If one measures a national cinema in numbers and percentages, then 2009 was an annus mirabilis for Germany. Not only were admissions and box office up vis-à-vis 2008, the domestic market share increased to 27.4% – the highest percentage since the FFA (Filmförderungsanstalt) began its records in 1991. In addition, more German films were released than ever before (216). Compared with the cosy outputs of 2005 (146) or 1998 (70), German cinema has become unüberschaubar (unsurveyable) for all but the most temporally blessed.

To be sure, these quantities tell us little about quality; sophisticated local filmmaking finds only niche audiences. Anaemic numbers of Germans went to cinemas to see the gems I wrote about last year. Oskar Roehler’s delicious Fassbinder homage Lulu & Jimi sold only 21,576 tickets and Christian Petzold’s inspired reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice in rural Brandenburg, Jerichow, fared little better (99,357). Even Hans-Christian Schmid’s Sturm (Storm), a touch-too-earnest but hardly inaccessible international co-production, flopped at 40,173 admissions. In contrast, costume-heavy retrospections and blithe comedies captured the lion’s share of the market. Michael “Bully” Herbig’s childish Wickie und die starken Männer (Vicky the Viking) attracted nearly 5 million admissions in the first three months of release. The huge hits Männerherzen (Men in the City) and Männersache (literal title: A Male Thing) recast the gender-role frivolity that engineered late-1980s’ and early-1990s’ domestic box office success, e.g., Männer (Men, 1985) and Der bewegte Mann (Maybe, Maybe Not, 1994). In this context it was perhaps foreseeable that Til Schweiger, the star of many such productions, has returned to prominence in recent years with hits including Zweiohrküken (Rabbit Without Ears 2), which more than 3 million saw in December during its first three weeks on cinematic release.

Corresponding to this breadth, the 60th Berlin International Film Festival showcased both the art and the artifice of the current domestic cinema (in addition to other treats, e.g., two “lost films” by German masters: the restored version of Metropolis [1927] and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sci-fi TV-movie Welt am Draht [World on a Wire, 1973].) In this space last year I wondered if it was not high time to eulogise the 2007 Berlinale as the dying gasp of the “(New) Berlin School”. In fact, my comments were premature: three of the filmmakers associated with the group (Thomas Arslan, Benjamin Heisenberg, Angela Schanelec) premiered new projects at the festival.

Der Räuber (The Robber), Heisenberg’s Austrian-German contribution to the Competition, chases the elusive itineraries of Johann Rettenberger (played by Andreas Lust), a convicted robber and hobby runner, based on a real case from the 1980s. Released on parole, Rettenberger maintains neither aspirations nor real chances to find a job. Lacking energy for quotidian encounters, he barely registers emotions, save irritation, in his appointments with his parole officer or in fulfilling bureaucratic obligations. He is much more active in his daily long-distance training and even wins the Vienna marathon. Rettenberger moves in with Erika (Franziska Weisz), an old-money acquaintance with a capacious apartment, but life remains unsatisfying; he craves more adrenaline and begins a series of daring daylight bank holdups. Rettenberger never spends the money he collects; rather, he meticulously charts his endorphin highs as if his violent crimes were afternoon promenades. After murdering his parole officer and despite a dramatic escape from a police station, the authorities catch up with the wounded thief. Wheezing at the wheel of a stolen car, Rettenberger slowly expires, almost content to have no distance left to run. In its form and style, Der Räuber is no crime caper. (As if to make this contrast concrete, Rettenberger and Erika watch a typical one in a cinema.) Heisenberg’s project is, rather, a document of a wounded animal and a natural history of self-destruction. Recalling earlier effort Schläfer (Sleeper, 2005), the clinical camera stalks the criminal with a precision that makes The Shining (1980) look untamed. Like the protagonist, who studies pulse, endurance and hormone levels, Heisenberg and cameraman Reinhold Vorschneider probe Rettenberger for his submerged vital signs. The filmmakers deliver a commendable effort, which impresses both artistically and physically. Andreas Lust underwent months of athletic training to be able to inhabit the character convincingly; the crew was forced to keep pace. (One scene took place during the real Vienna marathon. With Lust advancing ahead of the actual competitors, there was but one chance to record the necessary footage.) There is nonetheless a marked emptiness to this (albeit intentionally) shallow portrait. What shall we do, after all, with a character study if we gain fleeting access to him and his environment?

