Berlin & Beyond 2007

Dennis Harvey January 11, 2007

Rock’n‘roll, romantic comedy, fantasy children’s adventure, breakdancing: These may be a few of your favorite things, to reference “The Sound of Music” (which probably spells “Austria” to more Americans than anything else). But they are definitely not what anybody associates with German-language cinema.

No, films in German are supposed to be somber, angst-ridden affairs. This standard has been upheld by famous exports from the silent era’s nightmarish “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and tragic “The Last Laugh” through the not-exactly-laugh-packed oeuvre of the 1970s’ New German Cinema stars (Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog, etc.) and on to such recent arthouse hits as the last-hours-of-Hitler saga “Downfall.” The next major German-language film hitting a commercial theatre near you, the already much-lauded “Lives of Others,” is about lives ruined by incessant Stasi (secret-service) spying in the 1970s German Democratic Republic. It is not a giddy thrillride.

Yet breakdancing and all other abovementioned frivolities are indeed represented in this year’s Berlin & Beyond, the annual Goethe Institut-Castro Theatre showcase for new film and video from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

As ever, the weeklong event underlines the real diversity that exists but isn’t widely exported in those nations’ screen output. (Though this year the diversity isn’t of a geographic kind, with even more German titles than usual and very few from the typically less prolific Swiss and Austrians.)

Those who like their Deutsch kino straight up, no levity, needn’t fear however. You can rest assured there are still plenty of violent skinheads, avant-garde theatrical records, grim WW2 flashbacks and manic-depressive protagonists to be found in B&B ’07’s slate.

The opening and closing night features, however, are downright breezy. The former is “Summer in Berlin,” “Grill Point” director Andreas Dresen’s surprise home-terrain hit. Its heroines are unhappily divorced mother of a teen Katrin (Inka Friedrich) and pretty, directionless Nike (Nadja Uhl). They’re apartment neighbors who like to share a glass of wine, their men troubles, and fears for the future. Their seriocomic travails bear resemblance to those in Stateside director Nicole Holofcener’s similarly well-observed female buddy movies (“Walking and Talking,” “Friends With Money”).

Next Wednesday night’s closer is a loopier, funnier but still ambivalent look at modern life and love from frequent B&B guest Dorris Dörrie (“Enlightenment Guaranteed”). As usual, her subject in “The Fisherman and His Wife” is the war of the (hetero-) sexes, and in its basic setup of two men vying for the love of one woman, it recalls her first and still-biggest international success, 1985’s witty “Men.”

Here, aspiring fashion designer Ida (“Downfall’s” Alexandra Maria Lara) is traveling in Japan when she meets two young fellow Germans (Christian Ulmen, Simon Verhoven) buying koi to re-sell to wealthy collectors back home. Ida ends up marrying one of them (the boys, not the fish), but was it the right one? Marriage, parenthood, career goals, materialism et al. clash in Dörrie’s delightfully whirlwind narrative. Some of her best movies (like 1998’s “Am I Beautiful?”) have inexplicably failed to get U.S. distribution — including this one, completed nearly two years ago. So don’t miss the chance to catch it.

Other special events during include rare, newly restored 1922 silent “Nathan the Wise,” a film of considerable historical interest. Based on a long-banned 18th-century stage drama, it makes a timely plea for religious tolerance via the tale of a Jewish merchant trying to stop anti-Semitic violence from Christian invaders during the medieval Crusades. How quickly this film’s liberalism went out of fashion can seen in the career of lead actor Werner Krauss, the original Dr. Caligari. Not so many years after playing saintly Nathan he’d be portraying the ultimate hairy, horny, gold-hoarding negative Jewish stereotype (a rabbi yet!) in infamous Nazi propagandic feature “Jew Suss” (1940). Dennis James will play the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer to accompany “Nathan.”

Two new features highlighted in the Berlin & Beyond program arrive with honors already attached. The MK Award for Best First Narrative Feature has been bestowed on Birgit Möller’s “Valerie.” Its title character is a washed-up former top model trying to avoid homelessness by stealing shelter and amenities from the luxury hotel she used to inhabit legally. Both Möller and lead actress Agata Buzek will be on hand for the screening.

The last edition of Kinofest Lunen (B&B’s “sister festival” in Germany) gave its audience award to “Here We Come,” Nico Raschick’s documentary about a phenomenon that might seem weird to American viewers — the huge popularity of ’80s-style breakdancing amongst youth in former East Germany.

That this phenom is no joke is underlined by “The Kick,” a stark transposition of an acclaimed stage hit. In it, actors Susanne-Marie Wrage and Markus Lerch play dozens of roles — all real-life police and courtroom interviewees talking about the notorious 2002 murder of a teenager by three young mates in a depressed farming village outside Berlin. A couple of them note in passing that while hiphop style was the prevailing fashion just then for local youth, these perps were in the minority of racist anti-immigrant types.

On a thematically similar if fictive plane, Mirko Borscht’s “Combat Sixteen” portrays a 16-year-old boy abruptly moved from sophisticated inner Frankfurt to a conservative suburb where he’s isolated and vulnerable enough to be recruited by a neo-Nazi skinhead gang.

