Looking For Sympathetic Characters

in 40th FilmFest Munich

by Frank Arnold

This year’s section ‘New German Cinema’ at the Munich film festival offered strong films.

There are quite a few festivals in Germany where you can get acquainted with the current situation of German cinema, amongst them the Munich Film Festival in the summer, which turned 40 this year. With a total sum of 70.000 Euro prize money (awarded in four categories), the section, ‘New German Cinema,’ is attractive to many filmmakers: filmmakers who haven’t made more than three feature films are all eligible, regardless of age, which is great for late starters such as Sylvie Michel, who – after various jobs in the industry – debuted only in 2012 with her feature film, Our Little Differences (Die feinen Unterschiede), and was back this year with her sophomore feature, More Than Strangers.

This does not mean, however, that you will not find a number of films by quite young filmmakers in the program. This year, there were three films produced in collaboration with the local film school, the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film Munich (HFF, which, for some years, has also been one of the venues where the festival films are shown). Two of them were graduation films: in Clashing Differences, filmmaker Merle Grimme stages a confrontation between traditional feminists (older and white) and younger ones, diverse and PoC, who get together during a seminar in the countryside, far from the big city of Berlin. Egos collide and everyone believes to be the only holder of truth. The film was awarded the prize for best screenplay (but was also notable for the way in which the actresses portray their characters, self-assured one moment but full of doubts the next.

Contrary to the tensions erupting in Clashing Differences, the young protagonists of the other two films by young filmmakers mostly stay in the bubble of their own peer group. On the one hand, we have the three girls in Dead Girls Dancing (by Anna Roller, born in 1993), who just finished school and go on a trip to Italy, where they pick up a slightly older female hitchhiker, before their trip turns into a horrific one, when they decide to break into a seemingly empty house. With its forced dynamics – full of moments of suspense and even terror – in the last part, the film delivered a stark contrast to Sylvain Cruiziat’s (born in 1995) Boyz, who observes his younger brother and his friends during their last days of partying in Munich, the city that the expats will soon leave to go back home.

German reality, condensed to a microcosm, was the focus of Asli Özges Black Box –  situated in a big old tenement building in Berlin, which is going through a big modernization, to which the people living there react in very different ways. The same goes for Sylvie Michel’s More Than Strangers (awarded the prize for best direction), where people from different backgrounds share a car for a journey to Paris. Both films could rely on the conflicts at hand and were told with intensity, although there were moments where you longed for more freedom for the characters. The same goes for the debut feature, It’s Burning (Es Brennt), by Erol Afsin – with local hero Kida Khodr Ramadan (4 Blocks), who also produced the film, in a leading role. The story deals with racist prejudices, but counterbalances them by depicting the harmonious life of an Arabic nuclear family, which becomes the target of racial hate, when they encounter a father who denies their child to occupy a swing on a playground. The film loses its dramatic focus when it emphasizes too much on the normality of the Arab family.

Connecting interesting characters with suspense deriving from genre conventions worked well in the directing debut (done together with Daniel Rakete Siegel) of actor Dennis Moschitto, Shock (Schock – Kein Weg Zurück). Moschitto himself stars as Bruno, a doctor who lost his license, and whose patients are now criminals and prostitutes – people who will not or cannot check into a hospital. At some point, Bruno accepts an unexpected order, with dreadful consequences. No-frills genre storytelling was also on offer in the third feature by Maximilian Erlenwein, The Dive, about two sisters with a lot of diving experience, who nevertheless have to fight for their lives underwater, in a race against time. Filmed in English, The Dive was not the only film that showed how film becomes more and more an international, border-crossing business. Behrooz Karamizade – Iranian-born, but living in Germany for quite some time – presented Empty Nets (Leere Netze), a German-Iranian co-production, done in Farsi. The film employs a Romeo-and-Juliet theme to deal once again with the subject of integrity, adaptation and corruption, so important to the Iranian cinema. Here the protagonist has to earn his money far away from his loved one, as a fisherman. But the hard work, which is shown in impressive scenes, does not provide as much money as he needs to wow his beloved, so he accepts illegal side jobs that turn him into a stranger to his bride-to-be, and also, who gets easily offended make it difficult for the audience to follow his decisions.

In fact, many of the leading characters in this year’s films were far removed from the typical protagonists of feel-good movies. That goes also for the two characters in the two films which impressed me the most: in Christina Ebelt’s Monster Inside (Monster im Kopf) Franziska Hartmann gives a high-powered performance as a very pregnant prisoner, who fights to keep the newborn with her. Flashbacks to her life before prison reveal that she is a person who gets easily offended and then reacts in a quite violent way. We experience what she finally did and what led to her incarceration. For the viewer, her behavior is quite difficult to accept, but on the other hand, you cannot deny the sheer power of this woman.

Equally stubborn is Markus Hering as a worker in opencast mining in the film, Fossil, who, after forty years in this line of work is not ready to accept the upcoming coal phase-out and the destruction of the giant machines. While his daughter is protesting together with other eco-activists against environmental destruction, Michael oscillates between private actions of sabotage, motivated by revenge, and lecturing his colleagues. For this haunting portrayal, which connects a specific industrial landscape with universal aspects, our jury awarded the FIPRESCI prize to director Henning Beckhoff.


Frank Arnold
Edited by Ela Bittencourt