Over the past decade, German cinema has revived with the emergence of a string of remarkable new filmmakers, beginning with Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec. In contrast to the more conventional efforts of Fatih Akin and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the works of these directors are based in an emphasis on formal experimentation over spectacle and a preference for narrative experimentation over storytelling based on character psychology, whether transparent or ambiguous. In the last few years, more filmmakers have come to light alongside those mentioned above, and this program foregrounds two emerging talents: Christoph Hochhäusler (b. 1972) and Isabelle Stever (b. 1963). Both released their second films in 2005 and reached new levels of acclaim and international notice with their third features from last year.
As a group, these filmmakers are often referred to as “the Berlin School.” This name stems from the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin (Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin, or “DFFB,” for short). Headed for many years by pioneering directors Hartmut Bitomsky and Haroun Farocki, the school encouraged ambitious and adventurous filmmaking, laying the foundation for the most impressive flowering of German cinema since the 1970s. Isabelle Stever is a graduate of the DFFB, where she enrolled after initially studying mathematics. A graduate of the Munich film school, Hochhäusler has taught at DFFB and is a respected critic in Germany, where he was also a founder of the influential cinema journal Revolver. Hochhäusler and Stever share certain characteristics with their fellow Berlin School filmmakers, particularly their engagement with elliptical storytelling, opaque narrative motivation and an often restrained audiovisual style conjoined with provocative subject matter. In contrast with the markedly affective style of the New German cinema – Fassbinder’s melodramas, Herzog’s eccentricity, Wenders’ melancholy – these directors exhibit a striking coolness, at least on the surface. In the absence of being told how to feel, the spectator is urged to confront his or her own involvement.
Special thanks: Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, Karin Oehlenschläger—Goethe-Institut Boston; Gerd Gemünden—Dartmouth College.
Directed by Isabelle Stever. With Anne Weinknecht, Stefan Rudolf, Carlo Ljubek
Germany 2005, digital video, color, 90 min. German with English subtitles
Gisela is a young mother in the suburb of an unnamed German city who divides her time between caring for her toddler son and working as a supermarket checker. Despite the indifference, or even hostility, of her resentful husband, she seems content to accept her lot. The main threat to the apparent calm of this existence is the lurking presence of Paul, a ne’er-do-well from Gisela’s school days. When Paul introduces his brooding friend Georg to Gisela, the attraction between them establishes an unstable triangle as Stever lays out a string of events that constantly force us to re-evaluate our sympathies with the characters and our fears for them. In pointed distinction to the mobility and velocity represented by, for example, Run Lola Run, the figures in Stever’s films seem obstinately stuck, resistant to any easy solution of their problems.
Directed by Christoph Hochhäusler. With Constantin von Jascheroff, Manfred Zapatka, Victoria Trauttmansdorff
Germany 2005, 35mm, color, 94 min. German with English subtitles
Fresh out of high school, Armin remains with his solidly middle-class parents while he searches halfheartedly for an occupation. He fails his job interviews because of his inability either to muster a minimum of enthusiasm or to express a sense of self that he apparently lacks. At the same time, Armin leads a second life in which he mails anonymous confessions of crimes that he may or may not have committed and indulges in erotic encounters with a mysterious gang of bikers. The plot of I Am Guilty suggests a revisiting of Rebel Without a Cause by way of Gus van Sant, but the film’s brilliance is its ability to suspend the distinction between Armin’s fantasies and reality. Hochhäusler leaves open the question of whether his protagonist’s obsessions with guilt, humiliation and abjection are the problem or the solution to his lack of identity.
Directed by Christoph Hochhäusler, Appearing in Person
With Nicolette Krebitz, Robert Hunger-Bühler, Mark Waschke
Germany 2010, 35mm, color, 110 min. German with English subtitles
While many of the films of the “Berlin School” remain focused on families and small social groups as microcosms of contemporary life, Hochhäusler’s latest feature takes place among the hyper-mobile elites of international finance. The plot of The City Below pivots on a love triangle driven by a banking executive, after his chance meeting with the wife of a junior colleague. Without his lover’s knowledge, he engineers the transfer of her husband to a potentially dangerous post in Indonesia. The film’s mise en scene juxtaposes the disorienting glassiness of corporate architecture with chilly domestic spaces and the dark recesses of illicit desire to illustrate a world dominated by global flows of capital in which the only value is exchange value.
Directed by Isabelle Stever. With Annika Kuhl, Stefan Rudolf, Arno Frisch
Germany 2010, 35mm, color, 91 min. German with English subtitles
On New Year’s Eve, Simone engages in an uncharacteristically impulsive one-night-stand with a handsome stranger. She registers no surprise when she becomes pregnant, but the eagerness with which her lover accepts the news unsettles her. As the two become a couple and she is faced with losing the anonymity of her previous, solitary life, Simone becomes increasingly anxious. Stever rigorously tailors her film to Simone’s point of view, maintaining a placid surface to the film, while allowing quick glimpses of things stirring in the depths, even as it remains difficult to say what those things might be. Which is worse: if Simone has met the man of her dreams, or if she hasn’t? .