How do you condense the annual output of the German film industry into a single festival? The organiser of this year's German Film Festival gives us a guided tour.
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10 Apr 2012 - 2:03 PM  UPDATED 10 Apr 2012 - 2:03 PM

There were over 180 films produced in Germany ready for release in the 2011 slate, says Arpad Sölter, the new director of the Goethe-Institut in Australia. And for the last few months, Sölter and his colleagues tried to see every single one of them in preparing the program for this year's German Film Festival.

“In collaboration with German Films [the organisation that promotes German cinema to the world], we tried to offer up a good cross section of films – art house, commercial, and 'festival' style films,” Sölter tells SBS from his Sydney office.

Sölter says he 'radicalised' the programming style and method of previous years by introducing a panel of official selectors, including two Australians, Variety critic Richard Kuipers and Melbourne based critic Peter Kraus, who has been consulting with the GFF on their festival since 2003. Sölter and German Films managing director Mariette Rissenbeek round out the jury of four.

“We gave a ranking to every film we saw and added the numbers and then discussed and argued!” he says, laughing. “There was one person/one vote and the arguments were actually quite fun,” he says, “but at a certain point we just had to agree to disagree.”

The panel ultimately selected 37 films plus a program of shorts, and including pictures from Percy Adlon (Mahler on the Couch) co-directed with his son Felix Adlon, and Tom Tykwer (Three). There's also the sequel to Simon Verhoeven's popular Men in the City from 2009… Men in the City 2, and the latest (and apparently last) in the Crocodiles kids' series The Crocodiles 3: All For One. There's exclusivity about the program, says Sölter, since many of the festival's titles have yet to travel outside of Germany and select European destinations.

Before taking up his position in Australia last August, Sölter was head of the Strategy and Evaluation Division at the Headquarters of the Goethe-Institut in Munich. But between 2002 and 2008 he was the director of the Goethe-Institut in Toronto, where he ran a German-Canadian film festival (co-operating with the Toronto Film Festival) and operated a year-round program of German cinema. Sölter modestly qualifies his experience as a 'film lover'; and he was determined, he says, for his first Australian-German festival to be less a function of cultural bureaucracy and something for Australian cineastes. The aim of establishing a specialist selection panel, he says, was “not for Munich or German Films” to compose the program, based on promoting a certain view of German cinema but for it to be a 'real film festival.'

“In this way, this is a program for Australia,” he says. Still, he says that about 98 percent of the films selected this year happen to be those pictures that were endorsed by the critic's panel that form part of the Bundesfilmpreis (the Lolas) presented by the Deutsche Filmakademie. “But that's a coincidence, since there was no correspondence or contact between us and the critics.”

Amongst the festival's special guests is director Leander Haußmann, whose comedy-satire Hotel Lux opens the German Film Festival in Sydney on April 18; the festival is doing what it calls a 'mini-retrospective' of his films, including Robert Zimmermann is Tangled up in Love, as well as the picture that the programmers are describing as his 'breakthrough', 2000's Sun Alley. Also a guest of the festival is young German filmmaker Hendrik Handloegten, director of Summer Windows (pictured), a drama of 'the uncanny', about a woman who wakes one day to find that she has travelled back in time to revisit her recent past. Handloegten's film opens the Melbourne event on April 19.

Sölter says that one of the aims of the festival is to try and create a 'link' between Australia and Germany. “We look for connections you see, in the content, or the theme or the style and so you have things like Rodicas, which is really excellent.” Shot in Sydney this “quasi-documentary” about two elderly Rumanian-Jewish women was made by another of the festival's special guests, emerging filmmaker Alice Gruia.

Sölter says that the program shows that recent German cinema carries certain themes and styles in an obsessive way (see list of highlights below). He adds that some of the final choices proved controversial for the panel, like Combat Girls, about a teenager who joins a neo-Nazi gang.

Directed by David F. Wnendt, the film has received a mixed reaction critically; but for Sölter, Combat Girls – and a number of films in the program that deal directly with Germany's fascist past and cultural 'baggage' – touches the nation's zeitgeist in a profound way.

“We argued over this film endlessly!” he says. “The discussions are confidential – but maybe I can phrase it this way…there were those who felt it was important and wanted it and there were those who said it was bad, though they felt that the subject matter was interesting but not worth screening!”

The screenings of Combat Girls will include a panel discussing the issues it raises.

Still, in Germany, he says, there is a school of thought that suggests certain issues have been 'dealt with' – a view that discourages further investigation, and contemplation.

“The struggle with our past is our ongoing heritage,” he says. “We've even invented a word for it – 'Vergangenheitsbewältigung'. My own point of view is to deal [with these issues] head on. I [can explain this] to you on three different levels; as a citizen that's my conviction. As director of the Goethe I believe it is the right thing; and on a personal note my wife comes from a family of Holocaust survivors so I have a very personal attitude.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE 2012 GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL

Wunderkinder

Director Marcus O. Rosenmüller's WWII Holocaust drama about Nazi persecution of Jewish children.
Read review

4 Days in May
Based on a true story out of WWII and set on the Baltic coast, director Achim von Borries chronicles the stand-off between German and Russian troops as seen through the eyes of a 13 year old boy.

Sölter: “Well Downfall (2004) and The Lives of Others (2006) were historical subjects that have [resonance] for contemporary audiences and WWII is still an important subject in Germany. Some people would rather we shut the door – they feel they know it, they know all about the Holocaust, etc…that kind of attitude (is prevalent). And obviously it's not going to work. Obviously the creative industry finds each and every year new layers in this kind of subject matter and these are two really excellent films that explore that subject.”

The Good Neighbour

Sölter calls this fine, mainstream thriller from director Stephan Rick, “really scary”; it features a stark and grim, slow-burn stalker plot; but it's the amorality of its anti-heroes, who cover up an accident that makes it truly chilling.

Hell

Sölter raves about this debut genre epic from Tim Fehlbaum and produced by Roland Emmerich about characters eking out an existence in a post-apocalyptic world: “It's a sci-fi movie, it's a road movie in the Mad Max tradition and you want believe it was made in Germany!”
Read review

Sennentuntschi

According to the program notes this is the first 'horror' film made in Switzerland, re-visits some of the key tropes of the genre; isolated setting, a loner anti-hero, and a plot that plays on the supernatural. Directed by Michael Steiner it's about a young woman who returns to a village seeking vengeance.

Taboo - The Soul Is a Stranger on Earth
A film about poet Georg Trakl and his sister, drug addiction and incest from director Christoph Stark. Sölter reckons this is not your garden variety literary bio-pic:
“We all read his poetry at school but no one ever told me he had sex with his sister!”

*The figures come from the tagesschau.de website and were provided by the Goethe Institut