Geneva Anderson digs into art

2nd Annual German Gems Film Festival set to sparkle at the Castro this weekend and in Point Arena on January 22, 2011

Johannes Silberschneider (left) as Mahler and Karl Markovics as Freud in MAHLER ON THE COUCH by Percy and Felix Adlon. The film opens the second German Gems Film Festival this Friday at the Castro Theatre. Photo courtesy of German Gems

The 2nd German Gems film festival opens this Friday evening at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco, presenting a line-up of ten fascinating new German-language films.  A portion of the program will be shown in Point Arena at their historic Arena Theatre on Saturday, January 22, 2011.  The emphasis of this little festival is on new filmmakers and first features whose narratives and styles define new trends in German-language cinema.  The festival opens with Mahler on the Couch  by the father and son team, Percy Adlon (Baghdad Café, Sugar Babies, Salmonberries) and Felix Adlon.  This magical and timely narrative feature of doomed love and musical genius comes at the centennial of the famous Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler’s death.  It focuses on his wife, Alma Mahler’s affair with the young architect Walter Gropius that drives her famous husband to Sigmund Freud’s couch.

 And that’s just the first gem…there are nine others addressing the little known but awesome sport of river surfing, a celebrated architect whose personal life is in complete ruins, a 17 year-old girl who viciously and unexpectedly murders a classmate, a 78 year-old pilot whose has flown notables like Haille Selassie and the king of Yemen who is building his dream plane in the Caribbean for an air show in Florida, and an epic mountain film set in South Tyrol in 1809 that is a grand love story between a Bavarian woman and a Tyrolean rebel who are both enmeshed in Napoleon’s quest for empire. 

Ingrid Eggers, founder of German Gems, now in its second year at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Ingrid Eggers who founded German Gems last year.  Eggers, a long-time Bay Area resident, ran the very successful Berlin and Beyond film festival from 1996 through 2009.  Under her guidance, Berlin and Beyond became one of the most successful German language film festivals outside of Europe, presenting over 500 films to 100,000 people in the Bay Area. When the Goethe-Institut San Francisco, which had sponsored Berlin and Beyond, merged it with Los Angeles’ German Currents festival to create a single West Coast event in October, 2009, Eggers had mandatory retirement forced upon her.  She re-emerged a few months later with German Gems, a one day, three film mini-fest at the Castro Theatre that was tremendously popular. Now, she is back with her second German Gems and a lot to say about German film.

What does German Gems allow you to offer the Bay Area audience that you couldn’t offer before? 

Ingrid Eggers:  I looked very carefully at Berlin and Beyond and the other German festivals in California and examined their current programming and didn’t see any focus on first feature films from young filmmakers. I decided to bring first features here–documentaries as well narrative features–to give young filmmakers from film schools a chance to show their films in San Francisco.  In Germany, there’s a lot of money for filmmaking, a lot of competition, and there’s a lot of very interesting film resulting from that.  It’s very hard for this group to find a festival that will take them.  Our selection of 10 films, one of which is a 20 minute short, includes 6 first features and several of the filmmakers will be here to present their films.

What impacted your decision to expand to a full weekend this year?

Ingrid Eggers:  The first German Gems did very well and I thought this January slot, which was when Berlin and Beyond used to be held, was very good because there’s not much happening.  I am also offering films that wouldn’t otherwise be shown here. Of the 10 films in my program, none of them has an American distributor at this point.  The big Bay Area festivals, SFIFF (San Francisco International Film Festival) and Frameline (Gay and Lesbian festival), aren’t showing many German films. SFIFF has emphasized French films, and it does the little French and Italian series in the fall.  I am not sure where the new director of Berlin and Beyond is headed; he’s Cambodian and seems to be moving in an international direction.  I want to continue represent German films and think there is definitely an audience. 

Do you select all the films yourself?  What are your criteria?

