A feeling of cautious optimism pervades Germany for the first time in years. The stock prices of Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen have never been higher; according to the latest prognoses, unemployment, the perpetual spectre of national anxiety since unification, will be almost non-existent by the summer. And yet, it would be a mistake to want to find this spirit of confidence among the new German films at the Berlinale. After all, even if motion pictures – in their sundry forms – are the modern art and respond to social needs and collective attitudes, their conditions of production and the delay between inception and projection mean that they are always delayed, deferred and often out of time. The films premiering at the festival are precisely those difficult births conceived in the turbulent period after the capital crises of 2008–2009. Perhaps this helps to explain their focus on establishing clear truths, pursuing lessons from the past, dreaming of a better future in the face of obvious adversity or, quite simply, searching.

The first two German films in the Competition category treated problems of integration. Exploring the European expatriate community in Africa, Ulrich Köhler’s Schlafkrankheit (Sleeping Sickness) initially follows Dr Ebbo Velten, who runs an international aid program to eradicate the titular disease in rural Cameroon. He and his wife have decided to return to Germany after many years abroad, a change of scenery that Velten faces with anxiety: in a compelling performance by multilingual Pierre Bokma, the eccentric doctor is an agitated cross between Michael Douglas and Charles Manson. Midway through, however, there is an unmarked leap of three years; the perspective abruptly shifts to black Frenchman Dr Nzila, who arrives to evaluate the use of funding in the clinic. By this point Velten is still in town (although mysteriously absent from the hospital) and has impregnated his housekeeper; whereas the German was previously opposed to government waste, his operation is now overstaffed and the disease all but eradicated so that Nzila is at a loss to write his report.

This feature is more garrulous than Köhler’s previous efforts and, although often suitably clinical, the camera adheres less stringently to the Berlin School long-take aesthetic. This in itself is not bad: the film’s strength is its memorable cast of characters, including Ebbo’s arrogant, sycophantic Bulgarian successor; a French rake named Gaspar who wants the doctor to turn to the exploitative, dark side and the corrupt Cameroonian head of the aid operation. Indeed, in the first forty-five minutes, Köhler’s mood piece – which won the Silver Bear for Best Direction – rewards the concentrated viewer with suggestive situations and exotic scenes. It begins to make subtle points about the absurdity of aid missions and there are even a few laughs, such as when Nzila performs an emergency caesarean, receiving instructions by mobile. Nevertheless, the stilted jump in time and underdeveloped motivations strain the connection with the viewer; I wished this feature had thirty extra minutes in order to make good on its extraordinary promise. Much as Veltens describes his adopted homeland, Schlafkrankheit is a “wonderful mess”.

In today’s Germany, immigration is an ubiquitous topic; former left-leaning politician Thilo Sarrazin’s recent xenophobic treatise (translated title: “Germany Is Abolishing Itself”) has brought the discussion once again to the forefront of political culture. In the Competition, but out of the running for prizes, Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland (Almanya) applies a decidedly light touch to the controversy. It tells the story of a Turkish-German family headed by grandfather Hüseyin. Fearing that he and his brood are losing touch with their roots, he announces that he has purchased property in the homeland and proposes a family holiday to finish and furnish the house. Along the journey granddaughter Canan narrates the backstory: in 1964, Hüseyin was the one-million-and-first “guest worker” to arrive in Germany. Back in the present and on the road to Anatolia, Hüseyin dies, his sons reconcile, the secretly pregnant Canan reveals her secret and grandson Cenk comes to understand his mixed heritage. Like East Is East (1999) meets Little Miss Sunshine (2006), this feel-good identity comedy stages the reconciliation of an “ethnic” family as a fairy-tale history of Turkish-German migration – one that reaffirms the grand narrative of “successful” integration. Sentimental pap with little aversion to kitsch (see the copious shots of the six-year-old, lisping Cenk being “cute” with little narrative purpose), Almanya betrays its filmmakers’ television roots; emotional manipulation and easy laughs abound. (In a nightmare sequence, Hüseyin – who after forty-five years in the country becomes a German citizen – dreams that he is required by law to eat pork twice a week, join a hunting club and vacation in Mallorca.) Xenophobia abolishes itself: the polychrome, harmless, larger-than-life Almanya transports us to a universe far away from the land of Sarrazin.

