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“New Films From Germany, Switzerland, and Austria”

At the E Street Cinema to Jan. 20

For anyone familiar with the Goethe-Institut’s annual surveys of German-language cinema, the cast of characters in this year’s edition will sound familiar: greedy con artists, helpless battered wives, coolly efficient hit men, and—of course—radical young leftists. Yet most of the 10 films in the 13th annual “New Films from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria” are remarkably cheerful, with lots of low comedy, young love, and happy endings to lift the mood. With one notable exception, even the dying and the disfigured seem to be having a good time in the reunified Germany, where love and genre conventions conquer almost all.

Radical 20-somethings Jan (Good Bye, Lenin!’s Daniel Brühl) and Peter (Stipe Erceg) break into the suburban palaces of Germany’s ruling class, but not to steal. Calling themselves The Edukators (Jan. 14 and 16 at the E Street Cinema, where all screenings take place), the two men merely rearrange furniture and knickknacks, then leave messages along the lines of “Your days of plenty are numbered.” Jan is the more zealous of the two, yet he proves capable of making a serious blunder when he becomes infatuated with Peter’s new girlfriend, Julie (Julia Jentsch). While their pal is out of town, Jan and Julie fool around, both sexually and ideologically. They also enter the house of one of Julie’s upscale tormentors, only to have the man come home unexpectedly. The caper becomes a kidnapping, with Peter dragged along as Jan and Julie take their captive to a mountain hideaway. Paced with English-language rock, director and co-writer Hans Weingartner’s film is lively but glib: The tale’s connection to ’70s German youth politics is contrived, the upbeat ending evasive.

An episode of Behind the Music from another planet—Lower Manhattan, circa 1975 to 1980—The Nomi Song (Jan. 14 and 15) recounts the short career of Essen, Germany–born space-rocker Klaus Nomi. An operatically trained countertenor in an era in which they were in low demand, he developed an extraterrestrial schtick that owed plenty to David Bowie—and received the ultimate accolade when the former Ziggy Stardust asked Nomi to appear as a backup singer for him on Saturday Night Live. In the United States, Nomi’s fame never grew far beyond his original gay/punk/art audience, but he was briefly a star in France. Of course, the newly successful Nomi did all the usual reprehensible things, dumping his former associates and denying credits and royalties to his principal songwriter, Kristian Hoffman. Berlin-based American filmmaker Andrew Horn’s documentary gives very little sense of Nomi, who died of AIDS in 1983, but it effectively conjures the scene he briefly entranced. In addition to its subject’s music, the film uses art-punky stuff by the likes of Wire and the long-lost Marbles.

A man who kills without making the least of noises, Viktor (Joachim Król) is a master assassin with no human connections save the surrogate father who is also his boss. Yet the protagonist of Soundless (Jan. 15) is remarkably quick to fall in love with Nina (Nadja Uhl), the pretty blonde he declines to slay when he finds her in the bed of his latest victim. When Viktor’s fleeting connection to Nina leads to romance, he becomes more vulnerable to police detective Lang (Christian Berkel), whose grasp of cryptic evidence rivals the hit man’s expertise at murder. But as soon as director Mennan Yapo’s film establishes Viktor as a sympathetic character, it’s clear who will win this tidy cat-and-mouse game. Taut, stylish, and scored to piano études and techno vamps, this nifty—if implausible—entertainment imagines an idealized tough-guy cosmos where the shadows are deep, love entertains no doubts, and both cops and killers are reassuringly competent.

Schultze Gets the Blues (Jan. 16) is the only one of these 10 movies to have a U.S. distributor, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most commercial of the lot. Paramount Classics probably acquired Michael Schorr’s film because it has something in it that really interests American audiences: Americans. Laid off from the mine where he’s worked all his adult life, the laconic Schultze (Horst Krause) mopes around his small, parochial hamlet. Then the accordion-playing sad sack discovers zydeco and is offered a trip to the town’s American sister city in east Texas. There, uninspired by the German culture on display at the local Wurst Fest, Schultze borrows a little boat and navigates into the bayou, where he finds Cajun music, food, and hospitality. A low-key culture-clash travelogue in the manner of Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki, Schultze is slight but gently ingratiating.

