5-15 February 2009

As if out of spite, just as banks fail and states teeter towards insolvency, German cinema could not be better. In a year of crisis, the Berlin International Film Festival booked a new record of 270,000 tickets. This flight to the cinema continued the trend in domestic market share from 2008: German films took 27% of ticket sales, the highest figure since 1991. To be sure, the upturn is attributable to a small number of very popular productions, above all Til Schweiger’s Keinohrhasen (No Rabbit Ears) and prestige films that attend to national history. With Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (The Baader Meinhof Complex), the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category once again featured a German historical nominee – after Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa, 2002), Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, 2005), Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) and the Austrian-German co-production Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, 2007).

The 59th Berlinale offered the most consistent quality in years. This standard, however, must be measured in the craftsmanship of genre films rather in subjective artistic visions. With the exception of Christian Petzold, the directors associated with the “Berlin School” have not impressed committees into funding feature productions. It is perhaps not premature to eulogise the festival’s 2007 incarnation as the group’s last, mighty gasp.

But let us not prescribe art film quotas nor entertain subjunctive fantasies of what might have been for German cinema had talented filmmakers been allowed to pursue intellectually earnest projects. Let us describe domestic filmmaking for what it did have this year: a new confidence in local stories and national history.

The best German feature in competition and winner of the Grand Jury Prize, Alle Anderen (Everybody Else), found the domestic in the foreign. Maren Ade’s second feature demonstrates how vacations force us out of the routines that save us from reflection. The film follows a Berlin couple at a summer house in Sardinia. Chris is an architect whose idealism outpaces his business-sense. Gitti does PR for a record label. On their Italian journey, the pair plays, bickers and contemplates the future of their intense connection. Gitti wants to move in together once they return to Germany. Chris realises his dissatisfaction with his unsuccessful career and his ‘”feminine” role vis-à-vis Gitti. Subtly, almost silently, each tries to shift the terms of the power arrangement, which leads to crisis. This is a film about the second coming-of-age that middle-class men and women go through in their early thirties: they decide whether to live in the manner of their parents or to continue on like students. Therein lies a succinct examination of gender roles in post-feminist Germany, one more perceptive than all of Dorris Dörrie’s features. Although the story poses the danger of devolving into an episode of Dharma and Greg, it ultimately succeeds in transmitting the dynamic constellations at work between the sexes each day. Gitti is initially a demanding Peter Pan, a young woman who wants to be different at all costs. Her pushiness, it is revealed, derives from the anxiety about being alone. For Chris too, romantic posturing and disdain for compromise masks a deep-seated fear of failure. Alle Anderen is a showcase for its actors (Birgit Minichmayr won a Silver Bear for her turn as Gitti), but one achieved through Bernhard Keller’s delicate camera work.

Hans-Christian Schmid has proved to be one of post-Wall Germany’s most enduring filmmakers. Trained as a documentarist, his successful features combine careful observation of characters and German spaces with tested narrative arcs and an accessible style. In a phrase, Schmid gives German cinema a tradition of quality with an auteurist touch. The director’s feature in competition, Storm, recalls another of his Berlinale contributions, Lichter (Distant Lights, 2006), with its larger European focus and multi-lingual script. Following nearly all of his films, Storm chronicles the trials of an idealistic protagonist whose desire to change the way others think and feel ends in self-destruction. Hannah Maynard (played by Kerry Fox) is a lawyer charged with prosecuting a former Serbian general at a Dutch international war crimes tribunal. After her star witness Alen Hajdarevic perjures himself and subsequently commits suicide, she travels to Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to save her case and understand why the Bosnian lied under oath. There she uncovers a whole new layer to the past, one which leads her to Hajdarevic’s sister in Germany, a rape camp and mortal danger. To complicate matters, Maynard is involved romantically with an official responsible for bringing further Balkan states into the EU: he and others among her own ranks appear to be working as much against her as with her. Schmid’s film shows a new international ambition, for better and for worse. Straying from his German roots exposes a limitation of emotional stakes and a certain insecurity with his foreign actors. Since the late 1990s, Schmid has used Steadicam to provide more room for improvisation during scenes; coupled with the “universal” themes here, however, the style pales into transnational bland. In address, Storm recalls Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) or even Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000). Schmid’s effort is perhaps less boisterous than these international hits, but remains essentially agit-emo: it is a political appeal, by emotional means, to extend the life of the real International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. Nevertheless, it disappoints only because the expectations preceding any Schmid project start impossibly high. Even after Storm, he remains one of the country’s very best filmmakers.

