Among the myriad film fests in the Bay Area, Berlin and Beyond is one of the most eclectic and daring—its criteria is nothing less than films made in a language spoken by 100 million people. The 19th festival unfolds Jan 29-Feb 1 at the Castro, with one-day annexes at the Aquarius in Palo Alto (Feb 2) and the California Theater in Berkeley. (Feb 3). The whole shebang includes parties, special guests, and shorts programs.
On opening night, the renowned actress Hannelore Eisner receives a Lifetime Achievement Award before the screening of her starring role in To Life! Here, she plays an aging Berlinese cabaret singer who befriends the young man who rescues her from a suicide attempt. Also being honored at the fest is the adroit director of numerous outrageous social comedies, Doris Dörrie (Nobody Loves Me , Men).
The cornucopia includes a mainstream policier (The King’s Surrender ), and intelligent costume dramas such as the life-of-Kliest costumer Amour Fou and Austria’s entry to the Oscars, The Dark Valley . And there are some out-and-out crowd-pleasers, such as Unlikely Heroes . It’s a fable about a Swiss volunteer who directs a group of illegal immigrants in a play.
Witty, malicious, and tastily idiomatic in its script, Dörrie’s The Whole Shebang is based on her novel All Inclusive . It begins with the contrast between a mom and daughter. The former hippie Ingrid (Hannelore Eisner) is recuperating after a double hip replacement; she’s tottering around a concrete-tsunami resort in Spain infested by the Speedo-clad “fat German businessmen pretending to be acrobats” of which the Monty Python troop once spoke. (Times have changed since Eric Idle’s tirade; the resort’s spring break-crazed MC, Tina, played by Hinnerk Schönemann, is a drag queen.) Ingrid’s forlorn daughter Apple (Nadja Uhl) is starting a tentative relationship with the veterinarian who almost put her lapdog “Dr. Freud” to sleep.
As in much of Dörrie, the core of the comedy concerns women certain that they need men for happiness. To paraphrase a nasty DJ, pontificating over a dissonant classical album here, Dörrie opposes the principle that an artist is best when she “not even for a second tries to entertain us, but rather shows us the world at its most cruel.” Ingrid, Apple and Tina’s world gets sweeter by the end.
Even better is Dörrie’s This Lovely Shitty Life . (The original title, Que Carramba es la Vida , is less provocative.) It’s an outstanding documentary on female mariachis. The folkloric musicians are still plying the trade in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi. In sombreros and bolero jackets, shining with silver thread, they line the streets around the Plaza like day laborers out at night, waiting to be picked up to entertain a party. Even after learning the Mexican Army has mariachis on their payroll, you worry if there’s much future in the trade … as you might about any music that doesn’t appear to be attracting scads of young people.
The female mariachis contend with low pay, sexist competition and drunken listeners who assume they’re for rent after the music’s over. Dörrie responds to the beauty and funk of Mexico City like few filmmakers, and she asks all the right questions. Her subjects are humbled by circumstance but rich with brio: “Nobody sings like I do,” says one second-generation mariachi.
A highlight: the interview session with “Las Estrellas de Mexico,” who claim to be the first all-female mariachi group when they began a half-century ago. Today, they’re stout, respectable matrons who once had to deal with the hazards of the trade, staying up all night, coming home at dawn, smelling like cigar smoke: “Your husband gets all kinds of crazy ideas.”
The Goethe Institute Auditorium is the screening site for an unusually intimate film about architecture, Concrete Love: The Böhm Family . The formidably-named documentary maker Maurizius Staerkle-Drux considers Gottfried Böhm, the elderly Rhineland architect who designed more than a score of churches. Böhm is the winner of both the Pritzker and the Pulitzer for his creations. His heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, and his edifices have gone straight from shock to nostalgia; they’re Gothic but with simplified conical and spear shapes, like cities in the backgrounds of Expressionist drawings.
This architectural lion in winter witnesses the slipping away of his wife Elisabeth, who was a noted architect herself. The couple’s home life—which was never simple—is illuminated through the candid commentary of Böhm’s offspring, the fourth generation of Böhms in the family business. Böhm’s long life reflects the fate of Germany in the 20th century; he was himself wounded at the Eastern front. We see Koln Cathedral defiled with the Nazi flag, and how badly Böhm’s city of Cologne was smashed. “There was something wonderful in all that misery.” Böhm says, noting the strange aesthetics of the rubble. Watching him find solace from romantic grief by making monuments and sculpture, the documentary suggests that the energy we call “love,” like all energy, is neither created nor destroyed.
Architects erect their proud towers—where, then, are the monuments to the other sex’s junk? (Even Dörrie herself did a talking-penis movie titled Me and Him back in 1988.) From the nation that brought you Wetlands : Vulva 3.0 . The ultimate “Mondo Pussy,” it deals with a subject we’d hoped had been thoroughly licked back in the 1970s. Claudia Richarz and Ulrike Zimmerman’s merry, sometimes sad, but always hard-researched thesis is about the widespread fear and loathing of female genitals. Topics include that vanishing prairie called pubic hair, and surgical labiaplasty. (We’re spared the gory sight, thank God, but we do watch a room full of sweaty plastic surgeons being walked through the procedure with a training film.)
Interviewees include Ulrich Grolla, a nudie-magazine photoshopper aiming to trim nature for “normal-thinking viewers,” and Jawahir Cumar, a battler against female circumcision who’s undergone surgeries to reverse the vicious procedure. We learn of the myth of Baubo and Demeter, which you can look up, and witness ancient Balkan peasant skirt-lifting to encourage the crops and repel the bears. Also interviewed are a host of the usual activists and artists. Whether the front is in San Francisco or Hamburg, they haven’t given up the fight for vaginal liberation … even by gentle increments such as making fuzzy cooter-puppets. One greets us on screen: “Guten tag!”
Richard von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose’s Metro Newspapers. He’s the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and cinematical.com. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.