German Film Festival 2015

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© Jane Freebury

Curators had plenty to choose from when they decided what to showcase at the German Film Festival this year. They always do. Well over 200 films, around 75 percent fiction features, are produced in Germany each year, though few of these land on Australian screens.

Every few years, we expect something wonderful to arrive from veteran filmmakers Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. But what is behind the surges of creativity in breakthrough films like the superb political dramas Downfall and The Lives of Others, the crowd-pleasers Goodbye, Lenin! and Run Lola Run, or recent multicultural features like Head-On and Soul Kitchen?

GFF organisers, including Dr Arpad Solter, Director of Goethe Institute Australia, hope the festival will reflect Germany’s vibrant and culturally diverse ‘multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and creativity’. Anyone who has visited Berlin, Munich or Hamburg of late will know exactly what that means.

A key driver of the new directions in German film in recent years has been from filmmakers of migrant background. ‘Making their way in modern Germany, trying to find a future for themselves […] The guest-worker, the down-trodden if you like, have emerged as people who are really now a part of society with something to say. Now they have developed the confidence to examine the past in interesting ways,’ says Richard Kuipers, a curatorial advisor to the festival for the last decade.

The work of writer-director Fatih Akin is a compelling example of this dynamic trend with his powerful psychodrama Head-On, the fun-loving homage to Hamburg cuisine in Soul Kitchen and nostalgia for homeland in The Edge of Heaven. His latest feature, The Cut, set against the genocide of Armenians in Turkey during World War I, is a slow and considered saga that is a new direction for Akin. It stars Tahar Rahim (The Prophet, Samba) and it is in English.

Fatih Akin himself can be seen in interview in the documentary From Caligari to Hitler. This title will resonate with cineastes who may have encountered the famous book of the same name by writer and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer. It promises to be a compelling excursion into the socio-cultural climate in Germany that produced the Weimar Republic of 1918-33.

For my money the prize for best title at the GFF this year goes to Suck Me Shakespeer, written and directed by another filmmaker of Turkish background, Bora Dagtekin. The comedy turns on an ex-con who tries to pass himself off as a teacher in front of an unruly rabble, just so he can get at some buried loot under the school gymnasium. You can forget what they say sometimes about German comedy, suggests Kuipers. ‘This is very funny.’

Checking out the program for the German Film Festival later this month, eagle eyes may notice that a high proportion of films have a single writer-director credit. A special guest of the festival, popular young actor Florian Stetter, who I interviewed over skype from Berlin, considers this a distinguishing characteristic of contemporary German cinema. ‘In Germany, the film industry is not like in England or France. It is based more on directors writing their own scripts, looking for new forms of radical expression, trying to find their own distinctive styles.’

Stetter has leading roles in three of the films due to screen at the festival, Stations of the Cross, Nanga Parbat (2009) and Beloved Sisters, the latter due to open the festival in Sydney and Melbourne. Beloved Sisters, a writer-director piece of course, explores a menage-a-trois in the 18th century involving playwright/philosopher Friedrich Schiller (Stetter) and two beautiful sisters, one his wife. Even though the times were relatively enlightened, the love triangle would have been a major scandal were it public knowledge.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but mention to Stetter that I have noticed it described as an ‘unusually brainy costume drama’ by one of the Variety critics. ‘Well, the love between them was very interesting […] It was not only erotic, it was also intellectual.’ It sounds like Schiller’s reputation is safe.

Opening night film at other festival location — Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Byron Bay and Hobart — will be the cyber thriller Who Am I – No System is Safe, directed by Swiss-born Baran bo Odar. Foregrounding a socially inept young man who enters the politically subversive world of computer hackers, it promises to be slick, fast paced and edgy.

Stations of the Cross, about a young girl in today’s Germany whose only desire is to dedicate her life to religion, will be a significant film of the festival. There are just fourteen shots throughout and the camera moves only three times in this unwavering study of fanatical religious devotion. It won the Silver Bear for best script at the Berlin Film Festival.

Stetter has a critical role as the young priest who calls on the 14-year-old and his other young and impressionable students to become ‘warriors’ for Jesus. While he is charismatic and engaging, he is advocating a pitiless intolerance in life, a paradox that seems to present no barriers to the recruitment of young religious radicals anywhere.

Expect to experience some powerful contrasts in mood at the festival and a feeling for the surging creative energies and contradictions of the present-day.

The 14th Audi German Film Festival screened in cities across Australia during May 2015.

Published in the Canberra Times 16 May 2015