Undine: This is the dawning of the age of aquarium.
The 14th annual German Currents Film Festival will this year be held virtually in your living room from November 9-15. Below are reviews of three pretty terrific offerings, all seen through the eyes of women, followed by a few words on the Digital Gym’s unveiling of City Hall, the latest from the architect of docs, Frederick Wiseman. Plus Martin Eden.
German Currents Film Festival
Sisters Apart — Writer-director Daphne Charizani’s moving, originally told tale of women placed worlds apart (but still closely bound) in times of war opens in a Kurdish refugee camp in Greece. Rojda (Almila Bagriacik) arrives hoping to find both her mother Ferhat (Maryam Boubani) and sister Dilan (Gonca de Haas) signed, sealed, and delivered, but it turns out that the latter remains in Iraq. Dilan is, much to her mother’s anguish, currently aligned with an all-women corps of Kurdish soldiers waging war against ISIS. Rojda works as a translator for the German military. At the camp, Ferhat is having difficulty acclimating. Television is her way of checking in on “my poor town.” The women from the old country with whom Ferhat held court sense trouble when her daughter is around, and are quick to maintain their distance. Rojda’s next assignment will be her toughest; a strictly volunteer mission that has nothing to do with serving her country, and everything to do with using government resources to find a family member. (The very thought of exploiting the military to gather information as to Dilan’s whereabouts is punishable by death.) The solutions reached are relatively simple; the journey refreshingly complex. 2020 —S.M.
Undine — “If you leave me, I will have to kill you,” Undine (Paula Beer) threatens her unfaithful beau Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) over coffee. As with many of the film’s principal locations, the outdoor cafe, situated across the street from the museum where Undine freelances as a historian and tour guide for Berlin’s Urban Development and Housing program, is a spot to which we’ll periodically return. It’s as if director Christian Petzold (Jerichow, Barbara) defines sanity as revisiting the same locations over and over again, and experiencing different dramatic results. Another such spot: the adjacent pub where Undine promptly meets Johannes’ replacement Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a decent but fidgety industrial diver whose apprehension accidentally caused a 1500-gallon aquarium to come crashing down upon the couple, miniature deep sea diver and all. Seeing how she appears to be based on a mythic water nymph, it’s rare for the otherwise solemn docent to crack a joke. But while still clutching the underwater ornament, and with a last gasp of water squirting from its air operated oxygen pump, Undine turns and asks Christoph, “Is this an industrial diver?” The title clicked, sounding as it did like a variation on Neil Jordan’s tale of a silkie, Ondine. Sure enough, both stories stem from the same supernatural root: Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s 17th Century fairy-tale novella. So in love are the couple that the man she threatened to kill at the outset merits little more than an over-the-shoulder glance when the two cross paths on walks with their new lovers. The film slowly builds to a crazy house of mirrors, with characters and situations doubling on each other. The sole act of violence is swift, unexpected, and more frighteningly executed that anything that passes for chills in contemporary horror. And for all the times you’ve heard me complain about films ending with a meaningless skyward pan-up, it’s refreshing to see one conclude, for a change, with a dip below groundwater. 2020 —S.M.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit — The title alone found me reaching for the Imodium, but what’s a critic to do after links to two preferable titles took a turn for the farblunget? At first glance, all one could think was a parabolic cross between The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (aka A Child’s Garden of Auschwitz) and the infantile pranksterism of JoJo Rabbit. But conquering my initial fears paid off: to my shock and surprise, this factual account of a Jewish family’s zigzagging exodus from pre-WWII Berlin — first to Switzerland, then to Paris, before eventually finding a safe harbor in London — was frequently engrossing and never cloying. (It’s based on the life of writer and illustrator Judith Kerr.) If Hitler wins the Chancellorship, Anna’s (Riva Krymalowski) father Max (Marinus Hohmann), an unmanageable critic of Nazism, will have his passport revoked, leaving the family no alternative but to bolt. Forced to play “Sophie’s choice” with her two stuffed toys, Anna sentences the titular cottontail to death by desertion, and it’s off to the Alps. It’s damn tough to get one’s mind around a film on this subject matter, where even the direst of events have a tendency to work out for the better. A pack of schoolboys chase Anna home, pelting her with stones along the way. No sooner does Dorthea (Carla Juri) hear her daughter’s cries for help than she’s outside confronting the leader for hating on the girl. “We love her!” is his blushingly contrary reply. And in light of the antisemitism that surrounds them, Max insists the best way to prove Nazis wrong is to live by example and show people that being Jewish is a good thing. (There’s even a brief entry on Christmas tree envy.) Admittedly, contemporary thinking has a nasty way of informing the characters, but at its best, this family film succeeds in placing Hitler’s rise to power in terms young people can understand, and with as little condescension as possible. Caroline Link directs. 2020 —S.M.
To view these films and more visit: www.germancurrents.com.
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
City Hall — Another invisibly etched documentary — this one clocking in at a platter-bowing 272 minutes — in which the king of all non-fiction filmmakers, Frederick Wiseman, once again proves himself worthy of the title. (The antithesis of the celebrity documentarian, Wiseman never once crosses paths with the camera.) This time around, the American Institution put under Wiseman’s microscopic gaze is Boston’s city government. A good deal of the film entails the inner workings that went into putting together the city’s $3.3 billion budget, but there’s much more to the story than board meetings and speechifying. The film runs in refreshing opposition to what of late has passed for governance in America. Forgive my shoveling Capra-corn, but it’s a stirring civics lesson, a film that reflects on what goes right when the government works for us. Wiseman bestows the same eye for detail on World Series parade prep as he does watching a sanitation truck devouring a mattress and box spring. Before this movie, I knew nothing about Mayor Marty Walsh; the nicest wish I could send anyone’s way is that they have a portrait in their honor that’s half as galvanizing, half as sympathetic as the one Wiseman affords hizzoner. The idiom, “You can’t fight City Hall” has never been put to truer use than when recommending this irresistible, albeit lengthy, masterwork. 2020 —S.M.
Martin Eden — Two factors influenced the seafaring and soon-to-be self-educated Martin Eden’s (Luca Marinelli) decision to make the written word his stock in trade: the escape from his proletarian surroundings that it offered, and a shot at impressing Elena (Jessica Cressy), the learned but terminally-dullish sister of a boy he happened to save from a throttling. (In filmmaker Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of the Jack London novel, Elena isn’t a character so much as she is Martin’s perceived purpose, a symbol of his aspiration.) For one hour, we side with Martin, hanging on every poem or story submission that comes back stamped “Return to Sender,” until the day an acceptance letter changes his life and the course of the movie, both for the worse. The vexing hand-held camerawork that dominates the first section eventually settles, but then only long enough for the closeups and debating to kick into high gear: Marcello doesn’t want you to miss a single precious kernel of polemicizing. There are moments that astound — the expressionistic applicability of hand-color/tinted archival footage/film clips to establish place or indicate passage of time outclass anything in Peter Jackson’s labored They Shall Not Grow Old. It isn’t until the arrival of bad news, punctuated by footage of a sinking ship, that the film begins to sink under the weight of its own precosity. Next stop: a foregone conclusion. 2020 —S.M.