As the Oscars seem to be getting more international—perhaps because Hollywood itself produces so few award-worthy movies these days—a sign of the times was that the annual evening’s second-most-laureled title was a German language feature. All Quiet on the Western Front ultimately lost the Best Picture award to Everything Everywhere All At Once, the event’s big winner, but for a while there it looked likely to clean up all night. It was surprising, given that it was a non-US film without English dialogue and big-name stars, and which had largely bypassed theaters for the major studios’ nemesis, Netflix.
It did have an Academy pedigree of sorts: The first screen version of Erich Maria Remarque’s celebrated novel, duly shot on Universal Studios’ sound stages in the Hollywood hills, was one of the very first Best Picture winners almost a century ago. Ironically, the German author would soon find himself and his most famous work banned at home for the supposedly “unpatriotic” nature of their anti-war stances throughout the Third Reich. (He fled to Switzerland, where he would spend most of his remaining life.) Even after the war, many Germans considered him a “traitor.” So it may seem odd that the new version has found least critical favor in Germany, where it’s been picked at for deviations from the book, and being too 21st-century blockbuster in overpowering style.
Nonetheless, from this writer’s view, it’s one of the best combat-focused cinematic depictions of war in years, if not ever, and its main flaw was simply having to be viewed at home—few movies of substance released last year merited the “big screen” so fully in terms of engulfing audiovisual expansiveness.
You’ll get your chance to see it there, in fact, at the close of Berlin & Beyond, the SF-founded, Goethe-Institut-sponsored showcase for German-language film that began in 1996. Its 27th program features, as usual, an array of the best recent films from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The bulk will screen this Thu/23-Sat/25 at the Roxie Theater; there’s also a day of online streaming content Sun/26, and two features will be reprised the evening of Mon/27 at Berkeley’s Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. The festival returns to the Roxie for a single screening of All Quiet in 35mm at 6:30pm on Tue/28.
Selections this year include Andreas Dresen’s Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush, dramatizing a Guantanamo-related political dispute; Maggie Peren’s likewise fact-based The Forger, about a young Jewish man managing to “pass” as gentile in Berlin at the height of Nazi power; Ann Oren’s eccentric self-empowerment fantasy Piaffe; Fatih Akin’s latest Rhinegold, a biopic drawn from German rapper Xatar’s memoir; Barbara Kulcsar’s Swiss senior seriocomedy Golden Years; Sonke Wortmann’s Family Affairs, continuing the dysfunctional antics of the clan from his 2018 hit What About Adolf?; and a program of four shorts that (along with the feature Axiom, see below) will be available in Sunday’s streaming programs.
Among films available for preview, here are a few highlights:
Everything Will Change
In 2053, housemates Ben (Noah Saavedra), Fini (Paul G. Raymond) and Cherry (Jessamine-Bliss Bell) are part of the “indoor generation,” and why not—in their lifetime, there is little incentive to explore a ruined environment outside, or build community when societal trust has been eroded by years of “deep fakes.” Then Ben’s attraction to some retro cultural elements triggers curiosity about a creature spotted on an old album cover. Surely it, too, was a computer-generated illusion?
Yet on what turns into a long road-trip investigation, he discovers such a thing as a “giraffe” really did exist (before the mass extinctions finished them off), and much more. Part documentary, part cautionary editorial, part TED talk, part sci-fi drama, Marten Persiel’s festival opening selection may be on the preachy side as narrative filmmaking goes. But it’s got a potent message—that we, now, are “the last people to choose” between a viable and catastrophic Earth future—wrapped in lots of eye-popping visual excitement.
A different kind of fantasy is this elaborate invention from Sophie Linnenbaum, in which the satirical perfect-world artifice of something like The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and Don’t Worry Darling is gradually peeled back to reveal a more dystopian underside.
Paula (Fine Sendel) is a teen in a milieu where everyone knows their role—because it’s assigned, as leading or supporting, life itself being an endless movie shoot whose lines and emotions (complete with musical scoring, or even occasional full-blown production numbers) must be rehearsed. There’s a class divide here, with mere background players beneath notice, and the dread residents of an “Outtake District” not to be discussed at all. This parable about prejudice and privilege is overlong at two full hours, but it’s clever, original, and aesthetically striking.
First encountered as a museum attendant training a new hire, Julius (Moritz von Treuenfels) seems a good person to know: He’s gregarious, confident, ordinarily attractive, has a fount of interesting anecdotes from personal experience. If we get an occasional whiff of manipulation or fibbing from him … well, perhaps we’re mistaken.
But then he leads several friends on an expedition he self-sabotages in a dramatic way. We soon realize he’s abruptly exited their company to avoid having himself exposed as a compulsive liar—something he has probably done numerous times before. This compelling character study from writer-director Jons Jonsson fascinates in refusing to levy judgement or melodrama on a personal type that’s increasingly invaded the public sphere: The sociopathic narcissist whose self-glorification requires imaginative embellishments he or she cannot, will not acknowledge as plain fabrication.
Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer
One of several directors—his contemporaries Wim Wenders and Volker Schlondorff are among those interviewed here—who created a “New German Cinema” in the 1960s and ’70s, Herzog was always an outlier, his artistic vision and public persona alike utterly singular. Thomas von Steinaecker’s documentary may not be the most profound or exhaustive investigation of Herzog’s career to date, but it is a slick, entertaining appreciation.
We follow Werner from humble beginnings to early works few knew just how to absorb (even the staggering 1972 Aguirre, the Wrath of God flummoxed German viewers at first), through his legendary struggles with Fitzcarraldo, yea-worse trials brought by “wild beast” collaborator Klaus Kinski, his eventual move towards primarily documentary work, and so forth. Excerpts underline just how epic, mystical, dazzling, logistically “impossible” and just plain strange much of his oeuvre has been. Among those who offer their two cents are family members, chief crew, directors he’s inspired (like Chloe Zhao), actors he’s worked with (Pattinson, Kidman, Bale), even Carl Weathers, and Patti Smith.
BERLIN & BEYOND FESTIVAL runs Thu/23-Tue/28. Various venues, SF. For tickets, full lineup, and more information go here.