Movie Review: German Films (Kino/17)

One of my favourite film festivals in Hong Kong is Kino, the German film festival that is hosted each year by the Goethe-Institut. Their selection of films is always diverse, with both topical and thought-provoking films and some comedic fare thrown in for good measure. Opening night this year has been moved back to the HK Arts Centre (a much more intimate venue and a great place for the after-party) but other screenings will again take place at the HK Film Archive, the Grand Cinema, Cine Moko and, for fans of German cinema in Macau, at Cinematheque – Passion, which is located adjacent to the historic Ruins of St. Paul’s.

Ten full-length films and one short film program will be screened at this year’s event. Last week I reviewed the festival’s opening night film, MY BLIND DATE WITH LIFE (Mein Blind Date mit dem Leben). Here is a sampling of two more of the festival’s feature films:

House Without Roof (Haus Ohne Dach)

It’s not often that we get to see Kurdish stories on the big screen so, for that reason alone, this film is worth watching.

Adult siblings, Jan, Alan and Liya, were born in the Kurdish province of Iraq but they came to Germany as refugees in the 1980s with their mother, Gula, after their father was killed under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Now (in 2003), with the fall of Saddam, Gula decides to return to Iraq along with Jan. Fast forward a few years and Gula has passed away. In a letter she leaves for her children, her final wish is to be buried alongside her husband in her home village of Halabja, located about 330 kilometers away (according to Google Maps, though Jan says it’s 600 kilometers away for some reason). While Jan reluctantly wants to respect his mother’s wish, he has to deal with his siblings who have returned home for the funeral and have grown distant from both him and each other; his headstrong uncle, who wants his sister buried alongside their family in Duhok; and the paramilitary who is trying to maintain calm in this restive region just as ISIS is emerging as a powerful force.

Writer-director Soleen Yusef, herself a Kurdish refugee (from Duhok) living in Germany, has said that even with all the news coverage over the past few years of refugees fleeing war for a better life, no attention has been paid to who these people are. We see them as a mass without understanding that they are individuals. With the recent election success of the far-right, anti-immigration party in Germany, Yusef wants us to remember that refugees are just like us. They love, they argue, they celebrate births and they mourn the passing of loved ones. And like us, they’re not perfect but they only want what we want – an opportunity to earn a living, and to raise their families in peace and freedom. That last point comes in loud and clear with the film’s closing shot.

Interestingly, production on the film in 2014 was delayed for a few months because of ISIS’ genocide of the Kurdish Yazidi people and the subsequent displacement of approximately 2 million people from Sinjar and nearby Mosul.

Fog in August (Nebel im August)

FOG IN AUGUST also gives a voice to a segment of the population that most of us know very little about. While there have been quite a few films and TV series that have dealt with the Nazis’ program of eugenics against its own its citizens, there has been little coverage on screen of the fact that the program also extended to groups of people it considered to be “undesirable”, including the Roma and the Yenish.

Thirteen-year-old Ernst Lossa (Ivo Pietzcker) is a Yenish boy who arrives at the psychiatric hospital in the German town of Hadamar in 1939. With his mother dead and his father in prison (simply for being Yenish), the authorities have delivered the rebellious tyke there to keep him out of trouble. Ernst, who is both street-smart and sensitive, quickly earns the respect of both his fellow patients and the medical staff, especially Sister Sophia, who enlists the boy’s help in feeding a young mentally ill girl who won’t take food from anyone else. Each evening, the hospital’s director, Dr. Veithausen (Sebastian Koch, THE LIVES OF OTHERS; THE DANISH GIRL; IN THE SHADOW) prepares the list of patients who are slated for euthanisation and the next morning the hospital staff gather up those affected, and load them into a van which (off-screen) gasses them to death with carbon monoxide. When the people in the town express their distaste for the procedure, the director is forced to find a new way to kill his patients. For some, it involves a starvation diet; for others, a newly-hired nurse, Sister Kiefer, feeds them a cocktail of barbiturates mixed with raspberry juice. When Ernst realises what is going on, he and a fellow patient work out an escape plan for themselves. They know how to escape but what they need is the opportunity before it’s too late for them.

FOG IN AUGUST is based on the true story of the so-called “Aktion T-4”, the Nazis’ euthanasia programme that ran from 1939 to 1945 at the Hadamar Euthanasia Centre and at five other facilities around Germany. Under this programme, an estimated 200,000 people were killed at these places, including thousands of children, all done in the name of racial purity. Although the screenplay doesn’t stray very far from predictability, the performance of young Pietzcker does make it worthwhile viewing. This is only his second film (the first starring in the award-winning JACK), so it is doubly impressive that he can carry such a heavy subject so well. The film was released in September 2016 and has so far played in a few countries around Europe but I can’t imagine that it has been very successful financially. While there is a strong young adult orientation to the story, it’s not the type of film that young people would be interested in seeing, nor would many parents want to take their kids to see. It’s a shame because it’s not only a good history lesson but it’s also a warning for what could easily happen again.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Wednesday, October 11th at 9:15 am HK time!

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