February 25, 2007

And the winner is ...

In honor of the Oscars tonight and the recent Berlin Film Festival, I thought I’d report on Würzburg’s very own international film festival, which just celebrated its 33rd season.

First, let me say that I am totally impressed that little Würzburg, which is roughly the size of my hometown of Little Rock, can support a film festival – much less an international film festival. In Little Rock, the only theater that carries foreign films is the dollar theater, and most of its releases are already a couple of years old. Still, I used to love to go late at night and pick a film to see at random. Sure, I had to sit through a couple of duds, but it was worth it for the thrill of discovering a real gem long before anyone else, such as the original Japanese version of Shall We Dance? So with this in mind, I bought a six-film pass to the International Filmwochenende and started theater-hopping.

First up was Ouaga Saga, a heart-warming comedy from Burkina Faso about a happy-go-lucky gang of street kids (think more Little Rascals than Boyz in the Hood) who steal a motorcycle, sell it on the black market, and use the proceeds to have outrageous adventures. It was pretty campy and contrived, but ultimately the characters were so likable that you didn’t care; you were just glad that things ended “happily ever after.” It rightly received a 10-minute standing ovation.

Next I saw Je Vous Trouve Tres Beau, a pretty generic French film about a widowed farmer in search of cheap farm labor who marries a young Romanian cleaning lady in search of a visa. Cultural misunderstandings ensue and romance inevitably follows (think Green Card), and of course they also wind up “happily ever after.” Although both films were in French with German subtitles, I was able to figure out what was being said by triangulating my mediocre knowledge of both languages with my exceptional knowledge of romantic comedy plotlines.

Emboldened by my success with the subtitled films, I decided to try my first all-German film. But the problem with German films – and the reason I almost never see any – is that they’re all really depressing, and the German films showing at the Würzburg festival were no exception:

“Sinan and Mahmut get to know each other in cancer therapy.…”
“Just as she is about to finish renovating her house, Nina leaves her husband and child.…”
“Carsten is a respected high school teacher until she kills a policeman in a left wing terrorist assault.…”

I am not making this up!

Given my options, I went with the one least likely to make me want to slit my wrists at the end of two hours. “Lucy,” according to the English-language program, “is a film that deals with the lack of orientation of an 18 year old teenager who is already a mother but is still struggling against her own pubertyrelated hopes and problems.” [Typos in the original.] Lord knows, we’ve all had to deal with those pubertyrelated problems!

Unfortunately, the German style of filmmaking is so quiet and subtle – and my German listening comprehension so bad – that I have no idea whether or not the teenage mom abandoned her baby for the sake of her cheating bartender boyfriend or the other way around. Either way, I left the theater feeling that there was no possibility for human happiness in our society, and the experience sealed my impression of German film as being way too depressing for this Southern girl.

But why must the Germans always make such tragic films? Do they actually enjoy being so depressed?

The only other German films I’ve seen since moving here were also super depressing – and happened to feature beautiful young women who are into self abuse. Vier Minuten (Four Minutes), was about a talented but mentally unstable teenage pianist who likes to pick fights with brick walls (think Shine, but with a girl). And Allein (Alone) was about a beautiful but predatory young librarian who likes to get drunk and cut herself. I saw this last film with my friend Paul at an all night movie marathon in Prague, and the audience was so irritated by the heroine’s self-destructive behavior that when she contemplated jumping off a bridge several people actually began chanting: “Do it! Do it!” Paul and I left soon after.

Anyway, my survey of European film has led me to develop a little theory: The “happiness quotient” of a film is inversely proportional to the standard of living in the film’s country of origin. Therefore, it follows that films from the third world will mostly be funny and have a happy ending, since audiences go to the movies to escape the harshness of everyday life. Conversely, since Europe is so prosperous and comfortable, audiences want films that are thoughtful and prick the social conscience (i.e. films that are hopelessly dark and depressing).

Of course the notable exception to this rule is America, where anything goes. So maybe you have to factor in another variable, such as, “Did the country in question experience a world war or genocide in the past 100 years?” Whatever. I’ll leave it to the film and economics double-majors to work out the exact formula.

In the end, a quick calculation of the remaining films in the line up told me that it was about 95% likely that I would be depressed for a total of six hours by the three films left on my pass, so I passed it along to a German guy waiting in line to buy tickets. I’m sure he had a really good time.

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