Human Emotions in Hostile Environments

in 26th FilmKunstFest Schwerin

by Georges Wyrsch

“Let’s not forget that Schwerin will be the capital of German-language cinema for the week to come!” Radio presenter Knut Elstermann, hosting the opening night of the festival, perfectly summed up what the Filmkunstfest Schwerin is all about: presenting a high-quality selection of the latest films that Germany, Austria and Switzerland have on offer. The focus of the Festival is less on national premieres – which might reduce it to a mere receptacle for Berlinale rejects – but on a topical overview of the national cinemas in question, mainly destined at a regional audience.

Although the awards handed out at Schwerin can hardly be described as game changers, they do make people raise eyebrows in the industries of the respective countries and might facilitate future financing. As has been reported on this website, the FIPRESCI award of the 2016 edition went to the Austrian war film Thank You for Bombing by Barbara Eder.

The present article will compile the reactions of the FIPRESCI jury to the other contributions of the festival’ main competition – all of them fiction films – and by doing so, define some of the trends in the current cinemas of the three countries in question.

One common denominator of many of the films shown at Schwerin would certainly be that they deal with what could be described as “couple issues”: falling in and out of love; infidelity; jealousy or possessiveness; trying to save a relationship while facing hard blows.

In Agnes by Johannes Schmid, an unremarkable forty-something academic gets involved with a young student. Why she returns his affection we will never know. Their relationship is somewhat deformed by a book he writes about her. What seems to have worked well in written form – the film is based on a best-seller – falls flat on screen, as both protagonists seem too self-absorbed to raise much interest in their meddling with fact and fiction, in spite of some fine acting and lots of skin on display.

Fado by Jonas Rothlaender has a young doctor travelling to Lisbon, determined to win back his ex-girlfriend. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that the male protagonist has developed a pathological degree of jealousy, up to the point of becoming delusional. All the right ingredients for a tense erotic thriller are here, but the build-up is slow, the psychology behind the proceedings is rather wonky, and the final act seems a bit desperate in its attempt to shock.

In All of a Sudden (Auf einmal) by Asli Özge, we see a young man on the brink of betraying his girlfriend. However, the affair is nipped in the bud as the girl has a breakdown and the man fails to save her life. This event triggers increasingly bizarre reactions in our protagonist, who becomes more and more ruthless as the events unfold. The resulting depravity is fun to watch, but too much effort goes into hammering home an all-too-obvious message in the second half.

All the three films spend much time on describing the characters and their relationships in detail, before they dish out their more rambunctious thriller elements. The idea behind this concept seems to be that the turning points in the later acts work better if we have been properly introduced to the people involved in them. But unfortunately, the opposite reaction sets in: moderately credible material is gradually turned into lurid hokum.

On the other hand, 24 Weeks (24 Wochen) by Anne Zohra Berrached starts off in a realistic tone and gracefully stays there. The story about a female stand-up comedian who learns that her unborn child has Down’s Syndrome remains engaging throughout; the medical consultation scenes are insightful and the dialogue between the woman and her partner ring true. The notion that the woman caught in this misfortune is a professional humourist, however, remains underexplored.

Outspoken humour can be found in Halal Love by Assad Fouladkar, the competition’s only comedy and a German film on paper only, as it was shot in Beirut in Arabic language. The farce relies heavily on jokes about Muslims, who are stuck between their religion and their love lives in four interconnected episodes. The result is funny and charming – one thinks of the Italian comedies of the sixties – but never does it throw out sparks like one of its obvious predecessors, Caramel (Sukkar banat, France/Lebanon, dir. Nadine Labaki, 2007).

The drama Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs (Hannas schlafende Hunde) by Andreas Gruber, an Austrian-German coproduction, deals with a difficult topic – a Jewish family in the 1960s pretending to be Catholic in order to blend in – and, again, is based on a book. The remnants of Austria’s National Socialist past are described in very bleak tones and with heavy-handed didactics in abundance. The film’s attempts at achieving dramatic impetus in its second half are clearly at odds with the otherwise dead-serious approach, and the unmitigated dreariness of the setting ultimately sinks the film.

Meteor Streer (Meteorstrasse) by Aline Fischer deals with two Palestinian brothers, one big-mouthed, one inward-looking, who are left in Berlin-Tegel airport when their parents are sent back to Lebanon. Exceptionally strong performances and surprisingly agile camerawork keep the tension of this social drama going, although some of the discourse on war and religion seems at times a bit tacked on.

Easily the most abstract film in this competition, the Swiss contribution Aloys by Tobias Nölle is about a reclusive and voyeuristic private detective, who is lured out of his seclusion by a mysterious woman. The film works perfectly well within its own poetic, borderline-romantic universe, but its lack of preoccupation with the real world made it hard for some audience members to connect with it. A strong contribution nevertheless, and a talented auteur film-maker to watch.

We are the Tide (Wir sind die Flut) by Sebastian Hilger was the competition’s only true genre piece. A young scientist explores a possibly supernatural phenomenon in a German sea-side town and finds more than he bargained for. The convoluted narrative, presumably influenced by anime and manga, tries too hard to hide its secrets, but the experience of the film is helped by the gorgeous cinematography and a voluptuous score. In spite of its wobbly plot and uneven performances, this film should attract a young audience. The filmmakers could easily move on to produce a multi-episode narrative, since they show great potential for serial writing.

Finally, our FIPRESCI winner, Thank You for Bombing, is an impressive proof that German-language cinema can deal with armed conflicts and our involvement in them. A sturdy stand-out feature indeed, it ultimately does what most of these films have done before: offer a very delicate take on human relationships, while embedding them in difficult, if not downright hostile environments.

Edited by Birgit Beumers