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New Films From Germany
Through January at
Like their peers throughout today’s pop-culture free-trade zone, German filmmakers strive to distinguish their wares from the box-office Godzillas bred in Hollywood. This year’s “New Films From Germany”—the 11th annual installment of the Goethe Institut-sponsored program—features a notable accomplishment: Manitou’s Shoe, the most commercially successful German film of all time. A cowboy-and-Indian spoof that doesn’t quite translate, it’s exotic in a very different way from the fest’s latest crop of films about that German cinematic perennial, the Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang). Many of these 10 features, including Sophiiiie! and Grill Point, use such international-art-cinema staples as digital video, handheld camera, and everyday situations. Yet such films as Tattoo and Home Truths challenge the Hollywood thriller on its own terms, if not its own turf.
Several of the movies commence as slice-of-life dramas, only to eventually admit a dramatic development or an exaggerated character. In School Trip (at 5:40 and 9:15 p.m. Jan. 17), a group of undersupervised German teenagers spends two weeks at a Polish beach resort, where sex and vodka combat the tedium. When their respective roommates hook up, disaffected Isa (Sophie Kempe) and immature, painfully inarticulate Ronny (Steven Sperling) tentatively bond. Director and co-writer Henner Winckler’s portrait of teenage aimlessness is creepily believable, and when it introduces a romantic rivalry that leads to serious conflict, the goal is not to alter the mood of adolescent ennui.
Much more action is packed into a single night when the heroine of Sophiiiie! (at 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 19) goes on a rampage, unable to accept her pregnancy. Taking her boyfriend’s motorcycle, Sophie (Katharina Schuettler) heads into the Hamburg night, where she encounters a few nice guys—notably a Palestinian taxi driver and a young movie-theater manager—and a lot of jackals. Sophie downs potentially fatal quantities of liquor while visiting scuzzy bars and upscale brothels, fighting off not one but two guys who try to force her to provide blowjobs. Finally, she telephones someone at random in a bid for sympathy, only to be told that she’s what’s wrong with Germany today. If not exactly believable, writer-director Michael Hofmann’s perverse romp is nonetheless compelling, thanks in large part to Schuettler’s bravura performance, a star-making meltdown akin to Samantha Morton’s in Under the Skin.
Unlike the compressed Sophiiiie!, Grill Point (at 3:45 and 8:45 p.m. Jan. 19) observes relationships unraveling in something more like real time. Frankfurt-Oder morning-radio DJ Chris (Thorsten Merten) and wife Katrin (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), a customs agent, are friendly with another, equally unglamorous middle-aged couple, perfume saleswoman Ellen (Steffi Kuhnert) and outdoor-cafe operator Uwe (Axel Prahl). Everything shifts, of course, when callow Chris and heedless Ellen begin an affair. Writer-director Andreas Dresen had his leads improvise much of their dialogue, and the underlit interiors and handheld camera simulate documentary all too convincingly. Such narrative devices as a runaway budgie and the horoscopes Chris reads to his listeners, however, render the movie more formulaic than the impromptu style promises.
Domestic turmoil takes a Hitchcockian turn in Home Truths (at 7:15 p.m. Jan. 21 and 22), which like Grill Point is set in Germany’s Wild East. While spending the night in their modest country cottage—the sort of place that was prestigious in the pre-unification era—bickering middle-aged couple Elke (Catherine Flemming) and Arnold (Michael Kind) are tied up and robbed by two thugs (Uwe Kockisch and Nils Nellessen). The burglars leave but soon return, seeking a hideout after a brush with the cops. It turns out that the couple is expecting a real-estate agent the following morning, and when he arrives Elke enlists the older hoodlum to make a deal Arnold doesn’t want. Shooting the cramped interiors in widescreen, writer-director Carsten Fiebeler shifts between suspense and black comedy. If Home Truths is nothing more than a genre exercise, it’s a clever one.
Writer-director Robert Schwentke’s Tattoo (at 4 and 7 p.m. Jan. 18) ventures even closer to the realm of the recent Hollywood thriller, notably Seven. When Berlin club kid Schrader (August Diehl) joined the police, he expected to work with computers, but bullheaded Inspector Minks (Christian Redl) blackmails him into joining the homicide squad. The older cop hopes that Schrader’s youth-culture contacts will help him find his runaway daughter, but first they undertake the case of a “collector” who’s willing to kill to obtain the 13 tattoos done by a late Japanese master; he may be a threat to lovely Maya (Nadeshda Brennicke), a friend of the woman whose dramatic demise is shown in the opening sequence. Any scenario that involves skinning people for their tats will be plenty bloody, but Tattoo keeps the gore (and everything else) in such deep shadow that it makes The Silence of the Lambs look like a beach-party flick. As he demonstrates long before the nonending ending, Schwentke much prefers style to sense. Still, this is a flashy tour of the chic demimonde of techno, drugs, and body modification.
