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Berlinale brings German demons to the big screen

Berlin Film Festival

The quality of the films may vary, but one thing is clear at this year’s Berlinale: the programmers are not afraid to reopen Germany’s old wounds.


Starting with the opening competition entry, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, the festival has indeed featured several movies dealing with Nazism and the Holocaust, as well as various ills of contemporary German society.

Likely the most devastating criticism of Germany that will be seen onscreen for many years to come could be found in “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey”, a documentary that premiered Sunday night.

Shot by British, American, and Russian cameramen as Allied soldiers liberated the camps in 1945, the project was originally commissioned by UK producer Sidney Bernstein as a way to bring German audiences face to face with the consequences of their support of Hitler. But by the time the film -- overseen by none other than Alfred Hitchcock -- was near completion, its makers decided that unveiling it would be contrary to the spirit of post-war reconciliation. The footage was therefore shelved.

Though a clip from the documentary was presented at the Berlinale in 1984 and then broadcast on US television a year later, yesterday marked the first screening of a 70-minute version restored by Britain’s Imperial War Museum and featuring never-before-seen material.

New images of death camp atrocities

The audience, consisting mostly of Germans, some of them elderly, sat in silence and sometimes shifted uncomfortably as they watched extended sequences of survivors and casualties at camps in Germany and Poland (concentration camps at Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald, and the Auschwitz death camp, among others). “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” is full of soul-shaking sights: a sea of sunken faces looking out at the cameramen; Nazi officers tossing skeletal corpses into mass graves; prisoners scrubbing at their emaciated bodies when given access to hot water for the first time in weeks, and then being dusted with insecticide to kill body lice; a boy savouring a bowl of soup after being transferred to a medical centre for treatment.

Many of these images are familiar, but they have lost none of their nauseating power, and to see them play out in sustained, digitally re-mastered form is a harrowing experience.

Meanwhile, a narrator excoriates everyday German citizens, accusing them not just of indifference, but also of hearty approval of Nazi atrocities (there are chilling glimpses of grinning male and female SS guards, as well as well-dressed German villagers surveying a sale of goods made from the hair, skin and teeth of camp inmates).

The voiceover was recently re-recorded, but stuck to the script written in 1945, which, as was noted during a panel discussion after the screening, explains why Jews are not mentioned as the primary targets of the Nazi regime; the documentary’s makers decided that an emphasis on Jewish suffering would prevent anti-Semitic German viewers from feeling regret.

Clooney versus Nazis, critics versus Catholics

On the other end of the spectrum of films about German culpability in World War II was “The Monuments Men” -- though it seems absurd to group a historical document like “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” with the big, square chunk of Hollywood cheese that is the fifth movie made by George Clooney.

Director George Clooney speaks about his film The Monument Men at the 2014 Berlinale

Based on the true story of an international team of art historians on a mission to retrieve and protect European masterpieces from thieving Nazis, the film is not quite a botch -- though it comes pretty close.

Clooney, whose directorial outings include the fine “Good Night, and Good Luck” and the middling “Ides of March”, has always been more competent than brilliant behind the camera. But here, the scattered nature of the narrative (adapted from Robert M. Edsel’s book), which hopscotches among pairs of “monuments men” at work in different locations, and the sentimentality inherent in tales of real-life heroism get the better of him. You know a movie’s in shabby shape when not even the spectacle of Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Jean Dujardin (practicing his adorably accented English) pitted against sneering German villains can keep you from looking at your watch.

Meanwhile, an entirely different vision of dark doings in Germany proved to be an unlikely competition crowd-pleaser: Dietrich Brueggemann's “Stations of the Cross”, which portrays the nefarious effects of radical Catholicism on a German girl in her early teens (though the story could easily take place in any ultra-religious community).

Austere and technically accomplished, the film unfolds in 14 impressive long takes (one for each of the traditional artistic depictions of the condemnation of Christ), showing us Maria (the excellent Lea van Acken) trying her darnedest to live by the ascetic dictates of her church. Those efforts are complicated by two classic adolescent impulses: her awakening sexuality -- she finds herself attracted to a kind classmate -- and a reflexive desire to rebel against her dogmatic monster of a mother (Franziska Weisz).

“Stations of the Cross” is the type of work that typically shows up at top European festivals; in other words, it’s formally rigorous, but not terribly imaginative. A few of the segments are terrific. In the opener, a charismatic pretty boy of a priest (Florian Stetter) leads a classroom discussion about resisting “satanic” pleasures (rock music, trendy clothing), the outrageous extremism of his teachings nearly matched by the skill and energy of his delivery. But the film’s tone of cool fury wears thin after a while, and its balance of satire and tragedy starts to feel like a stunt when it becomes clear that Maria’s devotion can only lead to one conclusion.

Religious nuts are an easy target, and there were plenty of hearty guffaws at Sunday’s press screening (critics are a generally agnostic bunch). “Stations of the Cross” is an elegant takedown, but not much more. Fanaticism is bad, the movie tells us repeatedly, with painstaking craft and care. No kidding.


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