BERLIN AND BEYOND—“BARBARA,” “FAUST,” “COMBAT GIRLS,” “BAIKONUR,” “THIS AIN’T CALIFORNIA”

by Peter Wong on September 27, 2012

“Barbara” is Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), whose prison release leads to exile to a rural GDR hospital and continual Stasi surveillance. Her desire to escape to the West clashes with the responsibilities of her work and her relationship with Stasi informant Dr. Rieser. Hoss’ performance captures a woman whose desire for human connection gets tempered by a stifling caution. Director Christian Petzold’s Berlin And Beyond opener proves a fascinating character study. Alexander Sokurov’s “Faust” re-interprets Goethe’s classic “deal with the devil” story to muse on the struggle to carve meaning and knowledge out of the universe. This Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner offers a richer and more complex worldview than one limited to good and evil.

Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeller) may be a talented doctor and learned man. Yet he hungers physically and emotionally for more than his small cramped town’s offerings. The mysterious money-lender Mauricius (Anton Adasinsky) introduces Faust to a miraculous world where wine pours out of a stone. Yet the wonder that disastrously claims Faust’s interest is innocent Margrete.

Whether Mauricius is the Devil or merely a supernatural being is deliberately left ambiguous. This ambiguity dovetails with the film’s idea that the presence of evil doesn’t necessarily foreshadow good’s existence. In “Faust”’s world, committing evil acts proves far simpler than acting out of good.
Faust may claim he’s a good man. But that’s so much self-delusion. If Faust accumulated knowledge of medicine and geology, it wasn’t out of delight and curiosity regarding the world. Instead, a lust for power motivated his studies. Mauricius’ demonstrations of wonders merely served to inflame that lust.

Perhaps that truth explains why Sokurov intended “Faust” to cap a quartet of films that included a portrait of Emperor Hirohito in the last days of World War II. Heavenly and earthy, revelatory and ambiguous, “Faust” deservedly provokes discussion and dispute.

***

David Wnendt’s award-winning drama “Combat Girls” reignites the familiar “racist who sees the error of her ways” story. It eschews Hollywood sentiment for a more meaningful atonement for its lead character.

Marisa (Alina Levshin in an award-winning performance) belongs to a neo-Nazi punk gang which blames Germany’s decline on Jews and other “undesirables.” Encounters with a 14-year-old Afghan refugee slowly spur a change in Marisa’s racist attitudes. However, is enlightenment enough to liberate her from her violent friends?

Levshin’s performance plausibly shows Marisa’s evolution of attitudes is sparked by the turmoil between the repercussions of her pivotal act and her lifetime of learned racist attitudes. The stages of her change feel truthful.

A character’s “88” tattoo and the film’s opening monologue about democracy links the gang’s existence to post-Berlin Wall anxiety. Despite Germany’s physical unity, national emotional unity still proves elusive.

“Combat Girls” does suffer from cramming one too many sudden character revelations in its last act. But viewers won’t end up basking in unearned moral superiority.

***

Veit Helmer’s new film “Baikonur” is not a Space Age fairy tale. Though its eyes look to the future, “Baikonur”’s heart belongs to the past.

Foraging metal scrap cast off from Baikonur’s rocket launches proves the main industry In the small Kazakh village Iskander (Alexander Asochakov) (aka “Gagarin”) lives in. Gagarin’s interest in space travel isn’t limited to helping his fellow villagers salvage rocket scrap. He’s developed a crush on beautiful space tourist Julie (Marie de Villepin). When Gagarin discovers an amnesiac Julie, the young villager soon finds that real-life fairy tales don’t always have happy endings.

In real life, there are space tourists and people who live off salvaging rocket scrap. The documentary “Space Tourists” depicted both these phenomena.

“Baikonur”’s take represents a large cultural step backwards. It prefers to honor the smaller world of Gagarin’s village over the bigger universe Julie sees in space. Gagarin’s fascination with Julie comes not from her embodiment of the exploratory spirit she represents. It’s clear the only heavenly body he’s interested in is the one Julie displays once she takes her clothes off.

Helmer may see his Kazakh villagers as more colorful and honest than the Russian space personnel. Yet such an attitude also means embracing such retrograde values as a hygienic version of the sexist “without your glasses, you’re beautiful” canard.

“Baikonur” will entertain only cultural Luddites.

***

The Closing Night film, Marten Persiel’s must-see documentary “This Ain’t California,” joyously tells the forgotten story of East Germany’s first skateboarding crew.

That descriptor is not a joke. Using the adolescence of Denis “Panik” Parocheck as the film’s throughline, Persiel tells the amazing story of how a group of rebellious teenage boys took advantage of the concrete architecture of one satellite of the Worker’s Paradise to turn East Berlin’s public buildings into a skateboarder’s paradise. Despite GDR efforts to exploit this underground sport for national glory, the skateboarding boys turned this supposedly pointless sport into something which excited East German youth and built cultural ties with the West.

This amazing story will entertain even those who know nothing of the joys of skateboarding. Nicely animated sequences recreate otherwise unavailable footage of pivotal moments in Panik’s life. One of the film’s bigger strengths is the recollections by Panik’s now early middle-age contemporaries. Viewers hear tales of such larger than life characters as Patrick the California surfer dude chick magnet and Titus, an ex-civil servant turned skateboard smuggler. Outside of the period footage and a great punk rock soundtrack, the skateboarding scenes will constantly provoke gaping stares at the amazing and breathtaking stunts performed.

“This Ain’t California” is a wonderful paean to the exhilarating liberatory powers of teenage rebellion.
(“Barbara” screens on September 27, 2012 at 7:00 PM. ”Faust” screens on September 28, 2012 at 9:00 PM. “Combat Girls” screens on October 3, 2012 at 6:30 PM. “Baikonur” screens on September 29, 2012 at 6:15 PM. “This Ain’t California” screens on October 4, 2012 at 7:30 PM. All screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF). For advance tickets, go to www.BerlinBeyond.com .)

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