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Thread: BERLIN & BEYOND Mar. 2019

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    BERLIN & BEYOND Mar. 2019

    BERLIN & BEYOND, Mar.8-14, 2019

    General Film Forum thread here.





    Berlin & Beyond is a festival of films by or about Germans presented by by the Goethe-Institut of San Francisco. See the program on their website HERE.
    (San Francisco, February, 2019) The Berlin & Beyond Film Festival (March 8-14, 2019), the largest festival of contemporary German cinema in The Americas, presented annually by the Goethe-Institut San Francisco, proudly announces the full lineup of its 23rd edition. The festival will return for the 23rd year to San Francisco’s iconic Castro Theatre from March 8th-10th with red carpet premieres and actors and filmmakers in attendance, along with encores at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley on March 11th, and screenings at the auditorium of the Goethe-Institut in Downtown San Francisco from March 12th-14th.

    I have reviewed the following selections from this year's series:

    LINKS:
    303 ( Hans Weingartner 2018)
    3 Days in Quiberon/3 Tage in Quiberon (Emily Atef 2018)
    Cakemaker, The (Ofir Raul Graizer 2017)
    Chris the Swiss (Anja Kofmel 2018)
    Gundermann (Andreas Dresen 2018)
    Waldheim Waltz, The/Waldheims Walzer (Ruth Beckermann 2018)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-23-2019 at 12:25 PM.

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    HANS WEINGARTNER: 303 (2018)


    ANTON SPIEKER AND MALA ENDE IN 303

    Good trip

    Hans Weingartner's 303 is a youthful two-hander, a travel-dialogue slow-burn romance on a summer trip in a classic Mercedes van (the "303" of the title) from Berlin to Portugal - a simple and conventional film full of dialogue on the order of Richard Linklater's "Before" pictures. It's not as distinctive or stylish as they, but more heartfelt and perhaps more emotionally satisfying. The best parts are the passionate debates, like dorm room bull sessions, so lively and so well acted you may mistake this for a documentary, though Weingartner has said in interviews that everything is closely scripted. Key to the success of this seemingly drab formula is the casting. The pair are university students Jule (Mala Emde) and Jan (Anton Spieker), whom one might mistake for a young Kate Winslet and Heath Ledger. They are adorable and their chemistry is palpable. When the intimacy finally comes it's prepared for with real-time pace, never for a minute hurried, subtle and exciting. But, as I said, it's their debates that count most. And this is Weingartner's way: as I noticed fourteen years ago in his The Edukators (2004), which focuses on violent revolutionary pranksters, and yet winds up seeming more about the political debates than the action.

    There's some preparation for the trip. We see Jule fail her final oral in biology, where she says she's not good at memorizing stuff. Jan's academic year ends differently: his professor tells him his work in political science was as good as the best, but unfortunately, the fellowship he'd need to take his studies to the next level has been awarded to somebody else. She sets off southward in her big, roomy 303, which later we learn had belonged to her late brother. He goes hitchhiking, and she's the third person he asks for a ride at a petrol station. A truck driver with taste in music he can't stand has accepted him as a rider, but he tries his luck with her, and she says yes.

    He starts out right off holding forth about stuff. They're both 23, just a few years till 27, he says, when all the "cool people" check out. Not that he's for suicide, he rambles on, and in fact he's intensely opposed to it and lays out his reasons. This somehow rubs her very much the wrong way, and she changes her mind and orders him to leave at the next rest stop. Only, they turn up at the same stop further on when she's in trouble, and he is there just in time to save her from a predatory older man. This causes a reconsideration, and Jule takes Jan in again. He's delighted. A comfortable ride, a pretty girl: who wouldn't be?

    The big argument that goes on between them now for many kilometers becomes they way initially they relate to each other, and we to them. It's a typical male-female, pessimist-optimist contrast that's set up, and flush with data and observations as any uplifting op-ed. He argues for a primitive view of man. No love can last beyond six months, he insists, and mankind is meant to make wars, compete violently and be his cave man self. Male-female relations, he's sure, are all by the scent, by contrasts, and for sex and procreation. She rejects that, and insists love is a real and lasting thing,. She cites the Cro-Magnons, who she says surpassed the Neanderthals and developed into Homo Sapiens because of their capacity to cooperate, not win fights. Weingartner is much invested in this stuff, and the fascination of the dialogue is that it's not an excuse, as it would be in most films, to develop the relationship: that comes along almost incidentally. We would not stick with these debates if they didn't seem so convincing and detailed, and if Emde and Spieker didn't deliver them with such disarming naturalness and conviction, and interact with such charming spontaneity as they do so.

