Still from 'My Little Sister.' (Courtesy Berlin & Beyond)
Even in a pandemic year, you can feel the rumbling and grinding of the mass-merchandise machinery as the holidays approach. Despite the fact Hollywood closed the spigot of new releases to a trickle, my email in-box is full of “For Your Consideration” pitches and screening links. I’m thinking, and not for the first time, that Dr. Frankenstein’s lumbering, undead monster is capitalism.
But money isn’t always the motor, even on the parched salt flats of the 2020 motion picture landscape. (Frankie went to Hollywood, not the desert; don’t confuse him with San Francisco dentist John McTeague.) Some great free flicks are available to you in the next few days, courtesy of the Goethe-Institute San Francisco.
The virtual film festival is an innovation of the pandemic era, with its array of streaming movies and live (and taped) Q&As and panels. (Even when in-person festivals return, expect online and hybrid events to be part of the mix.) The generous twist of Berlin & Beyond in Focus is that the events, including all 10 films, are free.
The bruised, bruising force of nature that is Nina Hoss powers My Little Sister to and through fiercely painful territory, as her character deals with her twin brother’s cancer treatment and prognosis. Lisa’s a writer and Sven’s an actor, and much of the film’s conflict derives from the disease’s interruption of their careers. Co-directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond set their intimate family drama (Switzerland’s official submission for the Best International Feature Oscar) in crisply delineated interiors with the harrowing exception of a hang-glider ride you won’t soon forget.
Hoss, of course, is primarily known for her collaborations with director Christian Petzold. His new film, Undine, starring Paula Beer in a Berlin Film Festival prize-winning performance, receives its San Francisco premiere at Berlin & Beyond in Focus.
I watched, instead, Caroline Link’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, last winter’s German box-office smash that went on to win the Lola for best children’s film. It’s more than a kids’ film, though, playing brilliantly to all ages while, thankfully, showing Holocaust-fatigued adults a less-familiar perspective of pre-war disorientation.
Based on Judith Kerr’s best-selling, semi-autobiographical novel, the film takes place in the 1930s after an outspoken German-Jewish cultural critic flees with his family to the Swiss countryside and then Paris. The entire cast is outstanding, and Link’s storytelling is briskly, extraordinarily efficient without resorting to clichés or stereotypes.
You may recall, back in the aughts, Link made another terrific film about a German-Jewish family of wartime exiles, Nowhere in Africa, that won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Feature. We might reflect on the ongoing relevance of refugee stories, year in and year out.
Another ongoing saga is the effect of globalization and automation on workers. Jonas Heldt’s curious documentary, Automotive, peers into the labor practices of Audi through a couple of unexpected women: a temp worker at a parts warehouse in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt an hour north of Munich, and an Amsterdam headhunter.
Automotive isn’t an investigative documentary, per se, despite the filmmaker’s inclusion of off-camera PR people “helping” on-camera executives frame their evasive answers. Nor is it a full-on, character-driven piece. It incorporates elements of both, accompanied by the crisp compositions and vistas of alienation that are signatures of the European documentary. Worth a look, but far from revelatory.
The Last Vermeer
Opens Nov. 20
Various Bay Area theaters
To most Europeans, culture is more than “intellectual property”—it is at the center of their history, identity and pride. After World War II, therefore, it was of immense national importance to recover the paintings and sculptures the Nazis had looted from museums and private collections—and to punish the collaborators. (Great efforts and sacrifices also were made to hide those works during the war, as depicted in The Train, John Frankenheimer’s sensational 1964 action drama based on art historian and Resistance heroine Rose Valland’s book.)
Likewise inspired by actual events, the Amsterdam-set The Last Vermeer (which was selected for the Covid-canceled SFFILM Festival in April) centers on crusading Capt. Joseph Pillar (Claes Bang of The Square) on the postwar prowl for pilfered Dutch masters. He hones in on Han van Meegeren, a debauched artist who reveled in the high life during the war (Guy Pearce, in a delicious turn)—while the Jewish soldier was fighting with the Dutch Resistance and his wife was sleeping with the Nazi officer she was spying on—and allegedly facilitated the million-dollar sale of a Vermeer to Hermann Göring.
The feature debut of producer and executive Dan Friedkin, The Last Vermeer boasts an exceptional screenplay that exposes every imaginable fault line of postwar morality and justice, and of wartime principle and opportunism. The square-shouldered, square-jawed Bang, unfortunately, brings too much of Gregory Peck’s old-school earnestness, though August Diehl (as Pillar’s hooch-swilling muscle) has fun with a role tailor-made for the young Tom Sizemore. If you’re up for going to a theater, The Last Vermeer is solid big-screen entertainment for thinking people.
Sean Durkin’s long-awaited follow-up to Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) cultivates a measured aura of foreboding around Jude Law’s charming hollow-man persona, with Carrie Coon’s tough yet vulnerable performance delivering the emotional payoff. That’s the template for a legion of horror movies and a shelf’s worth of domestic thrillers, with The Nest landing in a riveting yet ultimately unsatisfying middle patch between and outside of genre filmmaking.
Set in the go-go ’80s, when successful British go-getter Rory O’Hara relocates his American wife Allison and adolescent children from New York to Surrey, The Nest starts out as a parable of ruthless ambition and conspicuous consumption. In due time, though, the film becomes less specifically an indictment of Reagan-Thatcher-era deregulation and greed (and its 2010s acolytes). Instead, The Nest reveals itself as a portrait of a working-class Brit who had to come to the U.S. to reinvent himself and make it (like another handsome chap, Cary Grant) and, chip fixed firmly on shoulder, returns to his old stomping grounds to tout—and inflate—his success.
Rory’s breakdown arrives too late, and his breakthrough is too inauthentic, to have much impact. Allison will have to reassemble the pieces and make the hard choices, and it is her future—thanks to Coon’s wide-open portrayal—that we are invested in. Now that’s a sequel I’d like to see.
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