German cinema again makes its presence felt in Australia with the 12th annual Audi Festival of German Films. For a nation that is at the core of an unrelenting debt crisis, Germany shows no signs of slowing its prodigious cinematic output with 45 films screening in what is now a key event for German kultur in Australia.
Wir Wollten Aufs Meer (Shores of Hope)
German filmmakers continue their cinematic examination of the years of Cold War division in Torke Constantin Hebbeln’s Shores of Hope. Conny (Alexander Fehling) and Andreas (August Diehl, best known to English-speaking audiences as the dialect-discerning SS officer in the cellar bar in Inglourious Basterds) are two best friends who decide their best chance of a life away from the rigidity of East Germany is to become sailors in the port city of Rostock. However, this proves difficult in the paranoid political climate of 1980s East Germany, with Rostock its sole international port and those seeking jobs on ocean-going vessels treated with suspicion by the authorities.
After three years of working on the docks, Conny and Andreas are given the opportunity to join a ship’s crew, provided they work for the dreaded East German secret police, the Stasi. The pair is tasked with secretly recording conversations with their foreman who is suspected of planning to de-fect to the West. What ensues is a portrait of abject misery the East German state inflicted on its citizens, with friends torn between their loyalties to each other and to their own selfish desires.
Shores of Hope is richly infused with a sense of period, of a regime that basically played a state-sanctioned country-sized game of Prisoner’s Dilemma for over forty years. The Stasi and its omniscient influence are felt in every scene, subverting the autonomy of each character regardless of whether they are of the state or against it. While the film admirably attempts to reach the heights of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), it falls short, instead feeling like a slightly more melodramatic and conventional companion piece.
Where Shores of Hope best succeeds is in providing a claustrophobic portrait of an omniscient regime that dominated an already demoralised people for decades. It is yet another successful entry in the German cinema’s ongoing introspective examination of the hard years of the Cold War.
Ausgerechnet Sibirien (Lost in Siberia)
In this fish-out-water comedy, divorced garment production manager, Mattias (Joachim Król) finds himself in Keremova, Siberia to establish a new logistics line for his company’s Russian subsidiary. Naturally, Mattias finds the subsidiary is made up of little more than an oversized Russian lady and her family who are not particularly amenable to being instructed how to do logistics by a German (“Hitler Kaputt!” is one of the favourite lines of the Russians). All goes sort-of to plan until Mattias falls for a traditional throat-singer, Sayana, and pursues her almost literally to the ends of the earth.
In many ways, Lost in Siberia feels like a film that should be French. In fact, I was almost waiting for Gérard Depardieu to pop up, considering he is now a Russian citizen (and Putin acolyte). Perhaps it’s my studies in political economy, but I couldn’t help but view this film through the prism of the current economic and political climate.
Germany is a key foreign investor in Russia and one of the few western states not to endlessly chastise Russia for its human rights record. Germany needs Russia’s gas and oil (former German chan-cellor Gerhard Schröder is chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom) and Russia needs Germany’s currency, even if it is the Euro. The audience is constantly reminded of Russia’s former greatness, being told Keremova is the home town of Soviet cosmonaut and first man to walk in space, Alexey Leonov. This is a country where its citizens are still getting used to their diminished place in the post-Cold War order and the last thing they need is a German coming in and telling them how to do business.
Mattias is a divorced, materialistic German who goes to Russia to teach them his methods, but instead he finds something greater, something transcendental. It’s all a bit hackneyed and a bit simple to imbue strange and foreign things with mystical otherness, but it does the job. Mattias’s journey may be somewhat predictable, but it’s certainly one worth taking and it is quite a beautiful reminder of the diversity and culture in every corner of the world.
Vegemite Festival of Australian Cinema? (Warning, contains traces of opinion)
All this begs the question: where is Australia’s prodigious cinematic output? Although Australian cinema has had some hits in the past few years, it would be difficult to programme a selection of equal quality if Australia was to have a festival of local films in Berlin, for instance.
Is it enough to continue doing depressing, albeit well-made kitchen sink dramas? Is it adequate to call a film “Australian” if it used only the post-production talent and computer wizardry of a few? What the hell is Australian cinema, anyway?
As Ben Goldsmith argues in his article on The Conversation, the government’s recently announced National Cultural Policy (the first in sixteen years since the barren wasteland of the Howard era) is “bold, but vulnerable”. With Simon Crean self-immolating, it is up to a new minister, Tony Burke, to shepherd the policy through in these the likely dying days of the Labor Government.
For a full calendar of films and session times, go to goethe.de/ozfilmfest