Summer in Berlin
Summer in Berlin

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The German-speaking countries and regions of Europe are known, perhaps not altogether fairly, as affluent, businesslike, and a little stuffy. They’re also, like most of the industrialized world, quickly graying as birth rates decline. Yet most of the entries in the Goethe-Institut Washington’s 15th annual festival of new films from the region depict economic struggle, youthful confusion, and rejection of norms. (Aelrun Goette’s Under the Ice was unavailable for preview; it shows Jan. 22 at 9:20 p.m. and Jan. 23 at 7:15 p.m.) The movies feature criminal kids, adulterous parents, and businessmen dramatically retreating from their duties. As a national self-image, this may be a bit distorted, but it’s surely less warped than the likeness of the United States that Hollywood presents.

Since the Soviet Bloc unraveled, the former East Germany has been a perennial theme in German-language cinema. German reunification is mentioned only in passing in this year’s films, but new arrivals from the Balkans play significant roles in addressing it. In Christian Wagner’s Warchild (Jan. 20 at noon and 7 p.m.), a young woman who seems to enjoy a reasonably comfortable life in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina risks everything to travel to Germany. It soon becomes clear that Senada, fiercely played by Labina Mitevska, is not fleeing her old life but attempting to restore it. She’s uncovered evidence that her daughter, Aida, presumed dead as a baby a decade ago, was successfully evacuated from Bosnia. The movie’s first section offers a detailed, evocative account of the travails of being smuggled into Italy, so it seems glib when Senada easily tracks Aida to a suburb of Ulm, where she’s been adopted by a German couple and renamed Kristina. The point of the drama is not the search for Aida, however, but the struggle over her between her biological mother and her new parents, who have never told the girl that she’s adopted. The conflict is messy, affecting, and entirely persuasive.

Another variation on the theme is Crash Test Dummies (Jan. 22 at 7:15 p.m.; Jan. 23 at 9:15 p.m.), which is an example of a surprisingly common post-1989 form: the European unification farce. That’s not farce in the sense of uproariously comic; the cinematic type tends toward the rueful, as this movie certainly does. But such movies do rely heavily on coincidence and cosmic absurdity, and they’re usually keyed to some continentwide event. The story of this one culminates on April 30, 2004, as fireworks mark the admission of 10 new nations to the European Union. By then, Ana and Nicolae have had a dispiriting tour of Vienna, where the young Romanian couple went on a sort of business trip: They expected to earn some easy money by picking up a stolen car with fake papers and driving it back to Bucharest. But the car isn’t ready when they arrive, the lovers don’t have enough Euros to comfortably stay in Vienna, and they soon angrily split. A series of small adventures lead them to hook up with new partners: Ana (Maria Popistasu) with retail video-surveillance worker Jan, and Nicolae (Bogdan Dumitrache) with Martha, who’s the only character who actually does work as a sort of crash-test dummy. (By the small-world logic of such scenarios, Jan and Martha are, inevitably, roommates.) Writer-director Joerg Kalt’s film doesn’t surprise, but it’s a cleverly constructed example of a subgenre that only a few American viewers will have already seen too often.

A simple story that takes an unexpected turn or two, Summer ’04 (Jan. 24 at 7:15 p.m.; Jan. 25 at 9:30 p.m.) is the fest’s most mysterious offering. While on vacation with her family on the Baltic coast, Miriam (Martina Gedeck) looks after Livia (Svea Lohde), the 12-year-old sort-of girlfriend of her 15-year-old son. When Livia develops a crush on a neighbor, Bill, Miriam seeks to stop a romance from developing. But it turns out that Miriam is less interested in Livia’s welfare than in sustaining her own affair with Bill. Director Stefan Krohmer’s film moves from sophisticated social comedy to something considerably darker in a single scene, and its soft-spoken epilogue hits like a plunge into icy water.

