Hanami - Cherry Blossoms

5-15 February 2008

Industry trade papers have pronounced yet another German crisis. Cinema ticket sales dropped 9% in 2007 vis-à-vis 2006, a period in which most European territories experienced admissions increases. However, one can hardly blame the audience for avoiding movie theatres or for German films’ market share decrease (to 17% from 26% in 2006). Enterprising or provocative films which might lure locals to the movies, such as Am Ende kommen Touristen (And Along Come Tourists), Vier Minuten (Four Minutes) or Fatih Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven) were scarce. Even the more accessible works of the excellent Berlin School including Christian Petzold’s Yella, moreover, have failed to break out of a very limited arthouse niche.

This year’s Berlin International Film Festival could hardly quell worries about the German patient. On offer was one of the weakest crops of German movies since Dieter Kosslick took over as festival director in 2002. The productions were uniformly lacklustre in comparison to, for example, last year’s Berlin School showcase of Yella, Ferien (Vacation), Nachmittag (Afternoon) and Madonnen (Madonnas), plus the excellent documentary Prinzessinnenbad (Pool of Princesses). 2003’s ambitious family dramas of identity politics (Good Bye, Lenin! , Lichter [Distant Lights], Der alte Affe Angst [Angst]) were missing, not to mention the sheer variety from 2006: Elementarteilchen (Elementary Particles), Sehnsucht (Longing), Der freie Wille (The Free Will), and Requiem.

In general, German films grew up since last year’s many coming-of-age tales. The productions were darker and more perverse. Characters with serious psychological ticks and traumas animated stories about death, revenge or hate. Domestic filmmakers, in another major trend, were this year more eager to jet to far-off places than explore local realities or fantasies. Perhaps the reason is, as Doris Dörrie suggests in interview, that “the gaze becomes sharper when the terrain is unknown.” (1) Perhaps, however, the flight from Germany reveals a lack of imagination.

The Competition offered two German films. Each, in its own way, exemplified the national cinema’s shortcomings. Dörrie’s Kirschblüten (Hanami – Cherry Blossoms) concerns a politely dysfunctional German family. Rudi and Trudi lead routine lives in the Bavarian province. Only Trudi knows that her husband is terminally ill and she persuades him to visit their children in Berlin. Klaus, a politician, and Franzi, a bratty lesbian, are unwilling to spend time with their parents – even when Trudi unexpectedly dies during the trip. Rudi flees to Tokyo, where his other son, Karl, works. The ailing widower befriends an 18 year-old girl and attempts to live out Trudi’s dream to become a Butoh dancer in Japan. Kirschblüten reeks of mid-life crisis, the subtext of every Dörrie film for the last 25 years. Unfortunately, besides TV-actor Elmar Wepper as Rudi, the film’s ensemble proves wholly unsympathetic. Although thankfully avoiding many “Bavarian in Tokyo” follies in the vein of Crocodile Dundee (1986), the film drowns in clichés and treads the tired ground of both Lost in Translation (2003) and Dörrie’s earlier Erleuchtung Garantiert (Enlightenment Guaranteed, 2000). The director revealed in a press statement that she used Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953) as a model. Although there may be a thematic affinity, Ozu’s subtle family prospects have little in common with Dörrie’s New Age pap.

Heart of Fire

1980s war-wracked East Africa is the setting for the second German film in competition. Ten year-old Awet grows up in a Catholic orphanage until her outlaw father summons her unexpectedly to his new family in the countryside. He quickly abandons her and her older sister to the care of the Jebha, a group of rebels struggling for Eritrean independence. The leader Ma’aza makes a deep impression on Awet; the youngster emulates her Black Panther-style afro and swagger. Skirmishes with rival factions ensue before Awet escapes her child-soldier existence across the border to Sudan. Discussion of Feuerherz (Heart of Fire) at the festival dwelled mostly on the film’s authenticity to Senait G. Mehari’s memoir and to the history of the Eritrean struggle for independence. Letekidan Micael’s Awet and exquisite camera work demonstrating director Luigi Falorni’s documentary background from Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel (The Story of the Weeping Camel, 2003) impress. But do the extended close-ups of water-drenched black faces comment on the horrors of war or merely simulate war tourism for distant Europeans? Heavy-handed Christian lessons about turning the right cheek ring hollow. Ultimately, the production is political only in the vaguest terms. Caught between the fronts to lecture on Eritrea as well as to narrate a universal fable about child soldiers, its shallow moral is “war is hell, especially when kids are fighting”.

