The German Currents Film Festival returns this weekend to Balboa Park for its fourth annual two-day, four-film celebration. This year, the festival doubled its venues by holding its opening-night gala at the Natural History Museum, with all other films screening in the Museum of Photographic Arts’ Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theatre.
It’s been a long time since I watched 50 percent of a film festival’s offerings. Below are reviews of a pair of genre pictures — a western (!) and a family melodrama — playing German Currents 4. For more information, visit germancurrentssd.org.
The Dark Valley
Saturday, October 11, 6:30 pm, the Natural History Museum.
When discussing German cinema, the one classification least likely to come up in conversation is that most-American of movie genres, the western. To cash in on Italy’s wildly successful string of Spaghetti Westerns, East Germany in the ’70s briefly produced a series of “Osterns” — referred to as Sauerkraut Westerns — but I’d be hard pressed to name one.
Based on a best-selling novel by Thomas Willmann, The Dark Valley (directed and co-written by Andreas Prochaska) opens on a man with one name, Grieder (Sam Riley), guiding his horse up a mountain to seek revenge on a group of savages named Brenner living “close to the sky.” The clan, which owns the high-altitude town, doesn’t cotton to out-of-staters (unless they pay cash upfront) or anyone but blood packing heat.
That won’t prevent our sociopathic stranger from systematically picking off Old Man Brenner, his six sons, and anyone connected with the pre-credit flashback slaughter of his mother. (You thought Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton and his brood had it bad?) Armed with only a camera, Grieder, intent on taking lives, not tintypes, has to devise clever ways to play the part of Satan’s official greeter.
Dark Valley Trailer
One of Grieder’s earliest victims is done away with by a spring-activated contraption that, when triggered, launches a board with two protruding nails in the general direction of its unwitting victim’s eyes. Unless Grieder used surveyor’s implements and knew exactly how tall his victim would stand at the time of the ambush, this Wile E. Coyote contraption would never have been approved for an Acme patent.
As Grieder, Sam Riley (Control, Maleficent) is pure ice and recoil, a sadist who goes to extreme lengths to track down and brutally torture his victims. Unlike the double-barrel blast of anachronistic ’80s-sounding rock tunes, British-born Riley’s German dialect sounded like the emess to this Midwesterner’s ear.
Naturally lit and as darkly designed as the title might indicate, Valley stands as a visually impressive tribute to countless oaters that came before.
Director Andreas Prochaska, director of photography Thomas Kiennast, and composer Matthias Weber will all be in attendance for the opening-night gala.
Sunday, October 12, 3:30 pm, the Museum of Photographic Arts.
The program book describes Robert Thalheim’s Parents as a “bittersweet dramatic comedy.” Other than a couple of much-needed (and well-received) cute injections courtesy of a pair of winning child performances, this falls under the heading of “bald on laughs domestic melodrama.”
We are treated to a week in the invariably teetering world of Konrad (Charly Hübner) and Christine (Christiane Paul) Volker — he’s the unemployed theater director and she’s the successful nurse and family breadwinner. From the outset, it’s clear that it’s going to be a rough seven days, particularly when the demands of career, marriage, and family all manage to logjam, and everything is cemented together by the guilt brought on through dueling affairs.
So that dad may have more time to rehearse his latest creation — a bare-bones adaptation of the dragon-slaying adventure fantasy Die Nibelungen — the family imports an Argentine au pair, Isabel (Clare Lago, the Spanish Kendall Jenner), to run herd over their two well-cast daughters, Käthe (Paraschiva Dragus), 10, and Emma (Emilia Pieske), 5.
Instead of setting in motion another predictable male babysitter fantasy, this barely legal governess comes complete with drama of her own: an unborn child (the product of a one-night stand) and the decision of whether or not to abort. For the initial third of the picture, the family — particularly Käthe, first to uncover the newcomer’s secret — looks after Isabel, offering her advice and comfort. But Lago’s emotionless performance contributes to the transformation of her character from the center of attention to disposable background player.
Fraught with self-doubt and desperately in need of a time-out from fatherhood, the selfishly absorbed Konrad packs a bag and moves into the theater, where life isn’t any less combative. (When an actor continually questions his director’s faithfulness to the source material, one must ask why the ornery cuss would lower himself to appear in such tripe to begin with.)
When concentrating on the household proper, Parents provides keen insight into the roadblocks inherent in family-building. It’s when Konrad and Christine branch off on their own — particularly the latter’s “tear it down to build it up” moment — that this mom-and-pop concern begins to monopolize on overblown symbolism.
Windstorm. A 14-year-old, bright yet unable to stay out of trouble, is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother, a former Olympic equestrian who now runs a prestigious riding school. Screens Sunday, October 12, 12:30 pm, at the Museum of Photographic Arts.
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery. A documentary essay on Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi, the biggest international art forgers of the postwar era. Screens Sunday, October 12, 7 pm, at the Museum of Photographic Arts.