KINO! festival brings new German films to New York City

ScreenerBlog

Ethnic identity politics, searching for “home” and borders (literal and metaphorical) are thematic motifs throughout KINO!, a festival of new German films to be held at New York City’s newest art-house cinema, the Landmark Theatres at 57th Street, April 6-12. After more than 30 years at the Museum of Modern Art, the event branched out into an independent film festival beginning in 2014.

Now in its fifth year, KINO! 2018 will present nine feature-length German films, including a couple of documentaries; the North American premiere of the hit German TV series “Bad Banks,” and 11 short films representing the work of German film students. As a centerpiece event, slated for April 9 at 8 p.m., the festival will screen the U.S. debut of Ewald André Dupont’s 1925 classic silent film Varieté accompanied with live music by pianist Stephen Horne and composer/improviser/vibraphone player/percussionist Martin Pyne.

A silent classic? A hot TV show?

It’s not as anomalous as it might seem, explains KINO! producer Mariette Rissenbeek. Incorporating an episode or two from a high-profile TV series makes perfect sense, especially if it’s helmed by well-known theatrical directors and/or feature crossover stars who are appearing in one or more of the festival films.

Serving as managing director of promotional organization German Films, she points out that the small-screen hit appeals to a wider and younger audience and drawing in that demographic is part of the festival’s mission. As for Varieté, it’s such a special event it’s a win-win presentation.

The big challenge in pulling together a program of current German cinema, she says, is to find the right balance between ‎exposing the audience to new films and filmmakers and at the same time attracting significant interest by offering them better-known names and titles. 

To be eligible, a film has to have had international exposure at a significant festival (with accompanying critical acclaim) or enjoyed box-office success in Germany. All films must be New York premieres. This year, the festival team vetted 35 submissions.

In addition to attracting a youthful audience, the festival also addresses the interests of more experienced ‎cinemagoers including your everyday New York art-house viewer as well as the German expat community.

The selection committee is asked to keep the mixed demographic in mind and the fact that some historical and/or political allusions in several or more films might not resonate with New Yorkers; a different cinematic aesthetic may also be at play. German films are perhaps more realistic, detail-centered and slower-paced than American fare. But those potential gaps are not a roadblock to inclusion. The quality of a film (however that is defined) is the major criterion for selection and no blanket statements can be made.

“I have been working at German Films for 16 years and every year I am surprised how different the crop can be,” Rissenbeek continues. “New films by well-known filmmakers can be disappointing, whereas newcomer filmmakers can deliver a surprisingly strong debut. Even though we're opening the festival with a historic film, this year's program generally is very up-to-date regarding the themes and storytelling.Our goal is to be able to communicate that German cinema has a wide variety of stories and storytelling, that it is lively and has many colors.”

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The opening-night selection, In Times of Fading Light, director Matti Geschonneck’s historical drama that takes place just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, centers on the 90th birthday party for an East German family’s Communist patriarch. Adapted from Eugen Ruge’s semi-autobiographical 2011 bestseller and starring veteran actor Bruno Ganz (Downfall), the film explores the disintegration ofa family and a political system, the interconnectedness between the private and public worlds.

The German Democratic Republic and the characters it spawned are long gone, but their ghosts are palpably alive to the director, who believes that tounderstand the chaos of the present it is important to talk about our past.

“The challenge was to take this complex novel, which plays in many different time periods, and tell it on one day and still do justice to the characters and the problems that came with the watershed moment that is 1989,” he says. “No one believed—it was unimaginable—that the political system of socialism would fail. These people, who had believed in a better, fairer world, who had sacrificed themselves, failed due to their utopian belief in communism. The sentence at the end of the film, “Did we ruin everything?” impresses due to its timelessness.”

Despite the political-historical threads that are inherent throughout, Geschonneck says it is first and foremost a family drama, quoting the oft-cited opening line to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

For him, the love affair between Kurt, stepson of the old party official Wilhelm Powileit, and Irina, his Russian wife, is the story’s core. If you try to tell the story of the whole world, you’re bound to fail, he contends.

