There's nothing like a weekday afternoon playing hooky at the movies, especially if you're sneaking off to films as uniquely thought-provoking as those on offer at the 17th annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, playing September 27 through October 4 at the Castro Theatre.
I got in the mood this week by catching a day-before showing of Pina, Wim Wenders' celebrated 2011 film about the late German choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch. It's not often you get to wear 3D glasses for an art film, but Wenders' film revealed Bausch's unique vision, and her dances, with a gorgeous vigor and vision unmatched by any other dance film I've seen. And while it wasn't part of the festival, it was a good introduction to this eight-day banquet of German and Austrian films.
Presented by the Goethe Institute, this year's festival features over two dozen films, most of which you won't see anywhere else. In putting together what has become the largest North American showcase for German-language films, the selection committee watches virtually the entire year's crop of German, Austrian, and German-language Swiss films, as well as a few made further afield, in Russia, Finland, even Kazakhstan and Iceland. While a few features--like the opening night film Barbara, which will be Germany's entry into the foreign-language category for the 2013 Academy Awards--may end up with distribution deals, showings of many of these small, independent films will remain limited to the festival circuit. So, you've got a week. What to see, and where to eat (and drink) before or after your films? It's also time for Oktoberfest, so many of the places mentioned below will have special beers on tap as well as seasonal menu specials.
A quirky film like This Ain't California, a loose documentary about the rebellious skateboarding scene in East Germany during the 1970s, deserves discussion at the East German Walzwerk in the Mission. Spare, cool decor belies autumn-hearty food like herring in cream sauce, soljanka (cabbage-bacon soup with salami and pickles), jaeger schnitzel (pork loin) with spaetzel (small, squiggly boiled dumplings) and mushroom sauce, followed by apple strudel and kalter hund, or "cold dog," a layered cake made from rum, chocolate, and butter cookies. (They offer vegetarian dishes, too.)
If you're coming from the north side of town, there's the gemütlich, authentically Austrian (with a bit of French) Gasthaus Leopold's in Russian Hill. Start with crispy pig trotters, grilled duck crepinettes, or a house-cured meat platter, then move on to beef goulash, bacon-wrapped trout, or a choucroute garni of pork ribs, smoked pork loin, and house-made sausage with sauerkraut and potatoes. The beer list is ample, and the selection of German, Austrian, and Hungarian wines intriguing.
To follow? Last year's Austrian Academy-Award nominee, Breathing, about a troubled teen who finds redemption through work at a funeral home.
Open til 11pm for dinner Tuesday through Saturday (til 10pm Sunday and Monday), and with a daily happy hour from 5-7pm, the sleek Schmidt's feels very European in a big-city way. On the menu: tasty green-pea pancakes topped with smoked salmon and chive sour cream, German and Austrian cheese and meat platters served with pumpernickel bread, pickles, and mustard, smoked pork chops with curried apricot chutney, blood sausage with stewed apples and onions, and over a dozen different kinds of sausage, all served with potato salad and sauerkraut. It's a good spot to grab brunch before Saturday September 29's reading of Invisible Women: Growing Up Black in Germany by Ika Hugel-Marshall, followed by a 2pm screening of Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992.
Sadly, San Francisco has no coffeehouse to compare with New York City's gorgeously Viennese Cafe Sabarsky, a wood-paneled, torte-lavished hangout in the Neue Galerie, a museum dedicated to early 20th century German and Austrian art and design. But for sheer schlag value, stop in at Schubert's Bakery, a Richmond District staple for over a century. Choose, if you can, between cheesecake, cherry-decked Black Forest cake, marzipan-wrapped princess cake, strawberry Romanoff cake, chocolate-almond-hazelnut opera cake, even a classic version of the late, lamented Blum's coffee crunch cake. Stop in with the kids before or after Sunday's showing of a German-language version of Mark Twain's classic Tom Sawyer.
The Foster Boy, one of Switzerland's most popular recent films, tells the bleak but deeply affecting story of Max, an orphan, brought to a new family in rural Switzerland as part of the Swiss Verdingkinder program of relocating orphaned, out-of-wedlock, and poor children from the cities to new families in the country. It was a system similar to the U.S. Orphan Train movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, and in much the same way, many of these "contract children" were often badly treated and used as unpaid servants and farm laborers. Yes, an accordion is involved, but this is no happy Heidi story, however; you might need a little fondue after the dark events that ensue, so plan to drop in at the old-fashioned Matterhorn Restaurant afterwards. There's also the unlikely charmer Battle of the Queens, a story of rural Switzerland that revolves around the head-to-head, field-fighting bouts between groups of cows whose muscled aggression could put any bull to shame.
Of course, no German-food roundup would be complete with a mention of Hayes Valley's Bavarian-inspired Suppenkuche, still pouring massive boot-shaped beer steins after 19 years. Since the restaurant serves both brunch and dinner on Sundays, it's a good pick before or after any of Sunday's five different screenings, starting at 10:30am.
Coming from the East Bay? Speisekammer has been a family-friendly Alameda hangout for the past decade, offering a comfy bar, a dining room with fireplace, and a spacious outdoor beer garden. It's open both lunch and dinner with dishes like potato pancakes, smoked trout, stuffed cabbage, wienerschnitzel, and veggie strudel, plus live music on Friday and Saturday nights, plus Oktoberfest festivities every Sunday through October 14.