Reviews From Berlin And Beyond 2019

by on March 5, 2019

“The Chairs Game” referenced in the title of Lucia Charla’s drama is what we Americans know as the game of musical chairs.  For film protagonist Alice Liddell, the figurative game’s stakes range from employment to keeping up appearances.

The employment problem comes from her being a far too long unemployed online content editor.  The utterly useless re-training classes government unemployment services demand Alice take offer platitudes, not magic employment keys.  Applying for jobs has been a continued source of failure.

The keeping up appearances problem comes from a mixture of pride and stubbornness.  Her friends and former colleagues have thriving careers or look forward to marriage.  She refuses to consider changing professions. Age is also a problem as Alice is 39 going on 40.

Ms. Liddell copes by lying to everybody she knows about everything.  Supposedly she’s a happy freelance independent contractor when in actuality she’s a market research subject who scrabbles to resell for cash the gas vouchers she receives.  Hanging out with former colleagues is a process of balancing quality time against hiding her lack of money for recreational activities.

Charla’s film doesn’t condemn her protagonist for her deceptions.  Alice’s lies help her survive a frustrating, fruitless and seemingly unending period of unemployment.  Yet that survival technique’s usefulness allows Alice to avoid working personal networks that would have more likely yielded employment opportunity information rather than sending out yet another resume.  Predictably, blocked bank accounts and an increased scrabbling for small change make it clear Alice’s deceptions can’t save her much longer.

“The Chairs Game” may not revel in Alice’s newest misfortune.  However, it doesn’t support her “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to life either.  Saving her image among the people she knows feels like very small reward for the toll lying exacts on Alice’s life.  If anything, the film protagonist’s increasingly desperate measures to keep going soon appears tawdry. A hunger for a small pleasure and a desire for retaliation makes openly stealing a packet of cookies from a little girl seem reasonable.  An encounter with a frustrated older unemployed job-seeker delivers blunt truths that Alice is clearly not emotionally equipped to handle.

“The Chairs Game” can’t be faulted for not explaining how Alice became unemployed.  That event matters less than seeing how she increasingly fails to cope with the frustrations of not finding new employment.  However, Alice’s spiraling struggles never acquire the air of tragedy or inevitable doom that might engage viewer sympathies.

***

The graduating high school students at the center of Lars Kraume’s new historical drama “The Silent Revolution” get a real world education in politics.  However, the harshness of the lessons received may very well flatten their spirits.

Kraume’s film, based on Dietrich Garstka’s autobiographical book, takes place in 1956 East Germany.  A title relevantly informs viewers that it’s five years before the rise of the Berlin Wall.

High school friends Kurt and Theo sneak into a West Berlin movie theater intending to just get lots of eyefuls of actress Marion Michael’s bosom in the movie “Liane, Jungle Goddess.”  But images from a pre-movie newsreel of the 1956 Hungarian uprising inspire the two friends. Already not fans of the Russian occupation of their town of Stalinstadt, the two boys convince many of their classmates to hold a couple of minutes of classroom silence for the young Hungarians slain in the uprising.  However, the class’ act of nonviolent political protest eventually arouses the ire of education officials hostile to public actions seen as undermining the socialist order. And these officials have the power to express their displeasure in very concrete ways…

Crucial to the film’s drama are the class differences between best friends Kurt and Theo.  Kurt happens to be the stepson of a powerful local official. Theo has a metal foundry worker father who’s proud that his son’s the first member of their family to get a far better education.  The two boys’ different social statuses affect just how the fallout from the moment of silence will affect them.

Kurt’s privilege allows him to continue standing by his idealistic support for the Hungarian revolutionaries.  Theo, on the other hand, is painfully aware the protest has endangered his personal future and his family’s hopes.  That awareness leads him to make a failed attempt to walk back the nature of the class protest. But Theo underestimated just how determined the education officials were to squash the students’ dissent.

That difference in personal stakes strains the two friends’ relationship.  When Theo’s girlfriend Lena kisses Kurt, the friendship is broken. It’s a shortcoming of “The Silent Revolution” that Lena doesn’t dramatically become more than Theo’s object of desire.  It would have been interesting to see how deeply a practical exposure to realpolitik affects her.

It’s another student, Erik, whose story arc shows the awful effects of realpolitik in practice.  Erik considers himself a proud socialist and son of a wartime hero. But the education authorities try to turn fellow students against Erik by insinuating he betrayed them.  When that doesn’t achieve the desired results, blackmail proves a far more effective weapon even with its tragic outcome.

“The Silent Revolution” does attempt to give its villains a modicum of sympathy.  One education official has little love for fascists or their sympathizers thanks to his nearly being murdered by them during the Second World War.  Yet non-violent political protest can’t be equated with fascist terrorism.

Kraume’s film doesn’t move far enough away from the “officials and their Russian overlords bad, Western values good” mentality to be truly memorable.  Nothing much is made of the contrast between Kurt’s supporting the Hungarian resistance and Kurt honoring a grandfather who died fighting for the German cause.  Nor do Kurt or Theo question the sources of information they’re exposed to. The theatrical newsreel and the RAIS broadcast captured events in Hungary from a Western perspective while a newspaper Kurt’s father produces offers a perspective which questions the nobility of the Hungarians’ cause.  Instead, the film implicitly assumes the newspaper is lying. This conclusion may be true, but it doesn’t feel earned.

At least “The Silent Revolution” avoids speeches that glorify the West.  On the other hand, the ruthless punishments meted out to dissenting students aren’t exactly reasons for cheering Communist control.

***

In the gripping semi-personal documentary “Exit,” director Karen Winther tries to find out how former violent political extremists walked away from their dark pasts.  The matter is personal for Winther as she has forgotten how she herself left neo-Nazi circles behind. Winther’s fascinating interview subjects include former neo-Nazis, an ex-left-wing extremist, and even the lesbian activist who helped Winther exit the movement.  By the end, the film challenges viewers to consider the best ways to help extremists who want to leave their unforgivable pasts behind. Abandoning those who want to reject the path of hate is not an option.(“The Chairs Game” screens at 3:30 PM on March 10, 2019 at the Castro Theatre.  “The Silent Revolution” screens at 6:00 PM on March 9, 2019 at the Castro Theatre and 4:30 PM on March 11, 2019 at the Shattuck Berkeley.  “Exit” screens at 6:00 PM on March 12, 2019 at the Goethe Institut San Francisco. For further information about these films, go to http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/saf/prj/bby/enindex.htm?wt_sc=berlinbeyond .)

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