Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Berlin and Beyond 12: Days 4 and 5

My final two days with my first REAL involvement with 'Berlin and Beyond' began with "Living With Hannah" ("Leben Mit Hannah")(dir. Erica von Moeller, Germany, 2006, 90 mins.). What starts out as what seems like a nifty thriller, eventually morphs (or perhaps, to some, degenerates) into a mother-daughter road movie. Hannah has some manic-depressive tendencies, so when she is being 'stalked' by a photographic admirer, she does get a little loopy. She decides to turn the tables and hunt HIM down and, for some unknown motive, with her estranged 12 year old daughter in tow. (The daughter, who bears absolutely NO resemblance, is in the custody of her grandparents.) Nina Hoss as 'Hannah' is quite good in bouncing around with the genres. How she keeps up with the screenplay's twists in mood and theme is sort of amazing. Hoss and the fabulous collection of scarves she wears are the only saving graces of this messy little film. Of course, here I am, in the midst of 'Berlin Bleakness' and could begin to complain about the first happy ending I've seen all week. Ironic, that. On the 'Berlin Bleakness Scale', "Living With Hannah" gets a 7, since she is so unhappy and is saddled with an absolute BRAT of a daughter.

"Lumber Kings" ("Die Könige der Nutzholzgewinnung") (dir. Matthias Keilich, Germany, 2006, 94 mins.) would be the first, if not ONLY comedy in the entire line up! Even if it is about unemployed lumberjacks attempting a scheme in which to bilk other unemployed lumberjacks of money, it was still a light and humorous little flick. Led by a charismatic Bjarne Mädel, who is returning to a village 12 years after previously conning his friends out of some money, as well as leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend, there is enough desperation within this depressed little village to take him back and follow him into his plan to stage an "international lumberjack competition". The comedy as such comes mostly from his two best friends, and is in the same vein as "The Full Monty" in which there is mostly pathos. But still, I am not complaining! As borderline 'cute' (and you know I hate 'cute'!) as the film became, there was enough underlying tension, not to mention some pretty intense physical demands on the cast, to keep me interested and the time passed fairly painlessly. This would be the second happy ending of the week! 'Berlin Bleakness Scale' of a mere 4.

I then had dinner with my friend JimmyD at Marcello's Pizza across the street from the Castro. As Jimmy and I were munching down a quick slice, this fairly handsome young man was inside and taking pictures of the Castro Theatre marquee across the street. We scoffed between ourselves at this typical tourist activity, and appraised his sex appeal factor. It was only 15 minutes later that I would watch him be introduced as the director of "Pingpong" (dir. Matthias Luthardt, Germany, 2006, 89 mins.). The film starts off with a boy's (Sebastian Urzendowsky) surprise arrival at his uncle's house, after having survived his father's suicide. This dreary little reunion between him and the family of his uncle would be the FUN part of the film. He's got the hots for his aunt (Marion Mitterhammer) and attempts to bond with his alcoholic teenage pianist prodigy cousin (Clemens Berg). The father (Falk Rockstroh) leaves for an extended business trip, leaving the trio, along with the family pet giant schnauzer (thus completing the entire cast) to their own means. On one hand, it is unlike me to dwell so much on plot, as I LOATHE spoilers and plot recaps disguised as 'reviews'. On the other hand, I am at a loss to convey the cold bleakness with which the film trudges so miserably on. The cast plays the drudgery with great aplomb! Mitterhammer is wonderful as the sexually and emotionally abandoned mother. Berg's acting debut is handled with almost as great skill as his musicianship. Urzendowsky is given a large role to play as the emotional catalyst in the family. He handles it well enough, though he is more an enigma than a solidly portrayed character, compared to the rest of the cast. The hideously manipulative climax that he is required to enact does not seem to come from a true emotional space, however. And it is with that climactic moment of tragedy that 'clinched the deal' as it were for me. I was able to appreciate the "The Ice Storm" quality of a family in emotional denial. However, the finale leaped into "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" tragic territory that was not necessarily warranted or earned by the drama that led up to it. (Yes, my allusions may be a bit obscure here.) The ending is an emotional sucker punch, that is a dramatic cheap trick. Matthias Luthardt is such a fine looking young man to have directed the bleakest of all the films I saw this week. The 'Berlin Bleakness Scale' rates a SOLID 9, and just short of a 10, as the ending was a cheap shot.

And for my final screening at this fest, "Nathan the Wise" ("Nathan der Weise")(dir. Manfred Noa, Germany, 1922, 122 mins.) is a silent film, recovered and restored from a single existing print, and accompanied by the ever fabulous Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer. Unfortunately, even Mr. James hit a few bad notes tonight. The film itself is something of a landmark for its period and place as it has to do with the unification of the three faiths (Christianity, Muslim and Judaism) through the acts of a Jewish merchant and a Muslim sheik during the Crusades in Jerusalem. The papal influence is actually the villain in the piece. Historically speaking, this is quite the oddity. Dramatically and cinematically speaking, this was a real bore. Presented in six acts, plus a prologue, it was just tediously long as this religious soap opera played out to its telegraphed happy ending. Yes, here I am, again, in the midst of Bavarian Bleakness, complaining about a happy ending. But it was just such a melodramatic path to get there, that I really didn't care about any of the involved characters. Also, the resolution of the various subplots was nearly Gilber-and-Sullivan-esque in its topsy-turvy way. I can appreciate the image of the three faiths learning to live with each other. However, the journey to that conclusion was completely unbelievable. Perhaps that is a sad fact in reality, too? Ah well. 'Berlin Bleakness Scale' of only a 5. It's dull, not bleak.

Maxxxxx says in response to the bleakness and blandness, as well as to the intellectual offensiveness of "Pingpong"s horrific ending, "Oh, shit."

Berlin and Beyond is the annual film festival sponsored by the Goethe-Institut San Francisco. The festival concentrates on German language film, though expands to neighboring Bavarian countries as well, aka 'and Beyond'.

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