Detlev Buck helms the 3-D cinematic adaptation of Daniel Kehlmann’s historical best-seller “Measuring The World.” The Berlin and Beyond Film Festival Late Night entry takes the viewer from a high South American peak to the workings of a mind inspired by the eating of an apple. Yet despite its best picaresque attempts, the film never fully engages the viewer’s heart.
Working from Kehlmann’s script, the film follows the fates of two noted 19th century scientists. Aristocrat Alexander von Humboldt explores South America, seeking natural curios from the New World. Commoner Carl Frederich Gauss uses his incredible mathematical gifts to understand the workings of the universe even as his discoveries slowly isolate him from other people. When these two men eventually meet as adults, can they find common ground?
For all the adventures that both leading men undergo during the film, neither character’s exploits fully engage the heart. Von Humboldt’s brash willingness to let his curiosity take him wherever is overshadowed by his odd idiosyncracies (e.g. he considers evolutionary theory a sin) and his frequently insulting treatment of French traveling companion Aime Bonpland. Gauss’ struggles to have others understand his mathematical theories needed better visual elan in contrasting his world-spanning ideas with the town he’s stuck in. The onscreen treatment of Gauss’ theorizing comes across as faintly ludicrous.
“Measuring The World” does have small flickers of unintentional entertainment. A velvet rope separating young Gauss and his teacher from the Duke of Brunswick’s dinner table raises suspicions the aristocrat feared catching commoner cooties. While 3-D will make a blizzard-struck snowy mountain look impressive on the Castro screen, a shot of a prostitute’s bare derriere will leave a bigger impression. Otherwise, viewers demanding more than spectacle from their filmgoing will find Buck’s film wanting.
The exploration undertaken in Nana Neul’s drama “Silent Summer” differs from the physical exploration of “Measuring The World.” Under exploration in Berlin and Beyond’s Closing Night film are past and present relationships within a family.
Art historian Kristine Winter (Dagmar Menzel) has retreated to her family’s house in the South of France after she mysteriously loses her voice. Psychiatrist husband Herbert soon joins Kristine and daughter Anna in reconnecting with the nearby expatriate German community. But the family’s idyllic existence can’t conceal a couple of hidden emotional fractures. One comes from Franck, Anna’s studly boyfriend who has a non-platonic interest in matronly Kristine. The other fracture involves an old secret that threatens Kristine and Herbert’s marriage.
Menzel turns what could be a gimmicky turn with Kristine’s forced muteness into a dramatic asset. The high-powered historian is forced to start listening to her daughter’s problems. More importantly, the viewer needs to pay attention to Kristine’s smallest raising of her eyebrow just to get a possible clue to her feelings.
Neul pleasantly surprises the viewer with a mid-film revelation and story-telling device that causes the viewer to re-evaluate the film’s earlier events. The revelation may seem totally gratuitous. Yet Neul’s script plays fair with the viewer in showing its logical buildup.
Viewers will be frustrated with “Silent Summer”’s ultimate handling of Franck’s obsession with Kristine and the art historian’s voice loss. The long-term repercussions of Franck’s obsession don’t get dealt with. Nor does Neul even offer a hint of ambiguity over whether Kristine’s problem was physical or mental. Those faults aside, “Silent Summer” does manage to enchant the viewer.
The last day of the Berlin and Beyond screenings at the Goethe-Institut offers a powerful and thought-provoking documentary dealing with the subjects of guilt and responsibility regarding humanity’s relationship with the animal kingdom.
“Redemption Impossible” from directors Christian Rost and Claus Strigel is set primarily in an abandoned safari park outside Vienna. Living in that park are 40 chimpanzees used in 15 years worth of unsuccessful AIDS cure experiments by drug company INNOVO. The experimentation process left these normally social apes brutalized and isolated. Former chimpanzee guard Renate Foidl leads a fellow former guard and a couple of other trained women in maintaining the chimpanzees’ living quarters and trying to get them re-socialized. Despite Baxter drug company support, more money is needed to complete building a planned habitat for the chimpanzees.
Rost and Strigel unreservedly condemn INNOVO’s history with chimpanzee experimentation. Partnerships with a notorious animal smuggler and corrupt government officials allowed INNOVO to sneakily import chimpanzees into Austria on highly questionable grounds. Up to 10 chimps, including the mother, were regularly killed to obtain an infant chimpanzee test subject. INNOVO also managed to fight off animal activist criticism by aggressively using libel suits requesting financially ruinous damages.
The pertinent questions posed by the documentary concerns the consequences of remedying INNOVO’s abusive behavior. Many of the chimpanzees spent most of their lives in captivity. Does providing humane care for these animal test subjects make up for what was done to them? In one of the more touching and thought-provoking sequences of the film, Foidl deals with this question and reaches the conclusion that what she and her fellow workers do won’t redeem the actions of the humans who abused these apes. But at least some degree of atonement can be reached.
One example of this atonement is seeing the women recognize and sympathetically respond to such behavioral quirks from the chimps as marking territory with knotted cloth strips. Any fears of sentimentality are dispelled by the handlers’ recognition that the chimps’ strength and their emotional damage make for a toxic combination. That point is driven home by the sight of several chimpanzee fingers which had been literally torn off the animals’ hands.
(“Measuring The World” screens at 9:45 PM on January 18, 2014. “Silent Summer” screens at 8:00 PM on January 19, 2014. Both screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF). “Redemption Impossible” screens on 6:00 PM on January 21, 2014. This screening takes place at the Goethe-Institut Auditorium (530 Bush Street, SF). For further information about the festival, go to http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/saf/prj/bby/enindex.htm