”New Films From Germany, Switzerland, and Austria”

At Visions Bar Noir to Jan. 22

In its 12th year, the Goethe-Institut–sponsored “New Films From Germany” adds films from Switzerland and Austria to its lineup, and includes both an English-language drama set mostly in Holland and an immigrant saga that travels to and from Italy. As in previous fests, however, the most interesting entries look farther east: to the Polish-German border, and to Turkey, source of many German “guest workers” and asylum seekers. (Most interesting, that is, unless the one of these 10 features I didn’t preview—Bibi Blocksberg, billed as a female German Harry Potter—is more distinctive than its plot summary suggests.)

The series begins—or began, depending on when you read this—with Wim Wenders’ Ode to Cologne: A Rock ’n’ Roll Film (at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 15), which considers the 25-year career of Cologne singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken and his group, BAP. Although Niedecken’s lyrics-driven style was inspired by the work of such British and American songwriters as Ray Davies and Bob Dylan, BAP seems a very middle-European phenomenon: the civic rock band. Niedecken sings in the indigenous dialect, Kölsch, and pens locally functional anthems, whether rebukes to neo-Nazis or paeans to the city’s football club. For outsiders, more context and less concert footage would have been advisable: The appeal of Niedecken’s lyrics doesn’t quite translate, and BAP’s music is too stiff to make it alone.

Far more colorful than Niedecken, World War II fighter pilot Franz von Werra had so dramatic a biography that it was adapted into a movie in 1957 Britain—a time and a place not so well-disposed toward German flying aces. Born to destitute Swiss aristocrats and mysteriously adopted by a German couple, von Werra was shot down near London in 1940 and managed to escape twice before being sent to Canada. There, he threw himself off a moving train and then crossed the St. Lawrence to the United States, which was not yet at war with Germany. In addition to the downed pilot’s dogged campaign to return to action, Swiss director Werner Schweizer’s engrossing documentary Von Werra (at 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18, and 2:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 19) considers the young man’s convoluted (and sordid) family story and the career of actor Hardy Krüger, who played von Werra in the British film, The One That Got Away.

Like Dirty Pretty Things, Yüksel Yavuz’s A Little Bit of Freedom (at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18) is set in a Western European city where native-born inhabitants are rarely encountered. Seventeen-year-old refugee Baran (Cagdas Bozkurt) works with fellow Kurds at a Hamburg snack bar, waiting for the political-asylum status he doesn’t expect to get. While trying to keep his equally illegal African friend Chernor (Leroy Delmar) out of trouble, Baran encounters the man he suspects betrayed his parents. The Turkish-born German writer-director’s central device—having Baran videotape his life for his relatives back home—is a common one, but the film’s camera style is appealingly loose, and its melodramatic ’30s–Warner Bros.–style plot is grounded by convincing everyday details.

The immigrants are Ukrainian in Distant Lights (at 5 and 7:15 p.m. Monday, Jan. 19), and they’re not the only desperate people depicted in director and co-writer Hans-Christian Schmid’s ensemble piece. On the German side of the Oder River, teenage runaways support themselves smuggling cigarettes, and a frantic mattress-store owner tries to save his business. Over in Poland, several Ukrainians try to cross the river, one assisted by a sympathetic German translator and three others by a local man in a rush to get enough money for his daughter’s communion. Also traversing the border is a young German architect who’s stunned to see his Polish ex-girlfriend translating (among other things) for a local real-estate developer. A tight structure and the Notwist’s lean score provide urgency to Schmid’s analysis of how lines on a map can become crushingly tangible.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Distant Lights’ many subplots, a peeved German woman, Sylvia, kicks her stepkids, Konstantin and Lea, out of the car on the Polish side of the border. When she returns, the protagonists of This Very Moment (at 5 and 9:15 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17) have vanished—a modern Hansel and Gretel wandering an unfamiliar, mostly rural landscape of roadside cafes and mass pilgrimages. Back in the family’s unfinished house in Germany, Sylvia (Judith Engel) can’t bring herself to tell the kids’s father, Josef (Horst-Günter Marx), exactly what happened. She halfheartedly assists in the search, apparently unsure that she actually wants Konstantin (Leo Bruckmann) and Lea (Sophie Conrad) to be found. Christoph Hochhäusler’s directorial debut is the most remarkable of the fest’s fiction offerings. The film doesn’t favor any of its characters, or—despite the soundtrack’s ominously screechy strings—enlist any thriller clichés. Instead, it’s bracingly unformulaic and open-ended.

One of the more celebrated recent German-language films, writer-director Barbara Albert’s Free Radicals (at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21), is another ensemble movie, but its concerns are cosmic rather than political. The only survivor of a plane crash, Manuela (Kathrin Resetarits) seems to have an oversupply of karma. When she then dies in a car wreck, her destiny splashes all over the place, affecting her relatives, friends, and the teenagers who survive the collision. Bidding for gasps of surprise and outrage, this Austrian-German-Swiss co-production includes an attempted suicide, the tormenting of an unpopular high-schooler, and some examples of casual Teutonic racism, set to ironic refrains of “Nights in White Satin,” “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” and a-ha’s “Take On Me.” Such web-of-fate scenarios have become prevalent in recent European cinema, and Free Radicals is less interesting than a recent French film it somewhat resembles, Delphine Gleize’s Carnage.

Writer-director Oskar Röhler’s Angst (at 5 and 9:15 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, and 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17) is considerably less up-to-date. It’s the tale of the messy marriage of Marie (Marie Bäumer), a seemingly rational but rather high-strung doctor, and Robert (André Hennicke), a theater director who’s got more existential nausea than Jean-Paul Sartre with a hangover. Robert has become impotent with Marie, but after he learns that his father is dying, he starts frequenting hookers, with whom he can perform. He also stages plays in which nude, blue-tinted people chant dialogue such as “We are fearful! We are cold!”—lines that seem as painfully early-’70s as this sexually explicit, garishly hued movie. Predictable and overwrought, Angst plays like an unfortunate pastiche of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage and From the Life of the Marionettes.

Another odd simulation, Solino (at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 20) is Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s first film that’s not about members of his own community. Instead, Akin has made a period picture about an Italian family that emigrates to Germany’s Ruhr region in 1964. This fable is in fact convincingly Italian: clichéd, sentimental, and irksomely indulgent of its bad-boy character, Giancarlo (played by Run Lola Run’s Moritz Bleibtreu, who also starred in Akin’s In July). The new immigrants open a restaurant, the parents bicker, and Giancarlo’s little brother, Gigi (Barnaby Metschurat)—the tale’s hero—wants to be a filmmaker. Perhaps Akin was attracted to Ruth Toma’s screenplay because it can credibly call for the agreeable members of the family to return home, an unlikely resolution for a film about Turks in Germany.

A much larger family business links the main characters of the English-language SuperTex (at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22), which was adapted from Leon de Winter’s novel by director and co-scripter Jan Schütte. Thirtysomething Max (Stephen Mangan) has had it with his father, a crusty Holocaust survivor who ignores his son’s proposals to modernize their Amsterdam-based clothing firm. A nonobservant Jew, Max also balks at his girlfriend’s plan to go to Israel. Then Max’s father falls ill and his brother has a religious experience. Perhaps SuperTex simply suffers from having overcondensed the novel, but its story provides only the tiniest of surprises, and Max is neither likable nor sufficiently dislikable to be interesting. In a festival whose best films scatter in unexpected directions, this one places its final freeze-frame exactly where you’d expect it. CP