Queer reflections in new German cinema

  • by David Lamble
  • Monday January 9, 2006
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The 11th edition of Berlin & Beyond, 27 German-language programs from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, hits the Castro Theatre screen January 12 through 18. The line-up offers a little-seen silent classic, People on Sunday (1929), complete with an early screenwriting credit by then-23-year-old Billy Wilder and accompanied by Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer (1/17, 7 p.m.); and provides different views of the tiny student resistance movement to Hitler: Michael Verhoeven's 1982 feature The White Rose (1/13, 3:30 p.m.) and Sophie Scholl - The Final Days, Marc Rothemund's new psychological thriller about the Gestapo's interrogation of the group's female leader (opening night, 1/12, 8 p.m.).

There are four queer-themed dramas, including a lushly filmed romantic tragedy starring rising hottie Daniel Bruhl, Love in Thoughts (1/16, 7:30 p.m.); a cautionary tale on the wages of overnight film fame, Christopher Buchholz's intimate journey through the last days and checkered career of Horst Buchholz: My Papa (1/18, 2:30 p.m.); this year's Squid and Whale thematic twin, Robert Thalheim's Netto (1/15, 6:30 p.m.); plus shorts, the Best of German Film Schools (1/16, 2:30 p.m.).

Love in Thoughts Refreshingly, for once Cologne-born Daniel Bruhl isn't the prettiest boy in the room, but that doesn't mean he doesn't command the screen in director Achim von Borries' sumptuous examination of the follies of young love. The film is based on a 1927 incident that scandalized Weimer society, inspiring a popular novel later banned by the Nazis. It's told in a long flashback by Paul Krantz (Bruhl) as he faces trial for his involvement in a student suicide club, two of whose members perish after a weekend debauch at a fancy country estate. Paul, a talented but poor poet, is besotted by his feelings for Hilde (Anna Maria Muhe), the gorgeous, manipulative sister of his best friend, Gunther (August Diehl). Gunther, in turn, is intensely jealous of Hilde's dalliance with a blonde Berlin waiter, Hans (Thure Lindhart), for reasons that become clear after the quartet empties the family wine cellar, surrounded by a stable of fickle, decadent youth.

At first, it appears that director von Borries may have succumbed to the Elvira Madigan syndrome — a blonde youth, lying in a golden wheatfield, gently blows a butterfly off his pistol — but this tale of romantic obsession run amok is grounded rather than embalmed by these stylistic flourishes. The mercurial Diehl uses his pistol as a fashion accessory until it serves its fated purpose. The first 30 minutes of boyish target practice hint at an underlying attraction between Paul and Gunther that Bruhl and Diehl astutely play off without pushing the story out of kilter. The gay conventional wisdom that cute boys should play with each other and never accept a pistol as a penis substitute never seemed more apt.

The pensive Bruhl (always listening to his acting partners) is well-cast as an emotionally complicit insider who paradoxically turns almost innocent bystander by the time tragedy finally strikes. Bruhl gets the best sex scene, complete with a tantalizingly brief butt-shot. The lovely Muhe is sensational as a sultry but never slutty temptress, unaware of the consequences of her power to cloud men's minds. Von Borries gets us to buy this Gatsby-like glimpse of German youth at their most beautiful and emotionally careless by using language and body language to get us inside pretty heads that are conjuring the most foolish and self-destructive behavior. Spoken German facilitates poetic conceits that would wither like dead flowers in an English version. This is a scintillating example of an emotionally incendiary German cinema that once seemed destined to give Hollywood some serious competition. (1/16, 7:30 p.m.) Also out in a handsome transfer from Wolfe DVD.

Horst Buchholz: My Papa Christopher Buchholz's perplexing encounters with his late father Horst illustrate how fleeting fame can be, even when anchored by looks, acting chops, emotional accessibility and an easy-going bilingualism. Born on the eve of the Nazis' rise to power, Horst Buchholz burst out on the screen as Adenauer Germany's sexiest export. Shaggy-haired in a style that anticipated the Beatles, his early work as a motorcycle-riding rebel (The Hooligans) got him linked in the media with the recently deceased James Dean. But it was his galvanic turn as a dashing Polish sailor who flees a murder rap with a pre-pubescent girl (12-year-old Haley Mills) in the UK police procedural Tiger Bay that got Hollywood's attention. Wide-screen acclaim followed, as a neurotic gunslinger (The Magnificent Seven) and a Beatnik-like East German Communist who marries a Coca Cola heiress in Billy Wilder's Lubitsch-styled Cold War satire One, Two, Three.

Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the big roles began to elude him. Early on, Christopher Buchholz hints that his father's life is a puzzle with missing pieces. His reasons for refusing to work for Robert Wise (West Side Story), Elia Kazan (America, America) and Luchino Visconti (Rocco and His Brothers) seem dubious. Buchholz was reportedly peeved that an assistant of Visconti's had contrived to get a half-naked still of him. Later, his marriage to French actress Myriam Bru foundered when he abruptly took off with a male secretary.

The elderly Buchholz chain-smokes through camera sessions with his son, but mostly evades any big revelations, including the reasons behind his apparent distaste for being perceived as gay. Although not quite the male version of Marlene, this poking through the ruins should incite a desire to see the sensational early Buchholz on DVD. (1/18, 2:30 p.m.)

Agnes and His Brothers Director/writer Oskar Roehler invokes a family of eccentric siblings who seem to have been deeply affected by a sexually misbehaving father. Agnes (Martin WeiB) is still having flashbacks to the man she once was, complicated by a strange fascination with her missing mother's wedding dress; younger brother Hans-Jorg (Moritz Bleibtreu) battles sexual addictions and a desire to murder Papa; and older brother Werner (Herbert Knaup) reveals the agonizing truth behind his respectable façade as a Green Party official — his emotionally frigid wife seems to prefer the company of their pot-plant-growing son, who in turn fixates on catching his dad in embarrassing cameos with his digital videocamera. The film oddly recalls Fassbinder's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, since we know that this family's travails will have a body count. Funny, touching, at times downright bizarre, but never boring. (1/14, 9 p.m.)

Ghosts Christian Petzold's psychological mystery that hints at links between a French woman distraught by the disappearance of her infant child, and a Berlin street urchin she imagines is that child, never quite cooks. The young girl is cruelly treated by adults and her erstwhile teenage girlfriend, but director Petzold's approach to the material functions like a sensory depravation chamber, so that by film's end (80 minutes feels like eight hours) we understand, but just don't give a damn. (1/13, 7 p.m.)