Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Final helping of
'German Gems'


3rd annual offering of the best of new German cinema

Isa (Luise Heyer) and Doreen (Friederike Becht) in director Robert Thalheim's Westwind. (Photo: Credofilm, courtesy German Gems)
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As a TV Guide-besotted child of the 1950s – the old people's media bible, not today's celebrity tout sheet – there was one slug that held a peculiar fascination for me: "Last Show of the Series." In the digital pre-history before the alphabet soup of media-storing gadgets Betamax, VHS, DVD, DVR, MP3, the iPhone and the iPad, when a network rang down the curtain on a show, it was history. No reprieve, no reruns, gone forever.

Saturday's German Gems finale at the Castro Theatre is intrepid programmer Ingrid Eggers' "Last Show" in an incomparable series. Following years at the helm of the cutting-edge Berlin and Beyond Festival, this is her last stab at thought-provoking new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. For better than a decade I've counted on Ingrid to connect me to a new generation of actors, like Germany's everyman star Daniel Bruhl, so deftly showcased in the morose comedy A Friend of Mine; queer-identified matinee idol Robert Stadlober, as a boy on the run in Tender Parasites; or fresh-faced David Kross, the battered boy hero of Tough Enough. Or introduce me to exhilarating reinventions of film noir, like Jerichow and Revanche, and to bold debuts by directors from unusual backgrounds, like the Turkish/German wunderkind Fatih Akin.

For the last three Januarys, Eggers has put out magnificent swan-song programs on her old dime. Saturday's five films represent a glorious recapitulation of a great career. Arrive early, stay late, enjoy.

Westwind Director Robert Thalheim offers a heartfelt trifle in this sweet tale of twin teen East German girls coming of age just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Life gets messy for Doreen and Isabel when they miss the bus to a Socialist rowing camp nestled in a bucolic part of Communist Hungary. Hitching a ride from two randy West German lads, the girls are offered romantic asylum in Hamburg if they can outfox their Communist minders: a grumpy old coach and a painfully sincere blond-boy counselor whose lovely locks don't compensate for his "Kumbaya" guitar riffs. While fiendish technology and a seductive mix-tape ultimately carry the day, this dollop of Cold War nostalgia redeems its overly familiar beats through a joyful, fresh-faced cast. (Castro, 1/14, 7:30 p.m., with actor Friederike Becht in person)

Scene from director Andreas Kannengiesser's No Way Home. (Photo: Courtesy German Gems)

No Way Home In this deeply unsettling drama about uncomfortable end-of-life dilemmas, an elderly gay man tells a sullen male neighbor why ambulance attendants had to pry his hand from its vice-like grip on his freshly dead lover. Director Andreas Kannengiesser follows an elderly woman fleeing her dementia-afflicted hubby to show how the will to survive may trump truly grim circumstances. While gay widower Gunther and anguished widow-to-be Hannelore hardly forge a Hallmark Hall of Fame sticky bond, these defiantly stubborn codgers demonstrate how one can resist other people's ideas on how to live out your days. (Castro, 1/14, 2:15 p.m., with director Andreas Kannengiesser in person)

Above Us Only Sky Director Jan Schomburg takes wonderful liberties with the vertigo-inducing perils his heroine, Martha, faces upon learning that her doctor mate is not only dead by his own hand, but a complete fraud to boot. The lovely Sandra Huller recalls a young Glenda Jackson in her almost whimsical portrait of an instant widow shocked out of her mind who ratchets up her powers of denial. Martha's sudden bolt into the arms of a history teacher who somehow reminds her of the now-dead Paul exudes a whiff of Francois Ozon's talent for creating out-of-kilter bonds that seem deliciously right. (Castro, 1/14, 4:30 p.m., with director Jan Schomburg in person)

Scene from director Volker Sattel's Under Control. (Photo: Courtesy German Gems)

Under Control As one whose introduction to Bay Area life occurred during the 1979 Three Mile Island crisis accompanied by a memorable Jane Fonda-hosted UC Berkeley screening of The China Syndrome, there's a disturbing time-stands-still quality to director Volker Sattel's eerie, seductively beautiful probe deep inside Germany's nuclear power industry. Eschewing anti- or pro-nuke politics, Sattel's cameras take us to places beyond our imagination, deep into the bowels of the earth, where spent fuel rods and sundry waste products cool down for periods ranging from 50 years to infinity.

Sattel follows a blond teen bicyclist riding to school past one of Germany's five active nuclear power plants. Not since Silkwood have I seen so many workers, here male engineers, casually adapting to blinking red lights and screaming alarms of constant radiation checks, juxtaposed against employee cafeterias ostentatiously decorated with leafy green plants, as if the 1950s fantasy about "clean" atomic energy had found its Eden.

Under Control is a visual tone poem to a German industrial juggernaut that allows Angela Merkel to have final say during Europe's financial crisis. (Castro, 1/14, 11 a.m., followed by Sierra Club-sponsored discussion)

Scene from director Christop Stark's Taboo – The Soul Is a Stranger on Earth. (Photo: Courtesy German Gems)

Taboo – The Soul Is a Stranger on Earth As a critic, one of my favorite parlor games is explaining why a treasured Louis Malle classic, Murmur of the Heart – where an altar boy chooses Mom over a randy priest – is not really about incest, but merely employs a bout of mother/son intimacy to probe an unruly French clan's off-beat child-raising rituals.

Conversely, director Christoph Stark's poetry-inspired chamber piece, speculating about the ties that bound brother/sister poet/pianist Georg and Grete Traki, is truly about incest, and not necessarily in a good way. I wish I loved films that compel me to ingest large chunks of subtitle-translated romantic poetry as a clue to character, while on screen unappealing siblings frolic in a most unseemly way, but I don't. Stark's artistic good intentions are undermined by some poor casting choices and an atmosphere of unrelenting torpor. But then, what's wrong with that? Danke Schoen, dear Ingrid! (Castro, 1/14, 9:30 p.m., preceded by the short Marlene's Berlin)

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