German Currents


Reviews by Willard Manus

The recent GERMAN CURRENTS film festival in L.A., sponsored by American Cinemateque and Goethe Institut, focused on a small but unique slate of new films which were produced in and around Cologne (as opposed to Berlin or Munich). Origins aside, the films were among the best I've seen this year. Look for them soon in a theatre near you.

STORM, directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, is a docudrama set in The Hague, where Hanna Maynard (played masterfully by British actress Kerry Fox) is an International Criminal Tribunal prosecutor seeking an indictment against a Serbian general accused of kidnapping and executing dozens of Bosnian-Muslim civilians. Shot in English, the film shows just how difficult it is for justice to prevail, what with witnesses being intimidated and even murdered, and political pressure squeezing judges and lawyers alike.

NOBODY'S PERFECT, Niko von Glasow's 85-minute documentary, takes a bold, brave look at the Thalidomide scandal. von Glasow, a Thalidomide victim himself, visits eleven people in Germany and England who were born disabled due to the devastating side-effects of the drug. von Glasow not only explores the problems they've faced in life but invites them to pose naked for a book of photos. By the time the film ends, all notions of what beauty is are put to the test. von Glasow also does a Michael Moore and visits the chemical company that made Thalidomide, hoping to find out why they've never paid a penny in reparations. He's turned away at the front gate, of course.

NORTH FACE is a powerful adventure film pitting man vs. nature on a grand scale. Based on a true story, NORTH FACE is set in 1936 when two intrepid mountain climbers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fuermann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), attempt to reach the top of the Eiger--the north face of the Swiss massif better known as Murder Wall.

No one had ever succeeded in making it to the summit, which was not only steep, rocky and icy, but lashed by wind, sleet and snow storms. Nine alpinists had lost their lives here before Toni and Andi took up the challenge.

Like all daredevils, Toni and Andi (fictional composites for such real-life climbers as Heckmair, Vorg, Harrer and Kasparek) were a mixture of masochism, madness, courage and recklessness.

Filled with an overweening desire to be the first to conquer the Geiger, they were the sports heroes of their day, glorified by the media, pumped up by their fans (who could watch them in action from the terraces of hotels or low-level hiking paths). The Eiger, as someone said, was a vertical ampitheatre.

Toni and Andi are further spurred on by the Nazis (typified by a party newspaper publisher, Ulrich Tukur), who exploited the bravery and daring of the climbers for ideological purposes. As director Philipp Stoelzl said, "To give everything for an idea, a myth, to sacrifice one's own life if need be: this fatalistic flirt with heroic death is what the Nazis found so interesting in mountain climbing. Intellectually, it was only one small step from there to marching towards the Urals for the German Reich." NORTH FACE incorporates a few bits and pieces of documentary film in telling its story, but it is mostly a piece of pure filmmaking, shot (by Kolja Brandt, winner of Germany's Lola Award for his work on the picture) partially on the Eiger, partially on nearby mountains, partially in a studio (a refrigerated warehouse). Stunt climbers were used for the dangerous stuff, but several cameramen risked their lives as well, suspended by ropes alongside the climbers.

The result of all that daring work is on the screen. NORTH FACE comes off with a realism that is astoundingly lifelike: you are right up there on Murder Wall with Toni and Andi, fighting for finger and toe holds, dodging rockfalls, surviving blizzards, hunger and frostbite.

Stoelzl and his production team have succeeded in breathing new life into the mountain-adventure genre and making it relevant to a 21st century audience.