Another youth-culture thriller, Baader (at 2 and 9:30 p.m. Jan. 20) has a very different kind of flash. Set to the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” the opening documentary montage of Mao, the shah, and the Vietnam War quickly places this biopic in its turbulent era. Andreas Baader (Frank Giering) was one of the two namesakes of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a New Left cadre that made clumsy attempts to align with other people’s revolutions. Baader and girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Laura Tonke) were the leaders of a small group that bombed department stores, robbed banks, shot cops, and trained with Palestinians in Jordan—where the German women’s topless sunbathing expressed a radical consciousness that the locals just didn’t get. Director and co-writer Christopher Roth freely improvises on the known facts, inventing a tete-a-tete between Baader and the top cop pursuing the RAF, ending the film with a fictional shootout, and turning Suicide’s 1980 “Dream Baby Dream” into an anachronistic Baader-Meinhof anthem. The film doesn’t provide the key to Baader and Ensslin’s reasoning, but it does effectively conjure the era’s heady atmosphere.
A more temperate study of the same circle, Starbuck—Holger Meins (at 4:45 and 7 p.m. Jan. 20) is a documentary about the first Baader-Meinhof member to die in prison: Holger Meins, who apparently succumbed to a hunger strike. (His lawyers say he was murdered, and his late father—seen in footage from 1982—testifies that Meins was severely beaten after his arrest.) Whereas Baader started his revolutionary career as a car thief, Meins belonged to a Christian youth group. He also went to film school—which is why Gerd Conradt’s movie has so much relevant period footage, as well as testimony from such late-’60s colleagues as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and director Wolfgang Petersen (shown with George Clooney at a Perfect Storm press conference). American viewers may find that Starbuck (title for Meins’ Moby Dick-derived code name) assumes too much knowledge of the case, but it’s an intriguing look at a sensitive man who—unlike Baader—seemed unlikely to turn to violence.
The series’ other documentary is Absolut Warhola (at 6 and 7:45 p.m Jan. 23), Stanislaw Mucha’s account of a small Slovak town’s relationship with its famous cousin, Andy. Mikova is the ancestral home of the Warhola family, whose American branch moved to Pittsburgh and dropped the second A from its surname. It turns out that the Warholas don’t really know that much about the man they call “Andrijku.” Yet given a glass of schnapps and some free time—which is abundant, because there’s almost no work in the region—the Warholas are happy to share their impressions. Among other things, they are absolutely certain that Warhol was not gay: “No homosexuals have ever come from Mikova,” explains one fellow—which may be why a local woman is convinced that Valerie Solanas shot Warhol because he wouldn’t marry her. The cinema verite tics could easily be trimmed, but much of Mucha’s film is fascinating and funny.
There are also two comedies among the fiction films, including Getting My Brother Laid (at 2 and 9:30 p.m. Jan. 18), which is smarter than its English-language name suggests. The German title translates as “My Brother the Vampire,” and “mentally incompetent” Josh (Roman Knizka) does like to wear Dracula-like fake incisors. He also would like to lose his virginity on the occasion of his 30th birthday, and he hopes his brother Mike’s new girlfriend, Nadine (Julia Jentsch), will oblige. Josh’s loyal compatriot is his 15-year-old sister, Nic (Marie Luise Schramm), the film’s narrator. She too is looking to be deflowered—and has her eye on the local youth-gang leader, who’s introduced lip-synching Eartha Kitt’s “I Wanna Be Evil.” Sven Taddicken’s film is campy, absurdist, and inventive
—there’s a nifty split-screen sequence—and provides a resolution to Josh and Nic’s problem that will send the straitlaced out of the theater fuming.
And then there’s Manitou’s Shoe (at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17), whose vision of the 1860s American West is derived from Mel Brooks, Jackie Chan, Indiana Jones, and Karl May. The last,
little-known in the U.S. but still popular in Germany, was an adventure writer who set his tales in foreign climes he’d never visited. Writer-director Michael Bully Herbig, a German TV veteran who also plays an ersatz Apache named Abahachi, jumbles slapstick, wordplay, parody, anachronism, gay stereotypes, and musical numbers in this consistently juvenile but reasonably well-sustained farce. It seems likely to amuse 10-year-olds, but only if they’re fluent in German.
The series also includes a program of shorts, 99 Euro Films (at 9:15 p.m. Jan. 21 and 22; at 10 p.m. Jan. 23), titled after the requirement that they cost 99 euros —about $100 —
to make. Money is one of the themes of these 12 very little movies, along with Hollywood, sex, English-speakers, and—in Mon Cherie, which also takes a Suicide tune as its theme—sex with an English-speaker. In Run, Leila, Run, a nifty burlesque of Run Lola Run, a little girl gallops to the store to buy a lottery ticket for her mother. The other 11 are only for stalwart supporters of the no-budget filmette. CP