Audi Festival of German Film & The Hunt

May 4, 2013
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Having done the stats on the French film industry earlier this year, the annual Audi Festival of German Films tempts me to take a quick look at Europe’s other great cinematic powerhouse. While the French clocked up 272 features in 2011, the Germans managed a respectable 212. This makes it the seventh biggest film producer in the world, after India, Nigeria, the United States, Japan, China and France.

German cinemas have just enjoyed their biggest ever year at the box office, but the local experts are undecided whether they are experiencing a boom or a drought. The Goethe Institute has posted a fascinating lecture by film scholar, Oliver Baumgarten, who pores over the opposing arguments in greater depth than this column allows.

On the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, German cinema is in rude good health. The opening night film in Sydney and Melbourne, was visiting director, Georg Maas’s Two Lives, a slow-burning spy drama set mostly in Norway. The story concerns an East German agent given a false identity by being ‘reunited’ with a mother who has not seen her since infancy. The movie takes place in the present day, and raises questions about the continung existence of Stasi sleeper cells years after the fall of the GDR.

Like John Le Carré’s espionage stories, there is the perennial dilemma of duty coming into conflict with personal feelings. The heroine, Katrine (Juliane Köhler), is a deeply ambiguous character, having allowed an assumed role to become her actual life.

Two Lives moves at a deliberate pace, suggesting that every move, every shot has been carefully plotted. It builds suspense so methodically one hardly notices the tension is rising. Nevertheless, it is good enough to encourage viewers to seek out two earlier films by Maas included this year’s program: NewFoundLand (2003), and the documentary, Pathfinders (1999).

This cautious, slightly rigid approach to filmmaking is a feature of many German movies, even by the most celebrated directors. Although generalisations are specious, one could say there is a concentration on filmcraft, at the expense of spontaneity and humour. There is also an abiding obsession with the sins of the past – and by this, I don’t mean simply the war years – which are forever threatening to return and engulf characters in the present.

This is the basic theme of Forgotten, an impressive horror movie by newcomer, Alex Schmidt. It features that familiar character the evil little dead girl, but keeps one guessing till the end.

Equally good is Invasion, by Georgian-born director, Dito Tsintsadze – the story of a Josef, a widower in his sixties who lives alone in a big house in the provinces. His solitude is soon to be upset by the appearance of Nina, a friend of his late wife, whom he can’t quite remember. Then there is Nina’s son, Simon, who is obsessed with Kendo; and Simon’s wife, Milena; and Nina’s creepy boyfriend, Konstantin; and an ever-growing cast of weirdos, until Josef’s home is completely overrun. As he sinks further into this hole we wonder how he will ever escape.

The Germans are not known for comedy but they keep trying. Ralph Huettner makes a creditable attempt with Lost in Siberia, even though it is one those films that hangs on the conviction foreigners are irresistably funny. In this case, the foreigner is short, fat, balding Matthias (Joachim Król), a logistics manager for a clothing firm who travels to a branch in Siberia, where he develops a passionate fixation with shamanism and a dusky female throat-singer. The silliness of the story is off-set by some excellent cinematography that brings the Siberian landscape to life

From the films I’ve seen, the best so far is Breathing, the directorial debut for wellknown Austrian actor, Karl Markovics. The protagonist is a 17 year-old boy named Roman, who is serving time for manslaughter in a juvenile detention centre. As part of his rehabilitation he must pick a job that he can attend during the day. He surprises his guardian by choosing to work as an undertaker for a big firm.

It may sound morbid, but Breathing is a hypnotic film, filled with powerful metaphors and clever details. Untrained actor, Thomas Schubert, gives a remarkable performance in the role of Roman.

Chief among those features I’m intending to watch, is the Drieleben Trilogy: Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around, and Christoph Hochhäusler’s One Minute of Darkness. Each movie deals with the same story about an escaped prisoner, as seen from a different perspective. It sounds like a William Faulkner novel, but shown through the lens of three contrasting directorial styles. These films can and have been shown separately, but they should be viewed together for maximum impact. The spare four-and-a-half hours required is the reason I’ve yet to find the time.

