Though in just its second year as an independent festival, KINO! — following a 35-year run in collaboration with MoMA — has lost none of its steam in offering New York audiences a rich, of-the-moment medley of German cinema. This year’s selections — including a comedy-cum-mystery about a 57-year-old wind-turbine engineer, a journalistic thriller examining corruption in the toxic-waste industry, and a crime drama detailing the blood-brewing connection between gangs, the police force, and a SWAT team — span the genres but are bound by a serious awareness of timely German issues (energy, cybercrime, economic austerity).
The opening of Stepan Altrichter’s Schmitke promises a deadpan study of middle-aged monotony, as fixed-camera compositions exaggerate the tedium of engineer Julius Schmitke’s (Peter Kurth) tired routine. An example of the movie’s sharp, dry humor: After a scene in which Schmitke’s boss berates him for underperforming,
Altrichter cuts to a shot in an elevator, where a company poster claims, “German engineers never stop working.” This observational wit, however, is supplemented by conspicuous details — machines going awry, radio reports of an on-the-loose “Bear-Man,” Schmitke’s Walter Mitty–esque tendency to fall into dreams — that challenge our confidence in the film’s reality. Once Schmitke’s irritating partner disappears on assignment in the Ore Mountains, Schmitke transitions into a surrealist, rabbit-hole fantasy designed to test the character’s capacity for personal growth. Altrichter’s reality-skewing techniques range from the pleasurable (a creative use of sound) to the repetitive, but Kurth’s soft-spoken presence — bemused reactions and earth-tone outfits — provides a strong foundation.
Where Schmitke moves from the busy city to the liberating forest, Christoph
Hochhäusler’s The Lies of the Victors takes place mainly within a series of “pseudo-modern glass cubes.” Fabian Groys (Florian David Fitz) is a Porsche-driving journalist with a gambling habit, but after he assigns his new intern (Lilith Stangenberg) to a peculiar story — an Afghanistan veteran has launched himself into the
local zoo’s lion’s den — Fabian begins
uncovering hints of a conspiracy tying PTSD-affected vets to a recycling company using harmful toxins. Fabian’s investigation is engaging, but what most captivates is the movie’s smothering vision of an all-powerful surveillance state.
Hochhäusler and director of photography Reinhold Vorschneider’s
widescreen frames peer at characters through intervening surfaces — blinds, windows, doors — or from
remote, spy-friendly vantage points, suggesting the ease with which the truth can be reflected and distorted.
Like The Lies of the Victors — which borrows its pessimistic title from Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Philipp Leinemann’s The King’s Surrender communicates potent cynicism toward establishment forces. The opening set piece — a busted raid that ends in two dead criminals and a wounded officer — sets off a chain of events that leads to more systemic violence: stabbings, barroom brawls, middle-of-the-night gunshots. The culprits are not just the violent, heavy-drinking youths, but also the law-
enforcers who don’t think twice about swiping crime-scene cash or hatching cover-up stories to neaten loose ends.
Though the substantial ensemble of “testosterone-rich loose cannons” is hard to keep track of — Ronald Zehrfeld (Barbara, Phoenix) is the most recognizable face — Leinemann’s fluctuating visual style is distinctive; he alternates between gloomy, overcast exteriors and expressive interiors (shadowy offices, bright-red dance clubs, cast-in-green hospital rooms). As with the most lingering of the 2015 KINO! selections, The King’s Surrender directs an inquiry to the powers that be and finds not answers but unsettling uncertainties.