Friday, October 5, 2012

Jason goes to Berlin and Beyond--closing day/night

[Correction: In an earlier version of this post I stated that Berlin and Beyond was moving back to January, and the next festival would be in January 2014. I was incorrect, there will be a January 2013 Berlin and Beyond film festival. And that makes me happy. --Jason]

So I missed most of Berlin and Beyond, just catching opening night and the final day (and night.) So here we go with 4 movies last Thursday.

First up was LESSONS OF A DREAM, a schoolyard comedy/drama set in 1874 Brunswick. So normally I try to eschew comparisons describing a film as "[Insert film name] set in [time/place] with [this twist.]" I think it's lazy writing and it belittles the film in question. But this time it's just too perfect--it's DEAD POETS SOCIETY set in 1874 Germany with soccer (and without Robin Williams hamming it up.) Konrad Koch (Daniel Brühl) is brought to the school in Brunswick to teach English. He had spent 4 years on the island, so he's fluent not just in the language but in the culture. Of course, this is the Kaiser's Germany, who had just conquered France and most of those in charge care more about obedience and discipline, not comradeship and understanding foreign cultures. Who cares if you pronounce your "th" correctly if you're just there to kill as many Englishman as are necessary to conquer them? Well, after some struggle Koch breaks through with his students by introducing them to the strange English game of football. And then the real struggles start, as the kids love the game but the powers that be hate it as anarchic and don't like how Koch is encouraging his students to rebel. It's wonderful watching the kids come alive playing soccer, especially how the smallest kid--the proletariat whose mother works in the factory--becomes the star striker. And it's hilarious to watch the adults protesting against the moral degradation of soccer. And, of course, it all has to culminate in a big tournament, against an English team coached by Koch's friend. The German kids aren't just playing to win, they're playing to win the hearts of the entire town and the Kaiser's observers who are there to see whether there's anything worthwhile to this game and whether it should be added to the curriculum.

And the most remarkable thing about it all--it's based on a true story. Hard to believe it, but many German towns did ban football when it was first introduced. In fact (according to the epilogue in the movie) Bavaria didn't formally lift its ban on football until 1929.

The next show started with a short, OF DOGS AND HORSES. Rolf loves his dog, but his dog is getting old and has a limp. The vet recommends he simply give him painkillers and enjoy the last bit of his life. The only other option is a surgery that would cost thousands. So Rolf collects up his money and takes it to the racetrack. He just needs one lucky bet on a longshot to save his dog. Very well done, and nicely tense. The kind of movie where you root for the improbable outcome even when expecting tragedy at every corner. It's a movie about hope.

And then the feature documentary, BATTLE OF THE QUEENS. This was actually one of my favorites at Cinequest. Let's see what I said then (down at the bottom):
And then the feature length documentary, BATTLE OF THE QUEENS. I have no idea how to convince you to see it, it's the sort of unsellable concept that no one thinks could possibly be this great. In a town in Switzerland they have a contest known as the Battle of the Queens. Cows battling each other (not bulls, mind you. The bulls are too dangerous to ever let out of the stable. These are cows of a specific giant, aggressive breed fighting each other for dominance.) And it's beautiful, it's funny, the music is great. It's a cacophony and poetry all at once. Nicolas [Steiner, the director] made liberal use of beautiful widescreen black and white cinematography, lots of slow motion shots (particularly in the fight scenes), wrote his own music, and made a freakin' masterpiece.
Again, I just don't know how to sell this film, and judging by the meager audience last night nobody does. But those who saw it last night (or its previous screening on Sunday) [or at Berlin and Beyond] witnessed something amazing. So I'm sorry for the fact that I don't have the right words to convince you to see it. 
Hmmm...while that's all true and I loved it a second time yesterday, I'm still at a loss of how to explain how great it is. The closest I can come to doing it justice is to say that when you're in the lobby afterwards raving about how cinematic that snot flying from that cow's nose was...well, you're in the hands of someone who knows how wield a fuckin' camera.

Next up we had a Holocaust drama from a kids point of view, WUNDERKINDER. Larissa (on the piano) and Abrascha (on violin) are two of the greatest child prodigies in the entire Soviet Union. They live in the Ukraine, and they are Jewish (like their teacher.) But who cares, they're magnificent, they've played for comrade Stalin, and they've even been invited to play Carnegie Hall. Meanwhile, Hannah also lives in their town. She loves music, too, but isn't as good as them. But she wants to be friends, even though she's German (her father is there to run a German-style brewery.) Well, that doesn't matter, Hitler and Stalin have a non-aggression pact. So they become friends as easily as children do. And then war breaks out. At first, well behind the Soviet lines, it's actually Hannah and her family that are in danger, and their Russian Jewish friends protecting them. That was easily the most interesting part. I've seen dozens of films about the plight of  Jews in WWII and the brave Germans who protected them. I'd never seen (or even thought about) the story of a German family trapped in Soviet territory and relying on the help of Jews to protect them. But it happened, all quite naturally in the movie. Soon enough the Germans take over the town and the dynamic is what we're used to in these kinds of movies. Luckily the local officer is a fan of culture and the wunderkinder are good enough to get some consideration from him. But culture alone can't overcome racial purity laws.

It's not the first 'Holocaust-through-the-eyes-of-a-child' movie I've seen. In many ways, it seems like there's a natural connection between the loss of childhood innocence and the time when the whole human race lost its innocence. And this movie is very well done and still manages to find a different angle on a familiar story. My favorite line, when the brewery assistant is trying to smuggle the Jewish families away to safety, he says (I paraphrase,) "Fascism, socialism, all political ideologies are worthless. There is only individual struggle."

And finally we ended with an exciting and nostalgic look at skateboarding in the GDR (East Germany) with THIS AIN'T CALIFORNIA. It centers around the life story of Denis aka "Panik," one of the skaters and apparently just all around craziest guy they'd ever met. In fact, the film is dedicated to him as he passed away last year at the age of 41 while serving in the military in Afghanistan. That's probably the biggest mystery--and one that's never really solved--how did someone who rebelled against authority so much end up in the military. They'd all pretty much lost touch with each other after the Berlin Wall fell, but now I'm getting ahead of the story. The story is really about before the wall fell and how kids learned about skateboarding, made their own boards, learned their own tricks (instead of ollie-ing, they used the bicycle tire inner-tube technique) and just kind of goofed around. Then how they moved to Berlin and took over the concrete jungle of Alexanderplatz. And how the Stasi followed them. How the GDR tried to institutionalize it with formal skating schools (many became instructors, including Panik for a time, but he rebelled against that as well.) And it's about how they were allowed to travel to international competitions, to see the world, and learn that there's really a great fraternity of skaters out there and being a skater was more important than what country they were from. And, more than anything, it's about youthful exuberance, captured in glorious 8 mm faded colors. Tons and tons of footage with just enough modern interviews looking back at the time. Oh, and sex--it's about sex. Particularly the one guy  who always seemed to be surrounded by naked women (I think his name was Patrick, but I'm not sure if I'm remembering that right. I must have been distracted by all the naked lady footage when they mentioned his name.) Sweet!

And that's Berlin and Beyond for 2012. Important news from the closing of the festival--it's moving back to January, where it used to be. So no festival for 2013 (although I'm sure they'll have one-off and year-round programs,) and look for it to come back in January of 2014. Wrong! Look for it in January 2013!

Total Running Time: 403 minutes
My Total Minutes: 299,228

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