Ingrid Eggers:  I don’t do it all alone.  I have a group of people here who watch the films and another group of UCLA film school students (which includes my daughter) in Los Angeles because I want to have some young eyes look at this too.  And I go to the festivals– Munich in the summer, Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) in February and German Currents in Los Angeles in October—and I see what’s going on.  I get lots of films sent to me too. 

In terms of selection, the number one criterion is quality and that’s a very subjective thing.  For me, quality is based on the screenplay, cinematography, the way the film is made, and the filmmaker’s point of contact with the story.  It all has to work.  This year, we’ve got Celebration of Flight a documentary resulted from the filmmaker (director Lara Juliette Sanders) traveling to the Caribbean, to Dominica, and meeting a 78 year-old pilot, a quite amazing guy, who was working on building a plane.  It all came together beautifully.  The filmmaker has a curious story too—she was in advertising and quit and went to the airport and said I’m going to fly to No. 10 on this big list of departures.  That’s how she ended up in the Caribbean and found Daniel Rundstrom.  She wrote a book about this and has become very popular in Germany, on all the talk shows.  The outcome is that she became a filmmaker and has relocated to LA.  Daniel impressed me too: he is so methodical in the pursuit of his dream but then there were big problems with this plane at the air show in Miami.  Both the director and Daniel will be at the festival.

KEEP SURFING's director Bjorn Richie Lob, an avid river surfer, rides a wave on the Eisbach in a still from KEEP SURFING, photo courtesy of German Gems

There’s another one, David Wants to Fly which is really the story of two David’s–director David Sieveking whose subject is Director David Lynch– and TM (Transcendental Meditation).  Sieveking got more and more sucked into TM and then found out about the very harsh side of it and that impacted his talks with David Lynch.  So we get insight into TM and David Lynch and this quest and it all works. 

And when I saw Keep Surfing in Munich two years ago at its world premiere, I knew this had to be shown in the Bay Area. It really gets into this sport which is little known and into the stories of the people who are doing it. It represents years of work too.  I knew nothing about this before I saw the film and I know Munich. They took me from the theatre just 10 minutes down the street to the Eisbach and it was quite amazing. I really wanted the film and finally I got it

Of course, you don’t always get you want because distributors are asking a lot of money, even for small films. Our festival is very small and if you want to get new productions, the world sales people will tell you that they want to wait and see if the film is picked up by a larger festival in the area first.  The bigger festivals want to premiere films that have not been shown in the area before.  You get lots of no’s, but we always find great films that fit our program. 

The films I have seen—Mahler on the Couch, Mountain Blood, The Architect, She Deserved It, Disenchantments— all rely on exceptionally well-developed stories and actors rather than special effects to carry the day.  Is this your curating preference or a theme in German film?

Ingrid Eggers:  I think that young filmmakers are not going for special effects because these things cost money.  It’s hard enough to get good actors, but actors can sometimes be persuaded to donate their services. 

Josef Bierbichler as Georg Winter in THE ARCHITECT, Ina Weisse's feature debut about a man whose long-held secrets drag his family down. Photo courtesy of German Gems

What themes are young German filmmakers exploring these days?  

Ingrid Eggers:  I’ve been asking myself that question. I can tell you what is not in the film that I am watching now.   One of the things is war epics…Iraq, Afghanistan… wars have been done. I’m not seeing that in German or in new American films either.  The other thing is that I am not seeing is social clashes outside of the family.  Germany is full of Turks, the major minority in Germany.  Die Fremde (director Feo Aladağ, winner of 2010 European Lux Prize) is about honor killings through the narrative of a Turkish family living in Germany. It’s being shown all around and that’s why we aren’t showing it.  I think filmmakers are retreating with these problems into the family and not dealing head-on with these big subjects out there.  They are telling a story about family relationships, and at the same time, in parallel, a story with wider social, cultural and moral aspects. The Architect, She Deserved It, and Mountain Blood are examples of this. I didn’t see much engagement with gay topics either.  

Who are the filmmakers who are most influencing this new generation of German filmmakers?  Are they German, European, American, international?

