Saturday, October 16, 2010

BERLIN & BEYOND 2010—Lineup Preview

In its 15th edition, Berlin & Beyond (B&B) resituates itself from its previous mid-January slot to San Francisco's October film festival calendar, enrichening the Bay Area's autumnal palette of national cinemas with select films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Running October 22-28 at San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre and October 30 at the Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose, the festival's fresh disposition is being helmed by incoming Festival Director Sophoan Sorn. Saluting previous Festival Director Dr. Ingrid Eggers for her 14 years of creative spirit, dedicated service, and impassioned leadership, B&B turns its eye "to another 15 years and beyond!"

Berlin & Beyond's calendar shift to October affords the festival the opportunity to join forces with their sister festival,
German Currents in Los Angeles, coordinated by each city's respective branches of the Goethe-Institut as "a united West Coast German Film Event". The rewards of such a maneuver are immediately apparent. Boasting 24 feature films from seasoned masters and up-and-coming innovators, and six short films from bright new talents, B&B will enhance its impressive program with a spectacular line-up of on-stage appearances by such artists and luminaries as Michael Verhoeven, Cristoph Schaub, Benjamin Heisenberg, Feo Aladag, Florian David Fitz, Baran Bo Odar, André Schäfer and Donna Woolfolk Cross, among several others [the complete list is here].

Berlin & Beyond kicks off on Friday, October 22, with an opening night party in the Castro's mezzanine (6:30PM) followed at 8:00PM with the shared West Coast premiere of Ralf Huettner's Vincent Wants to Sea (Vincent will Meer, 2010). At the recent German Film Festival in Paris, the Audience Award went to Huettner's road movie, in which a young man with Tourette's syndrome fulfills his recently-deceased mother's wish to go to the sea. At Variety, Boyd von Hoeij writes: "Teuton dramedy Vincent Wants to Sea takes a threadbare road-movie template involving three walking (no, make that driving) clichés and transforms it into a surprisingly effective portrait of damaged but lovable lost souls on the road. Though the film is ably directed by Ralf Huettner, kudos go in large part to thesp Florian David Fitz (Men in the City), who not only stars but also penned the solid screenplay, his first." In a deft stroke of programming, Florian David Fitz will accompany Vincent on opening night.

On Saturday, October 23, B&B offers four films: the shared West Coast premiere of Vadim Jendreyko's documentary
The Woman With the 5 Elephants (Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten, 2009; 12:00PM), the U.S. premiere of Simon Verhoeven's Men in the City (Männerherzen, 2009; 2:30PM), the shared West Coast premiere of Michael Verhoeven's documentary Human Failure (Menschliches Versagen, 2008; 4:45PM) and a special screening of Sönke Wortmann's Pope Joan (Die Päpstin, 2010; 7:30PM).

The "5 Elephants" of Vadim Jendreyko's documentary refer to Dostoevsky's five great novels, translated by the film's subject Swetlana Geier. Neil Young reported that The Woman With the 5 Elephants "turned out, most encouragingly, to be one of the word-of-mouth successes" of the 2009 Viennale, and a film with which he was "much taken." Young writes: "Quite conventional in form but fascinating in content, this is the story of Swetlana Geier, an octogenarian Ukrainian who has devoted most of her life to translating Russian classics into German. She's shown returning to Kiev for the first time since 1943—and the circumstances behind her departure provide the material for a sensitive and intelligent exploration of highly complex moral issues." Dispatching from Toronto's 2010 Hot Docs, Shannon Ridler effuses at Movie Moxie: "The Woman with the 5 Elephants is a beautiful reminder of the power and depth of language, and how it's a true skill to know language. A valuable skill. What could be more valuable than being [able] to express something precisely how you intend to? And what a skill it is, to know languages so well and understand them on a deeper level and how language says a lot about the culture of those who use it. Fascinating." Locally, at San Francisco's new festival-focused website Filmbalaya, Adam shares Ridler's fascination with "Swetlana's descriptions of the difficulties she undergoes while translating. For instance, how does a country whose language does not have any words for certain important ideas translate their meanings to those who speak another language?" He concludes that Jendreyko's debut documentary "reveals the main focus of his film, Swetlana, as a modern-day literary sage." Ridler provides ample film clips of the Hot Docs Q&A with Jendreyko and producer Thomas Tielsch; but B&B's audience will have their own opportunity to query Jendreyko during his on-stage appearance.