Jerichow

In the German Cinema series, the Berlinale screened several features that exhibited domestic directors at the height of their craft. Christian Petzold’s Jerichow is – dare I say it? – the best adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, ever. Upon his mother’s death, the laconic ex-soldier Thomas (played by Benno Fürmann) returns to Jerichow, a village in northeastern Germany. There he encounters Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish-born, German-bred entrepreneur who supplies 45 local Kebab stands. Ali has a track record of drink-driving arrests and offers Thomas a job as chauffer on his daily rounds. While working for Ali, Thomas gets to know Laura (Nina Hoss), who is married to Ali but suffers under his alcoholic tantrums. As Thomas and Nina’s affair precipitates plans to murder Ali, the characters’ soiled pasts come elliptically into view: Thomas’ dishonourable discharge from Afghanistan, Laura’s debts and pre-nuptial agreement, Ali’s jealousy and heart condition. Petzold’s film hinges on the story’s beautifully American simplicity combined with a nuanced attention to the realities of the German province. The characters do not inhabit, they dwell – alone in the sunny, barren landscape. In Petzold’s compositions, each occupies a separate world. Often only the motion of a train in the background betrays the village’s connection to the “outside” world. Between the lines of dialogue, but even more so in Hans Fromm’s cinematography, a psychogram of the new German culture and economics emerges. In the era of Hartz IV (the social benefit reforms introduced by the former Social Democratic-Green coalition), it is the Turk who embodies the “German” virtues of invention, hard work and saving. One key line of dialogue rings as a motto for a generation: “You can’t love if you don’t have any money”. This constitutes Petzold’s grand intervention in the history of Postman adaptations. Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) foregrounded the story’s sweaty eroticism. His film dripped stylised interiors while previewing neorealistic flavour and dialect. Petzold’s effort observes more meticulously while retrieving the immigrant subtext from the Cain story (and the 1981 Bob Rafelson Postman adaptation) into today’s state of the nation. Jerichow is less erotic and more haunting than Ossessione. (One could not expect otherwise from these filmmakers.) Petzold designs a cinema of encounters whose focus binds the roads of New Hollywood and the style of Antonioni to the specificity of Germany, 2009.

Like Jerichow, Andreas Dresen’s Wolke 9 (Cloud 9) projects a filmmaker in his prime and revolves around three characters: Inge, her husband Werner and her lover Karl. All three are over 65, retired and live in eastern Berlin, but Inge refuses to sit quietly with Werner, who chain smokes and listens to old records of trains arriving at GDR stations; she’s got to have it. Inge begins an affair with Karl, a go-getter who spends his days touring the Brandenburg countryside with his bicycle. In this triangle of classical proportions, a post-communist Sense and Sensibility, train and bicycle serve as metaphors for Inge’s future. Shall she remain with Werner, a passenger who retreads familiar routes, looking and listening from afar, or follow Karl, who forges into the unknown, smells and touches? Dresen’s conundrum lovingly sketches its characters and allows them desires normally unknown to cinema screens. As the director revealed before the screening, “making this film was a matter of the heart; our society doesn’t allow passion and sexuality at this age”. Masterfully improvised by Ursula Werner, Horst Rehberg and Horst Westhal, the chamber piece catches us up on the dreams that still motivate the proud East German women of the 1960s and 1970s: the Paulas, Solo Sunnys and the other somehow worldly DEFA stars. In this cinema, character histories unfold in a single gesture, a forename, a look. Is there a director more sensitive and better equipped than Andreas Dresen to tell us the stories which surround us but which we can neither perceive nor order?