If the first two contributions to the Competition deliberated on questions of identity in the globalised contemporary, the second two investigated personal memory and the national past. Wim Wenders, despite his now advanced age, has always been attuned to fashions, whether in his soundtrack selections, his early adoption of digital video (for Buena Vista Social Club, 1999) or his ruminations on couture and urban space in Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten (Notebook on Cities and Clothes, 1989). For Pina – what the press kit heralds as the “first 3D arthouse film”– adopting the trendy format is perhaps less an accessory than a necessity in order to approximate the sensual experience of live dance. Textures of the dancers’ faces, costumes and impossibly defined muscles emerge in vivid detail. Although this is officially a documentary of the late choreographer Pina Bausch, the city of Wuppertal and its Tanztheater ensemble take centre stage: overdubbed recollections of Pina’s cryptic teachings and some archival footage punctuate lengthy, but compelling performances in public spaces and on the stage. This sort of reconstruction leaves the choreographer’s motivations distant and resembles more hagiographic mythmaking than critical biography. Although the illusion of depth surpasses a 2D rendering, some scenes reminded me of early talkies: I felt that Wenders was playing a trial-and-error game with an unfamiliar medium. Rather than exemplar of aesthetic innovation, the film is an advertisement to see the troupe live.

The most serious German contender for the Golden Bear was Wer wenn nicht wir (If Not Us, Who), which went on to win the Alfred Bauer Prize. The master documentarist Andres Veiel‘s first fictional feature, perhaps unsurprisingly, uses history as its source. Indeed, this prospect of the relationship between writer and publisher Bernward Vesper and later RAF terrorist Gudrun Ensslin reanimates the central themes from the director’s earlier works: the hypocrisies of his Swabian homeland, role playing, generational conflict and suicide. Although the story of the Red Army Fraction, West Germany’s homegrown leftist terrorists, has been told in countless books and films, most concentrate on Ensslin and Andreas Baader, the self-aggrandizing duo who between 1969 and 1972 masterminded a series of dramatic attacks on the Federal Republic and, while imprisoned from 1972 until their deaths in 1977, inspired a second generation to go underground. Here the perspective shifts to Vesper, Ensslin’s earlier partner with whom she had a child. After a brief prelude depicting a wartime episode with Vesper and his father, one of Hitler’s favourite poets, the action picks up in 1960s Tübingen, where Vesper and Ensslin meet as students and begin an affair. With aspirations to enliven the Federal Republic’s stifling political culture, they found a publishing house. Their project, however, is haunted by the past. Vesper’s commitment to republish his father’s work blinds him to the latter’s clearly fascist inclinations; Ensslin remains emotionally and financially dependent on her own father. Rebelling against “bourgeois” forms of monogamy strains the relationship and instigates a self-destructive cycle of recrimination and revenge. When the pair moves to West Berlin, Vesper’s business sense and solipsistic romanticism clash with Ensslin’s new belief in changing society with violence. The story charts an inversion of power roles. Ensslin, raised in naïve piety, liberates herself from her father and then Vesper and turns toward armed struggle and Baader (here depicted as a particularly campy compulsive liar); Vesper sinks from gentlemanly bohemia into drug-induced insanity and suicide, which the film implies is a result of Gudrun’s decision to go underground with Baader. The binary characterisation of the spiritual Vesper and the physical Baader as “talk” vs. “action” – often repeated in accounts of the group – abides again here.

