The New German Cinema vogue of the 1970s summoned forth a number of unique talents, some of whom—Herzog, Wenders, Ottinger, Schlondorff—are still alive and kicking. But even as the 40th anniversary of his death approaches, none of their number have proved more prolific or influential than Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Nor were any half so disliked, controversial, confounding and self-indulgent, as well as sporadically, maddeningly brilliant.
Though we’ll probably get some full-scale retrospectives next year to honor the June 2022 landmark, this week the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival provides a sort of Fassbinder mini-homage within a program that encompasses both a biopic of the notoriously difficult, self-destructive personality, and a remake of one of his most famous works.
2021 happens to be the 25th anniversary year for Berlin & Beyond itself, an occasion that will be celebrated in various ways through the “hybrid” program running both live theatrical projections and on-demand streaming. The latter will be available throughout the schedule, Tues/25-Sun/30; the former will consist of three kickoff shows at the drive-in venue Fort Mason Flix this Tuesday and Wednesday, plus a single day at the Vogue Theater on Sat/29. There will also be a number of “virtual events” including a Friday morning “Future of Film” panel discussion, and several individual Q&A sessions with directors.
Many of those directors are women, something that certainly would not have been the case during New German Cinema’s heyday—even though it did boast some trailblazers in that regard, like Ulrike Ottinger (whose career retrospective is still playing BAMPFA’s virtual cinema) and Margarethe von Trotta. Today, however, such representation isn’t an anomaly but an encouraged norm, as reflected in B&B’s current programming, which likewise acknowledges changing population demographics by encompassing more international fare—meaning films and themes that stretch beyond its usual terrain of Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
The official opening night selection is Sisters Apart by Daphne Charizani (who co-wrote last year’s terrific The Audition, with Nina Hoss), a German-Greek coproduction in which a Cologne-based interpreter in the Germany army (Almila Bagriacik) who is sent to Iraq as a liaison to a battalion of Kurdish women training to fight against ISIS. Her own ethnic roots help earn these war-displaced refugees’ trust, but she can tell no one that she is really looking for her missing sister, who is somewhere among their ranks.
The online-only official closer on Sun/30 is Leonie Krippendorff’s Cocoon, whose 14-year-old heroine (Lena Urzendowsky) learns some lessons both happy and hard during an eventful summer in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. it’s a coming-of-age tale with an LGBTQ slant that has won some admiring reviews.
Other highlights will include a salute to veteran director Caroline Link. Her new When Hitler Stole The Pink Rabbit, currently in theaters, is about a Jewish family fleeing the Nazis across Europe in the mid-1930s—a film that provides a bookend to her prior greatest hit, the Oscar-winning Nowhere in Africa, about another Jewish family whose similar flight lands them in Kenya. That leisurely epic’s 20th anniversary will be observed with a screening Wed/26 at Fort Mason Flix (advance ticket purchases only), with a career tribute preceding the feature.
There will also be a salute to Berlin & Beyond’s SF-based founder Ingrid Eggers—a somewhat belated and bittersweet homage, as the Goethe Institut rather unceremoniously ousted her from the festival some years back—in conjunction with the online streaming of another past festival favorite. 2007’s cool psychological suspense piece Yella, with Hoss as a woman who can’t quite escape her troubled past, was one of the first films that made the international reputations of both its star and her frequent director Christoph Petzold. His latest, the atypically fantasy-tinged romance Undine, also plays the festival prior to its general U.S. release next week.
Other events of note include a 10th anniversary screening of the inspirational-uplift opus Lessons of a Dream (Wed/26 at Fort Mason Flix), with Daniel Bruhl as a progressive-minded new teacher at a strict late 19th-c. boarding school who liberates his students by teaching them to play soccer. There are also sidebars dedicated to “Documentary Voices,” Swiss cinema, and shorts (eight of them in the “Short Stories” program).
Features unavailable for preview that look particularly intriguing include Cortex: Are You Awake?, a thriller that is the directorial debut for Moritz Bleibtreu, one of the German-speaking world’s most popular and enjoyable actors in recent decades; and Narcissus and Goldmund, the first film adaptation of Herman Hesse’s 1930 novel.