    Sometimes Weingartner seems like a case of arrested development, but he might argue that we all are. Anyway he has said that he easily identifies with twenty-three-year-olds. There is a logic to the suspended love action. Jule sees Jan as not just company but protection. She wants it to stay that way, and not develop into something dangerous in itself. He doesn't want to mess up his ride by imposing himself upon her after it has turned out they get on so well and she has kept asking him to stay aboard. They become like a travel team, almost like a well-established couple, the naturalness and intimacy unacknowledged because neither wants to spoil it by calling attention to it. This is, of course, unlike Linklater's "Before" films in taking place not over hours but days. They high-five each other as they pass from country to country, Germany to France, France to Spain. He shares the driving. They both sleep in the van, shop together.

    At length they approach their two destinations, his in Spain, hers, Portugal. He is on his way to meet his birth father for the first time. He was seventeen before he realized he was being raised by a stepdad. This could be momentous, though he says he's not nervous (he is). She's on her way to Portugal to see her boyfriend, who has been living there. This is a fraught encounter too. And she has had a secret, which now Jan knows about. The delayed ending is quietly intense and touching. See if you don't breathe with Jan as he waits all night in the poetic street of a Portuguese town.

    Identification with youth notwithstanding, seems obvious that Weingartner has made progress toward maturity as a filmmaker - or simply has come up with a much better topic, since The Edukators was as distracted and inconsistent as 303 is harmonious and logical. The conventionality of the material and format may make this less memorable than it would have been if it resorted to more colorful details along the road, more violent or peculiar action. But that's not what Weingartner and cowriters Silke Eggert and Sergej Moya were looking for and would have marred the delicate surface of the youthful pair's shared journey toward self knowledge and affection, which, when it comes, is as natural and well-prepared and satisfying as any you'll see in a movie. I am not the only one to observe that the two-hour-and-twenty-five-minute run time goes by like a breeze.

    303, 145 mins., debuted at the Berlinale in the Generation section; also Miami, Vallodolid; three award nominations. Theatrical release in Germany July 2018. Watched for this review as part of Berlin & Beyond in San Francisco.

    Showtime Berlin & Beyond:
    Thu. March 14, 2019 8:00 p.m.
    Goethe-Institut, San Francisco
    West Coast Premiere






    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-23-2019 at 06:25 PM.

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    WALDHEIM WALTZ, THE/WALDHEIMS WALZER ( Ruth Beckermann 2018)

    RUTH BECKERMANN: THE WALDHEIM WALTZ/WALDHEIMS WALZER (2018



    Portrait of a post-war whitewash

    The Waldheim Waltz is a somewhat pedestrian documentary about the revelations of the UN diplomat, later Austrian chief executive Kurt Waldheim's concealed earlier complicity in Nazi war crimes. They came after he had served - not very effectively, some would argue - as Secretary General of the United Nations, from 1972 to 1982 - at the time when he ran successfully for president of Austria in 1986. The film is concerned with a slow dance, accusations and denials, further accusations and more denials, leading up to demonstrations and an eventual nationalist backlash of Austrian citizens who identified with Waldheim enough so that he won 53% of the vote. They felt his life reflected their own, as citizens of a country taken over by Nazi Germany in the March 1938 Anschluss, and they had to tow the line. The director, Ruth Beckermann, narrates the film.

    Waldheim, as we see in many film clips of him in his fifties, the focus period of the doc, was a tall, thin, impeccably dressed diplomat with a cold, blank face occasionally brightened by a forced-looking smile. He admitted that he served in the SA, but said he had no choice; "thousands" were doing it, and he was no different from those thousands, did nothing morally questionable, and was not in any way comparable to Nazi war criminals. But his complicity was of the kind that made the Nazi horror possible.

    Showtime Berlin & Beyond:
    Wed. March 13, 2019 8:00 p.m.
    Goethe-Institut, San Francisco
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-19-2019 at 07:52 PM.

