2011 Munich Film Festival

The Munich Film Festival, the second largest film festival in Germany after the Berlinale, is now in its 29th annual presentation, running from June 24 to July 2 this year. It was my pleasure to attend this year as a guest of the Goethe Institute’s International film seminar program, and allowed me to rekindle contacts made when I was last there in 2007. The festival is quite extraordinary, as over 260 films are screened over 8 days on 15 screens across the centre of Munich, and attracts many prominent overseas and local filmmakers and actors. 

The festival is broken up into a number of strands, overseen by the director of the festival for the last 7 years, Andreas Strohl, who has stated that this is his last festival as he is moving back to the Goethe Institute in Munich as its head of Cultural Events. When talking to him, he revealed a great deal of pride in what he has achieved at the festival, especially attracting so many major guests and instigating a number of important awards and related events. He also mentioned that by accident this year, over 20 of the films screened were thematically linked by narratives about children/teenagers caught up in difficult and challenging situations. Apart from that, the strands: American Independents, New German Cinemas, New French Cinema, German Television productions, International Panorama, Latin American Cinema, Childrens’ Films, Swedish Cinema, Focus on Asian Cinema, and Midnight Movies, were well programmed with many current and important films, and served as a shoiwcase of contemporary local and international cinema (more later). The other highlights were the special guests all receiving CineMerit awards presented by the festival to honour their contribution to the film industry: John Malkovich, Otar Iosseliani, Roy Andersson, Tom DiCillo, and the biggest highlight for me, the screening of a rarely seen silent film (The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrowna, 1929, directed by Hanns Schwarz and starring Brigitte Helm) with live music accompaniment. This was screened as a beautifully restored print at the Gasteig (the main venue of the festival) and the sublime music by Sabrina Zimmerman and her musical group, was a major highlight. Catching up with Sabrina after the screening, there was some sadness when she revealed her father Aljoscha Zimmerman, who had composed many scores for silent films, and had visited Australia a few times for silent films screened at the German Film Festival, had died about a year ago. It was great however to see Sabrina continuing the family legacy, and she fondly remembered her times in Australia. 

As a guest of the festival, I had the opportunity to line up many interviews, see many of the films, including press screenings each morning, and generally have a very welcoming time, especially as the sole Australian film critic and film journalist covering the festival. The friendly and relaxed tone of the festival was set on opening night at the Gasteig, with the screening of the Dardenne Brothers’ compelling drama The Kid With a Bicycle, to a packed audience. They introduced the film in a charming manner, reflecting the friendly nature of the festival, Andreas’ pleasant approach to the event, and the responsive audience attending. The previous day I recorded an interview with them, a very relaxed event with a translator as they didn’t feel confident with their English. The next day after the screening they held a media conference at the “Black Box”, one of the venues in the Gasteig, where the young child actor Thomas Doret also attended, and won over the media with his natural unaffected wit and the humour shown by the Dardennes (and their clever translator). 

Interviews I conducted during the festival were quite plentiful and always well organized by the festival and other publicists. Roy Andersson, whose films featured at the festival, and produced the latest one screening: Tomorrow is Another Day, revealed his early associations with Ingmar Bergman and the comment made by Bergman that he thought Andersson would never be a successful filmmaker (they were poles apart on their political views) which he then begrudgingly took back many years later. Andersson’s films are idiosyncratic, essentiallly humanistic (for example, You the Living) and carefully directed. Tom DiCillo is an American independent filmmaker whose films were shown at the festival. He revealed that he was thrilled to be invited to the Munich FF and took the opportunity to talk to many of the other guests re financing some new films he intended to make. His films include Johnny Suede, which featured a young Brad Pitt and Living In Oblivion, a film about making a film, featuring Steve Buscemi who channels DiCillo. For DiCillo, being independent, and ensuring complete creative control of his films, meant that financing was always a difficult process.

At the Music on Film seminar held adjacent to the festival, I had the pleasure of interviewing veteran, 85 year old film composer Michel Legrand. His stories about working with Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort) and Miles Davis (Dingo) were both hilarious and incisive. Indeed Legrand revealed he is writing a stage musical at the moment and working on a few upcoming films. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, when he discovered I was from Australia, gave a special thank you to us all for solidly supporting his film school graduation film that won an Oscar (The Lives of Others), and mentioned that he made The Tourist to get his foot into Hollywood, but also that he had bought back the rights to The Lives of Others after Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack died, so that he can make the American version of the film. Also at this event I met Dominik Graf whose new three part TV series Dreileben has just been completed (and indeed shown at the Melbourne Film Festival), and Marcus Rosenmuller who was there to discuss the way he uses music in his films. 

Otar Iosseliani, whose latest film Chantrapas was screened at the festival together with his other films, was a very interesting and complex interview. He only spoke Russian or French, had dismissed his translator as being unworthy, and so I interviewed him with the help of one of the Goethe Institute seminar participants from the Ukraine. The interview was conducted with me asking questions in English, Otar responding in Russian via Aleksi who in turn translated back into German for me to voice over in English. Talk about an internationally co-operative interview!! Otar was very self-effacing and was surprised anyone was interested in his highly idiosyncratic, personal films. His latest film, which was very revealing, was about a filmmaker who was censored in Russia, and then when he leaves for France, discovers that things are no different there either. Michael Radford was a delightful guest, and he spoke about making the documentary Michel Petrucciani a noted pianist who died about 15 years ago, whose life was saddled with a crippling bone disease and also lived a very exciting lifestyle, dying at age 36. Radford is probably best known for 1984 and he had some interesting stories to tell about working with Richard Burton, Al Pacino and other actors. 

