the Germanic crop
Highlights from the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival
by David Lamble
The 17th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival – German-language films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland – plays Sept. 27-Oct. 4 at the Castro Theatre and the Goethe-Institut (530 Bush St.). Highlights include Volker Schlondorff's restored director's cut of the 1979 masterpiece The Tin Drum, and the late queer bad-boy Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lola.
Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-92 Berlin-born Dagmar Schultz, Lorde's friend and German publisher, presents a fascinating late-life chapter about the great Caribbean-American lesbian activist poet whose politics stirred the waters in 1970s-80s feminist circles, and who then devoted a chunk of her last decade to helping Afro-German women work through their complicated identity issues. (Reading and film, Castro, 9/29)
Lessons of a Dream One of the great perks of covering this festival has been tracking Daniel Cesar Martin Bruhl Gonzalez Domingo – yes, the Barcelona-born, Cologne-raised Daniel Bruhl, who for the past decade has practically been his own German festival, from the Billy Wilder-like nimble comedy Goodbye Lenin! to tales of the passionate young in The Edukators and Love in Thoughts, to a personal chamber-piece, A Friend of Mine; from the Polish violinist swept up on the beach who excites two English spinsters, The Ladies in Lavender, to scene-stealing cameos in 2 Days in Paris and The Bourne Ultimatum; from the Tarantino spoof Inglourious Basterds to the sly satire on plagiarism Lila, Lila. This dude, fluent in five languages, should never be missed.
Bruhl shines for director Sebastian Grobler as a 19th-century rebel, a German-born, Oxford-educated teacher who brings the Queen's English to the impressionable students at a stuffy Prussian academy. Bruhl has a secret weapon: the boys eagerly grapple with their "th" exercises when the bait is learning the great English game of football (soccer). Bruhl's foes are militarist old farts who are plotting the next great war with England; his allies are boys who see kicking a ball through a goal-post as a gateway to a much fuller life. (Castro, 9/29, 10/4)
Breathing The most striking image in this chilly, claustrophobic coming-of-age tale from veteran actor Karl Markovics is the sight of a beautiful young man in a red swimsuit lying face-down near the bottom of a pool. He doesn't appear to be drowning, yet we sense that he's literally holding his breath, waiting for a signal before deciding to surface and inhale.
Roman (a remarkably controlled performance from newcomer Thomas Schubert) strips down for inspection by the guards at his youth reformatory; an inmate since he was 14, it's not until late in the film that we learn his crime, a deadly assault on another teen. Roman's parole requires an outside job, and since he loathes idle chatter or eye contact, he answers an ad to work at a large industrial mortuary, transporting and preparing cadavers. As with other films about young men forced by desperate circumstances to perform noxious duties (The Messenger, Boy A), the experience becomes a kind of purification ritual as Roman re-enters the human race from a banished state. Markovics allows his "hero" to thaw out while enduring the foul odors at work – his supervisor advises breathing through his mouth – and absorbing the shock therapy of discovering why his young mother abandoned him at birth.
Austria appears to have a less punitive justice system than ours, perhaps because in a paternalistic, formerly fascist society, the guards have less to fear from the inmates. After observing Roman turn into a quasi-sympathetic human, we both wish him well and see why "Governator" Arnold swapped this dour place for our messy freedoms. (Goethe-Institut, 10/1)
This Ain't California Last year the German Gems festival gave us Keep Surfing, Bjorn Richie Lob's hypnotically lensed exploration of Munich's river-surfing culture. Now Martin Persiel follows with a freewheeling doc recalling an even odder underground of skateboarding fanatics who once defied the East German Democratic Republic's police state (GDR). Persiel begins with YouTube-style home movies in which a ruffian kid named Denis, answering to the nickname "Panik," defies his conservative dad, opting to endure cuts, bruises and worse in order to conquer the GDR's abundant concrete on a crude, handmade board. A photo reveals the blood-coated lips of a scarred but happy rebel.
Persiel frames his GDR nostalgia with a reunion of old friends gathered to remember their beloved golden boy. Persiel dares you not to shed a tear for a forgotten martyr who ironically lost his freedom on the very night the Berlin Wall fell. (Castro, Closing Night, 10/4)
The Foster Boy In perhaps the hardest to watch of the festival's narrative features, Swiss director Markus Imboden illuminates a devastating chapter in his tiny country's history. For decades through the 1950s, the country's most vulnerable citizens – orphans, children of single moms – were routinely remanded to farm families in a state of bondage somewhere between slavery and the role allotted farm animals.
The boy of the title is a moody, talented aspiring musician, Max, played with a volatile mix of rage and tears, yet with the upright body language that's movie code for indicating "a good person," by rising Swiss star Max Hubacher. The filmmakers are careful to frame this morality tale so that even the "bad" farm-family members are not seen as evil monsters, but rather as tortured souls with their own dilemmas. (Castro, 9/29)
The Substance: Albert Hoffman's LSD Remember Orson Welles' ad-lib to Joseph Cotton: all that bucolic Swiss history, and all they invented was the cuckoo clock? Well, turns out that five years before The Third Man, 1943 in a Basel lab, a young scientist was fooling around and discovered what a difference a molecule can make. Director Martin Witz employs his subject, Albert Hoffman's LSD, as a framework for up-ending the cautionary tale about mad scientists.
The discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide would, a quarter of century later, turn precincts in San Francisco quite mad in ways this sober Swiss family man could never have anticipated. Beginning and ending on the face of Hoffman – 100 at the time of the filming – Witz deftly flips through rare footage of early LSD test subjects; the hopes of psychiatrists that the drug, taken in tiny dosages, might be the magic bullet for the bi-polar mind; the out-of-control frenzy that mushroomed when Dr. Timothy Leary entered the loop; Nick Sand's account of mass-producing LSD in SF; Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the Summer of Love, and the face of Ronald Reagan announcing that the party's over.
As a postscript, Witz discloses promising LSD experiments with cancer patients, but as one scientist ruefully notes, it was the Indians in Mexico who properly used the basic ingredients of LSD: they treated their trips like a sacred ritual. (Goethe-Institut, 10/1)
Whore's Glory Despite citing Emily Dickinson early on in his no-holds-barred depiction of the lot of female sex workers in three distinct environments, Austrian director Michael Glawogger makes no effort to rub fairy dust in our eyes. The places are a high-end brothel called "The Fishtank" in Bangkok; an urban slum dubbed "The City of Joy" in Faridpur, Bangladesh; and "The Zone" of auto-cruising johns in Reynosa, Mexico. This film does not indulge romantic illusions or perpetuate any of Hollywood's curdled fables about whores with hearts of gold. The third film in a "globalization trilogy" following Megacities (2000) and Workingman's Death (2005), Whore's Glory is an expensively shot, narration-free examination of an exotic profession from the point of view of its practitioners, with sidebar commentaries from male clients. (Goethe-Institute, 10/2)