That said, he acknowledges theintentionally employed omissions and insinuations, which are meant to make the audience curious about the contradictory sides of the story. Questions are asked rather than answered.

A Q&A with the director will take place following the film.

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Among the films I previewed, the timeliest and most accessible was Jakob Preuss’ When Paul Came Over the Sea (April 8 at 1:30 p.m. and April 9 at 6 p.m.), a documentarythat vividly recountsone migrant’s flight to freedom from Cameroon to Berlin. It’s a personal story set against a politically fraught backdrop awash in emotions (voiced and unvoiced) surrounding migration, refugees and their impact on Western European culture.

“Actually, I didn’t plan to have migrants in my film at all, since I was a bit uncertain if I, as a white privileged filmmaker, was the right person to tell their stories,” says Preuss. “I often felt uneasy watching films on the topic, where sufferance was exploited and migrants or refugees often couldn’t be sincere since they were in the middle of a survival struggle. And that sometimes made it difficult for them to tell the whole truth. For example, if they wanted to ask for asylum, they often invented stories to add to the already cruel reality to increase their chances, which is legitimate.”  

Preuss changed his mind during his trip to Melilla, the Spanish exclave on African soil where he met Paul and his “comrades in misery,” who were mostly from West Africa and now living in shacks. Struck by how much humor and dignity they reflected, he decided to make them—ultimately Paul—the focal point of his film. French as a common shared language helped grease the wheels. Within short order, he was following Paul into Europe, half as a friend, half as a filmmaker.

Still, establishing trust was a challenge. Paul didn’t ask for money and was useful in convincing the others that filming them might prove beneficial. Preuss recalls, “This is probably also why Paul got so far—he doesn’t ask for much and that makes it easier to give him something. We helped with food and medication, but we never paid him. In the end he benefited a lot from the film, especially once in Berlin, and perhaps he always had hoped for this a bit.”

Preuss equivocates a bit on how his presence shapes the narrative. His participation is palpable; he gently pitches questions to his interviewees while they in turn address him. He is not a fan of the “observational” style of documentary making where everyone is encouraged to “forget the camera,” a practice he views as manipulative. To what degree the rolling cameras informed Paul’s quest for asylum is arguable.

For the most part, Paul was straightforward—did not “perform” for the camera—though he has performance flair and real charm (and probably knows it). At one point, Preuss helped Paul find a place to stay and admits he treaded a thin line between being an uninvolved documentarian and a decent human being. It’s no accident that the film is subtitled “Journal of an Encounter.”

Preuss was aware of the impression Paul might make on Western moviegoers who would notice how strikingly well-dressed he is for a migrant or, perhaps more precisely, our stereotypical view of a migrant. It’s a common knee-jerk reaction among comfortable Western civilians to judge migrants by their clothes and technology.

“In Germany many people say: They can't be that poor if they have an iPhone. This is nonsense,” he says. “For them, clothes and phones are their only symbols of dignity and social status. They don’t have a bank account and often not even 100 dollars in savings. But they will do everything to look presentable. Clothes and phone are the most important paraphernalia. They are also crucial for communication, for their survival.”

Preuss suggests the film has “universal” appeal, citing enthusiastic responses it has received in Western Europe, Africa, China and Russia. That said, the film may be more provocative in Germany than in the States, where migration is part of American identity and has been for centuries.

“For Germans, it is still hard to accept that a taxi driver doesn’t speak excellent German,” he observes. “Germans are very innocent, sometimes naïve when it comes to questions of integration and diversity. But in general, nearly everywhere I showed the film people asked similar questions and all had a strong connection to the story and Paul.”

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Director Nick Baker-Monteys likewise feels that his film The Final Journey (April 8at 6 p.m. and April 10 at 8 p.m.) should have universal resonance despite the historical issues that are central to the story abouta 92-year-old man (Jürgen Prochnow of Das Boot) who takes a trip with his reluctant granddaughter in tow to his war-torn Ukrainian homeland in an effort to track down the love of his life just as a new war breaks out in the former Soviet Union in the spring of 2014.

