Director Ina Weisse encourages you to form your own diagnosis of 'The Architect,' which plays in German Gems.

German Gems Program Shines

Michael Fox January 13, 2011

There are darned few countries that produce enough quality films to program two dedicated festivals in a city in the same year, let alone within three months. Germany is certainly one, and yet its cinema rarely gets the respect, let alone love, it deserves. Except in San Francisco, where the long-running Berlin & Beyond festival (recently relocated to October) and the second-year German Gems series (this Friday through Sunday, January 14–16 and January 22) attract large, enthusiastic crowds to the Castro Theatre.

It’s tempting to conclude that San Franciscans’ state of mind—especially in January, when we’re under the influence of damp, chilly weather and looming Noir City existentialism—is particularly susceptible to Teutonic angst. But that would be stereotyping all German movies as heavy and depressing, which is assuredly not the case. It is a common perception, however, and one with which the opening night filmmakers have a good deal of fun.

In the sly romantic drama Mahler on the Couch, the veteran director Percy Adlon (Bagdad Café) and his son Felix take on three of the great egos of the modern era: Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud and Alma Schindler. A lush and satisfying speculative fiction, Mahler on the Couch examines the link between creativity and sacrifice through the relationship of a 20th-century woman and a 19th-century man.

It is known that Dr. Freud and the great composer Mahler met in a town in Holland in 1910. It is also true that Mahler had recently found a love letter to his wife, Alma, written by the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. The Adlons amuse themselves (and us) with the conceit that Mahler’s distress, anger and guilt fuel an ad hoc therapy session. This, in turn, allows for a slew of flashbacks depicting Walter and Alma’s courtship and marriage.

A pompous shrink, a tormented artist, a frustrated wife, German filmmakers—all the ingredients are here for a turgid, self-important drama. The Adlons fully realize it, however, and inject levity where you’d least expect it, in Karl Marcovics’ a-few-degrees-off-center Freud. Felix Adlon and cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels’ gorgeous compositions are also essential to raising our spirits, especially in the morass of second-half scenes from a dying marriage.

A side note: If, like me, Tom Lehrer’s 1965 ballad Alma provides the basis for everything you know about Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel, Mahler on the Couch will be a revelation. In any event, take a moment right now to at least find Lehrer’s lyrics.

It’s too bad Dr. Freud is not available to analyze The Architect and his screwed-up family, though director Ina Weisse encourages you to form your own diagnosis. This elemental tale of isolation and provocation unfolds in a snowy, remote mountain town, where the big-city Winter clan (Georg, wife Eva, daughter Reh and son Jan) have gone to bury Georg’s mother. If you’re going to quietly implode a family named Winter, what better place than a snow-filled landscape?

The Architect is an easy movie to be snarky about, with its twisty family secrets and unpleasant and ambiguous sexual tensions that skirt cliché. But I greatly enjoyed its sharp edges and sparse plotting, and the moral rot seeping from every door of Georg’s expensive German automobile. There’s an early scene where Georg receives an award at some lame dinner that seems unnecessary; we get that he’s a successful architect. Only much later does it dawn on us that this supposedly esteemed and capable figure does almost nothing decent, let alone admirable, in the course of the film.

Without the dinner scene, Georg’s character would be much less layered and interesting. As it is, Josef Bierbichler is tremendous playing a man who could easily be sympathetic and even lovable if he wasn’t so committed to being an asshole. As one small example, there’s a restaurant scene reminiscent of the wheat-toast sequence in Five Easy Pieces, only Bierbichler isn’t playing it for laughs. He has a face like a mountain, but Georg’s presence is anything but a Winter wonderland.

More domestic anguish awaits in She Deserved It, Thomas Stiller’s chilly yet fascinatingly executed take on the real-life case of a high school girl killed by a female classmate for, ostensibly, hitting on her boyfriend. The film is ultimately less about the two vastly different girls than their families—the title is the perpetrator’s explanation, but she might be alluding to her mother rather than the victim—and the enduring mystery of why kids turn out the way they do. In this case, both sets of parents are solidly well off, raising their children in comfortable settings with every freedom and gizmo.

Stiller zigzags back and forth in time, not to be aggressively cutting-edge so much as to drop a wealth of details that may or may not be helpful clues to the aforementioned mystery. Thankfully, no simplistic explanation emerges for the punishment gone wrong, but neither do we end up feeling particularly empowered to deal with the teenagers or spouses in our life.

The angry, rebellious girl who commits the crime has two helpers whom she expertly bullies and manipulates. Her father, meanwhile, is a well-meaning milquetoast whom she calls Mouse in her diary. German characters going along with or refusing to stand up to a strong yet clearly misguided leader? Sound familiar? She Deserved It manages to avoid overly simplistic Third Reich parallels, leaving us with questions we can only answer in our own lives.

The brochure describes Blood Mountain (Bergblut) as Philipp J. Pamer’s graduation film. In that case, he’s made the most ambitious and accomplished student film in history. Blood Mountain is a historical romance, a period piece and a costume drama rolled into one. Shot mostly in the South Tyrol Alps, it should look breathtaking on the Castro’s mammoth screen.

The movie begins in 1809 and tracks the eventful, chaotic early years of the lifelong love affair between Katharina and Franz, a wealthy, polished Bavarian girl and a rough-hewn Tyrolean carpenter. An act of violence compels the couple to flee over the mountains to Franz’s rural family, where the resourceful Katharina has to adjust to no-frills farm life.

Peace is short-lived and their lives are thrown off-course by, first, war, and then a rebellion against French and Bavarian soldiers organized and led by the innkeeper Andreas Hofer (an actual historical figure). No entrails are gored or bodices ripped in Mountain Blood, alas; Pamer has written a smart screenplay full of concise, precise dialogue that steers clear of pulp.

Along with these four narrative features (of the six packed into the weekend series), I sampled two of the three quirky documentaries in the lineup. The first-person doc David Wants to Fly follows newly minted yet self-assured film grad David Sieveking as he tries to get his career off the ground, initially by meeting David Lynch at a transcendental meditation event in Iowa. Sieveking follows Lynch’s advice and gets into TM, which takes him the film in another direction. Sieveking (who’s slated to attend) is a witty fellow, with a screen persona (and propensity for setting up scenes and passing them off as verité) that you may or may not find endearing.

Daniel Rundstrom, a retired pilot living in the West Indies, spent his entire life off the ground and in the clouds. This droll, wiry Swede, 78 years old when Lara Juliette Sanders shot Celebration of Flight, would doubtless be a fascinating guy to have a beer with. (Both he and Sanders are scheduled to attend, so the odds are better than you think.) The movie chronicles the conclusion of his three-and-a-half year project to assemble a plane by hand, assisted by a teenage Caribbean Indian named Rainstar to whom Rundstrom has transmitted the flying bug, and take it to an air show in Florida. If you’re looking to be lifted out of the January doldrums, book a seat for Celebration of Flight and/or David Wants to Fly.

German Gems runs January 14-16, 2011 at the Castro Theatre and Jan. 22 in Point Arena.