In the press conference for Stereo, one of the Berlin Film Festival’s German films, the cast was asked why their film had already sold out its large, Zoo-Palast premiere whereas George Clooney’s The Monuments Men – an international headliner of the festival – had not. The local cast declined to speculate on their popularity vis-à-vis Clooney and co.’s, but subtending this surprising fact are a couple of notable aspects of the Berlinale, as it is known locally: although the Berlinale has established itself over the decades as a key festival for the discovery of neglected cinemas worldwide – its Forum section is still, justly, among its most famous – the festival has also deliberately raised the profile of its German features in recent years. This rising profile of German cinema parallels the greater success, both commercially and critically, that German films have, since 2000, enjoyed domestically. In line with both of these trends, this year’s Berlinale reflected these generally brighter prospects for German cinema, with an unusually high four features in the international competition and two in Panorama, in addition to the entire section Perspektive Deutsches Kino, which was started some 12 years ago by the current and still very popular head of festival, Dieter Kosslick, who made the Berlinale status of German films one of the cornerstones of his artistic directorship.
A number of this year’s German films (including Inbetween Worlds and Beloved Sisters from the international competition as well as Elsewhere and especially Age of Cannibals from Perspektive) impressed as effective and smart genre films, while a few others were intriguing for flying under the radar of the mainstream and into the territory of art cinema (Brother’s Keeper, Daughters, Superegos). Many of these German films seem to convince because they engage critically with a country still, some 25 years after the fall of the Wall, at a crossroads: the Germany that comes into focus in these films is intriguingly unsure of its growing stature in the world arena (as in Inbetween Worlds, Cannibals and Elsewhere) as well as clearly uncomfortable about its continent-dominating wealth (Keeper and Daughters). In these films, one finds Germans and a Germany not so much searching for an identity as unsure and uncertain about the affluent, powerful country Germany has become. These films consistently foreground this self-skepticism in productive ways, particularly through generational tensions: as those generations that built thriving postwar Germany age and retire, a younger, more uncertain one comes on the scene, inheriting not only Teutonic wealth but also its traditions, both of which these films consistently query and question.
One of Germany’s most prolific and popular directors, with over 60 works to his name, Dominik Graf has been on the verge of establishing himself as a major filmmaker abroad with, for example, a major retrospective at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2013 and a raft of recent publications. Though typically well executed and highly entertaining, his Beloved Sisters (Die geliebten Schwestern), will probably fortify his reputation only in Germany, focusing, as it does, on a love affair between the classical German author Friedrich Schiller and two aristocratic sisters. The approach is typical, and typically fruitful, for Graf: to take what seems a familiar genre for Germany (here, the period-piece literary biopic), slyly slice it up, and reassemble it in an altogether more challenging and compelling form. It is an approach taken recently in Young Goethe in Love (2011), but Graf refigures the genre more fundamentally and ultimately more convincingly. The tensions here are tellingly generational, for Schiller (Florian Stetter) as well as for the sisters Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung) and Charlotte (Henriette Confurius). Graf’s Schiller is a young rebel, banned from his homeland, struggling on the road, bent on semi-subversive publishing that new technologies are making possible – a Classical-Weimar-era Edward Snowden – but Graf focuses even more on Caroline and Charlotte and the crushing financial pressures under which their declining family puts them in a time when such noble women’s options were primarily a “good” marriage and childbearing. After a bad match and unhappy marriage made for money, older sister Caroline escapes, commencing a literary career as she abandons her husband to go live with Schiller and Charlotte. Such a love triangle leads to predictably hurt feelings that yield sometimes soap-opera set-ups, but Graf’s deft hand balances such psychodynamics with the political context, the sisters’ proto-feminist struggles, and even high comedy, for instance, at what seems a playful parody of the mannered obsession with manor houses in period pieces. The narratively central generational tensions and breaks are revealingly both economic and ethical, as the sisters must negotiate not only money, but also the prevailing mores around love, marriage and family. This is all accomplished with a light and skilled touch, with Graf’s trademark humour and garrulousness – his films contrast starkly to the deliberative verbal austerity and asceticism of most art cinema – all making the nearly three-hour running time highly watchable and enjoyable.