Im Schatten (In the Shadows) begins with a long take of a rainy Friedrichstraße, an archetype of 1990s’ architecture in the centre of post-Wall Berlin; in the overexposed image, the neon street lights blur into pinks and blues. It is only after the credits end that we realise that this is the POV of Trojan (played by Mišel Matičević), a brooding ex-con who observes from a café window, caught in the shallowest of focus. No one has ever moved through the Federal Republic’s streets like this: clad in a slick leather jacket, he is Redford in Three Days of the Condor (1975) meets DeNiro in Taxi Driver (1976). Trojan slithers through the city and almost all of the 85-minute running time follows him taking mental notes for his next job: an armoured-car heist involving a host of dodgy characters, including old mates, a romantic interest, a crooked cop and a guard on the inside. Thomas Arslan’s signature is apparent in the gorgeous cinematography and bare, but well-placed music; the unpsychological performances yield pure dialogue and gestural restraint. Indeed, the audience at the press screening laughed when the corrupt detective René Meyer (Uwe Bohm) intoned his dying words in an even, measured tone, a nod to the ending of Le doulos (1962): the characters, perhaps save Trojan, are mere faces, bodies, clothes hangers and voices that prod the narrative along. It is now commonplace to see Berlin School directors’ inspiration in New Hollywood, but, in the cases of Der Räuber and especially Im Schatten, the dynamics are also Melvillean. Both stories tell us that crime doesn’t pay at the same time they romanticise criminals; in Arslan’s film especially, crooks and cops are mistakable in appearance and proceed along criss-crossed moral trajectories. Above all, these projects and others (e.g., Christian Petzold’s Jerichow) offer the “cinema of process” (1) we find in Jean-Pierre Melville. They dwell on the preparations, real-time observations and routines of the criminals much more so than the brief spurts of violent action.

My festival regret was not being able to see Orly. Angela Schanelec’s latest chamber piece takes us to an unexpected location: the eponymous Paris airport. Fragments of journeys or chance rendezvous – mother and son, wife and potential lover, jilted woman and her husband’s break-up letter – begin and end, following the logic of the mobile camera in the “anonymous” terminal. Schanelec’s work has made its mark with copious silence and spare shot counts (her Marseille [2004] contains less than 80 over 95 minutes), and by all reports these trademarks endure here. Expectedly, Orly was panned by the trade papers and found champions in the usual places: most serious critics considered it to be the strongest among the three Berlin School entries.

Weird and abject, Eine flexible Frau (The Drifter) represents a remarkable sign of life in contemporary German cinema. Tatjana Turanskyj’s feature debut is an Abschied von gestern (Yesterday Girl, 1966) for the globalisation era. It trails Greta M. (played by Mira Partecke), an unemployed architect on the verge of a nervous breakdown, through a series of absurd encounters in the capital. She divides her time between job centres and call centres, outmoded cafés and hypermodern townhouse developments. Earnest in her wish to work again, she is stymied by the hypocrisies and vocabularies of the new economy. She is schooled in mellifluous platitudes (“pragmatic utopian architecture”) and not allowed to be “unemployed”, but rather “looking for a new challenge”. Cold-calling to sell prefabricated houses, she must always “smile on the inside”. In the most charming terms, her boss (Laura Tonke) instructs her that every conversation must be a “rhetorical masterpiece”; after all, “communication is argumentation”. As an agent for the film’s overall concerns, Greta pursues a psychogeography of the new Berlin. This eludes her, if not us: the city is seen, literally and figuratively, through tinted lenses. Greta’s oversized shades reflect the capital’s new class of attractive urban professionals and fragmented prospects of gated townhouse communities. Through these semi-privatised streets (“surveilled, but ecologically correct!”) and the clans that dwell in them, Turanskyj lays bare the traditional (West German) gender dynamics in action behind the hip Prenzlauer Berg idyll and entertains the possibility of material existence and connectivity in an increasingly conformist society. The tone and form are post-Wall Fassbinder or Herbert Achternbusch on the Spree: to tourist groups and in YouTube missives, a chorus figure narrates Greta M.’s ultimate drowning in this “flexible” social order. Although at moments flawed and unfocused, Turanskyj’s portent promises a bright future for her career and a hopeless present for our civilisation.

