That old injunction from Fawlty Towers – “Don’t mention the war!” – is no longer relevant. Nowadays the German film industry is mentioning the war at every opportunity.
The game-breaker was probably Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall of 2004. After a movie devoted to Hitler’s last days in the bunker, there was nothing that might prove more confronting to a local audience.
In recent years the Germans have begun to examine the Nazi era with a newfound energy and objectivity. Institutions such as the Documentation Centre in Nuremberg, and the Topographies des Terrors in Berlin, on the site of the old SS Headquarters, record the crimes of that period in the most uncompromising fashion. Unlike many other nations that don’t want to admit to shame or remorse, Germany has met the challenge of war guilt head-on.
And so it is, that the 11th annual Audi Festival of German Films, began in Sydney with Leander Haussmann’s Hotel Lux – a tale of Hans Zeisig (Michael Herbig), a comedian on the run from the Nazis, who makes his way to Moscow, where he becomes Stalin’s personal astrologer. This is one of those films uncomfortably defined as a ‘comedy-drama’. In other words, the comedy is always likely to be undermined by an act of violence, while the drama is deflated by a humorous incident.
Hotel Lux cannot avoid echoes of films such as Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not Be (1942), later reprised by Mel Brooks. There is also an uncomfortable echo of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), in the cavalier way that history is rearranged. Although Hotel Lux is never so violent, stupid nor offensive to the intelligence, it has that same sense of expecting the viewer to leap on board and identify wholeheartedly with the heroes. Instead, one is more likely to experience Brecht’s famous alienation-effect.
The problem with treating Hitler and Stalin as sinister clowns, able to be outwitted by stage comedians, is that it tends to trivialise the barbarism of these regimes. It may be amazing that a German director can now make a comedy about the war, but it’s not a subject that inspires much laughter.
It is received wisdom that the Germans are not good at comedy, and there are few examples of this genre among the 37 films that make up this year’s festival program. The outstanding exception is Men in the City 2, an old-fashioned screwball comedy dealing with the dilemmas of masculinity. This is the sequel to a film shown at last year’s festival, which was genuinely funny. As I’ve yet to see the second installment, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
If comedy does not come naturally to German directors, they are excellent at tense, deadpan dramas. Three stand-outs from what I’ve seen so far, are Cracks in the Shell, about a young actress preparing for her first big role in a play; Combat Girls, a chilling depiction of the Neo-Nazis subculture in a provincial town; and If Not Us, Who?, a film about two sixties rebels with conflicted family backgrounds.
Watching Christian Schwochow’s Cracks in the Shell, one is led to think of Black Swan, another film in which the heroine is launched into a role that takes her to the edge of the abyss. Stine Fischer Christensen plays Phine, a student actress almost miraculously chosen to play the lead in a new production by the acclaimed theatre director, Kaspar Friedmann (Ulrich Noethen). Phine is a virgin expected to transform herself into Camille, a man-eater. (Think of Lulu from Wedekind’s play and Berg’s opera.) Her problems begin at home, with her mother and a severely disabled younger sister.
Eventually Kaspar admits what had been obvious from the start: he chose Phine for this role because she was “damaged”. He is a damaged personality himself, happy to be callled a sadist so long as he gets results. His methods are a mix of method acting and psychodrama, calling on the actor to embrace her own pain to find what is needed on stage. This is a slight caricature of several famous directors, but all actors will recognise aspects of Kaspar’s make-up.
Inevitably the line between theatre and reality is crossed and recrossed. Perhaps the outstanding feature of the film is not the portrait of one troubled girl, but its close focus on the mechanics and psychology of acting.
Combat Girls by David Wnendt takes us into the Neo-Nazi world, and the seductive power it exerts over a couple of young women. Marisa (Alina Levshin), is a front-line soldier in the group, who hero-worships her dying Nazi grandfather; fifteen-year-old Svenja (Jella Haase) is a disaffected teenager rebelling against a strict step-father.
Marisa begins the film as a hard case but is forced by events, and an awakening empathy, to reassess her life choices. Does she really need Hitler’s face tattooed on one shoulder?
Svenja is the typical lonely teen who hungers to be part of a group – powerful, rebellious and fearless. She still looks like a little girl rather than a woman, although her blue eyes take on an increasingly lifeless aspect as she is drawn into the gang culture.
Wnendt shows us how the Neo-Nazi movement might seem attractive to disaffected teens, but we see everything from a critical distance. It’s ugly, brutal, tribal, and fiercely masculine. The only thing that doesn’t ring true is Marisa’s conversion from a militant racist to a born-again humanitarian, which occurs like a vision on the road to Damascus. The portrait of the Neo-Nazis is far more realistic and uncompromising.
If Not Us, Who? is a lively evocation of the 1960s, interspersed with pop songs and newsreel footage that provide a backdrop to the turbulent relationship between Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin (August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis), two young people caught up in the politics of the era. Bernward’s father, Willy, was a writer during the Nazi years, and his son is committed to re-publishing his books. Gudrun is a staunch left-winger. It’s a time of protest marches and sexual liberation, as the shine wears off Germany’s economic miracle.
Fifty years on, the political dialogues and the strident rhetoric sound almost surreal. The film also introduces us to one Andreas Baader (Alexander Fehling) future terrorist. Baader is a charming extremist, who tells Gudrun: “Your mistake is thinking only of the possible.”
With his help, she moves beyond that barrier, leaving Bernward to struggle with the consequences. Unlike a film such as The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), If Not Us, Who? looks at the origins rather than the deeds of Germany’s most notorious post-war terrorist faction. As the story progresses we watch events through the eyes of Bernard, who has been left behind as his wife sacrifices the world of the intellect for that of revolutionary action.
Among other offerings in this year’s festival there is a science fiction film, Hell, set in a dystopian wasteland identified as 2016, the result of a rapid acceleration in climate change. Hell means “bright” in German, and sounds melodramatic when left intact as an English-language title, athough it’s not inappropriate.
Two films that will attract attention are Mahler on the Couch, about the meeting between the composer and Freud; and Gerhard Richter – Painting, a documentary about the most acclaimed – or overrated? – German artist of our times. I’ve yet to see these movies, so any comment would be mere speculation.
Taboo – The Soul is a Stranger on Earth, is a dark, morbid portrait of the death-haunted, lyric poet George Trakl (1887-1914), and his incestuous relationship with his sister, Grete. The young Werner Herzog might have been proud of this gloomy bio-pic, directed by the aptly named Christoph Stark. It has echoes of Herzog’s atmospheric early films, but not the familiar eccentricities. Trakl had enough eccentricities for everybody: he was depressive, drug-addicted, and possibly schizophrenic.
Stark’s film concentrates on the obsessive relationship between brother and sister to the exclusion of much else in Trakl’s biography. This makes him less interesting as a character, while the nuances of his poetry tend to get lost in translation. This is probably not the best place to start if you want to avoid the clichés and look at German cinema in a fresh light.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 21, 2012
Audi Festival of German Films, Sydney & Melbourne,until 30 April, Brisbane, until 25 April, Adelaide, until 1 May