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    THE CAKEMAKER (Ofir Raul Graizer 2017)

    OFIR RAUL GRAIZER: THE CAKEMAKER (2017)

    [This is a reprint of my review from June 2018]


    TIM KALKHOF IN THE CAKEMAKER

    Insinuating flavors

    A promising feature debut from Israeli director Ofir Raul Graizer talks about love, sexuality and food, not necessarily in that order. Everywhere the film goes, there is a tall, fleshy Berlin café manager and pastry baker named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof). This is a story permeated with the sense of making do with less, compensated by the performance of skilled work and the taste of a perfectly executed Black Forest chocolate cake or a subtly simple cinnamon cookie.

    Thomas looks like a big, tall, beefy cherub. He is never more at home than kneading a hefty lump of dough with his strong arms. His blue eyes are sad. His grandmother, who raised him, an orphan with missing parents, taught him to be happy with what he had. Then Oren (Roy Miller) comes into his little café. We don't quite know the details - this movie is a bit too careless of them an times, yet also, in this early segment, remarkably deft and succinct - but Oren, an Israeli, has monthly duties with the company he works for in Berlin, otherwise is back in Jerusalem with his wife and small boy. He seems to have begun with love of Thomas' cookies, and then things turned sexual.

    A year goes by, and the Berlin meetings go on. Oren gets cookies to take back to his wife, and makes love to Thomas. Thomas likes to hear about Oren's lovemaking with his wife, which will resonate later. One day Oren forgets his keys when he leaves. Thomas can't get him on the phone. Six weeks later he goes to the firm where Oren works in Berlin, and learns he's been killed in a car accident. Look at Thomas' pale, cherubic face, bereft. His grandmother didn't tell him how to deal with something like this. As far as we know, Oren was all Thomas has ever had of love.

    What now happens may seem implausible, and has an element of the magical, partly the magic of wonderful cooking, delicious food (let us not speak the words "food porn," however). There is deviousness here, a touch of the Tom Ripley. Not that Thomas assumes Oren's identity. But, transferring to Jerusalem (leaving his café in the charge of someone else, we must assume), he anonymously weaves his way, with the strength of his beefy limbs and the deftness of his baking, into the life of Oren's widow, Anat (the excellent Sara Adler), and her son, Itai (the sly Tamir Ben Yehuda). Itai is hurting, which he quietly hides. Anat is sad but quite ready to cope. Thomas proves useful.

    We now enter into the world of Anat's family and of Jerusalem, where the film has things to say about the burdens of living Kosher and observing Shabbat, of prejudices cherished and restrictions cheerfully imposed, contrasts between the religious and the secular life. Little by little Thomas, armed with the patience of one taught to live with less, works his way into Anat's café - yes, she has one too, which she's struggling to reopen after a period of bereavement. Thomas begins with washing dishes, then coring peppers. Then he sneaks some cookies out of the oven while Anat is out with Itai.

    Thus he runs afoul of Anat's rigorous brother Moti (Zohar Shtrauss), who orders the cookies thrown out, and warns that Thomas' turning on of the oven will rob the café of its kosher status. But the cookies and cakes are too fine not to keep coming, and Thomas, to our surprise, is awarded a nice kosher apartment by Moti, because the German (to whose nationality Moti also objects) has caused business to flower with his baking. For the time being Anat is unaware of the sadness she and Thomas share, but in the little café, where he becomes so useful, they are drawn together.

    The film is full of closeups of faces and hands as well as forks slipping into sublimely moist chocolate cake or a mouth biting into a perhaps not-so-good sandwich. The Cakemaker is rich in sensuality and sadness: the two seem inextricably linked. Note for instance how Thomas, using Oren's forgotten keys, makes his way to his gym and locker and dons his red speedos for a swim, a sorrowful, sexy homage.

    It is hardly a surprise that things take more odd, shocking turns - though the film never stops being understated and muted, qualities enhanced by the score by Dominique Charpentier and cinematography of Omri Aloni. It's not sure if Tim Kalkhof is a marvelous actor, but he is a good physical one, with an unforgettable presence. Sara Adler , who recently had a key role in Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot, unquestionably is a pro. There are doubts about details of The Cakemaker's screenplay, but it marks Ofir Raul Graizer as a distinctive new Israeli director to watch, one with a gay sensibility and a passionate interest in cooking. As an article about him in the Jerusalem Post explains, he divides his time "between Israel (usually Jerusalem) and Berlin, where he lives with his husband and teaches cooking when he’s not working on movies."