Ingrid Eggers:  Usually, young German filmmakers graduating from film school will first try to write a good script and then see if they get funding for their film.  There’s so much money in Germany now for film, it comes from taxes, and as a result German film has gotten really good.  If you ask them–and we had these discussions at Berlin and Beyond here a couple of years ago with Wim Wenders and young filmmakers–you see that young German filmmakers watch a lot of films.  They are influenced by the all the big names out there– Antonioni, David Lynch—and they are investigating and comparing but I think their main thing is to try to do their own thing with their own story.

There is also a trend in Germany towards Hollywood with films being made in this pure entertainment style, trying to be blockbusters.  Some succeed but most don’t.   There are also young German filmmakers who migrate to Hollywood and give it a try.  Usually, they are not so successful.  Those who are most successful in German film are the ones who deal with more German topics.  The big example right now though is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who got an Oscar in 2007 for his fantastic debut feature film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) and now he’s done The Tourist which I wouldn’t go and see.  I think he has much more interesting stories to tell than that one.  After success in Germany, opportunities may open up in the States but that doesn’t necessarily translate into success here.

 The Architect and She Deserved It make for a very heavy Saturday night.  What facet of German culture do they shed light on? 

I got totally fascinated by The Architect (Der Architekt) which is mystery, secrets and snow and the story of this successful guy who is a total mess.  In that isolated village, he cannot walk away from all of this and everything disintegrates in him and in his family.  It is quite intense.  People told me, and I agree, that if he hadn’t died, he would have gone back to that woman which no one wanted.  From a screenplay point of view, once the family went back to north Germany, he could not survive.  The amazing thing is that the young director, Ina Weisse, got these huge German stars, all the big names, to play in her film and did a fantastic job of directing it.

Sina Tkosch as Kati, Liv Lisa Fries as Linda, Francois Goeske as Josch, and Saskia Schindler as Susanne in the SHE DESERVED IT, Thomas Stiller's topical exploration of a 17 year-old who murders her classmate. Photo courtesy of German Gems

She Deserved It (Sie hat es verdient) is a very heavy film that’s hard to watch but we had to show it because teen-based violence is such a big topic now in Germany, actually all over the place, and we don’t really know why.  Families will probably say this can’t happen in my family but it happens every day, this past weekend in fact.   This is based on a true story of a 14 year old girl who killed her classmate.  This is shot basically from the perspective of the perpetrator, the young girl.  You really get under her skin and the dialogue with her mother–the only one who tries to find out what happened—is remarkable.  The filmmaker can’t be here but I’m going to have a therapist come up on stage and talk about the family dynamics in both families and what it is that has driven so many young people into despair, violence and suicide.  This film will be shown on German television and embedded in something called “theme evening” where people and experts talk and other things related to this topic of teenage violence are shown.  It’s a very important film.

You’ve picked a set of films that portray a very interesting and strong group of women.  The female characters in Alma Mahler, The Architect, Mountain Blood, She Deserved It— use their strengths in different ways, to different ends but they are all strong.  Is this you coming through?

Barbara Romaner portrays the passionate Alma Mahler, in Mahler on the Couch screening at German Gems 2011. Photo courtesy of Percy Aldon.

Ingrid Eggers:  I haven’t looked at it from that point of view but yes, maybe.  I know that in She Deserved It (Thomas Stiller) all the men are hopeless. In The Architect (Ina Weisse), even though he’s at the pinnacle of his career, his life is a complete mess and he is torn apart by women.  Alma Mahler in Mahler on the Couch (Percy and Felix Adlon) is a strong woman who used her sexuality to draw very intelligent men into her orbit. In Mountain Blood, (Philipp J. Pamer) the women stay at home while the men are fighting and you have two very strong women there—Katherina, the outsider, and Elisabeth, the mother, who embodies that type of suspicious insular mountain person. These women really run things.  And then too, in terms of the mix of female filmmakers in this festival, there are two.  I would not do a festival without women filmmakers.

In Germany today, who are the strongest female filmmakers?