We did get an advance look at two very different films that expand German cinema’s cultural and geographic reach. The international co-production Veins of the World is a drama set in the Mongolian steppes, where life hasn’t changed greatly in centuries—until now. While 11-year-old Amra is excited by the prospect of competing to sing on a TV talent show, his family faces a much bigger challenge as mining interests seek to evict them and other nomadic natives from the lands they’ve always lived off, in order to strip it for mineral gain.
Visar Morina’s Exile is another multinational production, centering on an Albanian emigre (Misel Maticevic) who’s settled in Germany, where he now has a wife, a home and three young children. Yet at the pharmaceutical company where he is an engineer, various subtle and not-so-subtle means appear to be used by coworkers in order to ostracize and undermine him. Does hatred of “foreigners” run so deep? Or is he just paranoid? A “thriller” in much the same low-key workplace nightmare way that last year’s The Assistant was, this is a very discomfiting film made no less so by the fact that our beleaguered protagonist isn’t always a particularly sympathetic figure.
It’s a story that might have appealed to Fassbinder, given his empathy (as well as occasional lust) for the scorned immigrant. The film of his that perhaps falls closest to Exile, 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, is among those whose making is portrayed in Oskar Roehler’s Enfant Terrible. This biopic introduces the perpetually black-leather-clad, portly RWF (played by Oliver Masucci) in 1967, when he waltzes into a theater rehearsal, disrupts it, and promptly takes the whole enterprise over. He’s soon similarly stormed the world of filmmaking, using the same ensemble of actors he keeps in a state of backstabbing, paranoid fear. Eventually fame and fortune arrive (thanks largely to 1979’s global hit The Marriage of Maria Braun), which Fassbinder both disdains and figures is his due. Regardless, voluminous substance abuse and other factors will abruptly terminate his insanely prolific career in 1982, when he dies at age 37.
There is no question RWF was something of a monster—manipulative, fickle, abusive, tantrum-prone, etc. But we wouldn’t still be watching his movies forty years later if he were only that. The problem with Enfant Terrible, even beyond its low budget and dirge-like repetition of bad behaviors, is that it has no idea how to convey his brilliance, so it simply portrays his excesses. It shouldn’t take 134 minutes to grasp he’s a self-destructive mess, yet that’s what Roehler (who made at least one prior Fassbinder-themed feature before) delivers. The result is something out of the old Ken Russell school of artistic biography, albeit without the visual panache: A work that, helpless to capture genius, settles for ridiculing it.
Even longer, though easier to get through, is Burhan Qurbani’s Berlin Alexanderplatz—another version of the Alfred Doblin novel that Fassbinder directed as a 15-hour miniseries in 1980. (Theatrically released in the US three years later, just after his death, it became one of those cultural-decathlon experiences by which you could measure your dedication to Art.) There was also a 90-minute feature in 1931, drastically condensing the 1929 source material that is still considered one of the great works of 20th century German literature.
Qurbani eschews the original 1920s setting and makes many other changes to turn his own three-hour creation into a commentary on Germany’s treatment of its latterday immigration waves. Here, Francis (Welket Bungue) is an African refugee originally from Guinea-Bissau who literally washes ashore after nearly drowning en route. He continually tries to do the right thing. But “life doesn’t like him that way”—it keeps pushing him toward criminality, especially in fatefully crossing his path with the unstable drug dealer/pimp Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch).
The basic story remains a long, cruel downward slide of degradations and injustices. But Qurbani lends it considerable style and energy, his updated cautionary fable further made palatable by lead Bungue’s charisma—the actor makes Francis a figure of stubborn physical and moral strength as well as tragic victimization. With three very different screen Berlin Alexanderplatzes to choose from now, you could nearly fill 24 hours watching nothing else. This version, Berlin & Beyond’s Centerpiece Film, will play Sat/30 at the Vogue in addition to being available on demand throughout the festival. After B&B 2021 ends, it will still be available for streaming through US distributor Kino Lorber’s virtual cinema division Kino Marquee.
Berlin & Beyond Film Festival runs Tues/25-Sun/30, for full program guide and ticket info click here.