Indicative of the uncertainty of German society in a different, and even more compelling direction, was Inbetween Worlds (Zwischen Welten), Feo Aladag’s subdued, but effectively disconcerting war film that demonstrates how Germany is still feeling its way through foreign military deployments some 20 years after such deployments were, with much controversy, officially approved. Given its belligerent past, postwar Germany had long avoided sending its military on combat missions abroad, even under international rubrics, and its lengthy deployment in Afghanistan (including a German-ordered, U.S.-executed misfire in which over 70 civilians were killed during an attack on a convoy) has only extended the debate. Aladag has suggested that she wanted to offer a more balanced depiction of German troops on such missions, and Inbetween Worlds does successfully attain a compelling balance between and among German troops, their translator who is assisting them at considerable personal risk, and villagers who understandably feel ambivalent (at best) about the foreign soldiers’ presence. The film follows the Germans as they are deployed to help protect this village and construct a road near Kunduz (yes, Germans contributing a proto-Autobahn). The liminality of the title refers to both of the film’s double protagonists, to Tarik (Mohammed Mohsen), the Afghan translator whose countrymen now consider him a traitor, as well as to Jesper (Ronald Zehrfeld), the leader of the German contingent who has volunteered for another tour after the Afghanistan death of his likewise soldier brother, leaving him, emotionally and physically, somewhere between Germany and Afghanistan. If the film has a singularly revealing gesture – as Brecht used to locate a Gestus at the intersection of individual comportment and the social-political context – it would be Jesper holding his head in downward cast, perhaps trying to massage out the confusion, and soon desperation, that their futile assignment leaves him. Inbetween Worlds is the unusual war film because there is relatively little extended combat and almost no fetishisation of its weaponry. The enemy, for instance, stays not only elusive but even abstract, striking suddenly and inscrutably, compounding the confusion for Jespers and risk for Tarik. In its open-ended but effective conclusion, the film (shot compellingly on location) offers the prevailing disorientation and grim prospects of such “military adventures”, as the former German Chancellor Schröder once memorably put it, even as he committed to some of his own.
A naughtily fun satire about Germany’s uncertain place in the world, Johannes Naber’s Age of Cannibals, was probably the most pleasant German surprise at the festival. Despite its title, Age does not investigate the era of cannibal-obsessed colonialism – at least not in the conventional sense of colonialism, but here, rather, colonialism by late capital, that now practiced by businesses’ manic outsourcing around the world. Such global flows of money, and of labour following it, are engineered by armies of slick, sometimes cynical consultants whom this film locates hilariously at its centre. A tight ensemble piece among three celebrated actors with surprisingly good comedic chops, the film takes place entirely in business hotels that render, quite cleverly, the countries around them – the architecture, the people, their politics – completely abstract and apparently irrelevant to the consultants’ relentlessly upside calculations. They fly around the world with the latest laptops, most elaborate spreadsheets, and vividly animated slide decks, all in order to radically transform countries in the developing world (for their own profit). Theirs are life- and world-altering practices even as the consultants themselves are obsessed primarily with their status within “The Company”, particularly their exact distance from profit-sharing partner. To the credit of Cannibals, even as they cynically refuse to engage the world around them, all of the characters are at some level likeable, or at least in some way sympathetic. Bianca (Katharina Schüttler) has switched from an NGO because she (probably correctly) feels she’ll have more impact on the world through a management consultancy; Niederländer (Sebastian Blomberg), looking uncannily like a hair-slicked, power-suited Mitt Romney, is so helplessly clueless as to be likable; and Öllers, played by Berlin School regular Devid Striesow, is frequently framed on the phone with his wife as she refuses to put his young son on the line and ultimately informs him she intends to leave him for wasting so much of his life in said hotels. The film’s dispensing with the trappings of cinematic (pseudo-) realism allows it to gleefully isolate and scrutinise details of this lifestyle, including the expensive racing bike that never leaves the hotel, the consultants’ intimate relationship with the minibar, and the Strauss-Kahn-esque harassing of hotel housekeepers. The Cannibals title ultimately refers to the pressure-cooker competition between and among the consultants who are held at close yet high-risk quarters, a contemporary prisoners dilemma that the quasi-friends inhabit in their everyday workplaces.
