For 14 years, the Goethe-Institut's Berlin & Beyond series was associated with the damp darkness of post-holiday January. The shortness of the days, the scarcity of light and the cloudy mood suited the Teutonic outlook -- as well as San Franciscans' impulse toward existential gloominess. This is not to suggest that all German-language films are grim and depressing, but you must admit that the phrase "German comedies" does not trip lightly off the tongue.
The festival's regrettable switch from January to October -- from a movie calendar populated only by Oscar-bait holdovers and Noir City to the crazily chock-a-block fall -- was occasioned by the departure of founder and director Ingrid Eggers and an alliance with a Southland festival, German Currents in Los Angeles. Sophoan Sorn is the new director of Berlin & Beyond, and he has curated an ambitious and impressive lineup of 26 dramas, comedies and documentaries (plus a sprinkling of shorts) from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
"Vincent Wants to Sea"
It's the practice of film festivals to seek out crowd-pleasers for opening night that are neither too demanding nor too downbeat. Ralf Huettner's Vincent Wants to Sea delivers on both counts, tossing in a surfeit of pretty postcard shots as a bonus. How churlish of me, then, to point out that it's a glossy, shallow timewaster posing as a poignant parable. Florian David Fitz, who penned the script and will be in attendance, stars as a Tourette's-afflicted fellow on the run to Italy with his OCD roommate and an anorexic, pursued by his self-important father and a well-meaning therapist. Vincent Wants to Sea aspires to be a screwball comedy (complete with a horrible punning title) that tugs at your heart, a feat that Preston Sturges and only a few others could accomplish.
"When We Leave"
Veteran actress and writer and now-director Feo Aladag makes a strong feature debut with her powerful domestic drama, When We Leave. The official German entry for the Foreign Language Oscar, the film will open theatrically in January. See it now, in order to put Hollywood's fall crop of bloated, "important" dramas into proper perspective. At the tender age of 25, Umay has already had enough of living with her abusive husband in Istanbul. She flees with their young son to the presumed safety of her family home in Berlin, but her return as a single woman threatens their status and life in the Turkish-German community. We start out rooting for this gutsy, strong-willed woman, of course, but Aladag forces us to confront the uncomfortable relationship between independence and selfishness.
"The Woman With the 5 Elephants"
Berlin & Beyond always offers an array of top-shelf documentaries, and Vadim Jendreyko's The Woman With the 5 Elephants treats us to the privileged company of a singularly strong and remarkable woman. Svetlana Geier was born in the Ukraine but has lived in Germany since the mid-1940s, establishing herself as a gifted professor and the leading translator of Russian literature into German. The elephants are Dostoyevsky's novels, and some of the most remarkable passages in the film capture Geier at work. Not much happens in this film, strictly speaking, even though she returns to Kiev for the first time since she was a teenager. The rare and special thing about this film -- even if you do not have a particular appreciation for the specificity, power and beauty of words -- is that its subject embodies not only erudition and dignity, but civilization itself.
And that is something the Germans know quite a bit about.
The 15th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival runs Friday, October 22 through Thursday, October 28, 2010 at the Castro Theater, 420 Castro St, and Sunday, October 30, 2010 at the Camera Cinemas 12 in San Jose. For more information visit berlinbeyond.com.