The German films you should see at Durban Film Festival

Peter Machen
2017-07-07 14:37
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Fukushima, Mon Amour

Since its early years, the Durban International Film Festival (taking place July 13 to 23 this year) has had an intimate relationship with German cinema, showcasing the more avant-garde side of German film and providing the African premiere of many important titles.

In recent years, the festival has also had a close relationship with the German film industry, through its partnership with the Berlinale’s Talens programme and with numerous German delegates attending the Durban FilmMart. Following on from a focus on New German Cinema in 2007, which marked the inauguration of the Durban Talents programme, this year’s edition of DIFF offers a fresh take on contemporary German Film. The selection, curated by Alex Moussa Sawadogo and supported by the Goethe Institut, provides an accessible but thought-provoking cross-section of one of the world’s most important national cinemas.

Fukushima, Mon Amour, from the talented Doris Dörrie, takes place in the evacuated exclusion zone of Fukushima where an older geisha has returned to her home in the company of a young German woman who has travelled to the area with a foreign aid organisation. Shot on-site, in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown and the tsunami that caused it, Fukushima, Mon Amour is remarkable for its fusion of fiction and reality and the way that it tenderly holds the one inside of the other. There are shades of cultural clichés in both women and in the relationship that develops between them but they are the kind of clichés that are grounded in real life and are not the reductionist stereotypes that occupy so many films that deal with culture clashes. Located firmly within the great tradition of cinema, with its nod to Alan Resnais’ similarly titled masterpiece, Dörrie’s film nonetheless feels fresh and vital. Fukushima, Mon Amour is another beautifully judged addition to the director’s body of work.


Goodbye Berlin, the latest film from leading German filmmaker Fatih Akin, is a coming-of-age road movie that tells the story of two young social outcasts who find themselves in their connection with each other and their escape from the strictures of day-to-day life. Maik is a mousy loner with his heart set on an invitation to the most beautiful girl in school’s birthday party. Tschick is the new bad-boy at school, a free-spirited but somewhat alienated loner. When Maik fails to garner an invite to the party, he and Tschick leave Berlin and head out onto the road in a stolen car. Although Goodbye Berlin is a surprisingly mainstream outing for Akin and offers little that we haven’t seen before in similarly plotted films, it’s nonetheless something of a delight. Akin perfectly captures the freedoms and anxieties of adolescence and keeps things sweet by not lingering on the ephemerality of youth. A perfect festival film for teenagers and others who are not quite ready to put away childish things.


The Most Beautiful Day is another coming-of-age film, except that in this case the two protagonists are well into their thirties but have still to come to term with what it means to be a man.

Benno is a charming grifter and thief who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, while Andi is an ambitious musician with cystic fibrosis who has been waiting for a donor lung for years.

Thrown together in a hospice, the two do not get on at first, but once Benno convinces Andi to go on a credit spree that he’ll never have to pay back (given his impending fate), a bond starts to form, one that is quickly cemented as the two spend a stream of seemingly endless cash on adventures they would never have (including a poorly judged expedition through Africa) were they not faced with looming death sentences.

A passion project of the two lead actors, Matthias Schweighoefer and Florian David Fitz (who also directed the film), The Most Beautiful Day was one of the biggest commercial successes in Germany last year.

Karl Marx City is perhaps the strongest film in the selection. This exquisitely made documentary follows co-director Petra Epperlein as she tries to determine whether her father, who hanged himself in 1996, was a member of the infamous East German Stasi, as is suggested by a letter she has received.

The film does a great job of locating Epperlein’s personal quest within the larger narrative of history, and although it touches only briefly on the modern digital world, it is nonetheless hugely thought-provoking in this age of social media and global mass surveillance. For one thing, much of the information that the Stasi went to such lengths to acquire would now be posted on a Facebook page.

More disturbing, though, is the notion of prophylactic surveillance, the idea that future crimes can be prevented not just by the huge banks of information accumulated but by the widespread awareness that such surveillance is taking place. Karl Marx City is a fascinating film and should make for inspired viewing for young documentary filmmakers, particularly since it was made almost entirely by the two-person team of Epperlein and her cameraman/co-director Michael Tucker (the film has only five production credits in total). The gently dazzling results shows just what can be achieved with imaginative and technically precise camerawork, thorough research, good writing and strong archival material.

Although not a documentary, The People vs Fritz Bauer, directed by Lars Kraume, is another engaging and thought-provoking film that explores a key moment in German history that has global resonance and particular relevance to South Africa.

Set in the late 1950s, the film chronicles the struggle of Attorney General Fritz Bauer to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Bauer has Adolf Eichman, the man responsible for the mass deportation of Jews, in his sights, but given that both the German government and Interpol are populated by former Nazi officers, the task is made far harder and more complex. Unable to trust the political structures of Germany at the time, Bauer is forced to make contact with the Israeli secret service and, in doing so, commits treason.

In its portrayal of a man at odds with his own government and the tainted legacy of the past, the film has much to say about the current state of the world and democratic structures.

Christian Schwochow’s Paula tells the story of Paula Modersohn-Becker, the first woman painter in history to have a museum dedicated to her work.

Although a little too laden with the baggage of period and at its weakest when it explores Modersohn-Becker’s interior world and the creative process, Paula is an important film in much the same way as Hidden Figures and Wonder Woman are.

It is remarkable how women artists have simply been written out of 20th century art history and the bizarre, archaic chauvinism that is expressed in the film by most of the male characters might seem ludicrous but nonetheless continued to reign for another century.

It is only now that a sense of balance is gradually creeping into an art world that is still radically biased towards the works of male artists. Paula won’t change that and it probably won’t even shift the narrative very much but it’s important nonetheless as a record of the challenges faced by woman artists as recently as the early 20th Century – if Modersohn-Becker’s husband had been only slightly less devoted, there’s a good chance she might have ended up in a lunatic asylum for having the temerity to want to paint in a way that reflected how she saw the world.


The other titles in the German Focus at DIFF are All Of A Sudden (directed by Asli Özge), The Promise (directed by Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger), The Dark Side of the Moon (directed By Stephan Rick) and Fado (directed by Jonas Rothlaender). The German Focus is supported by the Goethe Institut and the German Embassy.

Fukushima, Mon Amour
Goodbye Berlin
The Most Beautiful Day.
Karl Marx City
The People vs Fritz Bauer.

* Click here for a full programme and tickets. 

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