I never thought that one day I’d have to pin my hopes on Hitler

By Elke De Wit

city-of-war-the-story-of-john-rabe-florian-gallenberger.jpgCity of War: The Story of John Rabe, 2009

A plethora of German films was evident in all sections of the Berlinale this year. Many were co-productions, several had really glossy production values with an obvious eye on the international market and there was a noticeable move toward topics not solely related to the Germans and Germany.

The two films that did have a World War II theme, tackled aspects of it that were novel and shone a new light on events. Anonyma – Eine Frau In Berlin and John Rabe. Both are unusual scenarios set during and just after wartime respectively. Anonyma shows Anonyma (played by Nina Hoss) finding herself a Russian officer who in return for sex will protect her from being raped by others. The abuse of German women (the conquered people) by the occupying forces (the victors) is a phenomenon often alluded to but rarely seen in such stark pictures.

John Rabe is set in Nanking, China 1937. Rabe (a stellar performance by Ulrich Tukur) runs the Siemens factory there. When the Japanese take over Nanking he is elected to be the chairman of the security zone that the expatriates (of various nationalities) manage to set up for the Chinese to save them from slaughter by the Japanese. The American, Dr Robert Wilson, (a sharp and at times very comic performance by Steve Buscemi) dislikes the Nazi Rabe intensely. Common ground is found through the shared intention of saving the Chinese community from certain death at the hands of the Japanese.

Rabe continues to have an unfailing faith in Hitler as a saviour and it is ironic that indeed it is the German connection that saves the Chinese in the exclusion zone. It is plain to see that although Rabe’s sympathies lie with the National Socialist Party, he is a humanitarian. No doubt this fact will sit as uncomfortably with a foreign audience as with Steve Buscemi’s American Doctor.

storm-hans-christian-schmid.jpgStorm, 2009 

Several films had a more international, perspective. Hans-Christian Schmid takes on the European Justice system in Storm. Hannah Maynard (played by Kerry Fox) is the prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, leading a trial against Goran Duric a former commander of the Yogoslavian National Army.

The cast, apart from Kerry Fox, seemed to really struggle through their explanations of complex political situations. The script underlined what the audience should be thinking by putting words into characters’ mouths such as: “Changing justice for convenience – this is a proper sell-out here!” . This made watching the screen akin to being lectured to by a righteous professor. In addition, low production values and retro styling, made this seem more like a 1970’s Australian TV drama. Storm was allocated the Amnesty International Film Prize and the Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas.

Mein Herz Sieht Die Welt Schwarz – Eine Liebe In Kabul is an intimate study of the lives of an Afghan couple who seem destined never to be truly together. Reidemeister has cultivated a relationship with the couple and their respective families which allow us an insight not only into the destruction that the war has caused, but also into archaic and rigid tribal family laws.

Shaima was married off to a much older man who got her pregnant but never paid the rest of her dowry, so her father brought her back to the family saying: “First the money, then the bride, that’s the rule for trading!”. Back in Kabul she meets her childhood love Hossein, who is a paraplegic as a result of fighting in the war. Despite their disconsolate situation, they manage to spend time together and their optimism shines like a beacon in a morass of poverty and hopelessness.

Sung-Hyung Cho’s documentary about a group of Korean ladies returning to Korea (with their German husbands) after spending their working lives in Germany, throws a whole new light on what it means to be foreign. In Korea, they move to what is known as the German Village, where architecture and lifestyle are German. They become a tourist attraction for camera-wielding Koreans who descend on them in droves, photographing each other on the terraces and in the gardens of their homes! As one of the retired German gentlemen emerges from his house a small tourist child shouts repeatedly “Hello long-nosed grandpa.” At this point you become aware that it’s probably a blessing that these men have never learned to speak Korean. You also start to wonder whether the retired Korean ladies were more gawped at in Germany or in Korea.

cloud-9-andreas-dresen.jpgCloud 9, 2008 

An homage to Korea was provided by Ulrike Ottinger in her documentary Die Koreanische Hochzeitstruhe. With discreet titles denoting the topic, she shows in a series of poetic images the path that Korean couples take from love to marriage. The long journey, on a boy’s back, of the Korean wedding chest, is followed from various vantage-points, including through the bars of a small motorbike vehicle. En route we gain an insight into various other rituals. Korean music enhances the movement rather than swamping it and the only time the music does become overpowering is at the wedding ceremony itself. This is redolent with kitsch ‘best-of’ western classical music and fanfares, whilst two sword-wielding female attendants accompany the ceremony with bizarre military-type rituals. In addition, the intermittent, sonorous voiceover relating a Korean fairytale invites you to open your mind to the mythical elements of love and marriage.

A documentary that made real life seem far more dramatic than fiction was Achterbahn. In fact the way the main protagonists were directed for the camera quite often made it seem more like a drama than a documentary. The incorrigible dreamer Norbert Witte is obsessed with fairgrounds and when his venture on the outskirts of Berlin fails, he takes his whole family to Peru for a fresh start. A new downward spiral is started and this time Witte gets involved in drug trafficking. As a result his son is jailed for twenty years in Peru whilst he is given a lenient sentence in an open prison in Germany. After this turn of events the central theme becomes the disintegration of the family unit and the continuous energy and money expended on trying to get the son out of prison. Witte is shown as impervious to reality, constantly optimistic and already hatching plans for a new venture. The final footage of Witte on a roller-coaster is startling. His eyes look dreamy and not of this world, not dissimilar to the eyes of someone high on drugs.

