Last year’s Toni Erdmann may have been popularly known as “that three-hour German comedy,” but Maren Ade’s film was also in keeping with the Berlin School movement: starkly naturalistic, detached in manner, focused on capturing behavior rather than explaining it. We can’t pigeonhole all of German cinema in this way, of course, as Kino! reminds us in its fourth year of surveying the European nation’s cinema. Among this year’s offerings: a biopic of proto-expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker that was a major arthouse hit in Germany; an interactive film experiment courtesy of The People vs. Fritz Bauer director Lars Kraume; and a documentary about Germany’s use of renewable energy.
Still, some of the 2017 edition’s most striking finds hew closely to that Berlin School aesthetic. The oddest is Wild, Nicolette Krebitz’s study of a woman, Ania (Lilith Stangenberg), who develops a romantic obsession with a wolf. This profoundly strange preoccupation speaks to a deeper yearning: a desire on the part of this office drone to tap in to some inner animalistic desires. Krebitz’s film is nothing if not committed to examining Ania’s neuroses, and she’s aided by a similarly uncompromising lead actress brave in her refusal to make the character even easily comprehensible. Ania remains psychologically unfathomable up to the film’s final image, one that disquietingly merges psychosis and liberation into one ambiguous smile.
A similar elusiveness marks Karsten (Sebastian Hülk), the put-upon main character of All of a Sudden. On one level, Turkish writer-director Asli Özge’s German-language debut is a quasi-procedural in which Karsten tries to figure out just who that mysterious woman was he was about to extramaritally hook up with before she died in his apartment. But it’s as a character study that Özge’s film tantalizes most. Karsten is a deeply unsympathetic protagonist: a spoiled rich kid with coddling parents whose comfortable life gets thrown into a tizzy. Özge, however, isn’t interested in either condemning this character or completely empathizing with him. Instead, as Karsten deals with the ensuing estrangement of his wife, Laura (Julia Jentsch), and friends, and faces a demotion at work, Özge constantly toys with our sympathies toward this protagonist — until a final act fully brings to the fore a fearsomely ruthless side of him that, in hindsight, was always simmering beneath the serene surfaces of his life.
Michael Koch’s Marija offers a more conventionally heroic yet no less complicated main character (Margarita Breitkreiz), a Ukrainian immigrant trying to make a better life for herself in Dortmund, Germany. The opening behind-the-shoulder shot is lifted straight out of the Dardenne brothers’ playbook, and the rest of the film sticks to the Belgian sibling duo’s familiar naturalistic template. But the constantly scheming Marija turns out to be such a fascinating figure that any stylistic derivativeness matters little in the end. In a sense, Marija could be seen as a variation on Christine Reade, the antihero of Amy Seimetz’s TV series The Girlfriend Experience. Like Christine, Marija is emotionally inscrutable: One never knows how much of what she outwardly expresses is authentic and how much is playacting to achieve a desired result. That unknowability, though, and Koch’s refusal to judge her for it, is precisely what makes Marija such a consistently gripping character portrait, inspiring and unsettling in equal measure.
Through April 6, Landmark Sunshine