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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Buckle up for Werner Herzog, baby

Screen Grabs: Buckle up for Werner Herzog, baby

A tribute to the master of extremes. Plus: Trans Film Fest enlightens on a global scale, Berlin & Beyond goes beyond

It’s another week of dueling fall film festivals and/or series, this time offering two of the former and one of the latter—the events ranging from a couple days to four months celebrating a six-decade career.

San Francisco Transgender Film Festival

The first as well as longest-running event of its type, SFTFF is back to threaten the very foundation of respectable gender norms amidst the backdrop of our urban hellscape. Think of the children!! If you believe all that, perhaps I could interest you in the purchase of this nice bridge as well?

Setting conservative hysteria around the issue aside, you’ll experience a lot more insight than alarmism from this year’s program of 33 films running a gamut of genres and themes. Highlighted titles made available for preview included Amir Jaffer’s Belonging: An Indian Trans Immigrant Story, a documentary profile of activist Anjali Rimi and her SF-based organization Parivar, “Our Queer Trans South Asian Family.” Short narratives run from lo-fi sci-fi (Roberto Fatal’s Do Digital Curanderas Use Eggs In Their Limpias?) to comedy webisodes (Rae Dawn’s City Folx, about the misadventures of two very broke “Drag brothers” trying to hang onto their Mission District apartment).

There are also music videos, animations, dance shorts, experimental works, screen missives from Brazil and Haiti, and one racy “adult” program strictly for 18-and-overs. All five programs of “trans, queer, non-binary excellence” will be shown at the Roxie Wed/8 through Fri/10 (two per evening after opening night), then available for on-demand streaming Sat/11-Nov. 19. For full schedule, film descriptions, ticket info, et al., go here.

Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase

Another festival that’s recently nudged past the quarter-century mark in longevity is the Goethe-Institut’s annual spotlight on new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Well, biannual, actually: This is the eighth edition of its downsized fall event, a complement to the bigger one each spring. Divided between two double bills in SF and the East Bay, it’s hardly lacking in prestige features or thematic diversity.

The opening film this Tues/7 at SF’s Vogue Theatre is Ilker Catak’s already much-awarded (and Oscar-longlisted) The Teacher’s Lounge, a classroom crisis drama that Sony Classics will release in the U.S. later this year. It’s followed by Frauke Finsterwalder’s Sisi & I, yet another celluloid treatment of the 19th-century Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungry—a figure of as much obsessive public romanticization as Princess Di, already portrayed onscreen by everyone from Romy Schneider and Ava Gardner to (just last year) Vicky Krieps. Here, she’s essayed by Susanne Wolff as a middle-aged monarch in eccentric self-exile on the island of Corfu. But our viewpoint is that of a lady-in-waiting (played by Sandra Huller, concurrently starring in Anatomy of a Fall) whose stint as an appointed companion to the mercurial “Sisi” proves both exhilarating and exhausting. Complete with highly anachronistic soundtrack choices (by Portishead, Nico, Le Tigre, etc.), it’s a plush period piece that is nonetheless heavy on revisionist interpretation.

The Autumn Showcase moves to El Cerrito’s Rialto Cinemas the next night, Wed/8, for a pair of enigmatic psychological thrillers placing more emphasis on psychology than thrills. Christian Petzold’s Afire, which we covered upon its theatrical release three months ago, is a potent ensemble piece in which strangers at a seaside country house clash to unpredictable, morally ambiguous results. Similar in effect if more fanciful in premise is Alex Schaad’s Skin Deep. His assured first feature finds a young couple visiting a remote communal retreat, where they experiment with adopting different perspectives—in very literal terms, as there is actual body-swapping going on here.

For all info including showtimes and ticket info re: the 2023 Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase, go here.

Infinite Horizons: The Films of Werner Herzog

Finally, here’s an event for the ages: An epic retrospective of works by a New German Cinema trailblazer whom few then could have imagined would have a career both remarkably durable as well as stubbornly eccentric—let alone that he’d become a kind of pop culture totem. It restores your faith in humanity to think that the genius behind such cosmic objets d’art as Aguirre, the Wrath of the God and Lessons of Darkness might gamely lend his persona to The Mandalorian and The Simpsons, while continuing to pursue projects as rarefied as he did 50 years ago or more.

No stranger to the Bay Area, having apparently spent fair chunks of time visiting or living here over the decades, the writer-director-producer etc. will appear in person at a jam-packed first long weekend of this BAMPFA series, which will also include a 1 pm lecture (featuring readings from his new print memoir) Fri/10. It begins Thurs/9 with the seldom-revived Signs of Life, a B&W 1968 first feature depicting German soldiers going mad from boredom and isolation while stationed on a Greek isle during WW2. It is notable that this acclaimed first feature is comparatively conventional—albeit perhaps only when held alongside the singular style and mystic sensibility of many subsequent works, starting with the immediate followup Even Dwarfs Started Small.

That in-person opening weekend will continue with other early features that established him (AguirreFata MorganaThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), one of his more artistically successful rare ventures into quasi-commercial, quasi-Hollywood filmmaking (2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans), a recent documentary/narrative hybrid (the Japan-shot Family Romance, LLC), and two among the frequently stupendous documentaries that have largely defined his later career decades (the aforementioned LessonsThe White Diamond). All these shows are sold out. But you can always show up, get on the wait list and hope.

The series continues on Fri/24 with 1982’s Fitzcarraldo—not the greatest Herzog collaboration with his madman actor muse Klaus Kinski, but the most notorious—followed the next day by its equally famed making-of document, Les Blank and Maureen Gosling’s Burden of Dreams. The late thespian (who died a recluse in Marin’s Lagunitas 32 years ago) also lends burning charisma to twin 1979 releases Woyzeck and Nosferatu the Vampyre, as well as 1987’s Cobra Verde. The tormented/tormenting relationship with his director is chronicled in Herzog’s own 1999 nonfiction My Best Fiend.

Later the series includes some of the auteur’s most bizarre Kinski-free features—including Dwarfs, the 1976 Heart of Glass (whose cast members were hypnotized), and 1977 American road-trip Stroszek—as well as two of his least such, the Vietnam War POW drama Rescue Dawn (2006) with Christian Bale, and lavish 2015 period biopic Queen of the Desert, with Nicole Kidman. The latter demonstrated that Herzog can fail big, as well as on a DIY scale. Still, it is remarkable how few of his films over a long haul have been less than intriguing—and so often much, much more.

Later selections, scheduled after the holidays, feature a wide range of documentaries starting with the extraordinary Antarctica sojourn Encounters at the End of the World, then reaching as far back as 1971’s Land of Silence and Darkness, and as recently as last year’s The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft, about the late volcanologists.

Of course, no Herzog series would be complete without the unsettling curiosity and horror of Grizzly Man (2005), another found-footage memorial to individuals driven to push their luck with fate. Equally disturbing in a different fashion is 2011’s Into the Abyss, wherein he confronts the ethical issues raised by incarceration and the death penalty via the case of two teens convicted of triple homicide in Texas.

You can say a lot about Werner Herzog, but who else could it be said of that he has fully earned the right to publicly address the most profound questions of our (or any) era—while simultaneously making perfect sense as a four-time voice guest on The Simpsons? His legacy will outlive us all. For full info on the BAMPFA series, which runs Thu/9-Feb. 28, go here.

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