Similarly ambitious, butultimately unsuccessful,Shahada (Faith) investigates a much different urban milieu in the guise of three Berlin Muslims in crisis: Maryam, who aborts her baby in a nightclub, Ismail, a policeman wracked with guilt for an on-duty shooting and Samir, who covets his colleague Daniel. Burhan Qurbani’s graduation project for the Film Academy Baden-Württemberg earnestly treats German Islam; the cinematography is consistent, lush and polished. Nevertheless, the 90-minute parallel narrative involving several characters and their families – not to mention several layers of mystical symbolism – overspends its pretensions and executes poorly. Background information comes too bluntly; the dialogue and music drag and the figures never fully emerge. Qurbani, still learning his craft, cannot make us care about them. In a socially relevant, actor-led drama, this missed connection is fatal.

Beyond the Competition and Forum categories, the German Cinema series reflected the commercial realities of the domestic industry with its selection of recent quality genre pictures. These included (more or less) effective comedies such as Lila, Lila (My Words, My Lies – My Love), starring Daniel Brühl, Hannah Herzsprung and Henry Hübchen as well as Fatih Akin’s mildly overcooked Soul Kitchen. But, as ever, the clear focus was on historical features, the most durable German genre since 1990. Take Mein Kampf, the satirical physiognomy of Hitler’s years as failed art student in Vienna, circa 1910. Tom Schilling plays the future dictator as an uncouth loser who paints postcards in a men’s hostel. In this imagined history, a National Socialist etymology (total war, final solution) arises while shaving or in squabbles with his (often Jewish) roommates; the swastika is imprinted on young Hitler’s face after sleeping on a pillow with a windmill pattern. The tyrant emerges from a naïve, frigid Upper Austrian bumpkin with little luck for women. Near the conclusion he actually hypnotises his Tyrolean object of desire with a puppet; this becomes a metaphor for his future effect on the German people. Despite the often kinetic editing, Mein Kampf is very theatrical in composition; (as an adaptation of George Tabori’s farce for the stage, this is perhaps to be expected). Although the performances by Schilling, Götz George and Anna Unterberger impress, the production values recall Sunday evening on BBC, ARD or ORF. (Most specifically, the project conjures the Bockerer series.) This is perhaps also unsurprising: Swiss director Urs Odermatt usually works for the theatre or small screen. In sum, despite the polemical subject matter, Mein Kampf provokes little feeling, neither for nor against.

Even safer in form and historical attitude, the self-described “Heimatfilm” Boxhagener Platz narrates a fictional anecdote from the eponymous East Berlin neighbourhood. It is 1968 and the forbidden Western radio and TV channels serve pop music and report on the unrest in West Berlin. Just as those students march for a utopian future, on the other side of the Iron Curtain the pubs look ancient and the people look backwards. Told through the elderly Otti (Gudrun Ritter) and her young grandson Holger (Samuel Schneider), the story reminisces about the past: pre-war Communism, the Nazi period and life on the front. Michael Gwisdek’s character Karl, for example, is an old Sparticist who sympathises with the West Berlin students, in whom he sees the “true communists” and successors of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In principle, the drama revolves around the murder of the local fish mongerer; in effect, director Matti Geschonneck’s rendering of Torsten Schulz’s novel is a theatrical exercise in nostalgia and retrospection. In many of the scenes, (such as the coming-out of “hormone-sexual” Uncle Bodo, who brings a West German postman to Christmas dinner), 2010 values and concerns project problematically onto 1968. Any affinities with Berlin Alexanderplatz, the novel that the source material tries to transpose, remain as faint as the set design’s pallid colours.