Another surprisingly effective film about the uncertainty of the younger generation was the film-school-graduation film by Ester Amrami, Elsewhere (Anderswo), which mines an increasingly common condition – disorientation at migration – with uncommon sensitivity and humour. The winner of the festival’s DFJW Prize, Elsewhere begins as a romantic comedy between Israeli graduate student Noa (Neta Riskin) and German musician Jörg (Golo Euler) in Berlin, with her increasingly unsure of her chosen academic path when she is turned down for a new fellowship. She has proposed a dictionary of words that are untranslatable, at this point primarily comprising video interviews of diverse migrants to Germany about an expression they cannot find in their new Teutonic tongue – it is an obvious metaphor for her metaphysical condition and low-level discomfort in Germany. These videotaped interviews with strangers reflecting on cultures, each with a complex word and concept that goes along with it, end up forming compelling chapter breaks and short commentaries throughout the film, effective allegories for the narrative as it moves forward in otherwise conventional fashion. Noa’s uncertainty about the aimless direction of her life in Berlin is familiar from any number of post-1989/90 romantic comedies, but when she decides, with Jörg off on musical tour, to go home to Israel, the romantic comedy with which the film starts is very funnily and ultimately movingly run over by a family dromedy – just as Noa is consistently run over by her very big-personality mother (Israeli comedy veteran Hana Lazlo). The film gives a quick sense of both why Noa felt she had to leave – her mother is histrionic, hilarious and utterly domineering – and why she misses them so. There are some of the expected jokes about a tall, blonde, ruddy German man visiting Israel on its independence day, but these are played in relatively subdued fashion and remain peripheral to the film’s core, about the confusions of a younger generation negotiating faraway opportunities and family they can never really leave behind.
If these appealing genre films of the festival worked cleverly and successfully with but also against their chosen genres, German art cinema also had a strong showing this year, though without the headliners of, for example, two years ago, with its Silver Bear win for Christian Petzold’s Barbara, Ulrich Köhler’s for Sleeping Sickness in 2011, or the memorable 2004 Golden Bear for Fatih Akin’s Head On. For example, Berlin School aesthetics and sensibilities proved themselves alive and well in a few films, especially in Maria Speth’s Daughters. Although not as well known as some of the Berlin-School directors like its “first generation” of Petzold, Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec, Speth does attest, as do Schanelec and others like Maren Ade, Jessica Hausner and Valeska Grisebach, to the strong contingent of female directors in that group, something in sadly short supply in many art-cinema movements or trends (and an attribute that happily links the Berlin School to the New German Cinema). Extending the prevailing discontent with wealth and the generational direction of it, Speth’s Daughters opens with a number of somewhat familiar Berlin School scenarios and set-ups: a parent searching for a lost daughter in a disorienting downtown Berlin (like Petzold’s Ghosts); drifter young people struggling to find their place in a wealthy society (also Ghosts as well as Hochhäusler’s I am Guilty [Falscher Bekenner] or Köhler’s Bungalow); eerie hotel stay of unconventional guests (Hausner’s Hotel, Möller’s Valerie, or Petzold’s Yella); and long car scenes as well as car accidents (any number of Petzold’s films). But in the latter half of the film, Speth moves the film in a somewhat different direction, one recalling Maren Ade’s commercially successful (a rarity for Berlin School films) Everyone Else [Alle anderen], in which the film puts an apparently familiar relationship under a microscope to destabilise and dismantle the psychologising approach of mainstream drama. The title indicates the relationships that Speth scrutinises is that of a mother and daughter, particularly a middle-class mother to her adult daughter who has gone missing after her ID was found on a woman who died of a drug overdose. Corinna Kirchhoff effectively portrays this mother’s confusion at not only her daughter, but at an entire milieu she does not seem to know or understand, even as she observes it through the windshield of a Range Rover.