While recent representations of the RAF such as Baader (2002) and Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (The Baader Meinhof Complex, 2008) have dwelled on a pop-star phenomenology at the expense of character psychology, Veiel’s portrait is heavily Freudian. According to this treatment, what connects Vesper, Ensslin and Baader – the children of a state-funded writer, a pastor and a would-be resistance fighter, respectively – is abandonment issues and a deep-seated need to make good upon the failed projects of their parents. “You were always half-hearted”, Gudrun says to her father. His reply: “You can do it all better than I did”. This is distinctly twenty-first-century psychology, replete with scenes of self-harm and domestic abuse. When Ensslin calls her son late in the story, Baader, in a jealous rage, slaps her across the face. Directly after this incident Ensslin agrees that the bourgeois family contradicts her role as urban guerilla, breaks off all contact with Vesper and adopts an almost robotic behaviour. In this retelling, the radical movement “RAF” was fuelled by personal and familial insecurities and itself unconsciously perpetuated this pattern: this generation of forsaken sons and daughters also abandoned its own progeny.

Given Veiel’s pedigree, the conventional form and style disappoint. The short chronological episodes, designed to anticipate later psychological motivations, are overlaid with an incidental score and crudely iconic pop music (“Summer in the City”) and punctuated by stock footage from political history: the Cuban missile crisis, the Adolf Eichmann trial, the visit of the Persian Shah and the Vietnam war. In addition, there are one or two unforgiveable montages (on their move to West Berlin, Ensslin pokes her body out of the sun roof of a VW Beetle and caresses the wind). Nevertheless, Veiel’s effort represents an essential contribution to the memory of the RAF and the legacy of 1968.

In the Perspective German Cinema, a category for young domestic filmmakers, a more contemporary kind of desire to change the world prevailed. A highlight among the German documentaries at this year’s Berlinale, Utopia Ltd. chronicles the tribulations of 1000 Robota, a three-piece band of pimply hipsters from suburban Hamburg. Playing in the nostalgic vein of Gang of Four, they quickly earn the attention and widespread praise of domestic music critics. This mass exposure does not produce personal satisfaction, let alone financial success, however. Although depicting standard excerpts from concerts and studio recording sessions, director Sandra Trostel most carefully attends to the discrepancy between the widespread hype in the press and their tedious existence in hostels and cramped vans. Despite critical acclaim, they resort to paying passersby to come to their concerts; the teenaged rock starlets live with their parents and are stressed about their upcoming A-levels. The boys deliberate endlessly on the eternal rock ‘n’ roll question of “selling out” and – even though it would have been easy to approach their idealism with scathing cynicism – Trostel takes the band more or less seriously. Their utopianism is not to be confused with pure naïveté. In deciding whether to take part in a commercial pop song contest and in spats with the record label, the trio (and above all loquacious frontman Anton Spielmann) reflects on the industry, its predictable cycles of fame and the changing constellations of new media and technology. Along the way, the film furnishes interesting insights into the role of the “foreign” to Germany’s self-image. (The dozens of German music journalists who travel to London to report on the band outnumber the local fanbase.) Trostel, hitherto active as an editor of music videos and commercials, promises to be a talent to watch for in coming years.

The German features in the Forum were remarkably similar in form and content; both interrogated states of absence and presence. Director Hugo Vieira da Silva’s debut, Swans, opens with a plane from Portugal taxiing into Berlin’s Tegel airport. Tarso and his son Manuel do not speak during the long car ride into the city and, soon enough, the reason for this reticence is revealed. Tarso’s ex-partner, Petra – the mother that Manuel can barely remember – lies paralysed in a coma. The rest of the proceedings chronicle the two men’s very different approaches to coping with Petra’s incapacitation.

This slow-burner begins not without suspense. The conceit of a speechless woman and laconic men who travel across Europe for her presents a mystery to unravel; information seeps through in photos and side references. Overall, the aesthetic is stunning: the dark, foreboding milieu of the Gropiusstadt neighbourhood reflects the protagonists’ ennui. In many ways Swans has the Berlin School look and pace – unsurprising, perhaps, with camera duties helmed by Reinhold Vorschneider, who shot Thomas Arslan’s Im Schatten (2010), Benjamin Heisenberg’s Sleeper (2005) and Der Räuber (2010) and Angela Schanelec’s Marseille (2004), Nachmittag (2007) and Orly (2010). As in those exemplars, key set pieces are conveyed in long takes with dynamically efficient staging. The problem with this film, then, is not the style, but the shape of the story itself. Endless scenes of Manuel skateboarding or listening to hip-hop and ponderous encounters with material objects bore. (There are at least a dozen sequences in which Manuel wordlessly picks up and caresses toiletries, clothing or masks in his mother’s former flat.) The overwrought symbolism, ill-judged forays into incest and near-necrophilia – and above all their endless repetition – underestimate the viewer’s capacity to intuit emotions and motivations in visual language. Even the introduction of an Asian transsexual flight attendant does little to break the monotony. Spanning more than two hours and attempting to study two very different (but ultimately unlikeable) protagonists, Swans outstays its welcome.