With some 45 movies to choose from, including children’s films and documentaries, (one of them from Australia’s own Philippe Mora, called German Sons), this year’s German Film Festival is even bigger than its French counterpart. It would be foolish to believe, however, than bigger is better. There is a light touch about the best French films that is almost anathema to the more serious and focused style of the Germans. Presumably there is not much scope for fun when characters are forever being haunted by the spectres of the past.

It’s a shame Thomas Vinterberg is Danish rather than German, as The Hunt would have been an outstanding addition to any festival. Vinterberg first came to prominence in 1998 with a film called Festen (AKA. The Celebration), made under the rules of the Dogme 95 manifesto. Using only natural light, hand-held cameras, no background music, and so on, Festen felt like an entirely new kind of movie. Twelve years later it was starting to look like the high point in a career that has lost its way, but The Hunt is a brilliant return to form.

Part of the appeal is Vinterberg’s willingness to take on a highly loaded subject, namely the latter-day mania about pedophilia which seems to legitimise the most violent impulses in the general public.

Danish heart-throb, Mads Mikkelsen, plays Lucas, a popular daycare teacher in a small town. Lucas has just gone through a painful divorce and watched his ex-wife  move away, taking his teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). He finds some distraction in an affair with Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), who also works at the school.

Having spent his entire life in this district, Lucas is friends with many of the parents, including Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Agnes (Anne Louise Larsen), whose small daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) attends the school.

Klara has a crush on Lucas, but when he returns a present she feels hurt and tells the headmistress she doesn’t like him. Having had a pornographic picture flashed in her face by her older brother and a friend, she comes up with a fib that suggests a sexual knowledge beyond her years. Within a day or two, Lucas has been stood down from his job. A counseller puts words in Klara’s mouth, and the headmistress unwittingly plants ideas in the heads of parents and children. As the investigation proceeds the community rises up in indignation. Lucas is now a pariah, and his hopes of  gaining custody of his son have been quashed.

We are so accustomed to hearing stories about evil pedophiles and child molesters, that it is sobering to see how little evidence is required for an outbreak of public anger. On the slenderest of grounds, everyone is prepared to believe that a man they have known all their lives has been harbouring a secret perversion.

Mikkelsen is outstanding in this role, which is a more exacting test of his acting abilities than any other film in which I’ve seen him. He captures just the right quotient of incredulity, anxiety and bravura, before heading towards the inevitable breakdown. We are drawn into his personal nightmare, and feel his frustration at being unable to convince people of his innocence. He is not a predator, but a victim.

It may be hard to imagine Mikkelsen in the same category as someone as creepy as Jimmy Savile, but Vinterberg’s point is that any teacher, any adult could meet a similar fate. There is a thinly buried mechanism in human nature that almost welcomes the chance to brutalise anyone who has transgressed an accepted boundary. In the past it was homosexuals who were villified, but with increasing social acceptance, it is pedophiles who have become the monsters of our age.

There is nothing defensible about pedophilia, which is the ultimate betrayal of the trust that exists between a child and an adult, but the willingness to treat child molesters as subhumans is equally abhorrent. History tells us that denying the basic humanity of person or a race is the first step towards murder and genocide. Mass hysteria grows from the smallest of sparks and knows no limits. This is the spiral in which Lucas finds himself, as he realises that his former neighbours now view him as a dangerous beast in their midst. He quickly learns that trust and friendship are fragile qualities when the mob is braying for blood.

 

Audi Festival of German Films: Sydney: 30 April 30 –  May 14; Melbourne: May 1 -May 15; Brisbane: May 3 – May 9;

Newcastle: May 4-May 5; Canberra:  May 7 – May 12; Adelaide:  May 8 -May 13; Perth:  May 9 -May 13; Byron Bay: May 10 -May 12

The Hunt, Denmark, rated MA 15+, 116 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 4, 2013