Perhaps the most successful work this year in this art cinema mode, Maximilian Leo’s My Brother’s Keeper, betrays similar dissonance, if not outright discomfort, with Germany’s well-resourced lives and affluent life-styles. At one point, young, alternative Jule (Nadja Bobyleva), having brought a married doctor (Gregor/Sebastian Zimmler) back to her parent’s well-appointed home, answers his admiring inquiry “What do your parents do?” with “They make money, as you can see,” before she pulls him down to her parents’ “fuckable” rug. Jule’s rebelliousness was shared by Gregor’s brother Pietschi (Robert Finster), an artsy graphic designer to contrast to his physician brother who goes missing early in the film when the brothers undertake their semi-regular sailing trip together. After Pietschi disappears from a seaside bar, Gregor searches for him by checking his computer, then inhabiting his apartment, and (most weirdly) sleeping with his girlfriend Jule, who is likewise shaken by Pietschi’s disappearance. Although this basic plot approximates L’avventura’s abrupt aquatic disappearance and subsequent metaphysical search (including creepy infidelity), the contrast between staid, stable Gregor and Bohemian Pietschi is very German – see any number of Thomas Mann stories or novels – and recalls the hesitation about the country’s direction foregrounded above. As the straight, even boring arrow who feels himself bending, Sebastian Zimmler plays a role similar to his in Hans Christians Schmid’s Home for the Weekend (Was bleibt, 2011), a strong ensemble piece in which he is a dentist with an author brother, but here Leo’s whole film focuses on him and his doubts about following the preordained paths to the affluent middle-class.
A newer direction for these Berlin School aesthetics and filmmakers was Benjamin Heisenberg’s comedy, or even farce, Superegos (Über-Ich und Du, an untranslatable pun on Freud’s term for the superego). The grandson of the famous physicist, Heisenberg is considered one of the leading figures of the School, both for his work in acclaimed films like Sleeper and The Robber as well as his co-founding and continued co-editing of Revolver, the closest thing the Berlin School has to an in-house journal. But Superegos takes the usually serious themes and somber tones of most Berlin School films into the hitherto terra incognita of comedy-farce, not least by pairing a famous but fading “psychologist and thinker”, Herr Professor Doctor Curt Ledig (André Wilms), with a very contemporary layabout, Nick (Georg Friedrich), who lives, as he puts it, by buying books for two Euros and selling them for ten. Unfortunately, Nick’s mark-ups do not always go as planned, and he owes the cruel gangster “Mother” much more than he has probably ever had. When his accidental hiring as Ledig’s caretaker moves him out of his Munich apartment to the latter’s hillside villa, he does not complain. The comedy of high and low, here of scholar Ledig’s writing a farewell lecture and Nick’s dodging Mother’s thugs, is familiar, with the expected chiasmic permutations of their asymmetrical lives providing for the laughs – for example, at one point, Ledig’s geriatric nordic walking poles end up wrapped around his neck by Mother’s minions. Heisenberg does intriguingly map the familiar high-low contrast onto the generational dynamics of Germany mentioned above: Ledig is trying to work through his Nazi past as it quickly recedes in his memory and at a time when its last direct witnesses, victims, and benefactors are dying out. This less and less troubling past is contrasted to the lack of direction and comfortable boredom of today’s wealthy and Europe-dominating Germany, with both its urban slackers like Nick as well as Ledig’s progeny, smug yuppies who just flew in from San Francisco. The film has its moments, and André Wilms is particularly effective as the frail scholar who struggles to exculpate his youthful involvement with National Socialism, but the constellation, as Heisenberg puts it, seems more compelling that its execution.
If a comedy-farce from a Berlin School director proved perhaps a step too far, on the more familiar, even well worn ground of World War II is Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy. Diplomacy manages to make a hero out of a German Wehrmacht general, a Swedish diplomat, and a French engineer who together save Paris from Hitler’s orders to take much of Europe, including its historic cities (cf. Warsaw), down with him. Although the precise details are somewhat disputed, General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) insisted that he disobeyed orders in August 1944 to destroy major landmarks and infrastructure in Paris to impede the Allies in the chaotic months after D-Day. The film is based on a play, and, for better and worse, feels like it: it unfolds primarily in Choltitz’s Hotel Meurice headquarters and comprises almost entirely the conversation between the Paris-loving Swedish diplomat Nordling (André Dussollier) and Choltitz, as the former tries to convince the latter to spare the French capital despite the risks to Choltitz’s family back in Germany. Given the familiarity of the legendary and long-lived landmarks, it is not exactly a surprise ending of urban salvation. Such a triumvirate of heroes conveniently hailing from different European nations also risks becoming the kind of “Europudding” creation that has sometimes marked European cinema since 1989/91 – the unpalatable cinematic mélange of different countries, each coming out of the movie mixer in too contrived fashion – and the audience groaned audibly at Nordling’s lines about keeping Paris to assure Germany and France’s future relations. But the actors were all effective enough, and filmmaking smartly paced enough, to render the picture enjoyable even if it seems to underscore in what able, if slightly sleepy, hands the continent is in.
