The Berlin School

The Goethe-Institut London is presenting in association with the Cine lumière an intriguing programme of films called Voices Outside the Frame: The Berlin School in Recent German Cinema, between 30 April and 10 May. It will include seventeen films to highlight the work of eleven filmmakers who represent potent individual voices outside the mainstream of German cinema.

About the ‘Berlin School’

German cinema is back on the map, but its geography is not a simple one, and hence the attempts at naming its locations by defining groups and schools. The group sometimes referred to as the ‘Berlin School’ are a loose network of directors, friends or past collaborators, all based in Berlin, whose films share certain stylistic characteristics and thematic concerns. There is a restrained observant quality to many of the films; dialogues are spare, music rare; takes are often long, frames artfully composed. There is a tendency to show rather than to tell and to activate the viewer to watch and listen carefully and to fill in gaps. Though often described as ‘realist’, direct references to social and polticial issues are rare; the films are instead finely-nuanced representations of life in contemporary Germany, particularly of middle-class families, and teenagers during their difficult transition into adulthood.

The first generation of the Berlin school is represented by Thomas Arslan (Dealer, A Fine Day), Christian Petzold (Wolfsburg, Ghosts) and Angela Schanelec (Passing Summer, Marseille) who went to the Berlin Film and Television Academy (dffb), started their careers in the 90s and have made a number of films to date. They have been joined by a younger group of filmmakers who gravitated towards Berlin from other cities and film schools in Munich (Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg), Vienna (Valeska Grisebach) and Hamburg (Henner Winckler, Ulrich Köhler) and of whom most have completed two feature films in the past five to six years. In the film magazine Revolver co-founded and edited by Hochhäusler and Heisenberg, this group of filmmakers has an important platform for sharing know-how and ideas with each other and the audience.

The Films

In Wolfsburg Christian Petzold applies restraint and precision to a tragic story of guilt and revenge in which a man kills a boy with his car and tries to make up for his misdeed by trying to help the mother over her grief. Grief over a lost child is also a driving force in Petzold’s Ghosts, in which a French woman’s search for her abducted daughter leads her back to Berlin and to a young drifter who may be or may not be her child. Berlin is also the setting for Angela Schanelec’s Passing Summer which spins an intricate web of relations between a group of friends and relatives against the background of the city’s cafés, parks and lakes in the summer. Schanelec’s Marseille in contrast focuses on one person, a young photographer from Berlin, who swaps flats and tentatively tries to reinvent herself in the French city. A clearer purpose seems to drive the young Turkish-German actress in Thomas Arslan’s A Fine Day as she moves through sunny Berlin, meets a number of people and actively pursues her idea of happiness. It is also summer and the colours are rich and vibrant in Thomas Arslan’s Dealer, about a melancholy small-time gangster hoping for a big break.

Valeska Grisebach’s particular gift lies in her work with non-professional actors both in her first feature Be My Star, a gentle portrayal of first love and Longing, which, set in rural surroundings of Berlin, is a quietly-told melodrama about a man who finds himself in love with two women. Sleeper is a finely-textured psychological study of a young scientist pressed by the secret service to spy on his Algerian colleague suspected of terrorist involvement. Maria Speth’s The Days Between takes us into the moody twilight world of a young woman suspended between day and night-time jobs, a boyfriend and a lover, between youth and adulthood.

Ulrich Köhler provides the laconic portraits of two deserters: in Bungalow the deserter is young recruit who casually absents himself from his military service to hang out at his parents’ abandoned house; in Windows on Monday it is a young doctor who leaves her husband, daughter and a half-renovated house and ends up as a witness to the absurd proceedings in a remote off-season hotel. In Christoph Hochhäusler’s tense contemporary re-telling of the Hänsel and Gretel story, This Very Moment, two children are left to wander the lonely region near the German-Polish border when their irritated step mother throws them out of the car. In Hochhäusler’s similarly un-nerving second feature, Low Profile, a new school leaver starts anonymously claiming responsibility for local disasters to escape from the frustration of failed job interviews. Henner Winckler’s equally perceptive study of adolescense, School Trip, accompanies a class of secondary school students to a Polish seaside town where competition between one of the students and a young Polish guy lead to disaster.

The season also includes two filmmakers who don’t consider themselves part of the Berlin School, but whose latest films certainly reveal an interest in similar themes. Though stylistically different, Matthias Lutthardt’s Pingpong and Stefan Krohmer’s Summer 04 both focus on middle class families whose seemingly ordered lives are thrown off balance by the intrusion of unexpected visitors and the sexual tension between teenagers and adults.

About the Season

Among the seventeen films on the line-up, there will be UK premieres for Bungalow, Low Profile and Marseille, and a special preview of Longing, ahead of its UK-wide release through the bfi on 18 May. Among the filmmakers travelling to London to support their films will be Christoph Hochhäusler, on hand for an intro and Q&A to the double bill of his films This Very Moment and Low Profile on 1 May; Christian Petzold, to introduce his film Wolfburg on 8 May, and for a Q&A following the London premiere of his feature Ghosts on 9 May; and Benjamin Heisenberg, supporting his film Sleeper on 8 May.

Acknowledging the debt of German filmmakers to French cinema, a talk by the German film critic Ekkerhand Knörer entitled ‘Elective Affinities: The Presence of France and French Film in Recent German Cinema’ will introduce the season on 30 April, together with a Revolver-Live! event focusing on ‘The Politics of Contemporary German Cinema’ organised in collaboration with the German film magazine Revolver.

Goethe Inst. +

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