Very good drama “Tough Enough” from director Detlev Buck offers a scenario that both overlaps and contrasts. Its teen hero is uprooted from upscale suburbia to a rough inner-city Berlin ‘hood. There, he’s accepted by some in the racially-diverse pool of fellow students, brutally bullied by others. His babyfaced look of “pure Aryan” innocence also attracts notice from the local drug kingpin, who drafts him as a runner. (For those open to being bummed yet further, there will be a panel discussion on “Film & Violence” Sunday 11 a.m. at the Goethe Institut, featuring Buck, Borscht and others.)

There are many less downbeat depictions of youth in Berlin & Beyond. Rising star Daniel Bruhl (“Goodbye, Lenin!”) plays a nervous stuffed shirt liberated by a freespirited pal in “A Friend of Mine.” “Rascals on the Road,” drawn from a popular novel by Klaus Schadelin, is a 1960s-set edge-of-adolescence roadtrip that sounds like a Swiss “Stand by Me.” Florian Gaag’s first feature “Wholetrain” is about a Munich graffitti crew who set out to illustrate an entire commuter train. Matthias Keilich’s “Lumber Kings” promises a hilarious “Waiting for Guffman”-like portrait of smalltownies getting all excited about a big performance event-in this case a lumberjack competition.

Several upbeat films are for and about children, notably preteen grrl-power adventure “Wild Chicks” and Austria’s “Lapislazuli,” about a teenage girl who befriends a miraculously preserved, re-animated Neanderthal boy.

Not at all for children are a raft of grown-up dramas. They include Matthias Glasner’s epic three-hour “The Free Will,” about a former serial rapist’s troubled relationship with a younger woman; tart Swiss social critique “Going Private;” quasi-incestuous teen-meets-sexy-auntie tale “Pingpong;” “Zeppelin,” a period piece about famous aerodynamic disaster The Hindenburg; and two shorts programs that encompass everything from the surreal to the sexy to the sentimental. (All of which and more will surely be present in “Mozart Minute,” which combines 26 Austrian directors’ sixty-second musings on Wolfgang Amadeus.)

Then there are high-octane acting showcases like “Winter Journey,” whose irrational, depressive protagonist (Josef Bierbichler) tortures himself all the way to Kenya in order to right a perceived personal wrong; and “Four Minutes,” in which two very different women (Monica Bleibtreu, Hannah Herzsprung) bond over prison-bound piano lessons.

In the heartbreaking department: “The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez,” a German-produced (but largely English-language) documentary about the first U.S. soldier to die in Iraq. What got him there? The hope of becoming a U.S. citizen. This “green-card” enlistee (one among 32,000 shipped to Iraq) had been abandoned by parents fleeing CIA-backed forces in 80s Guatemala. An illegal immigrant, he’d signed on as a U.S. Marine to rise above the poverty, drugs and violence fate had seemingly dealt him. It didn’t work.

Not heartbreaking but pulse-racing are two more documentaries requiring no German fluency. Well actually, a little wouldn’t hurt in grokking the lyrics variously sung and shouted by Blixa Bargeld in “Einsturzende Neubauten.” It showcases a 2004 concert by the eponymous industrial-noise band (name translation: “Collapsing New Buildings”) — though as demonstrated here, their repertoire has grown to embrace pop, Middle and Far Eastern sounds — in the wreckage of East Germany’s onetime Parliament-housing Palast der Republik. The audience, in occasional reaction shots, appears entirely clad in black (duh).

Despite E.N.‘s more piquant name, when it comes to music of this sort I myself much prefer the (also nearly-three-decades-old) British outfit Test Dept. But Einsturzende Neubauten are nothing if not kings of avant-garde showmanship, despite over-bright stage lighting in this otherwise professional showcase.

The path that led from rock’n‘roll to such arty extremists is cobblestoned with innovators — none bumpier than the five American G.I.s who became a mid-‘60s European novelty act-cum-conceptual art project. Their story is wonderfully told in “Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback,” Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios’ documentary about a band so ahead of its time that it took at least three decades to be properly appreciated. “Anti-Beatles” the Monks were American soldiers stationed in Germany, where they’d played covers of popular rock songs as a club act.

“Drafted” after military duty by two local design-and-advertising masterminds for a very abstract media experiment, they found themselves making “Monk Music” — an utterly new, alienating, proto-punkish mix of tight pop song structures, harsh instrumentation and vocals, sarcastic and minimalist lyrics. (“I hate you with a passion!/But call me” went one refrain.) Their “packaging” was even more severe. The Monks wore black robes and string-ties, had their heads shaved with a “sun roof” fringe of hair a la actual Franciscan monks. They were the “anti-Beatles.”

Gee, somehow they didn’t catch on at the time, as far as pop-chart success went. When the act fell apart in 1967 they hadn’t even toured their “home” United States, nor had their paltry recordings ever been released in North America. But the Monks — if you haven’t been exposed to them, imagine the assy humor and ramalama musical thrust of the Ramones appearing a whole decade earlier — were duly rediscovered via import re-issues of their few recordings. “Transatlantic Feedback” ends with the incredulous original Monks finally (in advanced middle-age) experiencing reunion-concert triumph in NYC, no less. Strangely, the Monks’ original German conceptualists/managers declined being interviewed for this film — which makes them perhaps the most conspicuous absentees from Berlin & Beyond ’07.