    The Cakemaker[/Der Kuchenmacher, 104 mins., in German, Hebrew, and English, debuted at Karlovy Vary ( Czech Republic), where it won the Ecumenical Jury award; then Jerusalem 28 Dec. 2017 , showing in many other festivals thereafter. Distributed in the US by Strand Releasing, it opened in New York and Los Angeles June 29, 2018.Metascore 74%. Review reprinted here as part of coverage of the 2019 San Francisco Berlin & Beyond series.

    Showtime Berlin & Beyond:
    Tue. March 12, 2019 8:00 p.m.
    Goethe-Institut, San Francisco
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-23-2019 at 11:28 PM.

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    3 DAYS IN QUIBERON/3 TAGE IN QUIBERON (Emily Atef 2018)

    EMILY ATEF: 3 DAYS IN QUIBERON/3 TAGE IN QUIBERON (2018)



    115 minutes of glamorous despair with Romy Schneider, 1981

    This film, based on a last interview, features Marie Bäumer, wonderfully cast and a striking likeness as the glamorous and despairing Austrian movie star and pan-European gossip diva Romy Schneider, who died a year later, at 43. She is past her early years of stardom as a princess in the Sissi series. Decades earlier she'd made a movie with Alain Delon, fallen in love with him and he with her, and moved to France to make films there. But, though she was in some very interesting films, they don't seem to mean much to her. Various affairs have gone wrong since. Her young teenage son David - who will shortly die tragically at 14 in emergency surgery after an accident - has declared that he prefers to live with his stepfather. She's supposed to be drying out. That doesn't last a day. The setting is a spa, chic rehab, or just a hotel (it's all shot at a five-star beach side Sofitel in Brittany, where the Quiberon of the interviews was located).

    This is a movie that revels in glamorous despair. But it's not the fabulous anomie of Antonioni. It's a tritely literal recreation of an actual event involving a film actress who feels her career has gone nowhere and sees her life as being a mess. The aspect ratio is very wide, and the images are black and white, to striking effect, especially in the external shots. The opening ones, long shots of the seacoast and the long, low hotel, with its extended horizontal and little verticals, use the format beautifully, are lovely in an understated way and make you hope for Antonioni. 3 Days in Quiberon is a well-acted, well-meaning film that continually looks great. But Antonioni isn't coming. This is, as Jay Weissberg said in his Berlin review for Variety, a " respectful, by-the-numbers recreation" of a "major interview" that captures some of the actress' "charm and vulnerability," but adds nothing more, not quite the grace of cinematic art. Similarly Stephen Dalton in Hollywood Reporter calls the film "handsome but shallow." Not that there are not some good moments, and many nice images, and Marie Bäumer's looks and ceaselessly magnetic performance.

    Heedless of the warnings of her childhood friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr, her character actually an invention of the screenwriters), who arrives in the early frames, Schneider chooses to pour out her soul in a long interview, extended over three days, with a ruthless and pushy Stern magazine journalist called Michael Jürgs (Robert Gwisdek), who comes accompanied by her former lover photographer Robert Lebeck (Charly Hübner). (Actual photos taken by the reeal Lebeck show Jürgs to have been a more appealing figure.)

    On the first night they all sneak out, Romy, Hilde, and the two journalists, to a local bar. Despite its being closed for a private party, recognition of the star leads them to be welcomed and they meet Denis Levant wildly disguised as a flamboyant local artistic-poetic type (he's billed as "Fisherman Poet"). His rough recitation and bizarre manner will be the only unusual notes in this evening. Romy orders champagne, and they bring several bottles - for starters. Everyone always has a lit cigarette in his or her hand. There is dancing. There is all night drinking. Schneider's obviously got a drinking problem, and the "spa" isn't going to put a dent in it.

    Next day, again to Hilde's objections, Michael and Bob arrive with wine at the larger suite they've reserved for the interview. Right away, the journalist turns this more into an abusive encounter session than information-gathering. He encourages Romy to pour out her despair and she obliges. Hilde warns her "they will print everything" and repeatedly urges her to call a halt to the proceedings but Schneider doesn't care. She expresses indifference at how the public sees her. "Bob," ostensibly friendlier, is on hand for intimacy and many clicks of his Nikon. At one point, after Hilde has decided to leave the hotel (though she doesn't, yet), and Jurgs has gone back to his room, and Romy lies in an insomniac stupor, "Beau" Bob crawls into bed with her. But it's not sexy or even very comforting. It's more just symbolic of Schneider's lack of borders and both journalists' invasiveness. His is a soft invasion, and his partner's is a hard one. Jürgs is calling his editor and telling him they've gotten the most intimate interview Romy Schneider has ever given.

