This year's German Film Festival is nothing if not exhaustive: with 36 fiction and documentary features drawn from the past two years of production, it's hard to know where to start. But scattered among them are some gems – we list five below:
1. SLEEPING SICKNESS (Ulrich Köhler, 2011)
After premiering to mostly glowing reviews at last year's Berlin Film Festival, the future looked bright for this mysterious, haunting film, the third from 'Berlin School' auteur Köhler, following his 2002 debut Bungalow and the odd, fairytale-like Windows on Monday (2006). But instead, to the surprise of many, it became one of the year's also-ran's, playing a mere handful of other festivals and generally failing to find commercial distribution – even in France, the country which co-produced it. Admittedly, it doesn't make matters easy for itself: meditatively paced, enigmatic in its parceling out of information, and boasting a structural conceit that throws unwary viewers for a loop (of which no more need be said here), it's by no means an easy film to love. But for viewers prepared to go along with it, it's a gripping and profoundly unsettling journey into the heart of darkness – and the most acute and unsparing vision of Europe's troubled colonial legacy in Africa since Claire Denis' great White Material. To my mind, it's the must-see feature of the festival.
2. THREE (Tom Tykwer, 2010)
Since his international breakthrough in 1998 with Run Lola Run – arguably one of the key works of postwar German cinema – Tykwer has struggled to match that film's success. Heaven (2002), his adaptation of an unproduced Krzysztof Kieslowski screenplay, starring Cate Blanchett, was an interesting experiment but lacked the master's magic; Perfume (2006) was the model of a Euro-pudding, all clashing accents and tacky set-pieces; and his 2009 espionage drama The International a poor imitation of a B-grade American thriller. After those large-scale misfires, Tykwer returned to a German subject – and a smaller budget – with Three, an unsparing look at a bisexual ménage à trois in modern-day Berlin. The dirty-mac brigade might be disappointed, however: while forthright in its sexuality, and occasionally explicit, it's not really much of a turn-on – being concerned more with the tangle of emotions than of limbs. But as his strongest movie in over a decade, it bodes well for his forthcoming adaptation of David Mitchell bestseller Cloud Atlas, which he's currently co-directing in Berlin with the Warchowskis (the Matrix trilogy).
3. GERHARD RICHTER PAINTING (Corrina Belz, 2011)
Increasingly recognised as the greatest living painter, and a product of the same school (the Kunstakadamie Düsseldorf) which gave us Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer, Richter's fame has grown considerably over the last decade, via extensive retrospective exhibitions at MoMA, the Centre Pompidou and the Tate Modern – as has his desire to avoid the media spotlight. Now 80, and perhaps more aware of his legacy, he consented in late 2010 to allow filmmaker Corrina Belz to observe and film him in his studio, at work on various canvases, a process she records dutifully and well. The viewer is very much a spectator to the process of creation, and accordingly, those hoping for personal revelations might be disappointed – the film is expressly NOT called 'Gerhard Richter Talking', though there are excerpts from a few archival interviews: mostly (and wisely) the work is left to speak for itself. But as a study of a great artist at work, it's probably the finest filmed record since Henri-Georges Clouzot made The Mystery of Picasso back in 1955.
4. STOPPED ON TRACK (Andreas Dresen, 2011)
Over the past decade-and-a-half, Dresen has crafted a body of work which documents, with extraordinary care and precision, the daily lives of ordinary Germans from around the country. Shooting in an unadorned, semi-documentary manner, feeling no need for flashy camerawork or ornate production design, he's constantly emphasised the importance of naturalism to achieve emotional truth in a manner which occasionally recalls Britain's Ken Loach – even as his films have tackled 'difficult' subjects: 2008's Cloud Nine, for instance, focused on an affair between septuagenarians, complete with some startlingly frank sex scenes. Never salacious or shocking, it proved a perceptive and moving treatment of a subject most filmmakers would never seek to address. This film (which premiered, like that one, at Cannes, where it won the Prix du Un Certain Regard), sees a perfectly ordinary 40-year-old postal worker attempting to live out the remainder of his life, after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. The result is remarkably honest, compassionate and moving, the work of a meticulous craftsman, constantly beguiled by life's messiness and wonder.
5. SUMMER IN ORANGE (Marcus H. Rosenmüller, 2011)
The words 'German comedy' do not, as a rule, inspire much in the way of confidence, as even many Germans would agree. (“We are just not a funny people,” sighed Wim Wenders once, when I interviewed him.) But this film, one of the bigger German box-office hits from last summer, represents one of the more palatable attempts at crossover success. Like most blockbuster Euro-comedies (think: the 2008 French smash 'Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis'), it's a tale of rural culture-clash – in this case, a conservative Bavarian community whose routines are upset by the arrival of a bunch of Orange People (yes, it's set in 1980), intent on starting a commune dedicated to free love, meditation and FKK-style nudity . . . all seen through the perspective of Lili, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who finds herself torn between the old ways and the new, much to the amusement of her classmates. The cast is uniformly strong, the laughs not infrequent, and its final shot – an unlikely image of reconciliation – little short of perfect.