The Great Beyond

Leaving home to find work, and the emotional baggage dragged along, is the theme of the stronger offerings in this year's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, which screens independent films and documentaries from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Don't fret if you missed the Jan. 10 opening night film, Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, which won the best screenplay award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is Germany's bid for the 2008 Foreign Film Oscar. This outstanding drama of crossed transnational paths and exile, featuring four powerful female performances and a genuinely compelling lesbian romance, will open in theatres later this year. A subtler treatment of the guest-worker theme is And Along Come Tourists, which dials down all of its potentially heavy themes of genocide, nationalism, historical memory, and the nature of foreign civil service as well as the tourist industry and manages to develop great sympathy for all of its characters. A German youth finds himself posted to Poland's Auschwitz, the former Nazi death camp and now a busy tourist attraction, for his one-year civil service obligation. Everything about his chores reminds him of the Holocaust, while the lives of the surrounding Poles who've moved on cast shadows on his life.

Ulrich Seidl's Import Export, however, is a frustrating, labored (so to speak) exercise in misery. For all its prolonged exposure to two guest-worker characters, they remain inarticulate and static victims. Humiliation and degradation are rubbed into every overlong scene, to the point of disgust. We get that Austria and Ukraine are increasingly coming to resemble each other and that neither provides a decent living for its young working-class citizens -- a realization that doesn't need to have indignity after indignity piled onto it.

Finally, Christian Petzold's stunning Yella, which sold out at October's Mill Valley Film Festival, is an increasingly bizarre account of a young woman running away from her old life in the former East Germany to new prospects in West Germany. What at first seems like a domestic thriller (she's being stalked by a volatile ex) goes deeper when, seemingly free of him and blossoming in a new high-powered career, she starts being harassed by sounds and premonitions signaling a second ruin. Nina Hoss, who won the best actress award at Berlin for her performance, has the deliberate, disheveled intensity of a Jeanne Moreau. Her journey across the Elbe becomes something much bigger than escape from a failed marriage -- it's a primal mystery with baggage past the weight limit.

Today's screenings start at 1 p.m. with Half of Life.
Jan. 10-16, 2008

 
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