Although better known abroad for the kind of austere fare served up by the Berlin School or period pieces like Diplomacy and Beloved Sisters, Germany has also long had a tradition of contemporary and even futuristic genre films, confirmed in the entertaining if ultimately vapid Stereo. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Stereo is that it demonstrates the presence of German stars to go along with its fairly familiar genre exercise: two of Germany’s most celebrated film actors, Jürgen Vogel (Life is a Construction Site, The Free Will), and Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run, Das Experiment), help make Stereo probably the most popular German film at the festival, as noted above. Erik (Vogel in his familiar working-class persona) is a (very) small-town motorcycle mechanic shown, through pretty girlfriend, Julia, and her young daughter, to have a heart of gold despite the grease on his hands. The main conflict initially seems to be Julia’s disapproving, policeman father, but then mysterious visitors as well as uncanny visions hint at Erik’s mysterious, violent past, a past not entirely worked through. Vogel and Bleibtreu, along with Georg Friedrich (from Superegos above), are, as usual, highly watchable and the film’s execution adequate, although the premise is quite familiar (David Cronenberg works through it in a more art-cinema register in History of Violence – for instance, both films, early on, depict role-play sex-games emphasising the contingency of identity). The familiarity does not really diminish its pleasure, however, as the film hurtles toward its reveal, away from the village and toward the big city whence, it turns out not so surprisingly, Erik came. Even in its urban setting far away from his (chosen) home, the generational tension here between Julia’s policeman father and semi-outlaw Erik ends in the kind of reconciliation and closure that genre cinema usually provides.
Finally, in the Forum section of the festival, Max Linz’s Ich will mich nicht künstlich aufregen (another untranslatable pun, rendered as Asta Upset) attends to these generational tensions in a self-reflexive satire of today’s art world/culture industry (or, too often, culture industry posing as art world). The eponymously upset Asta is a curator in Berlin struggling to find funding for an exhibition on cinema, art and politics, an undertaking that requires that she square off against those who populate Germany’s wealthy (in the case of film-subsidising state television, incredibly wealthy) state institutions. These bureaucrats with whom curators, artists and filmmakers have to contend represent an older and altogether different generation, here prowling the German capital in luxury BMWs while resisting the provocative projects of those they pretend to support. Asta is very, perhaps too, specific in this conflict and milieu – even if a session of “Brecht-Yoga” might evoke more general chuckles, how many non-Germans, for instance, will care, or even understand the cinematic shorthand, about the impact on artists of the so-called Mietspiegel (rent mirror)? But the film is consistently funny, even if acerbically so, in its critique of the current cultural scene and provides a fascinating update to the New German Cinema classic REDUPERS (Die allseitige reduzierte Persönlichkeit-REDUPERS, Helke Sander, 1978), also about female artists struggling to get financial support in what seems a largely male dominated world, one in which female artists are expected to provide particular perspectives and to create only certain kinds of art. Both films richly evoke their particular place and time, Sander’s 1970s West Berlin vs. Linz’s post-2010 unified Berlin, with the politics and economics of each moment duly invoked. The model looks and poses of Asta, the struggles with neoliberal cash-flows, and the smugness of institutions supporting the arts register the transformations of 1970s concerns about the Wall and U.S. occupation. Even more than REDUPERS, however, it is young versus old in Asta, with the unresolved generational tensions, as they did throughout the festival’s German features, registering the uncertainty about what postwar, now post-Wall Germany has become.
Berlinale – Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin
6 – 16 February 2014
Festival website: http://www.berlinale.de