In one of the more notable cultural gestures of the century, Europe exported armies of artists, mostly from Germany and Austria, to reshape and redefine Hollywood during the 1920s and '30s. Many decades later, America returned the favor by replacing most of Europe's local cinema with U.S. product, an ongoing process that makes the idea of "regional cinema" practically oxymoronic. Still, there are pockets of resistance, if the sixth annual Berlin & Beyond festival, featuring recent German, Austrian, and Swiss films, is any indication.
One of the higher-profile entries this year recalls that early period of German-American cultural exchange. In Marlene, director Joseph Vilsmaier painstakingly re-creates Dietrich's progression from bisexual Berliner to Hollywood icon, in the process sampling, without plumbing too deeply, her numerous troubled relationships with men and women. Actress Katja Flint's impersonation of Dietrich lingers on the surface, perhaps not unwisely given the subject's masklike demeanor and enduring air of mystery. Also from this period is Ernst Lubitsch's decorative silent classic Madame Dubarry, playing in a restored print and featuring an original live score by Dennis James (on the Mighty Wurlitzer).
On a grittier note is Götz Spielmann's Die Fremde (The Stranger). This intricately plotted tale follows a drug-smuggling couple who arrive in Vienna with a kilo of cocaine only to find their connection in jail. The Vienna on view here is far from the comforting vision of artists' enclaves and cobblestone streets with which we're familiar; instead, it's a grim realm of displaced persons who find shelter in brief liaisons that fade as soon as "business" -- which trumps almost everything -- is concluded. Die Polizistin (The Policewoman) effectively explores some of the same territory of lost lives in the New Europe. Andreas Dresen takes a vérité approach to the title character's attempts at adjusting to cop life in one of Germany's most impoverished areas. The film's gallery of grotesques -- a twirling Alzheimer's patient, a homeless psychotic -- brings a rude reality to the film, balancing the occasional swings into bathos.
Berlin & Beyond also includes a festival within the festival. Director Doris Dörrie is the subject of a retrospective that includes her first feature, Mitten Ins Herz (Straight Through the Heart), and her most recent work, the shot-on-video Erleuchtung Garantiert (Enlightenment Guaranteed). In the latter -- one of her best -- two middle-aged brothers whose lives are in a shambles visit a Japanese monastery. Dörrie's specialties are playful satire and absurdist views of human relations, and both are happily in evidence in the film's gentle skewering of a number of targets, from marriage to consumerism to feng shui. The film also resonates with comic and wistful images of the displacement theme that filigrees many of the festival's entries. In a memorable sequence, one of the brothers literally sings for his supper, soliciting money from startled Tokyo passers-by by belting out Gloria Gaynor's disco hit "I Will Survive" -- in German.
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