Ready for a Hollywood remake as soon as Bush reintroduces the draft, Ready, Steady, Charlie! (Jan. 17) is set at a military training camp but plays like an American summer-camp comedy. As Antonio (Michael Koch) stands at the altar ready to marry Laura (Mia Aegerter), he’s nabbed by Swiss Army officials and immediately sent to fulfill his national-service requirement. At first, Antonio schemes to escape to his fiancée, who’s pressing him to return—and whose stereotypical Italian-gangster relatives are not pleased by the groom’s sudden disappearance. Soon, however, the new recruit develops a strong interest in Michelle (Melanie Winiger), the daughter of the company commander and a tomboyish beauty who demands the combat training that Swiss military rules deny to women. Cartoonish and energetic, with lots of pop-punk and dance-rock driving the action, Mike Eschmann’s romantic farce is sort of a Swiss Stripes—though without a Swiss Bill Murray.

One of the two films in this series that exploit that region to the east for local color, Twelve Chairs (Jan. 17) juggles slapstick and deconstruction. Working from a 1928 novel that’s already been filmed by Mel Brooks, writer-director Ulrike Ottinger tells the story of three men who hunt desperately for the chair—from a set of 12, of course—containing the fortune in jewels that a now-dead woman hid from the Bolsheviks. Ottinger, who made the 165-minute Joan d’Arc of Mongolia, here tops that by another half-hour, effectively (though wearingly) evoking the protracted nature of the search. The best gag is that the story, though set in 1927, was shot on contemporary locations, emphasizing how little the Eastern bloc changed under Communist rule. It’s a clever idea, but the result is easier to admire than to watch.

The only somber entry in this year’s series, Sign of Escape (Jan. 18 and 19), intertwines the stories of three Vienna women who are abused by their spouses: While Margie (Dagmar Schwarz) suffers only verbal assault, Claudia (Liese Lyon) is stripped naked and locked out of her apartment, and Sladjana (Mira Miljkovic) is beaten after her husband becomes insanely jealous of a male doctor who examines her. Viennese director Nina Kusturica fractures these stories Resnais-style, presenting them as shards of common female experience. That strategy aside, however, this ponderous movie is notable more for good intentions than for accomplishment.

Although it features the plot elements of a psychological drama and the almost supernaturally rainy atmosphere of a noir, Peas at 5:30 (Jan. 20) heads for reconciliation and contentment. Acclaimed theater director Jakob (Hilmer Snær Guthnason) sinks into surly despair after losing his sight in a dramatic, story-opening car crash. He banishes his girlfriend and tries to do the same with Lilly (Fritzi Haberlandt), the blind-from-birth woman assigned to help him adjust to sightlessness. Then Jakob decides to try to make his way to Russia’s White Sea coast, where his mother is dying. Lilly tags along, followed by her concerned fiancé and mother. Crabby as he is, Jakob is soon learning tricks from Lilly, including the one that gives this movie its title: identifying the location of peas on a plate by an analogy to a clock face. Meanwhile, Lilly’s young sister, left alone, conspires to lose her virginity—exactly the sort of cute touch that demonstrates director and co-writer Lars Büchel’s anxiousness to please. (Other include some chicken gags and three separate fun-with-urine bits.) Despite all the drizzle, this is barely moodier than Ready, Steady, Charlie!

One film, a documentary about aspiring thespians titled Addicted to Acting (Jan. 18 & 19), was unavailable for preview. The Wild Soccer Bunch (Jan. 15 & 16) was previewable, but after the European Union Showcase’s In Orange last year, I took a sacred vow to avoid European kiddie-soccer flicks. This latest movie, a German-box-office sensation, is advertised as “joyous,” and maybe it is. Of course, it could also be The Mighty Ducks Go Bavarian.CP