    Actors make love to cameras, and next day, Bob finds Romy down on the rocks. The four are still there, and she suggests he take photos, and he does. This time she is joyous and playful, and the score is sweet. After all the wine-soaking and wallowing in unhappiness, this moment of happy sobriety in the chill of day is a welcome contrast. But it comes after the film has gone too far the other way. The running-and-snapping on-the-rocks sequence is allowed to go on much too long, and the soaring happy music starts to grate. But there's a point. Romy is overdoing this too - and Bob is encouraging her. She falls and breaks her ankle, messing up the schedule of her next film.

    This is all, of course, an imaginative recreation, even if by-the-numbers, and the Hilde character, seemingly added to introduce a kind of inner voice warning Schneider to be sensible and restrained, also represents a plot line that seems tentatively sketched in, as when her character repeatedly threatens to withdraw, then doesn't. Likewise this film seems a sketch, good as far as it goes, a superb international showcase for the talents of Marie Bäumer, but still falling a little short as a portrait of such an icon of European cinema as Romy Schneider.

    3 Days in Quiberon/3 Tage in Quiberon, 115 mins., debuted at the Berlinale, 19 Feb. 2018 and opened theatrically in Germany 12 Apr., winner of seven 2018 German Film Awards, including Best Picture in Gold, Best Director, and Best Leading Actress. It showed in seven other festivals and opened also in France (with very good reviews: AlloCiné press rating 3.7), the Netherlands, Russia, and the UK. Screened for this review as part of San Francisco's 2019 Berlin & Beyond.

    Showtime, Berlin & Beyond:
    Sat. March 9, 2019 3:15 p.m.
    Castro Theatre, San Francisco
    Northern California Premiere








    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-20-2019 at 01:23 AM.

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    CHRIS THE SWISS (Anja Kofmel 2018)

    ANJA KOFMEL: CHRIS THE SWISS (2018)


    ANIMATION BY ANJA KOFMEL FROM CHRIS THE SWISS

    In dedicated pursuit of a tarnished childhood idol

    Swiss filmmaker Anja Kofmel blends dreams and reality skillfully in her documentary, Chris the Swiss, which explores the memory of a childhood idol who always haunted her: her cousin Christian Wurtenberg, who died mysteriously in Serbia in 1992 at the age of twenty-seven when she was only ten. He was glamorous to her, handsome, energetic, puffing cigarettes. He sought danger and his adrenaline craving led him to cross the borders, it seemed, between war correspondent and outright mercenary, then wind up strangled in a cornfield. As a child, she had found him dashing and attractive. As an adult, his life still haunted her (as it did his brother and parents) and led to this imaginative and absorbing film.

    To unearth what may have happened to cut his young life short, Kofmel does what a good documentarian does: she travels to the site, films and interviews, unearths documents. But the Yugoslavia wars as well as the nature of her cousin's demise are dark and mysterious, and she supplements her more conventional explorations with her own excellent black-and-white animations, in which her cousin appears as a haunted-eyed young man with a striped scarf. Like Ari Folman's 2008 animated docu-memoir Waltz With Bashir (NYFF 2008), Kofmel uses her drawings to evoke a violent period with no direct photographic record of the protagonist's participation, as well as her own complex feelings early and now about him; but in her case she weaves in a full-fledged film documentary as well, nicely creating a sense of the interplay between history, found documents, memories, and personal feelings - because the Child Anja is a frequent figure in the animations. (She has cited Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing as an inspiration for her recreations.)

    Matthew Heineman's recent feature film A Private War, which recreated the life of war journalist Marie Colvin (played by Rosamund Pike), brought vividly to mind how such writers skirt on the edge of self-destruction in their "adrenaline junky" chase for the ultimate story. But Colvin, though she made it only to the age of fifty-six, put a distinguished career behind her. Christian Wurtenberg was too reckless and immature and too unlucky. He did not go the conventional journalistic route, he fell in with dangerous company, and he didn't make it half that far.