The most remarkable trend in post-Wall German cinema is the proliferation of historical films. This year’s Berlinale revealed that this movement has not slowed its pace. On offer were new adaptations of Buddenbrooks and Effi Briest and a biopic of actress and chanteuse Hildegard Knef, Hilde. In a sort of German Harry Potter, David Kross plays a sorcerer’s apprentice in Krabat, based on a Sorbian legend and set during the Thirty Years’ War. The expensive production (for German standards) stars a who’s who of young domestic actors (besides Kross: Daniel Brühl and Robert Stadlober.) Director Marcus H. Rosenmüller, best known for Wer früher stirbt ist länger tot (Grave Decisions, 2006), delivered another Bavarian film this year, Die Perlmutterfarbe (The Mother-of-Pearl Paint). Although set in 1931, this story about a boy who gets tangled in a lie uses the ingredients of Rosenmüller’s earlier concoctions: young protagonists who seek parental approval, the Bavarian dialect, Catholic guilt and irreverent humour. This coming-of-age film may not match the heights of the director’s best work, but it reveals a storyteller able to produce genre films more whimsical than any of Lasse Hallström’s.

Lulu & Jimi

The most unique German historical film screening at this year’s festival, Oskar Roehler’s Lulu & Jimi, proves original by dint of its conscious imitation. Several of Roehler’s films channel his favourite director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Die Unberührbare (No Place to Go, 2000), for instance, recreated the last days of Roehler’s mother through Fassbinder’s Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982). Agnes und seine Brüder (Agnes and His Brothers, 2003) replayed plot lines from In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with 13 Moons, 1978). For his new effort, Roehler takes on Lola (1981), itself one of Fassbinder’s love letters to Douglas Sirk, with a dash of David Lynch. In 1950s’ Schweinfurt, Lulu, the daughter of a former industrialist, meets the Afro-American Jimi at a carnival. Lulu’s mother will have nothing of the interracial affair and conspires with her chauffeur and a mysterious drifter Harry Hass (played mischievously by Ulrich Thomsen) to foil the pair’s plans to emigrate to America. Roehler assembles the familiar archetypes from classic Sirk and Fassbinder melodramas: the oversexed, alcoholic mother (an initially unrecognisable Kathrin Saß), the ineffectual father, the brother bound to a wheelchair and the black outsider. Add to that 1950s’ rock ‘n’ roll and deliciously garish make-up, costumes, set design and lighting. But lest one think this is an exercise in the elegant vein of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), let me assure that Lulu & Jimi is a bloody, bodily affair with the dark humour typical of Roehler pictures. Highlights include a high-heel shoe impaling Lulu’s brother, a sinister doctor castrating the unfaithful father and several attempted abortions. Like almost all of the director’s films, this project could have used a bit more planning and a few darlings murdered. But, as ever, Roehler’s imagination innervates German cinema.

Similarly playful, if less sophisticated, was Lars Jenssen’s Dorfpunks (Village Punks). Jenssen examined 1980s’ small-town northern Germany already in Am Tag als Bobby Ewing starb (The Day Bobby Ewing Died, 2004), a send-up of a Green hippie commune. His new film takes place in 1984 in Schmalenstedt, an idyllic community on the Baltic Sea. Seventeen year-old Malte Ahrens, (who prefers to be called “Roddy Dangerblood”), and his mates have discovered punk, which arrived in town only recently. The four start a band, spar with right-wing farmers’ boys and fail miserably at attracting girls. All the while Malte and his friends drink cans of beer and belch in front of the most picturesque German landscapes, panoramas which for the young men represent a beautiful, boring prison. Dorfpunks, based on a novel by Rocko Schamoni, adheres to a formulaic narrative trajectory but charms with its lay actors and details. In the vein of Populärmusik från Vittula (Popular Music, 2004), the film captures the late-teen feeling by which everything is possible and yet impossible – in a province that is a felt universe away from Brixton and Brooklyn.

Films about the Nazi past continue to appear regularly in post-Wall Germany. Domestic movie reviewers have spoken of an “Adolf-Bonus” to describe the pictures’ success at the box office. The incarnations at the festival this year were historiographically problematic and cinematically harmless. Take John Rabe. The eponymous Hamburg businessman and NSDAP member led the Siemens factory in Nanking through the 1920s and into the 1930s. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1937, Rabe helped organise a security zone to protect his Chinese workers from the foreign soldiers. Director Florian Gallenberger takes on the story with a prominent cast (Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Brühl and Steve Buscemi), relatively high production values and more than a little inspiration from Schindler’s List (1993) and Hotel Rwanda (2004). Grating and clichéd, John Rabe hardly stands a serious chance to follow on the market success of its influences.