Simon Verhoeven's Men in the City offers a second opportunity to view the acting talent of Florian David Fitz who returns to the Castro stage to introduce the film. Co-starring Til Schweiger (Inglourious Basterds, Phantom Pain), this comedy's English title riffs lightly on Sex in the City but shifts its perspective to masculine emotion in its diverse amusements. Simon's film is followed by his father Michael Verehoeven's documentary Human Failure; an examination of the expropriation of assets from German Jews during the Third Reich by state tax officials. The film's import, Charles Mudede suggests in his review for The Stranger, is the recognition that "Nazi Germany was a state and not a clan or tribe or some other lower and more chaotic social order"; a state that efficiently practiced Hannah Arendt's still-controversial concept of the "banality of evil." Mudede explains: "What is even more frightening about this form of banality is that it shows that the state can function as a state while committing barbaric acts. The Nazi state did not collapse into chaos—it operated within a strictly legal and highly organized framework. In Human Failure, we see 'the horror': the lack of a distinction between barbarism and civilization. Barbarism can exist (indeed thrive) in a state of order. 'There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism,' wrote Walter Benjamin, a victim of Nazi state power/madness (a madness with a method). The same is true of the state—it can be at once totally barbaric and totally civilized." Michael Verhoeven will be on hand to navigate anticipated discussion after the film.

One of B&B's educational imperatives within this year's edition is the festival's celebration of the art of storytelling, the joy of reading, and the importance of literacy through their new program Book to Screen, which showcases books that have been adapted into films presented at the festival. Sönke Wortmann's filmic adaptation of celebrated American author Donna Woolfolk Cross's international bestselling novel, Pope Joan, provides an appropriate opportunity to pursue the theme, and—along with her on-stage presentation of the film—author Cross will engage an interactive discussion of her novel with a book signing to follow on Saturday, October 23, 5:30PM at Books, Inc., 2275 Market St., San Francisco (415/864-6777). A feminist subversion of the apostolic succession, Pope Joan insinuates an intriguing evening of revisionist religious history, despite a tepid review from Variety's Derek Elley who found Pope Joan "a disappointingly dull workout" that "drifts along in neutral like a cut-down miniseries."

Berlin & Beyond continues on Sunday, October 24 with five entries. At noon is the U.S. premiere of
Saara Alia Waasner's Silver Girls (Frauenzimmer, 2010), preceded by the shared West Coast premiere of Fabian Busch's short film Edgar (2009). At 2:00PM is the special "Film for the Family" screening of Animals United 3D (Die Konferenz der Tiere, 2010), Germany's first RealD 3D animated feature, co-presented by ASIFA-SF International Animated Film Society. On hand to discuss the film will be directors Reinhard Klooss and Holger Tappe. Next at 4:45PM is the shared U.S. premiere of Jan Tenhaven's documentary Autumn Gold (Herbstgold, 2010), preceded by the Northern California premiere of Christoph Englert's short film Side by Side (Nebeneinander, 2010).

But it's Sunday's 7:00PM Centerpiece presentation of Feo Aladag's directorial debut When We Leave (Die Fremde, 2010) with director Adalag in attendance that promises to be the day's highlight. Screening a week earlier at the Mill Valley Film Festival, When We Leave is Germany's recently-announced submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®. Winner of the Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, When We Leave has garnered favorable reviews, notably from Variety's Derek Elley: "Sheer acting, lensing and helming smarts elevate When We Leave, a not-unfamiliar tale of a Turkish woman seeking emancipation from her conservative Muslim family, into something special, with considerable emotional payoff." He adds that the film "succeeds at a purely metaphysical and character level, without any strident sexual politicking, thanks to sensitive, dignified playing by lead Sibel Kekilli." Following When We Leave at 9:30PM is the California premiere of Dietrich Brüggemann's Run if You Can (Renn, wenn Du kannst, 2010), preceded by the animated short A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation (2010) directed by Martin Wallner and Stefan Leuchtenberg.

