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meditations & contradictions

hamish ford at the festival of german films

PingPong PingPong

This German film renaissance is notably different from its predecessor, the ‘new [West] German cinema’ that from the late 1960s through to the early 80s produced significant and challenging feature films that were (with a few exceptions) rarely commercially successful, due in large part to their radical formal innovation, politically-imbued content and often rather bleak philosophical tone. This dichotomy marks the publicity and discourse around recent films (festival and Goethe-Institut director Klaus Krischok is one of many to note that they defy stereotypes about German cinema being unrelentingly ‘heavy’) and was largely played out in the 10 films I saw at the 2007 festival in Sydney. They were, by and large, straight and transparently told narrative and/or character based dramas or comedies—all very well made and often exemplary examples of their form, but lacking in aesthetic play or experimentation.

That the films are rather conservative in narrative adherence and style doesn’t mean they are fast-moving, compared to contemporary US cinema at least; instead they are ‘classical’ in adhering to the more accessible end of the European art-house tradition. For example, Pingpong (director Matthias Luthardt) and Summer 04 (Stefan Krohmer) are ‘chamber films’ which, language and minor details aside, in tone and theme could easily have been French films—the hidden problems of a bourgeois family on summer holiday exposed by the intervention of a sexually precocious teenager. The films are enjoyable, thanks to sustained tension and engaging performances (strong naturalistic acting talent seems a major strength of contemporary German-language cinema), but the potential thematic impact of both films is unfortunately reduced by rather too neat endings. These familiar riffs on the dark side of the bourgeois family are nonetheless enjoyable viewing experiences: European cinema (with the German industry perhaps increasingly at its centre) doggedly sustains a different ‘first-world’ vision of contemporary mainstream moral experience, behaviour and thought from that which more commonly dominates our TV and movie screens. (For one thing, films featuring sexually active young teenagers liasing on an equal footing with very ‘liberal’ adults over twice their age are only ever seen on the other side of the Atlantic through a mist of fevered moral panic.)
Summer 04 Summer 04
Another very European-styled and thematised film, though this time much more urban in its setting and concerns, was Valerie (Birgit Möller). Popular with critics and audiences, this story of a Paris-based Polish model who finds herself in a cash flow crisis one Christmas in Berlin (such that she has to sleep in her car) showed all the signs of its background as a diploma film stretched to feature length. There was lots of potentially interesting but relatively underdeveloped material here about the messy East-West coming together of contemporary Europe’s grand economic and cultural project. In one notable scene the consequent inequalities are played out when the protagonist, asked to translate the Polish of a German friend’s maid, is suddenly allied with Berlin’s servant class.

The problems of a slowly integrating Europe were much more overtly essayed in Offset (Didi Danquart), set entirely in Romania. The primary German character represents the charming and benign (though also rather bland) heart of the EU. When the family arrives for his marriage to a young Romanian woman, his mother immediately exhibits appallingly chauvinistic, old German patronising distain for the crumbling socialist grandeur of Bucharest and Germany’s post-communist EU brethren. For the most part a comedy-drama, the film delivers a dark jolt both in its narrative dénouement and the seemingly inevitable gravitational pull of the new (Western-authored) Europe, when the beautiful young Romanian woman decides to stay in Bucharest with her sometime lover and boss (a fierce nationalist who brandishes a gun while shouting anti-German and EU rhetoric) rather than ‘escape’ with the more youthful and modern German figure.
The panel kicking off the festival, which featured both local and festival guests, was devoted to the elusive, historically and politically problematic German notion of ‘heimat’ (very loosely, ‘homeland’)—an issue that can certainly be read into many of the films in a variety of ways. While Züli Aladag’s Can—His World Has Its Own Rules (the original title, Wut, translated as Rage or Fury, seems more appropriate) betrays its TV origins through rather one-note performances and a schematic script, it is initially effective in seeking to expose political, historical and ethical fissures within left-liberal bourgeois German culture via the tale of a second generation Turkish teenager who relentlessly harasses another outwardly model middle-class family. Sadly, the last half hour becomes very reductive and generic with its neat conclusion to this airing of raw nerves when the father of the family has his presumably ‘repressed’ racism violently outed. More historically concerned and less subtle from the start was Dresden—The Inferno (Roland Suso Richter). Although effective in charting the ultimately inescapable collusion of the German middle class with the Nazis, this very old fashioned Hollywood-style film seriously reduces the challenging moral and political questions concerning the atrocity of the Dresden bombing in 1945 to a romantic melodrama centred around a politically naïve nurse and an injured British fighter pilot.

A film that sought to bring contemporary and Nazi-era Germany together was the very popular Four Minutes (Chris Kraus). It centred around the difficult relationship between an octogenarian piano teacher still haunted by her youthful betrayal to the Gestapo of her female communist lover, and an extremely violent young female prison inmate who possesses remarkable musical ability. The tension and growing tenderness between the hard-nosed pedagogue and her recalcitrant, animalistic charge coming together through their different mental scarring is a familiar trope in middlebrow drama, as are meditations on the redemptive power of ‘timeless’ art. Yet beyond its inevitable narrative arc, the film’s interest perhaps lies in a particularly Germanic extolling of classical music as both a viable stand-in for religion, vis-à-vis offering an apparent ‘truth’ beyond social reality, yet at the same time as a rather nihilistic force through its supposed disinterest in the earthly domain of moral concerns (hence a convicted killer can be a great artist). Here Schumann is the appropriate touchstone for a film about mental degradation, though through its much-practised performance—whereby the two women find a troubled communion—his music is shown as ultimately rather more socially affective than the old teacher claims. Importantly, this outwardly ascetic custodian of tradition is far from a pillar of virtue, and cannot be allowed a conservative victory. Hence during the young woman’s triumphant public performance at the finals of a piano competition, she quickly shifts from Schumann, through fragmented gospel (which her teacher had earlier decried as ‘Negro noise’), to exaggeratedly violent post-Schoenberg atonal attacks on the piano’s keys, strings and body.
Yella Yella
The one film I saw that did attempt some aesthetic experimentation was Yella (Christian Petzold). An elusive piece, both realistic and yet simultaneously oneiric, it tells the story of a melancholic economist from the former East whose business and marriage have ended disastrously, whereupon she attempts to start anew in Hanover—which makes for a very sterile vision of the former West as defined by soulless hotels, conference rooms and company cars. But her experience and vision of the economically and morally vertiginous side of post-reunification Germany is coloured by the recurrence of strange sounds and images vaguely connected to home (including odd shots of her husband, who seems to be stalking her). Though these confusing visions are partially explained by a linearity-destroying final scene that suggests most of the film may have been a post-death ‘alternate reality’ of some sort (or, as someone suggested to me, a Faustian bargain scenario whereby our protagonist gets another chance but must witness and partake of the most demonic elements of her capitalist culture), the entire film is highly evocative as a quiet yet disquieting meditation on contemporary Germany seen from the ‘other side’ in both the geopolitical and metaphysical sense.

Festival of German Films, Goethe-Institut, Sydney, April 19-29, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth

RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg. 20

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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