Despite the American juggernaut, Germany and its neighbors continue to make good regional cinema
So much of American culture, but particularly the movies, has been shaped over the decades by Germanic influences that it’s important to pay attention to what’s happening filmwise in der mudderland. San Francisco’s annual “Berlin & Beyond” festival (playing at the Castro Theater in San Francisco January 10-16 and in abbreviated form at Point Arena, Mendocino Coast Jan. 19-20) shows that despite heavy inroads by U.S. films, there’s still worthy regional cinema being made in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the three countries represented in this year’s 20-odd features and documentaries. A look at a representative sampling follows.
The earliest entry is a revival of G. W. Pabst’s 1929 silent Diary of a Lost Girl, with the legendary Louise Brooks as gorgeous, naïve Thymian, who gets knocked up by her pharmacist father’s assistant. Torn from her home by her pregnancy and her father’s marriage to an ambitious housekeeper, she ends up in one of cinema’s more peculiar reformatories. More like a lesbian lunatic asylum, it’s run by a scary bald giant voyeur and a sadistic butch frau who practically creams when she’s abusing the girls. Brooks moves with commanding power through this surprisingly modern, beautifully photographed tale of upward and downward mobility – she’s equally convincing as petit bourgeois naïf, whore, and countess. Less famous than her other Pabst film Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl deserves equal praise as a near-documentary study of suffocating bourgeois morality, accentuated with much provocatively “decadent” imagery. Expect a shimmering refurbished print and a new score for the Castro Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer.
Xavier Koller’s Gripsholm revisits the same period (it’s actually set in 1932) and has some similarities in its critique of contemporary German society, though here the target is rising national socialism and its assault on the artistic spirit. Based on the novel Schloss Gripsholm, the film canonizes Kurt Tucholsky, a writer regarded as “the conscience of a nation” whose remark that “all soldiers are murderers” puts him on the Nazis’ shit list. The film combines political drama and summer idyll as Kurt (who committed suicide in 1935) and his girlfriend Lydia flee the lurid cabarets of Berlin for a Swedish castle owned by a friend. There they cavort, picnic, argue, fly prop planes, and engage in heated three-ways with their visiting pal, the bisexual Billie (who bears a disturbing resemblance to Joanne Worley). The decadence scenes are cut-rate Cabaret, and Kurt’s angst and Lydia’s attempts to remind him of his humanity are standard stuff. The main attractions are the scenery and a compelling subplot about an abused little neighbor girl.
Nathalie Steinbart’s In the Middle of Nowhere also explores nationalist tensions in the region, but this time the setting is contemporary. Polish immigrant and petty thief Marek hitches a ride with a thieving West German financial consultant whose car and identity he steals, stranding his unwitting benefactor in a port-a-let. Marek’s attempt to escape with the goods ends in a volatile East German village half of whose inhabitants were ripped off by the financier. With most of the action set in a local beer hall and a besieged gas station, Steinbart nicely skewers smalltown life, mob mentality, and the buffoons who so easily become the mob, though a whimpering queen called variously “Mr. Pansy” and “the rear guard” won’t be welcome in all quarters. The script, while basically serious, is loaded with amusingly vulgar jokes and aphorisms, some of them telling indications of the regional conflicts that plague post-unification Germany: “50 percent of a fox’s intelligence comes from stupid chickens,” the financier advises Marek, along with an apparently current jibe at an alleged Polish penchant for auto theft, phrased as a travel bureau catchline: “Come to Poland. Your car is already there.”
Run Lola Run benefited not only from its enthrallingly athletic female star but also from her gorgeous pouty-lipped boyfriend played by Moritz Bleibtreu. This increasingly popular hunk appears in two films in this year’s fest: Christian Zubert’s Lammbock, in which he plays a drug dealer; and in a real treat for Bleibtreu watchers and fans of prison movies (and who isn’t?), Das Experiment. It’s tempting to dismiss the plot of Das Experiment as a stretch – twenty average Joes paid to play guards or cons in a simulated prison experiment – but in fact the film is based on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1972, in which unethical psychologists hired students, screened for mental and emotional stability, for a virtually identical experiment that had to be aborted early when the participants became violently unhinged. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s fictionalized version is white-knuckle-ride pulp and very satisfying on that level. Naturally the film takes some dramatic liberties. Bleibtreu plays a reporter who enters the experiment undercover to get a story, and the script invents a female love interest for him to counter all those sexy, sweaty men who spend most of their time in the fake prison wearing a little smock or nothing at all. S&M abounds as “Mr. Prison Guard” soon becomes a whip-cracking master and some of the “cons” devolve into sobbing masochists. The film pulls no punches in scene after scene of physical and psychological abuse. (The predictable Nazi parable aspect is appropriately overdone.) It’s also a scathing attack on the scientists who devise such grim scenarios and fall as easily into fascism as the guards. Moritz Bleibtreu will attend the screenings of both films.
A standout documentary in the fest is Wilfried Huismann’s Dear Fidel – Marita’s Story. The title is deceptive, as are the opening moments, which present sixtyish Marita Lorenz as a slightly deluded, still-lovestruck ex-mistress of Fidel Castro who hopes to reconnect with him. But conspiracy theorists will instantly recognize Marita Lorenz’s name. She was a key player in attempts to assassinate Fidel; worked for both the FBI and CIA in murderous secret campaigns; and had intimate knowledge of the Kennedy assassination, credibly fingering Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis and several others as the triggermen. The “dear Fidel” angle is a small pane in the prism of a tumultuous life lived brutally close to major historical events, taking the charismatic Marita from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at age 5, through a rape by an American soldier at 7, into Fidel’s inner sanctum before she was 20, through an almost lethal abortion of his baby, and into the heady world of America’s and Israel’s pathological national security operations. Marita’s personal charisma, credibility, and candor – “I don’t give a shit what Gerry Hemming says. He’s fucking CIA all the way through!” she says of a typically evasive former colleague – make this must-viewing for conspiracy buffs and anyone interested in the wacky world of postwar geopolitics.