In Berlin, gays and straights alike celebrate Christopher Street Day as a colorful fest. The parade in Moscow, as Jochen Hick demonstrates in East West – Sex & Politics, generates little support among Muscovites – and not even among the city’s gay community. Although homosexuality was legalised in 1993 during the initially liberal Yeltsin reign, Russia suffers from widespread homophobia. Hick chronicles a number of gays and lesbians, ranging from activists to apolitical bon vivants, through their daily lives and night-time adventures in the capital’s largely closeted homosexual scene. The 2006 and 2007 parades bookend the film as official indications of the anti-gay sentiment. Neo-Nazis punch German MP Volker Beck and rough up the British pop duo Right Said Fred; Russian Orthodox priests protesting the demonstration chant “Moscow is not Sodom!” Meanwhile, the police arrest the gays rather than the men assaulting them. Although Hick’s project could use a tighter focus and Stephen Taylor’s very British voiceover grates, the documentary sheds light on this modern-day problem as a symptom of Russia’s inability to democratise its institutions in the post-Soviet period. East West was perhaps the best of the several German gay-themed documentaries in the Panorama and Forum categories, including Das andere Instanbul (The Other Side of Istanbul) and Rosa von Praunheim’s Tote Schwule, lebende Lesben (Dead Gay Men and Living Lesbians).

In Hamburg’s immigrant gangster milieu, young Chiko yearns to rule the local drug scene. Teaming up with neighbourhood pal Tibet, he mercilessly rises through the dealer ranks to land a post working for kingpin Brownie (Moritz Bleibtreu). Along the way he falls for the hooker Meryem and is about to settle down, before a conflict between Tibet and Brownie precipitates his downfall. Özgür Yildirim’s debut Chiko, produced by Fatih Akin, is at times a quite witty gangster flick and an effective study of aggression among the city’s pimps, prostitutes and pushers. Although the film borrows story, setting and energy from Akin’s early work Kurz und Schmerzlos (Short Sharp Shock, 1998), it pales in comparison. “Success” montage sequences of raining Euros and coke lines – set to blaring hip-hop, naturally – are stale. The story suffers above all from its subscription to a clichéd, vague notion of friendship by which childhood chums obtain eternal loyalty in spite of all rationality to the contrary.

The sole German feature in the Forum category, Nacht vor Augen (Night Before Eyes), resurrects to the oldest trope in post-World War II German filmmaking: the fate of the returning soldier. In this case David comes home not, like in the famous “rubble films” Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are Among Us, 1946) or Irgendwo in Berlin (Somewhere in Berlin, 1946), from an Allies’ POW camp; he returns from the NATO “peacekeeping” mission in Afghanistan. His village in the rural Black Forest region has not changed, but the discharged 25 year-old surely has. The signs of a difficult readjustment come early. His hard army boots halt horseplay with randy girlfriend Kirsten. Stricken by guilt over a civilian killing, David has regressed to a pre-pubertal state. Sex is impossible and the brawny vet wets his bed nightly. This initial scenario anticipates a sadistic relationship with his shy half-brother Benni. The Brigitte Bertele debut feature chronicles David’s descent into a paranoid tailspin of aggression towards Benni, Kirsten and himself. Recalling in many ways the recent Danish returning-soldier drama Brødre (Brothers, Susanne Bier, 2004), the psychogram works as a question mark pointing towards the potential for destruction within us all.

The parallel narrative structure dies hard in Germany. Berlin – 1. Mai (Berlin – 1st of May) consists of three episodes converging on the annual Labour Day riots in the traditionally leftist Berlin district Kreuzberg. Yavuz, an 11 year-old Turkish boy, seeks attention from his brother and the older boys in the neighbourhood. His need to impress anticipates an attack on a mild-mannered old hippie. Jacob and Pelle, from the Westphalian province town Minden, travel to the capital for drugs, sex and violence. Drifting between a museum, a kebab shop and a club and among the city’s anarchists, immigrants and artists, they live out their imagined Berlin in excess. Uwe’s wife is cheating on him with an 18 year-old. Rather than confront her, the police officer seeks solace in a clandestine brothel visit during his shift monitoring the May Day demonstrations. In this well-intentioned but derivative collaboration from young directors Carsten Ludwig, Jan-Christoph Glaser, Sven Taddicken and Jacob Ziemnicki, all characters conclude the day in the same hospital. Dull in comparison to other German parallel-narrative exercises such as Hans-Christian Schmid’s Lichter, Berlin – 1. Mai is an argument to prohibit the form indefinitely.