    Kofmel makes her film not only an exploration of her memories and her idol but a superb re-exploration of the violent chaos of the Yugoslav Wars her cousin dashed into. He took a train to Zagreb, entering a no man's land, and she recreates this both with animation and a film of her own train journey.

    Chris entered this violent, dangerous war, and began reporting on it for Swiss German radio. But later, there is clear evidence that he joined the PIV ("International Platoon of Volunteers"), a shady group of international mercenaries. There was a precedent: a decade earlier, at only seventeen, he had briefly joined a South African apartheid trained militia in Namibia, suggesting he had a thirst for fighting and violence, politics be damned, as well as for dangerous reportage.

    When Chris joined PIV, his journalistic colleagues were saddened and disturbed by the news of this turn. He claimed he was involved only to gather material for a book, but it's likely he became complicit in ethnic cleansing. The key figure here is Eduardo Rozsa-Flores, aka Chico. a journalist-turned-mercenary who commanded the PIV. Stephen Dalton, who reviewed the film at Cannes for Hollywood Reporter, describes Flores as "a dangerously authoritarian Colonel Kurtz type." He was an unsavory yet charismatic character, and one can understand the young Chris' attraction to his toxic energy amidst the madness of 1991 Croatia.

    Whether Chris was murdered at the order of Chico himself as a spy along with his friend the British photojournalist Paul Jenks or died in an enemy ambush as he claimed can probably never be known. Kofmel is unable to interview Chico because he was shot dead in 2009 while planning the assassination of Bolivian president Eva Morales, having returned to violence after a period of pursuing a career as a writer and actor. There is footage, which we see, of Chico, in military garb, saying Chris "lagged behind and was ambushed."

    Kofmel interweaves footage of herself interviewing former volunteers who now live in Croatia and exploring the snowy landscape with her animations imagining how her cousin's uneasy relationship with Chico and his mixed platoon, which one of the vets of another unit tells her included some real professional soldiers who knew their stuff with "some real bloody idiots." Chris stood out because he wasn't a butcher or even a soldier in any way, just a "nice guy." But sometimes the weak member of a unit is the first to be turned into a butcher - to prove himself - before the whole unit gradually become butchers, according to an informant. What he was like then Kofmel explores in interviews with two friends and fellow war journalists, Austrian Heidi Rinke and Julio Cesar Alonso.

    Dalton feels that the film's pure documentary elements are weaker than its imaginative animated ones, leaving too many unanswered threads dangling. In her Cannes review for Variety, Jessica Kiang in contrast sees this film as "if anything. . .liberated from being a slavish work of investigative journalism and free to develop into a more compelling and artistic hybrid of memoir, biographical documentary and general discussion of why young men feel their pulses quicken at the idea of fighting in a foreign war." I agree with Kiang: the film richly brings up the historical context while never ceasing to be an exploration of necessarily complex personal feelings about a lost relative. As such it is unusually satisfying and thought-provoking.

    Chris the Swiss, 90 mins., had a work-in-progress showing in Zurich in Jan. 2018 and later won the Filmpreis Stadt Zürich. It formally debuted at Cannes Critics' Week in May, and showed at the animation fest at Annecy and at Locarno, Adelaide, Mill Valley and Sevilla. Screened for this review as part of San Francisco 2019 Berlin & Beyond.

    Berlin & Beyond showtime:
    Thu. March 14, 2019 6:00 p.m.
    Goethe-Institut, San Francisco
    San Francisco Premiere



    CHRISTIAN WURTENBERG
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-22-2019 at 04:46 PM.

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    GUNDERMANN (Andreas Dresen 2018)

    ANDREAS DRESEN: GUNDERMANN (2018)


    ALEXANDER SCHEER IN GUNDERMANN

    Portrait of a complicated man

    Gerhard Gundermann, "Der singende Baggerfahre," the "singing dredge driver," is an anthemic East German composer-performer of the 1980's and 1990's - known for "his clever, often melancholy lyrics imbued with social commentary" - with a past marred by association with the Stasi. He survived this stain when it emerged, only to die suddenly and unexpectedly at only 43, in 1998. A cantankerous and complex figure even young Germans may not have heard of, Gundermann proves worthy of the biopic he gets here from German director Andreas Dresen and regular collaborator Laila Stieler (for the script). The story meanders a bit, but the better thus to illustrate its subject's many good songs (sung by Scheer) and equally numerous contradictions. Alexander Scheer, one of Germany's best actors, plays the lead. Look at photos and films and you'll see the uncanny resemblance he and the makeup crew have created. Anna Unterberger is irresistibly appealing as the love of Gundermann's life, Conny, and there are other notable cast members in this film that's very much an ensemble piece while totally revolving around its protagonist. Patience is rewarded by a sense of this film's loyalty to and eloquence about its unique, intractable and curiously admirable subject.

