Don’t Mention The War: The Top 10 Non-Historical German Films – Part 2
Whilst German cinema may have a long tradition of creative experimentation, the fall of the Berlin Wall has seen an increase in films emerging from the country that focus on nostalgic portrayals of history rather than dealing with contemporary issues surrounding the impact of unification. This has seen German cinema become the go-to national cinema for titles that deal with the troubled history of Europe in the 20th century, even if some of these films offer little more than saccharine sentimentalism.
However, although these films make up only a small part of the country’s cinematic output, this international focus on the historical narrative has seen other important parts of German cinema ignored. From an increasingly personal and well-rounded strand of Turkish-German cinema, to modern comedies that delve deep into the state of the nation as it comes to terms with unification, German cinema is as combative and inventive as it was during the height of the New German Cinema wave. Yet fewer of these modern narratives make it to the international screen. If part one showed that Germany was a country with a rich history of filmmaking, then the following films prove that the country has a bright and diverse future of making films that add an significant voice to the world of cinema…
Germany is home to the largest Turkish immigrant community in the world and Head On addresses the problems and issues that can be found amongst them. Cahit is a troubled forty-something whose life is spiralling out of control and so tries, unsuccessfully, to kill himself. He is admitted to hospital where he meets Sibel, a fellow Turk, who also tried to kill herself after becoming frustrated by the limitations placed on her as a woman by her traditional family. Sibel sees Cahit as the solution to her problems and suggests that they should get married, not out of love but for convenience because Sibel’s parents would accept Cahit due to his Turkish roots and the marriage will offer her the freedom which she desires. Cahit reluctantly agrees and they move in together. However, as they get to know one another, they gradually fall in love. Yet neither is able to escape their destructive past, something that leads to potentially tragic complications.
Faith Akin is at the forefront of a movement in contemporary German cinema that has seen German filmmakers embrace the nation’s immigrant communities in a far more inclusive and enthusiastic way than many of its European neighbours. In Head On, Akin explores the impact of immigration, with the clashes of culture that this leads to exposing feelings of dislocation and uselessness in many people, as they become distant from the culture of their parents but are still seen as different by their new adopted homelands.
The epic scale of the love story between Cahit and Sibel is portrayed in such an extraordinary way that it becomes an unapologetically visceral tale which is fraught with emotion, and means that the film becomes both an intimate portrait of a love affair and an important discussion on the cultural impact of immigration.
Balls is a coming of age comedy that is an enjoyable piece of genre cinema – one which proves that world cinema does not always have to mean worthy art house dramas. It tells the story of Ecki, a small town baker in the German Ruhr region, who also plays in goal for the local football team. The team is the pride of the town, and so when Ecki is kicked off the team because he drunkenly tried to kiss one of his teammates, he becomes the local laughing stock. Embarrassed by this, and worried as to how his parent will react to the news, he leaves town and moves in with his sister, who works as a nurse in nearby Dortmund. Although the big city allows Ecki more freedom to come to terms with who he is, he feels lost and letdown by the reaction of those back home. He, therefore, decides to assemble a football team of only gay players to prove his homophobic former teammates wrong by taking them on in an exhibition match.
The resulting group of misfits that Ecki manages to persuade to join his team are an unlikely group of players, made up of a wide spectrum of gay men, from a camp Turkish kebab shop worker to an S&M club bouncer. Yet each of the players has something to prove through their participation in the team. Whilst the film uses these players to play on stereotypes, it does so in a way that brings real humour and pathos to the narrative, as the complex prejudices and problems facing the players come together to give a nuanced depiction of contemporary gay life.
German comedy often is accused of being far too similar to generic Hollywood fare, but Balls’ sympathetic and multi-layered treatment of its gay characters is something rarely seen in mainstream comedies.
Few German actors have been able to make the international crossover to mainstream movies in the way that Daniel Brühl has done through parts in films such as The Bourne Ultimatum and Inglorious Basterds. Yet his German language film roles remain some of his best and this is seen perfectly in The Edukators.
