German Film Festival

March 29, 2014
Lisa Tomaschewsky in 'Girl with Nine Wigs' 2013
Lisa Tomaschewsky in 'Girl with Nine Wigs' 2013

No sooner have the French withdrawn their film festival for another year than their old rivals, the Germans, occupy the cinemas. The Audi Festival of German Films has just begun and will continue for the next fortnight. The press release boasts more than 50 features, shorts and documentaries “as tasty as Schnitzel, satisfying as Sauerbraten and enticing as Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte”. There may even be a few flicks with more ham than Schweinshaxe.

As usual, it’s a broad mix of genres although, as you can see from the press release, zany, slapstick comedy is not the German forte. Instead of comedy, German directors tend to make do with wit, quirkiness, social satire and a mordant view of their own history.

All these elements are present in Sources of Life (AKA. Die Quellen des Lebens), one of the most impressive films I was able to watch from a small selection. Written and directed by Oskar Roehler, it’s a three-hour saga that begins in the aftermath of World War 2, with Grandpa Erich returning from a Russian concentration camp to find his wife shacked up in a lesbian relationship with his sister. Gathering his wits together, and equipped with a new set of steel teeth, he expells the intruder and begins a successful business manufacturing garden gnomes.

This is only the first twist in a consistently offbeat family story that keeps pace with Germany’s recovery and embrace of bourgeois prosperity – not without misgivings, contradictions and rebellions. Erich’s son, Klaus, goes on to be a writer, marrying a progressively-minded girl from a wealthy family who also opts for a literary career. They turn out to be the most dysfunctional of parents for their own son, Robert. Scarred by his fractured childhood he will become part of the sixties counterculture.

An even longer and more ambitious film is Home from Home (Die Andere Heimat) – a four-hour epic of the new world by veteran director, Edgar Reitz, who gave us the Heimat trilogy (1984-2004). It’s the story of German migrants to South America in the 19th century. Shot in a sumptuous black-and-white, it’s a powerful, stylish epic that cannot be summed up in a few sentences.

There is a lot of ‘new world’ content in ths year’s festival, including a German western called Gold, set in British Columbia; and Houston, a taut, gripping film by Bastian Günther, that follows corporate head-hunter, Clemens Trunschka, in his futile attempts to make contact with the CEO of a big oil firm in Texas. It’s a slow-burning thriller in which we watch Clemens gradually falling to pieces – battling with the bottle while stumbling around in the deeply foreign culture of the United States. There are obvious affinities with Wim Wenders’s Paris Texas, but Günther has his own sure and inventive way with the camera.

The Girl with Nine Wigs (Heute Ich bin Blonde), is – believe it or not – a feel-good film about cancer based on a real-life memoir. Young, glamorous Sophie (Lisa Tomaschewsky) is dreaming of going to university and ramping up her love life when she is diagnosed with a malignant tumour in her chest. The treatment is long and painful, putting a strain on Sophie’s relationships with her supportive family and friends. Her spirits are lifted when she finds she can change her personality by simply changing wigs. Blonde, redhead or brunette – with each new incarnation, she finds a way of keeping her illness at bay.

Anyone who has been treated for cancer may be sceptical that a person on chemotherapy can still go to clubs, drinking and dancing. This is obviously intended to be “inspirational”, but if I were Sophie’s doctor I’d either be alarmed or feel thrilled that the treatment is working so well.

Audi Festival of German Films 2014
Melbourne & Sydney 27 March -11 April; Brisbane 28 March – 3 April; Canberra 1-6 April
http://www.goethe.de/ins/au/lp/prj/fia/ffg/enindex.htm111 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 29 March, 2014.