Ingrid Eggers:  Doris Dörrie, Cherry Blossoms (Kirschblüte – Hanami) (2008), who was in San Francisco several times with Berlin and Beyond and Margarethe von Trotta, who made Vision (2008), about Hildegard von Bingen, at German Gems last year.  Both women are in their 50’s or 60’s.  There are many young German women who are maturing but not out there yet.  It’s a very long process to make it to the top because the industry is so dominated by men.  There are lots of women working in producing and at that range both here and in Germany; but directing and cinematography have been hard fields for women to really break into.    

What are your impressions of Philipp Pamer’s Mountain Blood?  I was mesmerized by its depth. I looked up this chapter in Tyrolean independence and he nailed it. 

Wolfgang Menardi and Ina Birkenfeld in MOUNTAIN BLOOD, directed by Philipp Pamer, photo courtesy of German Gems

Ingrid Eggers:  This is one of the most amazing and touching first feature graduation films. It’s a huge production, an epic drama set in 1809 in a small village in the Alps.  There’s a lot of autobiographical stuff in this film too because Philipp Pamer, grew up in that village and it’s very authentic with all the details, right down to the dialects.  There’s also the story and how it’s done.  There’s the couple and how they deal with the political unrest during the time that Napoleon took over Europe and remapped everything.  Oxburg, the home of young woman, Katharina, was a card in the Napoleonic Empire, as was South Tyrol, the home of her husband. 

The Tyrolean leader Andreas Hofer is also in the film but the focus is on the young couple.  The girl is an outsider and is not accepted.  This is very typical for this genre of mountain film. If you live in the mountains, you are cut off from the rest of the world. Within your little community, you become very suspicious of everything that comes from the outside.  She comes in and she doesn’t know what’s going on.  She doesn’t want to fight with anybody.  She starts to be accepted and then she does a major faux paus to keep her husband from fighting in the war from which there is no recovery.

What are your plans for German Gems? Are you hoping to expand it through collaboration with other festivals so that you can share the expenses of flying in more guests or of lengthening the festival?

Ingrid Eggers:  There is always the possibility to do co-presentations, which we are doing with Mahler on the Couch, but to merge with a festival and get money from them would mean you become a satellite. It would be a totally different story, like becoming “New Italian Cinema,” or “French Film Now.”  It’s a totally different way of organizing and a different relationship. You can collaborate but you don’t get real money unless you become part of them. My goal is not to turn this into a week-long festival but to leave it as weekend– two days plus a night– and see who will support this festival and how we can improve it in this format.  We’re very thankful to our sponsors–Maurice Kanbar, Barbro Osher and Kuehne + Nagel, the Bay Guardian and various local people and organizations. Last year we got money from a German foundation, Filmstiftung NRW, and that lasted for two years. 


Films in San Francisco, Castro Theatre Philipp Pamer’s Mountain Blood?  

Friday, January 14, 2011

7 pm  Mahler on the Couch (Mahler auf der Couch) followed by Opening Night Party

Saturday, January 15, 2011

2 pm Keep Surfing                                                                                                                                                                                                            4:30 pm Intern for Life (Ein Praktikant fürs Leben)
7 pm The Architect (Der Architekt)
9 pm She Deserved It (Sie hat es verdient)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

2 pm Celebration of Flight
4 pm David Wants to Fly 

6:30 pm Mountain Blood  (Bergblut)
9 pm Disenchantments (Entzauberungen), preceded by GÖMBÖC

Films in Point Arena, Arena Theatre

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2 pm Intern for Life (Ein Praktikant fürs Leben)
4 pm Keep Surfing
7:30 pm Mahler on the Couch (Mahler auf der Couch)

Details:  San Francisco: German Gems is at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street at Market, San Francisco from Friday through Sunday.  Tickets: $9-11 per screening, $20 opening night.  Purchase online at  Parking Alert: There is virtually no parking around the Castro Theatre.  Allow ample time to find a place to park and walk to the theatre.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment