Beetlemania: Josef Hader, in German Gems' The Bone Man, searches for a lost VW and thoroughly entertains in the process.

Beyond 'Berlin,' Eggers' New German Gems

Michael Fox February 26, 2010

The moving arrow anoints a new hot spot of contemporary cinema every few years, and then moves on. In the last two decades, professional and amateur trendspotters have singled out Hong Kong, Iran, South Korea, Argentina, Japan (for J-horror, mostly), Romania and Israel. The magic number seems to be three; that is, three different (and preferably young) directors garnering major festival prizes in the same year denotes a wave.

That’s as likely an explanation as any for why Germany never makes the cool list, despite a steady stream of topnotch films. (The last decade gave us this stellar six-pack: Goodbye Lenin!, Head On, Downfall, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, The Counterfeiters and, of course, The Lives of Others). A different director scores internationally almost every year, but that’s two filmmakers shy of the Triple Crown. As a result, one of the largest, most consistent and most eclectic industries in the wide world of movies is either overlooked or taken for granted.

It’s not a secret to Bay Area moviegoers, though, thanks to Ingrid Eggers. The founder and longtime programmer of the Goethe-Institut’s annual Berlin & Beyond series, Eggers did a masterful job of showcasing German (and Austrian) cinema’s breadth and depth for 14 years. The plan was for her to program the 2010 B&B, following her retirement last year, but it didn’t work out. Now, with the Goethe-Institut moving the fest to the fall, Eggers has assembled German Gems, a noon-to-midnight slate of four German and one Austrian film at the Castro Theatre this Sunday, February 28.

The curtain rises with Tender Parasites (noon), Christian Becker and Oliver Schwabe’s oblique, open-ended look at the effects of late-stage capitalism on a vaguely strange young couple. Jakob and Manu have set up camp (literally) in a forest, and we gather, from the drinks they tease from a clubgoer in the opening scene that they survive on a succession of small-time hustles and cons. Manu does have a semi-straight job as a caretaker for an elderly widow, but the couple’s neat arrangement–and veneer of domesticity and stability–is about to crumble.

Jakob sets about insinuating himself into the household of a well-off, middle-aged husband and wife still scarred by the death of their young adult son. They aren’t the only ones trying to fill a void, however, and Jakob finds himself drawn to them and away from Manu. One can imagine Atom Egoyan investing this scenario with shards of irony and dark humor, or the Dardennes brothers adding their trademark bedrock of unforgiving social realism. Instead of a familiar critique of modern-world alienation, Becker and Schwabe give us characters with unclear motivations and even-less-clear prospects, and ask us to root for their survival and gradual illumination, if not transformation. In a world of diminishing possibilities, that feels about right.

Ambition and opportunity defined Cl„renore Stinnes, a real-life 1920s race car driver and daughter of a rich industrialist. In May 1927, she hired two German mechanics and a Swedish cameraman to join her on a round-the-world trip by car. Erica von Moeller’s Miss Stinnes (2 p.m., with the director present) integrates the truly remarkable footage (moving images and still photos) shot during the backbreaking two-year expedition with dramatic sequences (Sandra H?ller and Bjarne Henriksen deliver the goods in the lead roles).

This paean to German wanderlust (a decade before Hitler also rolled east, over much better roads than Stinnes encountered) is a perfectly enjoyable but lightweight travelogue that will look scrumptious on the Castro’s big screen. The film’s feminist themes are pretty well expressed in the first 10 minutes and then repeated, so the main takeaway is how primitive so much of the world was a mere 80 years ago.

Norbert Baumgarten’s Being Mr. Kotschie (4:15 p.m.), with its John Cleese-like protagonist and precision compositions, starts out as a pinpoint comedy of polite manners. Kotschie (Stefan Kurt) is closing in on his 50th birthday, and all of a sudden his comfortable life is transformed into a plague of low-grade annoyances, empty social conventions and newly recalled missed chances. Kotschie’s performance of “Runaway” in a karaoke bar, while the female hitchhiker he picked up watches, is the key to the film. We think he’s singing to her, but it gradually dawns on us that he’s the runaway–fleeing the expectations, relationships and responsibilities of his well-ordered life. The laughs begin to catch in our throat, then cease altogether.

Margarethe von Trotta’s gorgeous Vision (7 p.m.), recounting the life of the medieval nun, composer and writer Hildegard von Bingen (played by Barbara Sukowa) shapes up as the highlight of the day. Eschewing the usual cinematic approach to the Middle Ages, Von Trotta employs a palette of warm, bright and inviting colors. Alas, the preview copy I borrowed lacked English subtitles, so be advised that I only watched about 15 minutes. So take this as a qualified but enthusiastic recommendation.

The day concludes with The Bone Man (9:15 p.m.), the third tasty film in the ongoing saga of Austrian cop-turned-repo man Brenner. Novelist Wolf Haas, director Wolfgang Murnberger and actor Josef Hader have created a hero who doesn’t qualify as neo-noir or post-noir, for the simple reason that he’s realistic instead of cynical. (In other words, he never had any ideals–or forgot that he ever had them.)

Brenner is dispatched to the countryside to reclaim a VW Beetle, and finds himself enmeshed in all sorts of criminal, familial, romantic and culinary shenanigans at the local inn. Terrifically entertaining and deeply satisfying, The Bone Man doesn’t have any grand messages to peddle, only eminent skill and a respect for the viewer’s intelligence. And that’s a pretty fair assessment of German (yes, and Austrian) films–at least the ones that come to San Francisco.