It is the rare moviegoer who goes to a German film in search of laughs. That may have less to do with our view of the "Teutonic temperament," though, than with what distributors think American audiences will accept. We'll happily watch French romances, costume dramas and comedies of bad manners, but typically the only German films that do well here are Nazi sagas (Downfall, Sophie Scholl) or spy dramas (The Lives of Others). Exceptions such as Run Lola Run or Mostly Martha somehow don't rouse distributors to open the gates for lighter German fare. So the Goethe-Institut, the adventurous cultural office behind the much-loved annual Berlin & Beyond series of new work from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, deserves props for choosing comedy as one of the themes of this year's program.
I know firsthand that the notion of Berlin belly-laughers is counterintuitive. When I took over as curator and host of the Friday night CinemaLit program at the Mechanics' Institute two years ago, one of my first series was a month of German comedies. It was an attention-getting and somewhat perverse choice, and I had to watch a lot of movies spanning a lot of years to come up with four excellent ones. But they do exist.
Berlin & Beyond had only last year's output to draw on, and the films I happened to check out did not brim with hilarity. Farce does not become the Germans (notwithstanding the lingering echoes of the American-conceived Hogan's Heroes and The Producers), and sweetness isn't their strength, either. But they are masters of the dryly caustic dig and the cruelly absurd moment, especially when sprung unexpectedly in the middle of a serious drama.
I'm tempted to rank the films I previewed -- roughly a third of the program Â– by laughs, but that's too perverse even by my standards. So let's do it this way:
Opening Night Epiphany:
Fatih Akin (Head On), a German-born filmmaker of Turkish ancestry, has made a career of exploring identity, assimilation and coexistence. His latest, The Edge of Heaven, is warm, clever and ultimately optimistic, but it's no comedy. Three sets of single parents and adult children cross paths and borders trying to right various wrongs in a gripping drama that captures the prevailing winds of interrelationship. As a bonus, it's a film you can dance to, like all of Akin's wonderfully soundtracked work.
Give Me an F:
Dean Reed was a handsome, second-rate rocker from Colorado who split for South America and East Germany in the early '60s. He achieved superstardom in Berlin for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and for choosing the idealism of socialism over the decadence of capitalism. He's a splendid subject for a documentary, and The Red Elvis holds our attention easily enough by highlighting Reed's ego and unyielding unknowability.
That's the attitude a Swiss village takes when the octogenarian heroine of Late Bloomers opens a store dedicated to her chic, homemade lingerie. Switzerland's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars is too classy and polite to milk its setup for risqué laughs, but it easily engenders smiles and applause for its plucky, resolute coterie of erstwhile Gray Panthers.
Date Movie, Goth Division:
Yella plays out in broad daylight, so you can leave your white makeup at home. But it's a ghostly little yarn, one best viewed with a friendly wrist within clutching distance. The title character barely escapes her violent husband and their dying town in the former East Germany, and makes a fresh start in the affluent West. It's a gripping story and Nina Hoss's haunted performance (which won the acting prize at the Berlin Film Festival) is top drawer. But the final twist, although not unforeseen, makes the film seem slight.
Date Movie, Slacker Division:
Robert Thalheim's wonderful And Along Come Tourists unfolds in the Polish town of Oswiecim, better known as the place the Nazis chose to build the death camp of Auschwitz. (What, you've never heard of a date movie set near a concentration camp?) An unformed young German arrives to do his civil service, and reluctantly gets life lessons from the Holocaust "survivor-in-residence" and a local Polish girl.
Now that we've crossed the border into Poland, it's a short hop to Austria. Ulrich Seidl's tough-minded Import Export follows another directionless young man, though this one's cutting a boorish swath through Vienna. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian nurse trades her harsh, wintry life for the allure of Austria, instead discovering one degrading job after another. There are a couple of solid chuckles in this outstanding film, but they might get caught in your throat.
When is a farce really a tragedy? Molière and Buñuel aced that question, but it proves a bit stickier for German director Ingo Rasper, whose Fashion Victims is honored at Berlin & Beyond as best first feature. When an upstart competitor hijacks his longtime customers, a salesman of women's clothing panics that the times (and his comfy lifestyle) are passing him by. How funny is that? Reasonably funny, if you can block out all the pain on display. Rasper is slated to appear on the panel "What Makes You Laugh?," this Sunday, Jan. 13 at 11 a.m. at the Goethe-Institut, that holds every possibility of being neither painful nor tragic.
Inside the Actor's Studio:
Ulrich Muhe was feted far and wide for his no-frills performance as the Stasi agent in The Lives of Others, and then passed away only a few months later. He'll be honored posthumously at Berlin & Beyond with the award for lifetime achievement in acting, and screenings of Others, the 1985 costume epic Half of Life and Funny Games, Michael Haneke's harrowing hostage drama that he just remade in English for a March release.
At this point, I have the distinct feeling that you aren't completely convinced that comedy is a central theme of the 2008 edition of Berlin & Beyond. In that case, revisit Paragraph 1, Sentence 1, and proceed accordingly.
Berlin & Beyond runs Jan. 10-16 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and Jan. 19 at Point Arena in Mendocino. For tickets and information visit berlinandbeyond.com.