    What's not to like? Well, Gundermann, who worked in an open coal mine even after he'd become pretty famous, never tried to please anybody. Not his father, from whom he became estranged. Not the bosses of the mine, whom he pissed off. Not the communist party, to which he sincerely meant to be loyal, but which eventually expelled him for his outspoken criticisms. And his songs are frank and love life but are frequently sad. He did sing a celebratory song with Conny about their marriage, and the songs, even when downbeat, can be anthems.

    Conny was in Gundermann's band (one thing the movie leaves out is an earlier gaudy rock period), and she was married to another band member who was his good friend. Gundermann and Conny finally acknowledged the relationship. Gundermann moved in with her and her kids. Her husband moved into Gundermann's place. "I should hit you," the friend says, as he moves out, and that goes for a lot of times. How did the kids take that? Well, Gundermann was great with kids, and saves a hedgehog on the highway early on. (The hedgehog doesn't make it, but gets a tender burial.)

    My favorite character is Helga (Eva Weißenborn), the craggy old dredge driver who's done the job forever and who appreciates Gundermann's stubborn intractability. And what? His loyalty? But he has betrayed many people, reporting, for instance, on folks who want to escape to the West.

    The film's shifts back and forth in time are signaled by the different glasses Gundermann wore, big tortoise shell ones early on and aviator-style wire models in the latter years, though in truth he doesn't seem a very different man - except that he was, of course. For all its time-shifts, the focus is on the key period of Gundermann's fame - and his infamy. He was an unofficial collaborator with the infamous GDR intelligence service known as the Stasi from 1976 to 1984. But this time of his life isn't painstakingly illustrated, as in Von Donnersmarks's The Lives of Others. That is not the interest here, but the aftermath. We see his half-forgotten Stasi years as a thing that haunts him; that he has forceably forgotten; as a fact he must acknowledge after the fall of the Wall, the GDR revolution, the Gauck Commission, and the discussions of Offenders and Victims.

    He was both, but his Victim file has disappeared, as he learns from the Gauck Commission, in a typically very personal scene with one of its functionaries. But it may have been small. His Offender file he eventually gets access to through a journalist - they alone could get such access - is boxes and boxes-full. An angry young woman journalist brings them to him and Conny, another personal scene. (The writing may be a bit simplistic here, but it still works.)

    In numerous scenes of composition, rehearsal, and performance, the film tips the balance back toward the reason for this movie: it's about a notable artist. The filmmakers and performers convey the soulful honesty of Gundermann's songs, even if something is inevitably lost if one doesn't know German. But what truly impresses is the intractable, unique ugly-beautiful bravery of the contradictory man.

    The heart of the film comes when the Stasi evils are being revealed and Gundermann must face up to what he did, and does. He acknowledges that he is ashamed, also surprised at the extent of his "reportage." He can't go on claiming it was only complaining about conditions at the mine. He can never apologize. It's not in his nature. But he confesses, to each of his audiences in turn. He talks about it to Conny, who stays firmly loyal. He tells his coworkers. He tells his band. Slowly, they decide to go on performing with him. Finally, in the film's most memorable scene, which creates a feeling hard to put into words. In a big public performance, he tells his audience, which at first is shocked and silent. Then the band plays, Gundermann sings, and they applaud. Lesser, or more commercial, filmmakers might make this into a corny scene. Here it simply captures the moving strangeness of the real.

    Gundermann, 128 mins., premiered in Gundermann's town of longtime residence, Hoyerswerda, in Saxony in Aug. 2018, and showed at Tromso (Norway). It was screened for this review as part of the 2019 San Francisco Berlin & Beyond series.

    Berlin & Beyond showtime:
    Sun. March 10, 2019 6:00 p.m.
    Castro Theatre, San Francisco
    North American Premiere


    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-23-2019 at 10:51 AM.

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