Not being well-versed in the 2014 conflict, let alone what happened in that global hot spot during World War II, is a possible stumbling block. The film does not make it clear what the issues were or indeed who the good vs. bad guys were, respectively. Perhaps that’s precisely the point, or it inadvertently becomes so: A war criminal to some is a heroic figure to others.

“Confronting the past, coming to terms with it, moving forwards without being enslaved by the past—these really are universal concerns and what the film is about at its core,” Baker-Monteys says. “I think the film should be seen as a family drama. The political and historical dimensions are of course in themselves fascinating and crucial in the telling of the story, but at its heart we are talking about a family here.”

The biggest challenge was the outbreak of the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine in 2014, when the script was already well-developed. Apart from being shocked by this turn of events and wondering whether the team would even be able to shoot the film at all, how to integrate this conflict into the story became the big question. The connection between the conflict and the main theme had to be found.

“I spoke to a lot of refugees from eastern Ukraine, where the fighting between Ukrainians and Russian separatists was taking place, and slowly discovered, hang on, these people are just like the main characters—the grandfather and granddaughter—in the story,” Baker-Monteys continues. “They can’t escape the past and its power to shape and destroy their lives. The other big challenge was shooting the film in just 26 days!” 

A striking element in the film is the large portions of non-translated dialogue (specifically those lines spoken in Russian or Ukrainian), raising a number of questions, not least: What’s gained by it?

Realism, asserts Baker-Monteys, adding that Adele, the granddaughter, in some way represents the audience’s limited point of view and since she can’t understand Russian or Ukrainian—except that which is translated for her—the viewer’s experience should mirror hers.

Further, he wants audiences to work a little bit, search for the subtext, ask themselves what’s happening, what does that look or gesture mean? He’s not a great fan of exposition or backstory and suggests that the narrative’s fundamentals will be grasped with or without comprehending every line or even the specifics of history.

In fact, to his surprise, Ukrainians, Russians and Germans whose grandfathers played various roles in World War II thanked him “for making this film, for being interested in their country’s conflict, for not being polemical, not taking a stance, just trying to tell a story about ordinary people,” he says. “There are young people in the Ukraine and Russia who also want to escape the good guy-bad guy narrative in order to better understand, move on and lead a peaceful life.”

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For me, the most intriguing film in the series—though not easy to categorize—is Nicolas Wackerbarth’s Casting (April 8 at 4 p.m. and April 11 at 8 p.m.), a loosely reimagined The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Rainer WernerFassbinder’s 1972 iconic cult classic about an abusive high-powered designer and her sadomasochistic relationships with a series of women who serve her in various capacities.

In this revised, largely improvised spin, a self-indulgent female film director is in the process of casting actors for a remake of the film that is (depending on viewpoint) a sendup or homage or both, with the original’s gender dynamic repeatedly transformed in the casting process. Thus homosexual, heterosexual and lesbian couples perform the same scene and in so doing reinvent it in subtle ways.

Perhaps more to the point, the film reflects power dynamics and criticizes steep hierarchies, which lead to an abuse of power,” says Wackerbarth. “We need to destroy these patriarchal structures and build up new ones. The women in Casting are caught up in an old patriarchal system and start acting as cruelly as men.

“The film also criticizes the conservative rollback of German public broadcasters. Nowadays they would change the lesbian melodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to a heterosexual story, just to please their mainly 70-year-old audience.”

Despite its low-key, earnest tone (typical of improvised performance), the movie is multilayered and it’s no coincidence that Fassbinder, like his fictional alter-ego Petra, had a reputation as a cruel, self-absorbed director. But Wackerbarth insists viewers don't need to know that to appreciate the film, which he says is also about the fear of unemployment among actors over 40 while offering a searing commentary on the solipsism of the backstage world in general.

Casting is a comedy of embarrassment,” he adds. “I know both sides—the needs of a director and those of an actor. I was able to witness how hierarchy, fear and joy became visible in small gestures.”

Asked if the film is fundamentally German and perhaps alien to an American aesthetic, he says one cannot define artistic sensibilities by nationhood. “I am really looking forward to the screening in New York and I am curious what the response will be.”

Me too.