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Regional Interests

Now Playing! Berlin & Beyond Takes Aim at the Impediments Faced by Women

Back in the mid-’90s, when Goethe-Institut San Francisco cultural director Ingrid Eggers launched the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, the two cities shared global artistic reputations for thrilling innovation and fearless transgression. Cultural moments and movements pass, of course, and we can see in retrospect that Eggers’ splendid conception coincided with the ending of an era rather than its peak.

Although the fall of the Wall released pent-up energy from the East, Berlin was no longer the thrilling underground music, fashion and film hub it had been in the ’80s. San Francisco’s artist community, meanwhile, was devastated by AIDS and staggered by rising real estate prices about to be turbocharged by the dot-com boom.

Still, Berliners and San Franciscans shared a palpable affinity that encompassed the Beats and the hippies, Fassbinder and Wenders, Nico and Nina Hagen. The Haight and North Beach teemed with German tourists in those days, and in January the Castro buzzed with bundled-up, black-clad locals catching the new drama with heartthrob Moritz Bleibtreu or the latest provocation by Rosa von Praunheim.

Still from Oskar Roehler’s Fassbinder biopic ‘Enfant Terrible,’ 2020. (Courtesy Berlin & Beyond)

The breadth of Berlin & Beyond, which launches its 25th edition May 25 with the cross-border drama Sisters Apart at the Fort Mason Drive-In, isn’t surprising given that Germany’s film industry is one of the largest in Europe. But you won’t find past years’ fringy, edgy films in the festival, continuing online through May 30 with a May 29 sortie to the Vogue for Christian Petzold’s modern-day fable Undine and the centerpiece selection, Burhan Qurbani’s contemporary riff on Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.

I suppose Oskar Roehler’s raw biopic Enfant Terrible, featuring Oliver Masucci’s award-winning performance as the omnivorous, exploitative and relentless theater and film savant Rainer Werner Fassbinder, will shock some cloistered viewers. Although there’s little to admire about Fassbinder’s leather-jacketed brand of abuse (including self-), his refusal to compromise is greatly missed these days.

Artful, tasteful critiques of society define this Berlin & Beyond lineup, which is hardly cause for caterwauling. Festival director Sophoan Sorn, now in his 11th year at the helm, has compiled a group of unfamiliar discoveries to go with films by, about or based on familiar names (like the three mentioned above).

Still from Bettina Oberli’s ‘My Wonderful Wanda,’ 2020. (Courtesy Berlin & Beyond)

The cannily constructed Swiss success My Wonderful Wanda (the Beyond part of the festival allows for the inclusion of German-language films from Austria and Switzerland, whose national cinemas are overshadowed by their neighbor), is a sly comedy of manners set in a picturesque lake house. Co-written and directed by Bettina Oberli, who enjoyed a modest hit back in 2006 with Late Bloomers, the plot revolves around a Polish caregiver (Agnieszka Grochowska) who is by turns the employee, object, target and accomplice to the wealthy stroke-struck head of the household, his status-conscious wife (Marthe Keller) and their stunted adult children.

As you guessed, My Wonderful Wanda is a parable of old-style Western entitlement and contemporary Eastern aspirations. But Oberli doesn’t pick on the easy targets—she keeps the family just this side of irredeemably abominable (though who names their dog Mephisto?)—so as to more fruitfully explore the ways in which what people want costs them what they have.

Another female filmmaker, Daphne Charizani, the Greek writer-director of the opening night film Sisters Apart, is likewise concerned with the expectations and impediments that women must deal with at home and in the outside world. Kurdish-born Rojda (Almila Bagriacik) grew up in Germany and is assimilated to the degree that she’s an officer in the army. Her mother arrives from Iraq with the news that Rojda’s sister Dilan stayed to battle ISIS, layering her concern for that daughter with her disappointment in this one.

Still from Christian Petzold’s ‘Yella,’ 2007. (Courtesy Berlin & Beyond)

The bulk of the movie unfolds in Iraq, where Rojda has arranged to be transferred as a translator helping train Kurdish women fighters, albeit with the secret agenda of finding Dilan. (As you guessed, she does.) Sisters Apart is a linear and refreshingly concise story whose themes of identity, destiny and familial responsibility are invested with unusual intimacy.

Charizani’s movie marks another evolutionary step in the portrayal of refugees in German society, from despised outsiders to mainstream figures (at the same time that it’s made clear that plenty of people look at Rojda and see “foreigner”).

Rojda, and especially Wanda, are distant cousins to Yella, the titular heroine of Christian Petzold’s breakthrough 2007 feature starring longtime collaborator Nina Hoss as an abused wife whose seemingly successful escape from the East in post-reunification Germany is shadowed by the past. Revived by Berlin & Beyond as a tribute to Ingrid Eggers, Yella exposes the schism in the psyche of a society in transition. Perhaps that’s the endemic condition that links San Francisco and Berlin.

Berlin & Beyond takes place May 25–30 with both in-person and online screenings. Details here.

Copyright 2021 KQED