The mother in Tough Enough (Jan. 21 at noon; Jan. 24 at 9:30 p.m.; Jan. 25 at 7 p.m.) is also named Miriam (Jenny Elvers-Elbertzhagen), but this one is a different sort of trouble. When she and her teenage son, Michael (David Kross), are evicted from her rich ex-boyfriend’s Berlin home, they find themselves in gritty, multiculti Neukölln. While Miriam trawls for a new sugar daddy, baby-faced Michael is left alone to contend with a serious bully problem. He ultimately becomes a drug courier, less for the money than for the protection an intimidating gang provides. The urban-jungle flick is hardly a new idea, but by employing desaturated colors and a vivid punk and electro score, director Detlev Buck has constructed a potent, acute update.

Elsewhere in the same city a single mom struggles to find work and to buy her 12-year-old the fancy sneakers he wants. Yet the central crisis in Summer in Berlin (Jan. 19 at 7 and 9:30 p.m.) is not financial. It comes when Katrin’s neighbor and best friend, Nike (Nadja Uhl), acquires a new boyfriend. Tattooed and possibly married, Ronald doesn’t seem like much of a catch, but Katrin (Inka Friedrich) is jealous, and her heavy drinking puts her in a hospital. “And so on…” reads the concluding title of director Andreas Dresen’s movie, and that seems about right. The film is likable enough, but its accumulation of commonplace details ultimately doesn’t transcend the everyday. (Dresen will discuss the film after the 7 p.m. screening, which kicks off the fest.)

Of the troika of businessman’s breakdown films in the fest, the freshest is A Friend of Mine (Jan. 20 at 9:15 p.m.; Jan. 21 at 4:30 p.m.), which stars one of Germany’s few internationally recognized young stars, Good Bye Lenin!’s Daniel Brühl. He plays Karl, a successful executive whose boss worries that he’s not a team player. To shake things up, Karl’s superior suggests that the young man take a job ferrying cars for a rental agency and report back on how that business can be made less risky for investors. On the job, Karl meets Hans (Juergen Vogel), a loudmouth scamp who lacks Karl’s education and income but has the spontaneity and playfulness the young exec lacks. Director Sebastian Schipper’s saga of the class divide offers no startling insights, but it is lively and surprisingly philosophical, complete with a passing consideration to the 1+1 paradox—the idea that separate entities can meld into one rather than be added together to equal two—that fascinated Godard during his early-’70s Maoist period.

It could also be the early 1970s in Going Private (Jan. 20 and 21 at 2:15 p.m.), a film whose revelation is that businessmen (and, generally, their wives and offspring) are pigs. HP (Michael Neuenschwander) and Karin (Susanne-Marie Wrage) are having a barbecue at their extravagant glass house (where their fat, video-game-addicted son stays upstairs). In attendance is HP’s crony Philip, who married the boss’s pudgy daughter and is having an affair with his hosts’ sexy 20-year-old Danish au pair—which is just one of the unseemly secrets that’s divulged as the party gets boozy and goes wrong. Director Stina Werenfels’ screaming-bourgeoisie drama is presented with conviction, but its big headline seems to be yesterday’s news.

Shot primarily in dramatic Alaskan exteriors, Ultima Thule: A Journey to the End of the World (Jan. 20 at 4:30 p.m.) is the interior tale of a capitalist in crisis. Once a naturalist, Alfred (Stefan Kurt) became a financier to please his wife, and as a result—indirect, but somehow deserved—suffered a medical catastrophe. As his body remains on the hospital bed, his true self wanders the wilderness, marveling at its beauty as he navigates toward either death or rebirth. Veteran Swiss director Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf provides nearly 90 minutes of rapturous vistas that are more compelling for their inherent radiance than for their facile metaphorical purpose.

Far from the corporate suites, David (Mike Adler) and his graffiti-writing pals watch for Munich’s transit cops with one eye and for the competitive new crew, ATL, with the other. With jail time looming, David considers cashing in his talents and going to art school. But the challenge reflected in the title of Wholetrain (Jan. 21 at 7 and 9 p.m.) continues to beckon, and ultimately decorating every inch of an entire subway train becomes not just a thrill but an obligation. If there’s something a little sad about Europeans adopting graffiti, break dancing, and the like, director Florian Gaag puts his heart into this energetic, stylish movie. It may not be such a good thing, but Wholetrain makes “aerosol art” and hip-hop’s macho sentimentality seem like integral parts of German culture. (Gaag will discuss the film after both screenings.)