The Vow

Alongside debut films, the festival showcased quality films by veteran directors. Dominik Graf’s Das Gelübde (The Vow) dramatises the encounter between the poet Clemens Brentano and Anna Katharina Emmerich, who had become famous for stigmata on her chest, forehead and hands, as well as for her powers to heal the sick miraculously. Brentano transcribes the bed-ridden nun’s visions, the basis of the writer’s popular later work. A tense 1818 Westphalia, in which the locals are in rebellion against their Prussian occupiers, forms the backdrop of this mood piece. Graf’s TV-funded production is a delightfully anachronistic literary adaptation, replete with still shots under the opening and closing credits. The film emotes in pans and zooms straight from the 1970s. Its stylistic recourse to works such as Ingmar Bergman’s Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973), already lampooned in Lukas Moodysson’s Tilsammans (Together, 2000), is supremely appropriate. Like these films, Das Gelübde is a story of jealousy, vanity, hypocrisy and faith in doubt. Together with the electronic incidental music, the restless camera enhances the film’s uncanny atmosphere and reveals a director in his prime.

Winfried and Barbara Junge’s Die Kinder von Golzow (The Children of Golzow, 1961- 2008) project is the world’s longest chronicle documentary, surpassing the better-known British 7-Up (1964-2005) series. This year’s Berlinale premiered the final chapter, Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind… Die Kinder von Golzow. Teil 3+4 (And If They Haven’t Passed Away… The Children of Golzow. Part 3+4). Part 3 portrays Elke, Karin and Gudrun. Elke, a trained business woman, shares the fate of many from the former East’s generation: she is unemployed and lives from social welfare. Butcher Karin leaves Golzow shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and settles in the West German city Wuppertal, where she works in a nursing home. Gudrun, a single mother and committed Communist who sought a lifelong career in the Party, cannot deal with the GDR’s collapse. Bernhard and Eckhard are the focus of Part 4. The shy, industrious friends have avoided the spotlight throughout the documentary series. Both work as mechanics for a farm collective, but shortly after unification their lives diverge. Eckhard, husband and father of four children, loses his job shortly before his 50th birthday. The previously aimless Bernhard, however, finally assumes initiative, marrying and commuting part of the year to the Ukraine. The Junge’s sensitive and yet probing attitude towards their subjects yields unquantifiable observations about German-German relations and the conclusion of this series coincides with a new chapter in the GDR’s legacy. The prospects for Eckhard’s children, for example, appear nearly identical to those of young people in the West. Elke, Karin, Gudrun, Bernhard, Eckhard, and the other former “children of Golzow” form doubtless the last generation of Easterners existentially marked by Cold War divisions.

A cartoonish intro – part Une femme est une femme, part Les parapluies de Cherbourg – prefaces Märzmelodie (Melodies of Spring), a perky comedy about six neurotic thirtysomethings in Berlin’s hip Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg boroughs. Anna is a burnt-out teacher who plunges into shell-shocked flashbacks upon hearing (school) bells. Thilo, an out-of-work actor and lousy wine dealer, suffers from blackouts. He forgets, for instance, that his girlfriend broke up with him and walks out unwittingly on dates. The two take part in a ronde of romantic constellations involving the married couple Valerie and Moritz, the commitment-phobe Florian and the doe-eyed, romantic Katja (Jana Pallaske). Martin Walz’s cutesy musical parody, in which the characters burst into short snippets of songs by Zarah Leander, Willi Forst, Udo Lindenberg, Nena, Element of Crime, among others, ultimately recalls Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996) more than the aforementioned French films. Silly communication mishaps fuel this feathery crowd-pleaser in which the possibility of a perfect trinity between career, family, and friends is put under test only in order to be affirmed.

