»New German Wave« in Skopje/Macedonia — Festival des Neuen Deutschen Films

Thanks to the support offered recently by Dr. Christina Weiss, State Minister for Culture and Media, to propagate a new image of contemporary German cinema, the »Export-Union des Deutschen Films« (German Film Export Union) has consequently been renamed »German Films« (minus any German-language designation). Furthermore, German film festivals are now rather commonplace on the international circuit, the events organized usually under an all-embracing »German Films« banner. So what was so unusual about a well-promoted week-long »Festival des Neuen Deutschen Films« in Skopje/Macedonia (1-7 September 2005)?

Simply this: a »New German Wave« was on the horizon. Or so critic Blagoja Kunevski contended, when he selected the films for the Skopje festival, penned an introduction to the series in a pamphlet (printed in Macedonian, German and English), and moderated a panel discussion for press and public. A cineaste with a deft knowledge of German film history, Kunevski also serves as artistic programmer at the prestigious »Manaki Brothers« Film Kamera Festival in Bitola. Here, for the past two decades, German films lensed by outstanding cameramen have been regularly invited to compete for festival honors. For an entire first week of September, crowds lined up before the »Frosina« cinema (named for a 1952 classic of Macedonian cinema) to view 7 feature films, 3 long documentaries, 2 films for youth, and 30 short films - courtesy of Matthias Vollert, the press attaché at the German Embassy in Skopje, and Volker Marwitz, the head of Goethe-Institut Belgrade. The ProCredit Bank of Macedonia also actively and substantially supported the festival.

Among the selected films were two Oscar winners: Caroline Link’s feature Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa) (2001) and Pepe Danquart’s short Schwarzfahrer (Black Rider) (1993). As good as these films are, it was argued by the journalists on the panel that the strength of the New German Wave was visible elsewhere in the program. Namely, in four other festival entries: Hans Weingartner’s Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Edukators) (2004), Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin! (2003). Hans Christian Schmid’s Lichter (Distant Lights) (2003), and Christian Petzold’s Wolfsburg (2002). All these films were praised as social-critical statements on life and mores in a new Germany following the unification of East (GDR) and West (FRG) Germanys fifteen years ago. It was felt, too, that the directors of these films are primarily concerned with the collective »conscience« of Germany in this era as the European Union continues to expand.

Cited as a primary example was Hans-Christian Schmid’s Distant Lights, awarded the FIPRESCI (International Critics) Prize at the 2003 Berlinale. Schmid reworks the theme of »losers« in five different episodes. %raquo;The characters have to struggle,« he said in an interview, »but they go on struggling and never give up.« And although the stories are linked to five incidents and 18 different people within 48 hours on the German border at Frankfurt/Oder to Poland at Slubice, their stories are typical and their fates universal. Distant Lights sketches the fates of these sympathetic individuals in an interlocking narrative that never loses sight of the tragicomic no matter how bitter it is for his anti-heroes to face the truth.

A »loser« is also at the core of Christian Petzold’s Wolfsburg, awarded a FIPRESCI (International Critics) Prize at the 2002 Berlinale. Wolfsburg is the third film in Petzold’s trilogy on moral ethics and individual conscience — following his awarded Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In) (2000), about a terrorist family still on the run, and the acclaimed telefeature Toter Mann (Dead Man) (2001), about a woman’s pained quest to avenge the murder of her sister. The story of a car salesman who accidentally kills a youngster on a country road, the culprit abruptly leaves the scene and thereafter has to drag his hit-and-run conscience around with him wherever he goes. When he finally gathers the courage to look himself in the face, he has already forfeited all that he formerly stood for in his disoriented quest for peace of mind and forgiveness.

&aquo;Breaking with the past« is again one of the reasons why Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin! was the top Lola Award Winner (aka German Film Prize) of the 2003 season. A film about lost ideals and harsh reality, about life-long deception and ever-lingering visions, Good Bye Lenin! is far more than just a poignant farewell to the past. It also depicts a breaking-away from a former life style, a transition that is anything but painless. In his tragicomedy Wolfgang Becker describes a chapter of European history that we otherwise easily forget and many want to forget.

Political one-upmanship is also what made Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators, the 2004 Cannes competition entry, the talk of the past film season. To cite its original title, Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Fat Years Are Over) scores as a »revolutionary« film that dares to change course midstream — from an urban parable with sociopolitical sting to a tragicomedy spiced with witty dialogue. The twist comes when three greenhorn revolutionaries find themselves in an Alpine hut with their kidnapped captive and don’t know exactly what to do next. A game of one-upmanship ensues, with the old »68er« holding the better cards because he has been through all of this before. The »edukators« undergo a crash course in revolutionary politics.

As one of the critics invited to serve on the panel, I felt obliged to comment in passing that the New German Wave could also include two more sociopolitical directors with a finesse for the docu-drama: Romuald Karmakar (Der Totmacher, 1995) and Andres Veiel (Black Box BRD, 2002).

At the opening night gala German Ambassador Ralf Breth greeted a full house in the Frosina venue. Matthias Vollert confirmed that the feature films in the festival will later go »on tour« to the neighboring cities of Bitola and Kumanovo. He also called attention to the films for youth and children in the program: Sylke Enders’s Kroko (2003) and R.A. Stemmle’s classic film adaptation of Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive (1955). The photo exhibition in the foyer spotlighted 26 short films on the general theme of »Passion Fussball« (Soccer Passion), a cycle that was developed at this year’s Berlinale Talent Campus.

Ron Holloway