Wednesday, November 26, 2008

11th Festival of German Films

Still from Beautiful Bitch28 November - 4 December

This year's Festival of German Films features a co-production strand and a focus on the documentary maker Andres Veiel.

Intentional or not, the themes of politics and families run through the programme for the festival. Sometimes, as in Lenin Only Got as far as Lüdenscheid (dir Andre Schäfer), one finds both. In this ironic documentary, Richard David Precht recounts his upbringing in 1960s West Germany, being raised by leftist parents and dreaming of life as the head of the East Berlin zoo in the the fantasy land of the GDR.

With an extended family that includes two adoptees from Vietnam, there is plenty of scope for drama, while mentions of Baader-Meinhof and shots of protests provide the necessary backdrop, as the country goes through its own growing pains, ending with reunification and a family reunion in Denmark.

Alex, the hero of My Mother's Tears (dir Alejandro Cardenas-Amelio), also has an unconventional family, which encompasses the residents of his group house in West Berlin in the 1970s after he and his parents flee the Argentine dictatorship. His gift for moving things with his eyes proves more help than hindrance, and he observes with unease his dad's struggle to settle in "the island of Germans". It is a compelling story with wonderful moments of invention, as when dad's drawings come alive and in the films shot by the household.

Meanwhile, over in Absurdistan, the residents of a small village find themselves left behind once the Soviet Union crumbles and as their ageing water pipe collapses, their water supply dries up and the village divides along gender lines. Veit Helmer's allegory is enlivened by bits of surrealism but let down somewhat by crude humour.

Inter-generational conflicts provide the fault lines in Cherry Blossoms - Hanami (writer-dir Doris Dörrie), as the well-ordered life of elderly couple Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) and Rudi is disrupted when she dies and he tries to live out her dreams in Japan by visiting their son there, having discovered their other two kids in Berlin have no time for them. The sacrifices his wife made for him and the family haunt him and he realises how little he knows of his family. The most perceptive characters are the outsiders: the daughter's girlfriend (Nadja Uhl) sees both parents in a way the kids never do.

Late in the film, as Rudi bumbles around Tokyo, the character of Yu appears, and if she's a bit ditzy and overly mannered, she does represent a less rigid character who helps Rudi connect with his departed wife and some risk-taking in himself. It is also amusing to find "ah so" exists in German and Japanese.

The documentary Two Mothers - The Search Began in Riga considers the very meaning of family, as filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim searches for his biological mother and father and uncovers some uncomfortable truths. His adoptive parents were part of the occupying forces of Riga and his investigation into his origins moves between Berlin and Riga, as he tests out hypotheses: was dad a photographer? A Nazi? Could his mother be Jewish? Along the way he meets a range of characters from devout nationalists and apologists to historians. In the end he simply cops out and decides it's better not to know.

In Beautiful Bitch (dir Martin Theo Krieger), 15-year-old Bica is cut adrift from her brother and homeland of Rumania as she arrives in Dusseldorf and takes up the life of a pickpocket. When she meets the spoiled Milka and streetball coach Andrej she hopes to find friends but is constantly under threat from her "patron", the odious Cristu.

The premise is intriguing and the promises made to easterners about the west that lead to exploitation and greed are well-rendered, but the film deteriorates into melodrama and the relationship between the girls is not developed. It's not believable that a few games of streetball and some dancing would create a real bond so much so that Milka says Bica is her first real friend. And what's up with the black-clad girl who appears sporadically to ask (backwards) if Bica will be her friend?

Drifter (dir Sebastian Heidinger) is a well-shot but very slow observational doc about street youth living around Zoo Station in Berlin. This is perhaps a nod to Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo but with no sensationalism. Aileen, Daniel and Angel live on the streets visiting shelters in between shooting up and taking clients when they need money, but there is little drama to their lives, just the sensation that they are wasting away, while complaining of being undercut by those even lower on the social scale--Poles.

With no voiceovers and no interviews, it relies purely on observation. The worst scene is Aileen giving a blood sample and finding her vein is too scarred from heroin injections. In the credits is a thank you to Andres Veiel, who has several showings at the festival and will be a guest.

The festival screenings are mostly at Curzon Soho, with some at the Goethe Institut.

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