Inevitably, perhaps, for a festival devoted to German independent cinema, the Kino! Festival of German Films is a temperature read on the identity of Germany itself. The five-year-old festival, devoted to visions of where Germany was and where it’s uncertainly creeping toward, kicks off this Friday with In Times of Fading Light. Set in 1989 just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Matti Geschonneck’s film surveys how three generations of the same family are splintered by political uncertainty. For the better part of the film’s running time, it feels as if a degree in political science, or at least a ten-episode mini-series, is crucial to parsing the story’s tangle of characters and theme. At least, that is, until Bruno Ganz — as a former resistance fighter celebrating his ninetieth birthday in his suburban East German home — gleefully munches on a pickle, and the film gives over to droll bits of business that do more to reveal the private lives of the characters than any harangue.
At its best, In Times of Fading Light’s balancing of the intimate with the epochal brings to mind the ultimately more sardonic and optimistic emotional expressionism of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, which also features a scene in which the handing off of a pickle jar symbolizes a gesture of solidarity. Another Fassbinder masterpiece, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, is the fulcrum of Nicolas Wackerbarth’s wildly entertaining Casting, which concerns the casting of a television remake of Bitter Tears. It’s striking not only for transposing the barbarous power plays of the Fassbinder classic to the world of film and TV production in appropriately dense, note-perfect fashion, but also for doing so with an ambience that’s as loose-limbed as that of Fassbinder’s Beware a Holy Whore, another hangout movie that was also about the making of one.
Casting sees film production as a relentless circus in which women are thrown to the wolves. Writer-director Sonja Maria Kröner might say the same thing about family life. Her debut feature, The Garden, takes place in the Seventies in and around the summer home where the members of one clan gather in the wake of a matriarch’s death. The film never quite escapes the shadow of superior works, namely Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga, that are concerned with how idleness begets ennui and worse in the dominion of the upper class. It’s also suffused with a Chabrolian sense of danger that’s too conspicuously intended as a misdirect. Nonetheless, it’s enlivened by all sorts of tiny textural details — from an older woman’s nude sunbathing to a gathering storm of wasps — that feel personal in their specificity and bring dimension to Kröner’s understanding of how a family can so easily fracture if its members take one another for granted.
Elsewhere, Sandra Wollner’s The Impossible Picture offers up an impressive simulation of a documentary experience: a kind of slipstream of Super-8 footage recorded by a thirteen-year-old girl who slowly comes to the realization that her grandmother is a German Vera Drake. Another grandparent-grandchild relationship is at the center of Nick Baker-Monteys’s The Final Journey, a sensitively performed blend of reconciliation drama, reunion tour, and history lesson set largely in the Ukraine, where a 92-year-old German man (Jürgen Prochnow) travels after the death of his wife to see if he can find the Cossack woman with whom he had once had a love affair. Its denouement ties everything up in the sort of predictably neat and mawkish fashion that never feels congruent to the fraught world in which it’s set.
Like Casting, Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa ponders the vilification of women, only this time the setting is a remote region of the Austrian Alps in the fifteenth century, when the Black Plague was surging across Europe. A woman (Claudia Martini) suspected of being a witch endures the slings and arrows of terrible villagers, until the plague unceremoniously claims her life. Years later, her daughter (Aleksandra Cwen) endures much of the same abuse, until a neighbor extends a friendly hand and it appears as if a pattern will be broken. Throughout, it feels like all the elements are there for a scorched-earth exploration of Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, and the film’s climax is indeed a strange and disturbing vision of a woman, spirit squashed, being driven to commit a crime that’s governed as much by appetite as it is by reason. But you may wish that the woman’s divine madness had spilled into the rest of the film, which mostly proceeds as a series of half-gestures. Tonally unresolved, Hagazussa is ultimately less than the sum of its sometimes horrifying, sometimes comic, sometimes delirious parts.
In its aftermath, you may need a drink. And, at its best, as when a bartender details his drive to perfect the Hemingway Daiquiri, Marieke Schroeder’s Bar Talks by Schumann will certainly leave you thirsty. On paper, the documentary suggests a drinks-only spin on a Parts Unknown episode, with famous German mixologist Charles Schumann standing in for Anthony Bourdain. “It’s never too early for a cocktail,” says Schumann, quoting either Noël Coward or Mrs. Kasha Davis from season seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race. This man about town is only too happy to indulge the propensity of his interviewees to digress, as when one Spanish bartender reads from the Luis Buñuel autobiography My Last Sigh while a snippet from the portrait doc A Propósito de Buñuel — of the famed director whipping up a dry martini — plays onscreen. As Schumann hopscotches from Paris to New York to Havana and beyond, we learn of the origins of the cocktail and get a sense of how bars come to define a city, and vice versa. But the ingredients that come together to make a man who’s as obviously chic, idiosyncratic, and languorous as Schumann remain at a frustrating remove.
The only other documentary in this year’s Kino! program, Jakob Preuss’s timely When Paul Came Over the Sea, is a conventional and at times literal — by way of a plethora of animated maps — tracing of an African migrant’s journey to Europe. But it’s distinctive enough for its philosophically ruminative take on the oppression of our world’s borders. Not for nothing does the film begin in Melilla — the Spanish autonomous city that, per Preuss’s voiceover, forms “a land border between Europe and Africa” — and end in Berlin, where the memory of the Wall as a symbol of tyranny and conflicting ideals is one that’s far from fading.
Kino! 2018 Festival of German Films
The Landmark at 57 West