Brühl plays Jan, an anti-capitalist activist, who has taken to breaking into the homes of some of Berlin’s richest people with his friend, Peter, and Peter’s girlfriend, Jule. Once inside, the trio do not normally steal anything but simply rearrange the furniture, leaving a warning message on the problems of capitalism behind. However, on one such break-in, they are disturbed by the house’s owner, Hardenberg, and in the resulting panic, they fashion together a plan to kidnap him and take him to an empty hut in the mountains. Once there, the trio face an ideological crisis that is further complicated by the growing attraction between Jan and Jule, which threatens to comprise their plan and place them all in danger.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Germany had an active left-wing dissident element, with a strong student movement and the RAF terrorist organisation, who themselves kidnapped a number of high profile capitalists, being the most obvious manifestations of this. Therefore, through Hardenberg’s interactions with the trio, the film critiques both the perceived loss of principles that this generation’s has suffered, as they have gradually become part of mainstream society, as well as the failure of subsequent generations to continue in the same vain.
Given its subject matter, the film could quite easily have become a clichéd portrayal of left-wing values and their struggle to reassert themselves in the face of the growing power of evil capitalism. However, due in no small part to a series of fantastic performances by the film’s four main actors, the film avoids this and offers instead a well-balanced and complex study into the issues affecting many people today, becoming a pertinent and thought-provoking critique on the state of society.
Detlev Buck’s film is a gritty and hard-hitting portrayal of growing up in the inner city districts of unified Berlin. The film follows Michael, who is forced to move from one of the capital’s rich neighbourhoods to one of its poorest after his mother’s boyfriend kicks them out. The adjustment is not easy for him, especially as his outsider status attracts the attention of the school bully, Erol, and his gang. They torment Michael, who is forced to rob his mother’s former lover in order to raise funds to pay them protection money. However, in the process of doing this, he meets local gang-leader Hamal, who takes a liking to Michael and offers him a job as a drugs runner. Michael accepts and grows in confidence, as his association with Hamal offers him protection from the school gang. Yet, despite this, Erol refuses to stop hounding Michael, which sets the two of them on a dangerous collision course.
Director Detlev Buck is quickly gaining a reputation as one of contemporary Germany’s most versatile stars, and he uses all of his skills as a filmmaker to make Tough Enough a tense and exhilarating film. His use of high angle shots creates a film that illustrates the claustrophobically inescapable disillusionment felt by much of Berlin’s youth population, which, coupled with the film’s clever, if brutal, use of violence, results in a shockingly revealing narrative. However, it is the film’s young actors that are the real revelation, as they give unflinchingly realistic portrayals of characters that have been abandoned by everyone around them and so have no hope for the future.
Since unification, Berlin has perhaps become best known as one of the party capitals of the world, as young people have flocked to the city to sample its legendary music and club scene. Berlin Calling offers a sobering glance behind the drug fuelled façade of this, as it tells the story of DJ Ickarus, played by real-life superstar DJ Paul Kalkbrenner, whose party lifestyle is beginning to take its toll.
From his base in Berlin, Ickarus travels the world to play club sets and gigs with his manager girlfriend. However, when his record label suggest that his recent work is starting to show the effects of his excessive drug taking and travelling and want to postpone the release of his new album, the DJ goes on a drink and drug binge. This leads to a breakdown, which threatens to destroy not only his career but also his long-term wellbeing.
The film walks a fine line through its depiction of the DJ’s hedonistic lifestyle, becoming both a celebration of the Berlin nightlife and a cautionary tale on the downside of this. This is best illustrated in the scenes that take place in the parties and bars frequented by Ickarus, as the film perfectly captures the euphoric atmosphere of a world dominated by dance music that is also tinged with melancholia and depression. This is aided by the soundtrack to the film, composed by Kalkbrenner himself, which is firmly rooted in the sights and sounds of the city and complements the overall mood of the film. Yet it is in the latter half of the film, with Ickarus left struggling to re-find himself, where the film really excels. In particular, Kalkbrenner is superb in his first dramatic role, as his intelligent and personal portrayal of a DJ at the height if his fame gives the film real heart and focus.
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