Gitti provided some welcome, light-hearted respite in the form of a 69 year old lady actively looking for love via the small ads. Through her search for a man we discover much not only about what this age-group of women sees as important, but also how East German women see West German men. Gitti’s nervous checking over of her appearance every time a gentleman caller arrives is compelling. Most intriguing is that this film won the ‘Dialogue en perspective’ prize which is initiated by French channel TV5 and in co-operation with the Franco-German Youth Office and the Berlin International Film Festival. The prize aspires to make new German cinema more accessible to young French audiences. A number of films containing subject matter more familiar to younger audiences could have been picked and yet they chose a project about a granny! It seems strange, although charming.

Another film featuring the over 60s was Andreas Dresen’s latest work Wolke 9 showing a love affair between a married woman in her late 60’s and a man in his late 70s. This was one of the most talked about films because of the age of the main protagonists. The woman, Inge (played by Ursula Werner), has been married for 30 years to Werner (played by Horst Rehberg), when she meets Karl (played by Horst Westphal), who is even older than Werner. Inge and Karl embark on a passionate affair, every detail of which is reproduced on screen. Sex scenes between Inge and the two men are shown with full nudity and heavy breathing included. Inge’s sexual re-awakening is so obvious in the script, that I wondered whether it may have been a tiny bit gratuitous to show her masturbating in the bathtub. Inge’s struggle is explored in full and a real intimacy between the actors is apparent on screen. It is a film where character development is paramount, but a big screen impact is lacking as a result of too many scenes playing in small rooms or in close ups.

sometime-in-august-cairo-ribeiro.jpgSometime in August, 1999

Three features that all had relationships as their central theme were Alle Anderen, Mitte Ende August and Rückenwind. The latter is a startling gay love story of near mythical proportions. Two lovers go on a camping holiday, but the deeper they go into the woods, the more they lose themselves in games and fear. They are swept out of the forest and taken in to the more urbane life and games of a single mother and her son, but here too some questions about themselves and what they are to each other remain. The answers to these can only be retrieved back in the wilderness, to which they return. The sound design by Jochen Jezussek adds another sometimes ecclesiastical, sometimes eerie dimension to the story, whilst the camera work by Bernadette Paassen, from the minimally lit scenes in the dark woods to the stark sunlight bathing the boys’ naked, translucent bodies by the lake-side is highly poetic.

Sometime In August, is based on Elective Affinities by Goethe. It is the intense story of a couple’s relationship being tested to the brink of destruction during a summer holiday in an isolated country cottage. An influx of uninvited guests challenges their romantic idyll and they are ultimately led to betray each other, only to realise that it is each other that they truly want. Schipper directs his stellar cast (the main characters are played by Milan Pechel, Marie Bäumer, Anna Brüggemann, and André Hennicke) with a light touch and the scenes often resemble improvisations, they’re so natural. At heart this is a feel-good film about love, intimacy and forgiveness.

The couple in Everyone Else don’t seem to know each other very well at all. Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger) are on holiday and we are exposed to the intimate word games and rituals they play with each other. These are so meticulous in their detail that they are uncomfortable to watch as we feel voyeuristic in the extreme. Although their games are fun, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, both with each other and themselves. This is exacerbated when Chris bumps into an old college friend who Gitti takes a dislike to. The dynamic of the relationship changes as Chris becomes more distant and focused on his career and Gitti is left to her own devices.

everyone-else-maren-ade.jpgEveryone Else, 2009 

The film is a stark portrayal of loneliness within a relationship and how it can often be more painful than being on your own. We are left wondering whether Gitti’s willingness to conform more to a stereotypical woman’s role will really save the relationship in the end. Everyone Else won the Silver Bear (The Jury Grand Prix), Birgit Minichmayr won the Silver Bear for Best Actress, for her role as Gitti and the production designer of the film, Silke Fischer won the Femina Film Prize, given for the artistic contribution to a film by a female technician. 

Two documentaries with buildings as their subject matter were Zum Vergleich and Sense of Architecture. The former deals with the work involved in erecting a building, drawing international comparisons, while the latter focuses on the architectural merits of buildings. Farocki is well-liked in Germany and the screening that I went to was bursting at the seams. Only seven industry people were let in and a queue of about a hundred was turned away disappointed! Farocki’s documentary, although ostensibly following the production of the brick, from creation to use from the ‘less’ developed to highly industrialised countries, unwittingly comments on the meaning of ‘progress’. In Burkina Faso the whole community contributes to the building of a school and hospital, thus ‘cementing’ the community with each other in the process.

anonyma-max-farberbock.jpgAnonyma, 2008 

In Mumbai, where buildings are built to look like those in industrialised countries, working conditions certainly do not match. Women are used as the main carriers of cement, wearing saris, flip flops and no protective gear, whilst men do most of the building work itself. One woman is shown mixing cement on one of the upper floors of a high rise building (without protective railings), whilst her two-year old child plays nearby. Every time her hands are free the child waddles toward her, arms outstretched, waiting to be picked up.

Whilst in Dachau, Germany, the production of bricks involves one lone human pressing some buttons. Only titles and the occasional explanation of building procedure impede on the viewers’ own thoughts. A documentary that shows genius in its method of stimulating the audience into questioning the status quo of the process of building, without dictating what we are supposed to think about it.

Emigholz’s documentary on the other hand is a quiet contemplation of architecture itself. Using slide-show-like presentation, each building is photographed from various angles both externally and internally. Sometimes structures are filmed at night to show light reflecting onto them and sometimes clear reflections of the surrounding buildings are pictured on glass exteriors, making the building that is being focused on appear invisible. The further dimension of in situ sound, such as cars, radios, piano music, talking or the clip-clopping of high heels, contributes to how the architecture is perceived in its setting. Sound, architecture and shape merge into a poetic reverie for the audience.

Elke de Wit is an actor and writer. She lives in London.