In the Black Box at the Gasteig, Charlotte Rampling and John Malkovich were separately enjoying the media attention, and commenting on their respective film roles. Rampling stars in a documentary playing at Munich The Look where various people comment on her style, as well as featuring her own comments on filmmaking and her attitudes to life as a personality. Malkovich was delighted that the Munich FF chose him for a CineMerit Award and revealed his attempts to appear in films that are as diverse as possible so that he isn’t “typed” in any roles. In the screening of some of his films, the rarely seen Klimt by Raul Ruiz (who had another major film in the festival, the extraordinary Mysteries of Lisbon) featured Malkovich as the painter whose life was filled with philosophical musings and public adulation in the early part of the 20th Century. Other filmmakers I caught up with for interviews included Swiss director Lionel Baier whose two films: Toulouse and Low Cost (Claude Jutra) exemplified the diversity of styles of films selected for the festival; Roger Corman, who I had interviewed in Melbourne a few years ago (and he remembered that occasion) who introduced a documentary on his low-budget films at a packed midnight screening: Corman’s World, Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel . Christoph Stark is one of the emerging German film directors, and his latest film Tabu, the story of poet Georg Trakl who in the 19th century had an incestuous relationship with his sister, premiered at the festival. He was quite candid about the financial and political problems in making films, but was upbeat about continuing in the industry. Heinz Badowitz, director of the Hof Film Festival, provided some interesting stories about the films and filmmakers that have been part of this major German film festival over many years. 

The Bernhard Wicki Film Prizes, an important staple of the festival, were presented this year in the beautiful historic Curveilles Theatre. The prizes are given to filmmakers who exemplify humanitarian qualities in their films and were a major highlight for festival goers. Maximilian Schell received the major life achievement award for his contribution to German (and world) cinema, and his acceptance speech, partly accompanied by music and a poetry reading, was culturally sublime. Best film went to Susanne Bier’s brilliantly rendered morality tale, In a Better World, while the best graduate filmmaker award went to Yasemin Samdereli for a film that was very popular at the German Film Festival in Australia this year, Almanya: Welcome to Germany. 

Movies made for television are an essential part of the German Film and TV Industry, and the award for best TV film went to the decidedly darkly comic production: Fohnlage: A Crime Story in the Alps, replete with that wonderful Bavarian German dialect. The best film of the festival, as voted by the audience was given to Aki Kaurismaki’s offbeat and very enjoyable humanitarian film Le Havre. The prestigious film distribution and marketing prizes for German productions, which attract large amounts of cash for the winners, were given to: Kriegerin (best film and best script), a challenging narrative about a young woman neo-Nazi and her fraught lifestyle and attitudes to other cultures; Hell (best director), a post-apocalyptic drama shot in a very stylish and assured manner; The River was Originally Human (best contribution by a producer), a lyrical tale of a man’s journey in Africa (and accepted by the lead actor Alexander Fehling). Acting awards went to the lead actors in the films Jasmin and Kasimir and Karoline

Other films seen during the festival include: Mysteries of Lisbon, Raul Ruiz magnificent epic saga set in the 17th Century; Atmen, an Austrian film about a young man’s attempts to live a normal life after committing a serious crime and being rejected by his mother; The Solitude of Prime Numbers, an incisive story of two people and their tragic lives; Hesher, a bizarre US independent production about a man who infiltrates himself into a dysfunctional family; Hitler to Hollywood, a very clever mockumentary style comedy drama about the search for a missing film supposedly made during the Nazi era; Michael, a disturbing yet restrained film about a paedophile and the young boy he has locked up in his home; Sennentuntschi, a frenetic and violent drama set in the Alps; The Slut, a challenging Israeli film about a woman’s relationships and the impact on the community; Sodankyla Forever, The Century of the Cinema, a documentary about the Midnight Sun Film Festival and the prominent filmmakers who have visited this unique location; Cedar Rapids, another well written American independent film about an Insurance agent and his escapades; Win Win, an incisive American morality tale set at a high school; American Translation, French film about a young couples murderous and sexual exploits; Polisse, a terrific French crime drama focusing on a female detective’s pursuit of a paedophile gang; The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, an amusing Morgan Spurlock documentary on product placement in film; The Real American – Joe McCarthy, excellent, well researched documentary on the infamous US senator who in the 1950s railed against communism; The Teacher, a well written German TV movie about the impact a classroom shooting has on a teacher and her school; Winter’s Daughter, a delightful road movie featuring Ursula Werner. It was also pleasing to see that two Australian films were screening at the festival: Machete Maidens Unleashed, an amusing documentary about the US exploitation films shot in the Philippines, and Wasted on the Young, an incisive insight into young people’s lives and the problematic decisions that they make.

The 29th Munich Film Festival was a marvellous experience for me, and a demonstration of the way an effective and well-organized film festival should be run. The informal nature of the festival and the opportunity to rub shoulders with so many filmmakers in conversation at the Gasteig, or just wandering from one session to the next, is a film fan’s delight. A great event, and congratulations to everyone concerned, especially the German film and television industry which is producing a large number of fine productions.

Peter Krausz is Chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a film critic and film journalist on radio and in print, and is consultant to the Goethe Institute for the annual Festival of German Films in Australia.