If da Silva’s film revolves around a mother/son relationship in which the former is mentally absent, Jan Krüger’s Auf der Suche (Searching for Simon) details a mother/son relationship in which the latter is physically missing. Because she hasn’t heard from her son in weeks, Valerie travels to Marseilles, where Simon is a doctor. Played by Corinna Harfouch – as usual, a nerve-wracked, uptight, middle-class square: the Annette Bening of German cinema – the woman desperately convinces Simon’s ex-boyfriend, Jens, to fly from Berlin to help with the search. The story proceeds into psychological thriller territory, where it is always unclear whether the unstable and overprotective Valerie has imagined the disappearance. In the dirty, but not charmless port city, the pair searches at the ferries and at car dealerships for clues. Surprises about Simon’s private life litter their trail: he has a criminal record for drug abuse, planned a trip to Morocco but never embarked and had a heterosexual relationship with a colleague. The news, shortly before the conclusion, that Simon has committed suicide proves undramatic; the plot development revolves around Valerie and Jens’ self-serving projections about who “owns” his memories in absentia. They reconstruct his life and simultaneously take leave from him by inspecting his possessions, dwelling in the locations he frequented and meeting the characters with whom he interacted. The similarities to Swans are not to be overseen; Krüger’s project is flawed (particularly in the deflated dénouement) and certainly less formally rigorous than da Silva’s atmospheric study, but it succeeds better in engaging the audience in the stakes of the search.

Perhaps the most stunning German premiere at the Berlinale was not designed as cinema at all. Directed by old-master Dominik Graf and arthouse prominence Christian Petzold and Christoph Hochhäusler, the three-part miniseries DreiLeben attempts to transcend the boundaries between German cinema and television and to provide an example of collective storytelling. Although the name of a real town not far from the Thuringian forest, around which most of the events take place, Dreileben literally means “three lives”. Reminiscent of Kieślowski’s “Three Colours Trilogy”, the characters in the triptych overlap, touch and affect one another. A thorough protocol of the story would take up too much space here; it must suffice to say that this finely plotted mystery involves the pursuit of a convicted killer, Molesch, who escapes from police custody while paying last respects to his mother at a hospital. That said, the miniseries is so much more: in the first and second parts, the murderer is mostly secondary. Petzold’s chapter revolves around the romance between Johannes, a young man doing his national service at the hospital and inadvertently provides the means for Molesch’s escape, and Ana, a tempestuous foreigner; although Graf’s segment follows a psychologist seemingly in town to abet the investigation, it develops into a chamber drama of jealousy, betrayal and false memories between her and her old friend from university. Only Hochhäusler’s chapter, perhaps the weakest of the three, pertains directly to Molesch and the lead investigator who pursues him.

True to the directors’ desire to blend televisual and cinematic forms, the project can be enjoyed on the small screen as a detective story as well as for some signature auteurist touches. The tempo is a tick slower than Tatort, the evergreen German detective show, but the style is also out of step with Petzold and Hochhäusler’s usual Berlin School restraint: there is a prominent score, plenty of dialogue and no lack of continuity editing. In this minor masterpiece, characters maintain a social network even while dwarfed by sinister natural forces; so too does this project herald a potentially innovative way forward for a national cinema of solidarity. With the recent death of super-producer Bernd Eichinger, domestic market share will be divided among the commercial franchises of Michael “Bully” Herbig and Til Schweiger; the arthouse and innovative genre sector is up for grabs. The DreiLeben model of collective art-genre hybridity may become a trend, as German cinema searches for identity.

Berlin Film Festival

10-20 February, 2011

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

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.