The Heart is a Dark Forest

Last year’s Silver Bear winner Nina Hoss and David Striesow, the acting pair behind Yella, re-couple to headline Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald (The Heart is a Dark Forest), a murky Medea adaptation set in present-day Germany. Marie (Hoss) and Thomas (Striesow) live with their two small children in a humble bungalow in suburban Hamburg. One morning Marie follows her husband to band rehearsal in order to deliver the violin he forgot at home. To her horror Thomas drives to another address in the city, where he has another lover, child and home. This nightmarish revelation sends the fragile housewife and former musician into panic and leads her to Thomas’ evening performance at a masked ball. Director Nicolette Krebitz’s second feature excels especially in the first-half study of Marie’s claustrophobic existence. A gorgeously gloomy cinematography distances the spectator from characters with close-ups of objects and shots of disembodied legs or hands. Sudden split-screens with map routes as well as voice-overs of ingredient lists and cooking instructions function well early on. Unfortunately, they disappear. As Krebitz forages for a style she resorts to previous models. The masked ball cues Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999). The set designs of Oskar Roehler’s Die Unberührbare (No Place to Go, 2000), Suck My Dick (2001), and Der alte Affe Angst provide the Bildungsbürgertum (educated middle-class) feel quietly haunting the characters’ pasts here. A scene in which a miniature Jesus walks off a wall crucifix points to the surreal cinema of Luis Buñuel but also the quirkier works of this film’s producer, Tom Tykwer. In addition, 16mm theatre sequences punctuating the proceedings betray Krebitz’s background on the stage. These conversational interludes between Marie and Thomas are not precisely flashbacks but rather recollections channeled through the unreliable vagaries of memory. Ultimately, the weird, naked and vicious ending does not add up; Krebitz’s conundrum intrigues in approach but fails in execution.

Jan Bonny’s debut feature Gegenüber (Counterparts) is neither less ambitious nor less violent. Georg Hoffmann is an unassuming police officer in the dreary Ruhr region. His colleagues admire his seemingly blissful marriage to Anne, a school teacher. The partnership is anything but harmonious, however. Anne’s volatile mood swings, worsened by an emotionally and financially dependent relationship with her father, give rise to sadistic attacks on her apologetic husband. George never strikes back, even as his wife’s mental condition ruins his career and the bond with their two children. Bonny’s psycho-provocation harks back to John Cassavetes’ taut portraits of hysterical women in Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977). The consistent colour palette, stylised sound mix, handheld camera and elliptical narrative coalesce into an experience which – if not perfect in itself – leaves one hungry for the filmmaker’s future work.

* * *

Market share is neither an accurate index of, nor a solution to, the predicament of the German cinema. Industry insiders and the scribes at Variety and Hollywood Reporter surely greet figures like those Til Schweiger’s Kleinohrhasen (Rabbit Without Ears) has generated in January (4 million German viewers) and look forward to the returns from Märzmelodie, Tom Tykwer’s Hollywood co-production The International or producer Bernd Eichinger’s star-studded Baader-Meinhof Komplex (The Baader Meinhof Complex), set to debut in the autumn.

The troubles with German cinema begin not in movie theatre seats, but in the scripts and storyboards – in the very imagination of domestic filmmakers. Rosa von Praunheim perhaps overstates the problem when he generalises all young German directors as “a generation who are all so wonderfully nice and dear and good-looking and make films about how difficult it was with their terrible parents.” (2) Nevertheless, this criticism bears a good measure of truth. And if one is to deal with familial relations and stunted comings-of-age, why not in the garish tones of an Oskar Roehler or with Jan Bonny’s gritty ellipses? Austrian colleagues like Jessica Hausner or Ulrich Seidl provide just two examples of how to develop an ethnography of the local. Rather than fleeing to Tokyo, or Ethiopia, the lesson of this year’s Berlinale is that the exotic gaze of homegrown filmmakers must turn to the “unknown terrain” within.

Berlinale website: http://www.berlinale.de

Endnotes

  1. Michael Althen, Peter Körte and Verena Lueken, “Man muss die Filmstudenten an den Haaren ins Kino ziehen,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 7 February 2008, p. 39.
  2. Althen, et al., p. 39.

About The Author

Mattias Frey is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Kent, UK. His film reviews and scholarly articles have appeared in various books and reference works as well as in Cinema Journal, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Framework, Film International and the Boston Phoenix. His book on post-1990 German film, Goodbye, Hitler: Postwall German Cinema and History, is forthcoming with Berghahn Books.