Monday, October 18, 2010

BERLIN & BEYOND 2010: FESTIVAL CROSSOVERS—Frako Loden Reviews Pianomania, Julia's Disappearance and When We Leave

Pianomania (Austria/Germany: Lilian Franck / Robert Cibis, 2009) screened at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival [where it won the Golden Gate Documentary Award] and plays at Berlin & Beyond on October 26. For those who love piano and the mysteries of sound, this documentary will be a treat. It's also a 90-minute-long commercial for Steinway & Sons, being a profile of its master tuner Stefan Knüpfer and a career that matches the exacting artistry and high professional standards of the pianists he serves—big names like Lang Lang, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Alfred Brendel. Knüpfer is remarkably patient and diplomatic with the extremely minute, sometimes incomprehensible demands of the artist preparing for a big performance at a major concert hall. He tunes the piano also to accommodate the hall's acoustics, the recording of the performance and the instrument's own peculiarities. The problem always arises of how to verbalize a problem with sound, how to express in words something that one hears or even can't hear. Then of course, there's the delicacy of moving an instrument that weighs half a ton. Amid all this tense, (literally) high-strung urgency it's fortunate that Knüpfer has a sly sense of humor, seen in a sequence where he plays a prank on other soundmeisters with a precious violin. Pianomania's official website includes a BBC interview with director Robert Cibis.

Julia's Disappearance (Switzerland: Christoph Schaub, 2009) screened at Mill Valley Film Festival this past week and closes Berlin & Beyond on October 28. It's a sincere, well-meaning ensemble film about getting older and feeling lousy about it. Julia (Corinna Harfouch), riding a bus to her 50th birthday dinner party, overhears a conversation between two teenagers discussing what gift to give a friend. When an elderly woman sits beside her, Julia suddenly can't see herself in the window glass. She's become invisible—a condition that continues off the bus and in a boutique where she stalls pre-party, until she catches the eye of an enigmatic older man (Bruno Ganz, with whom Harfouch appeared in Downfall). Meanwhile Julia's friends, a couple of middle-aged couples and a single man fending off middle age with gold sneakers, wait impatiently for her at a restaurant. The elderly woman on the bus continues on to a different birthday party in a retirement home, where the elderly birthday girl embarrasses her daughter by staging a series of petulant meltdowns devolving into a food fight.

The "punchline" of this film is that everybody ends up at the same restaurant—the teenager and her feuding parents; survivors of the retirement home debacle; and Julia's partygoers. But ultimately it's weak—there's no strong reason why they should all end up there, and the whiffs of magical realism involving disappearance end up only baffling. What remain are a few good-natured chuckles about the universal human condition of growing older and the possibility of love and happiness beyond all the aches, forgetfulness, humiliation and invisibility.

When We Leave (Germany: Feo Aladag, 2010) screens the final weekend of Mill Valley and is the Centerpiece film for Berlin & Beyond (October 24). Every bit as powerful and downbeat as Germany's 2009 Oscar submission The White Ribbon, which was nominated, this year's entry When We Leave stars Sibel Kekilli (who also starred in Fatih Akin's Head-On) as a young Turkish wife raised in Germany who flees her abusive husband in Istanbul to return to her family in Berlin. At first her conservative parents and siblings welcome back Umay and her young son Cem, but they demand that she return to her marriage so they can preserve their reputation in the Muslim immigrant community. In choosing between that and the welfare of their own daughter and grandchild, she's reminded, they will always choose the former. It's a tricky balance Umay tries desperately to create, keeping her family ties along with her own independence. Up to the end we're not sure who will win this stubborn battle, but as both sides' options narrow it's clear that the results will be devastating. The depictions of kind and generous Germans and the angelic Cem versus the heartless, vindictive Turkish men threaten to turn this into a Manichaean struggle, even a horror film.

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