Among 2009’s historical blockbusters, Die Päpstin (Pope Joan) attracted nearly 2.5 million into cinemas in the autumn. It chronicles the life of the 9th-century female pope with a mix of home-grown (Johanna Wokalek) and international (John Goodman) talent. Director Sönke Wortmann, for whom irony has always been an esoteric concept, puts his history into scene with vague themes (Science vs. Faith) and fuzzy mullets. Wortmann and co-scripter Heinrich Hadding are no doubt deadly serious in their efforts, but the result is a bizarre pastiche of Lord of the Rings and Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Indeed, the transgender playfulness reaches an apogee in a kissing scene between the Franciscan-coiffed Joan and her lover Gerold (David Wenham) and his long ginger locks. Several rounds of Catholic whippings and spankings allow a surplus of camp value. Otherwise, this picture is terribly old-fashioned, from its chronicle biopic form to asinine storytelling: what we at first believe to be a “voice of God” omniscient narrator (subsequently revealed to be a future female pope) delivers a redundant play-by-play. John Goodman seems initially miscast as the predecessor Pope Sergius, but his unbelievable “British” accent and bawdy composure grant the viewer a deserved break after nearly two hours of pseudo-feminist commentary.

The most controversial and disappointing German historical film at this year’s Berlinale premiered in the Competition. Oskar Roehler’s Jud SüßFilm ohne Gewissen (Jew SussRise and Fall) begins in 1939 with a rehearsal of Othello in a Berlin theatre. Ferdinand Marian (Tobias Moretti) plays Iago as a black devil; Joseph Goebbels (Moritz Bleibtreu) observes that Marian would serve as the perfect Semitic villain in his upcoming blockbuster, Jud Süß (Jew Suss, 1940). This scene dramatises Shakespeare as Goethean Faust and replicates in miniature Roehler’s stance towards Marian, who enters into a bargain for fame with a Mephistophelean Goebbels. Most of the picture chronicles Marian’s initial resistance to play the role in the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda feature, the shooting and reception of the film and Marian’s subsequent descent into alcoholism. At the press screening I attended, the critics booed; indeed, the reviews in the German and international press were scathing, castigating Bleibtreu for his mimetic performance of Goebbels and taking Roehler to task for his dramaturgical inventions. (Unlike in the historical record, for example, he depicts Marian’s wife as partly Jewish and implies that she becomes a victim to the gas chambers.) I had less trouble with Roehler’s embellishments; if anything, I would have liked to have seen less straight-laced fidelity to the source material. Amidst the bleached-out colours and period music redolent of the many unremarkable German historical projects of the last two decades, one struggles to detect the few touches of a filmmaker who usually ranks among the nation’s best: The minimalist set design? Marian’s grotesque sexual encounters with fans? The source film exerts too much fascination over the proceedings; a good third of the running time incorporates footage from Harlan’s picture or Roehler’s own reconstructions of it. The sole reason for this seems to satisfy a certain curiosity to show the 1940 film viewed by 20 million contemporary Germans through the back door. (Exhibition without pedagogical commentary has been banned since the end of World War II.) Above all, Roehler wants to entertain the power of cinema and fantasise about the days in which Joseph Goebbels was an Aryan David O. Selznick. What a pity these investigations arrive in such a conventional form and style.

Der Räuber, Im Schatten, Orly, Eine flexible Frau, the documentary Postcard to Daddy and others: the robust German films at the Berlinale show both a reappearance of the serious and an emergence of new perspectives beyond the new comedy wave. These formidable offerings notwithstanding, I repeat my concern about both the visibility and the vitality of the Berlin School. Both Arslan and Heisenberg seem to be applying for mainstream offers (Heisenberg admitted as much in interview with Screen International) and a career trajectory à la Tom Tykwer, whose signature has steadily disappeared in his last international projects. Der Räuber and Im Schatten flirt so intimately with generic conventions that one wonders where the arthouse “subversion” begins and fan-boy appreciation ends. An epistemological conundrum arises: if these films succeed in their intentions to frustrate (a mere smattering of) generic expectations, are they successful or merely frustrating? The answer remains forthcoming, but the very question proves that there is indeed art to be had among the artifice.

Berlin International Film Festival
11-21 February 2010
Festival website: http://www.berlinale.de/en/HomePage.html

Endnotes

  1. Colin McArthur describes the attitude of Melville’s crime films to their subject as a cinema of process in his “Mise-en-scène degree Zero: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967)”, French Film: Texts and Contexts, 2nd edition, ed. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, p.191.

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.