit servant by the elderly Jewish survivor in residence, Sven’s blah life brightens when a pretty local girl befriends him. “Tourists” is a modest movie, yet it has profound things to say about the German response to the Holocaust in the 21st century,

On the documentary side, “The Unknown Soldier” provides another view of Germany’s current level of acceptance for its war crimes. Director Michael Verhoeven (“The Nasty Girl”) offers a belated look at the response to an exhibition that toured Germany a decade ago with evidence that the regular army, and not only the SS, murdered civilians during World War II. The film’s strongest footage is of altercations on the street between veterans livid about the allegations and those willing to accept and deal with the evidence. (The neo-Nazis who inevitably turn out to protest the exhibition are somewhat threatening, but mostly buffoonish.)

The highest-profile doc in the program, “The Red Elvis,” stands as a fascinating testament to the enigmatic quality of public figures. In the early ’60s, a square-jawed American rocker and actor named Dean Reed traded his waning career for the life of a political/musical revolutionary in East Germany. An outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Reed was embraced by the Communist regime and the nation’s youth as a populist hero (and sex symbol, by the by). Filmmaker Leopold Grun lets us see Reed as both a man of principle and a narcissist, and refuses to deliver a final judgment on Reed’s true motivations. On the one hand, Reed spoke fluent Spanish and German, and was rather fearless (especially in South America) about speaking out from the stage against governmental abuses. But he was also a generic singer who pretty much copied Elvis’s style, and was less than kind when he tired of a wife.

A sub-theme of Berlin & Beyond this year is comedy, not a genre that’s a natural fit with the Teutonic temperament. Ingo Rasper’s “Fashion Victims,” winner of the MK Award for best first feature, has its farcical moments but more often than not will have you wondering what’s funny about a middle-aged man’s life falling to pieces around him. A successful, seasoned rep for a line of women’s clothing, Wolfgang finds himself ambushed by a co-worker pushing a modern line. The control freak in him goes out of control, with his wife and closeted son receiving, and rejecting, the brunt of his frustration. There’s a marvelous setup here — Richard Dreyfuss would have been perfect for the American remake 20 years ago — but the execution isn’t quite sharp enough.

Although it’s included under the comedy umbrella, “Late Bloomers,” Switzerland’s official submission to the fray for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is more sweetly inspiring than laugh-out-loud funny. A newly widowed octogenarian, deep in her funk, unexpectedly rediscovers her long-shelved passion for making high-quality lingerie. Along with a trio of old friends, Martha (a rock-solid Stephanie Glaser) stands up to the conservative villagers and scandalized vicar (her own hypocritical son) to make her business and golden years fly. A genteel tale with neither the bravura lunacy of “The Full Monty” nor the lowbrow antics of “Calendar Girls,” “Late Bloomers” (a nice pun, which doesn’t get lost in translation) is a worthy diversion with an admirable message.

“Late Bloomers” is decidedly middle-of-the-road, which seems appropriate coming from the neutral country in the heart of Europe. Bettina Oberli’s pleasant tale may not change anybody’s perception about Switzerland or Swiss cinema, but that’s OK. For a good shaking, there are all the German and Austrian films.

Berlin & Beyond runs Jan. 10-16 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and Jan. 19 at Point Arena in Mendocino.