Sheesh, it's a good thing that everything we know about Germany doesn't only come from English-language films about it. Even now, whether it's the tastefully depressive (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), the shamelessly award-grubbing (The Reader), the surprisingly stagnant (Valkyrie) or the grimly perfunctory (Defiance), the movies still seem stuck on Nazis.
Obviously Hollywood isn't the place to go for a summary of the soul of the German people (and by extension at least some of the Austrian and Swiss peoples). No, for that, we turn to the 14th annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, a week-long motion-picture sammelsurium -- yeah, that's German for smorgasbord -- getting underway at the Castro Theatre tonight.
Now, to be clear, it's not that the legacy of German fascism isn't explored in some of the films, whose thematic questions run a gamut from the practical (How did it happen?) to the rhetorical (Could it happen again?) to the urgently philosophical (Yes, why do non-German movies keep phoning in stories about it?). It's just that other things are explored too; the "Beyond" isn't only geographical, see?
Actually, come to think of it, that last question might be a good one for Munich Film Museum director Stefan Drosessler, who on Monday, January 19, leads a talk called "Hollywood Speaks German," about, indeed, German-language American films from Hollywood's (and, as it historically happens, the Nazi party's) early days.
But. Yes. Moving on. This year's fest opens with Cherry Blossoms, which the press release describes as "a poignant celebration of beauty, new beginnings and transcendence, moving from Berlin to the iconic, fog-shrouded Mount Fuji." How's that for beyond?
Quite good, actually. Don't be thrown by press-release platitudes; its gentle defiance of adequate written description is among Cherry Blossoms' charms. From director Doris Dörrie, this kindhearted tale of a husband and wife's estrangement from their grown children -- and, to everyone's surprise, from each other -- unfurls through lovely, delicate details such as a woman ironing her tears out of a scarf, and impressively non-manipulative narrative reversals best not revealed here. It's a genuinely affecting account of how our lives accumulate grief and joy in parallel.
And that's just on opening night. Among Berlin & Beyond's other clear highlights is a tribute to and appearance by German New Wave mainstay Wim Wenders, who lived in San Francisco once, and collaborated with Francis Coppola on 1982's Hammett but might understandably rather not talk about that. Wenders will introduce his meditative road movie Kings of the Road, from 1976, and his new film, Palermo Shooting, in which German punk hero Andreas Frege, aka Campino, plays an existentially yearning fashion photographer and Dennis Hopper plays Death.
So it seems that the movies still have much to teach us. And with films like these, who needs Nazis?
Berlin & Beyond runs from January 15-21, 2009, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and January 24, 2009 at the Arena Theater in Point Arena. For tickets and information, visit www.berlinandbeyond.com.