It is a matter of fact that the Red Army raped 300,000 German women in the last days and immediate aftermath of World War II. Max Färberböck (Aimée & Jaguar, 1999) transformed an anonymous woman’s diary of this harrowing time into Anonyma – eine Frau in Berlin (A Woman in Berlin). His film follows “Anonyma” (played by Nina Hoss) and the other mostly female inhabitants of a Berlin apartment building. Cowering in the basement and then forced to live together in the flats above, the women first fear the brutal Soviet “liberators”. Anonyma and others then proceed to take on soldiers and officers as lovers and protectors. The narrative chronicles wild parties with willing Berlin women and Russian bons vivants as well as bitchy spats between Anonyma and a female Soviet soldier who is also enamoured of a handsome officer. The German women compare notes on Syphilis and debate which of the soldiers is the best lover (rapist?). In Färberböck’s hands, a postwar historical taboo becomes an episode of Sex and the City. With depictions of milk-faced, crying German soldiers, cutesy predictions of the economic miracle and the EU, the viewer receives a very 21st-century revision of political history and gender relations. In fact, the pseudo-feminist, cynical moral of this tale is that sassy women get by on willpower in any situation; they even come to enjoy their oppressors and Stockholm Syndrome. Anonyma unfairly recreates postwar Germany through the bodies and minds of women with today’s post-emancipation values. Is this the only way the filmmakers felt they could relate history to a late-born audience?

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Finally, a few words should be said about Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, the story of West Germany’s home-grown terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s, the Red Army Faction (RAF). Based on journalist Stefan Aust’s 667-page book, it telegraphs ten years of terrorist activity from soundbite to soundbite in 150 minutes. Organised primarily around iconic photographs from the era, the narrative races in seconds from Benno Ohnesorg’s death and Rudi Dutschke’s assassination attempt to Holger Meins’ arrest. The development – and even introduction – of characters are subordinated to action scenes, car chases and recycled documentary footage. Stylistically, the film takes cues from recent Hollywood pictures, rather than previous German accounts of the RAF. The editing is relentless; the camera rarely pauses. Time and again, it pans around a circle of committed terrorists at the end of a sequence until it rests on the face of a new recruit who will lead the next cell’s illegal activity. In a way, the scope of the film is both very ambitious and severely elliptical. By tearing through the most complex chapter of West German history between the war and the Wall, Uli Edel demands either the perspective of an older German (who will recognise the historical actors without prompts) or a young, international audience, which neither needs nor cares to know why these children of the middle class turned to armed combat against the state. Edel chronicles (who, what, when) rather than analyses (how, why). This constitutes a new approach towards the RAF in domestic cinema. With a distractingly star-studded stable of actors (Moritz Bleibteu, Martina Gedeck, Jan Josef Liefers, Stipe Erceg, Alexandra Maria Lara, Hannah Herzsprung, Tom Schilling, Michael Gwisdek, Katharina Wackernagel, Bruno Ganz), the director and super-producer Bernd Eichinger swallow the subject matter of at least five previous German films on the subject. These projects, for instance, deliberated on the political and gender dynamics of why individual members might have joined the struggle (Die bleierne Zeit [The German Sisters, 1981]) or documented their trial in painstaking detail (Stammheim, 1984). All this is not to say that Der Baader Meinhof Komplex proves unexciting or unsuccessful. But the film withholds curious facts from its surfeit of memory: e.g., that the lawyers for the group went on to hold key positions in government and represent ideological viewpoints far from their original leftist utopianism. Even after Edel’s movie, the RAF will continue to serve as a contested site of memory for the generation of 1968 and its legacy.

This year’s Berlinale showcased a fine crop of domestic productions. Nevertheless, let us not imagine a German film landscape with all peaks and no low points. Several films – chief among them Tom Tykwer’s largest production to date, The International – disappointed. Tykwer’s banking thriller teaches us an important lesson, however: regimes of planning and production as well as schemes of financing and distribution mitigate responses to the present. This applies to film as well. It is premature to speculate on aftershocks that the international financial crisis might wreak on domestic movie production. For now, we can lose ourselves at the cinema and only hope that our bank accounts still remain after the last picture show.

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