On Monday, October 25, B&B offers four films, only three of which have been announced; the fourth being the festival's first-ever "surprise film", which—B&B teases—"might be announced days prior, or it might be kept a secret until the lights go out!" The known quantities, however, start off at 2:00PM with the U.S. premiere of Thomas Arslan's Im Schatten (In the Shadows, 2010). Dispatching to MUBI from the 2010 Berlinale, Neil Young observes: "Although occasionally flagging just a little during the occasional sequences when [Mišel] Matičević is off-screen, In the Shadows proceeds with a steely efficiency and directness very much in keeping with the modus operandi of its ultra-professional main character, all the way to its genuinely tense finale (the last shot concludes proceedings on just the right note of tenebral, gnomic intensity). Brought in at an admirably brisk 85 minutes by editor Bettina Blickwede, and made for a reported budget of only 500,000 Euros, In the Shadows is boosted by a moody, subtle, susurrant. Geir Jenssen's moody, subtle score, which combines with Andreas Mücke-Niesytka's pin-precise sound-design with absorbing effect. Reinhold Vorschneider's cinematography, meanwhile, represents yet another fine advertisement for the RED ONE digital camera, which comes up particular trumps in its depictions of Trojan's various low-lit milieux." Young has likewise conducted an informative interview with Arslan.

That Berlinale darling is followed at 4:00PM by the Northern California premiere of Nicolas Steil's Draft Dodgers (Réfractraire, 2009), billed by B&B as a "Luxemborg special". This film was Luxembourg's official entry in the race for the 2010 Best Foreign Film Academy Award®. Based upon Robert Koehler's negative Variety review, one can surmise why it didn't make the final five. Even Boyd von Hoeij's negotiated impartiality at Cineuropa cautions that Draft Dodgers relies "a bit too much on clichés." Also at Cineuropa, Van Hoeij interviews director Steil. Notwithstanding, I have been infatuated with actor Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet since his seductive turn in Christophe Honoré's Love Songs (2007) and—coupled with the rarity of Luxemborg film in general—might be more patient with this film than most.

If my penchant for eye candy leaves me dissatisfied with Luxemborg, I'm hoping I will be satiated by the 6:30PM shared West Coast premiere of the André Schäfer and Andrew Davies documentary Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger, with André Schäfer on hand to field queries from the film's audience. Though I'm not sure. Admittedly, Rock Hudson was the epitome of masculine beauty in Hollywood, but the reviews of this documentary are far less attractive. At Variety, Jay Weissberg describes Dark and Handsome Stranger as "maddeningly reductive." He complains: "This unsatisfying look at the late star is stuffed with inconsequential sex gossip and starved for real meat, relying on tired presumptions about life in the Hollywood closet." Weissberg does concede that Dark and Handsome Stranger works "as a reminder of the shameful brouhaha surrounding Hudson's AIDS diagnosis. The pic boils the star down to the stereotype of the closeted actor whose fame intimidated sexual partners, and whose death in 1985 put a face to a demonized disease. Of the various interviewees, Belgian publicist Yanou Collart is best at evoking the AIDS panic of the early 1980s: She had to charter a 747 for $250,000, because no commercial airline would take the dying Hudson from Paris to L.A." At It', Bev Questad criticizes: "Perhaps intended as a tribute, a love poem, or an attempt to chronicle an icon, this begging cup is rattling empty. ...Just because of the iconic title viewers will probably flock to the film just to see archival shots of this beautiful man. But be forewarned, after 95 minutes Hudson still remains an emotionless stranger and the audience will be left unsatisfied." As might be expected, gay sites like Alt Film Guide are more accommodating.

On Tuesday, October 26, B&B offers four films; the first at 11:00AM is the West Coast premiere of Detlev Buck's Same Same But Different (2009). Based on Benjamin Pruefer's 2006 Neon article, and subsequent novel, about his relations in Thailand with an HIV+ young woman, Same Same But Different premiered at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival where it won the Variety Piazza Grande Award, conferred by Variety critics to films that satisfy both artistic quality and international opportunity. Derek Elley then took up the honors at Variety to finesse the film's winning points: "Irreverent humor and down-to-earth characters prevent the potentially soupy mix from curdling in its own juices, and the Asian setting is never exoticized for cheap emotional gains. The film split viewers at its Locarno preem, with some finding it too unemotional, others refreshingly different." Elley considered it remarkable that "given its subject, the movie never becomes remotely preachy or didactic; nor does it allow its characters to wallow in their grief. They had sex; they fell in love; she turned out be HIV+, so both look for a way to continue their life together. Period."

Tipping its hat to environmental concerns, B&B screens
Daniele Grieco's The Last Giants—Oceans in Danger (Wenn das Meer stirbt, 2009) at 2:30PM, preceded by the West Coast premiere of Angela Steffen's animated short Lebensader (2009). That program is followed at 5:00PM by the documentary Pianomania (2009) by filmmakers Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck.

Then at 8:00PM, B&B continues its Book to Screen sidebar with the shared California premiere of Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber (Der Räuber, 2010), with director Heisenberg in attendance. Based on the eponymous 2005 novel by Martin Prinz of the true story of Austria's infamous "Pump-gun Ronnie" Johann Kastenberger and starring Andreas Lust (Revanche), The Robber was nominated for a Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale and scored favorable reviews. At the Village Voice, Nicolas Rapold praised The Robber as "an intelligently shot study in self-control and calculated release, it's equally surprising as an action film and character portrait." At The Flickering Wall, Jorge Mourinha agreed: "Intriguing combination of kinetic thriller and cerebral drama, inspired by a real life case, with an outstanding lead performance." Though Aaron Cutler stages his reservations at Slant, he does admire how "lightweight video cameras can move as fast as the runner can, and help the viewer feel like he or she is running that fast too. The Robber, Benjamin Heisenberg's new crime thriller, takes full advantage of this, and also shows how DV can use lighting to flatten the screen image and make it look like you're hurtling full across a straight line. Backgrounds and other distractions are eliminated. All that matters is the race." Cutler, like Variety's Alissa Simon, are less entranced with helmer Heisenberg's refusal to apply psychological motivation to the criminal's actions, such that—according to Simon—"With no emotional or stylistic hooks, there's not much compelling viewers to engage with what's happening onscreen." My gut sense, however, is that I'll be robbing myself of an evening's entertainment if I miss The Robber.

Of the remaining films on B&B's program, I wish to single out only two. On Wednesday evening, October 27, at 9:00PM I encourage you to catch the shared North American premiere of Baran bo Odar's The Silence (Das Letzte Schweigen, 2010), winner of the Piazza Grande award at this year's Locarno Film Festival. I've had the chance to view this film on screener and am gnashing at the bit to see it in 35mm on the Castro's big screen. A profoundly disturbing narrative supported by one of the strongest and bravest acting ensembles I've seen in recent years, the film's cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer employs haunting aerial overhead shots to distance the audience from the perverse underpinnings of the rape and murder of young girls, while composers Michael Kamm and Kris Steininger quicken the tension through a nerve-grating score. With Baran bo Odar on hand to answer questions, this is—in my humble opinion—the not-to-be-missed gem in this year's edition of Berlin & Beyond.

Finally, on Thursday, October 28 at 7:30PM B&B's Closing Night film will be Christoph Schaub's Julia's Disappearance (Giulia's Verschwinden, 2009), winner of the Piazza Grande Audience Award at the 2009 Locarno Film Festival. As synopsized by Françoise Deriaz at Cineuropa, Julia's Disappearance is a comedy that lifts smiles and spirits: "An initiation into the art of growing old with humor from the ages of 14 to 80, all the symptoms of early or late decline are revealed with refreshing irony in this feel-good comedy." Deriaz attributes much of the film's success to the screenwriting expertise of Martin Suter; "This because the writer is no amateur. Suter has won acclaim in both Switzerland and France, where his novel Small World won the Best First Foreign Novel Prize in 1998." Likewise at Cineuropa, Deriaz interviews Schaub on how he got his hands on Suter's comic screenplay. Locally at the San Francisco Examiner, Pamela Alexander-Beuter found Julia's Disappearance a "charming and insightful film about coming of age at every age." What a pleasant note on which to enter B&B's Closing Night party in the Castro's mezzanine (9:30PM).

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10/17/10 UPDATE: Of related interest, Girish Shambu explores the Berlin School, providing insight on featured guests at B&B.

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