by Peter Wong on September 12, 2012

Germany’s entry to the Academy Awards, a documentary about skateboarding in the former East Germany, and a special retrospective honoring one of the key actors of the New German Cinema are some of the highlights of this year’s edition of the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival. This 17th edition of a festival dedicated to screening the cream of new films from directors based in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland returns to the Castro Theatre with 26 feature length films and 6 short films.
Opening this year’s festival is Germany’s Academy Award entry, Christian Petzold’s “Barbara.” The titular character, played by Nina Hoss, is a doctor in 1980s East Germany subjected to government punishment for trying to flee to West Germany. While Barbara’s desire to escape hasn’t diminished, her emotional ties to her work and her possibly GDR-complicit supervising doctor prevent her from leaving. “Barbara” has already earned Petzold a 2012 Berlinale Silver Bear Award for Best Director and a 2012 German Film Award Best Film (in Silver).

Hoss also plays the lead role in Hendrik Handloegten’s fantasy “Summer Window.” Her character, Juliane, finds herself thrown back into the moment in her past before she found happiness with her lover August. But is this involuntary time trip a disaster or an unexpected second chance for her?
Another return to the past is the subject of Anno Saul’s fantasy mystery thriller “The Door.” Painter David (“Casino Royale”’s Mads Mikkelsen) has gone into a downward spiral after causing his seven-year-old daughter’s death five years earlier. A mysterious door to the past gives him a new opportunity to rebuild his life. But the opportunity turns out to be far from a welcome gift.
The deal with the devil story has been told and retold over the years in such works as “Doctor Faustus.” The titular character in Alexander Sokurov’s “Faust” is a disillusioned and hungry doctor whose relationship with a mysterious moneylender leads him to re-appreciate the world, but with terrible consequences. Sokurov’s new film has already won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Film Festival.
Speaking of award winners, a storied German actor is the recipient of Berlin and Beyond’s Lifetime Achievement Award In Acting. Mario Adorf has appeared in over 200 film and TV roles, and has worked with such famed directors as Sam Peckinpah, Claude Chabrol, Billy Wilder, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Volker Schlondorff. To honor Adorf, the festival will screen four of his films: Volker Schlondorff’s classic adaptation of Gunter Grass’ novel “The Tin Drum” (in Schlondorff’s newly restored black and white Director’s Cut version), the adaptation of B. Traven’s (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) “Ship of the Dead,” Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Lola,” and Adorf’s most recent film “The Rhino and the Dragonfly.”
Sure to generate controversy and discussion is the multiple 2012 German Film Award winner, David Wnendt’s “Combat Girls.” Marisa (Alina Levshin, who won a Best Actress award for her performance) belongs to a neo-Nazi gang which shares her hatred of foreigners and love of aggressive behavior. But when Marina’s encounters with a young Afghan refugee slowly evolve her principles, she finds escaping her aggressive hate-filled friends will be very difficult.
For those who missed Dagmar Schultz’ documentary “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 To 1992” at Frameline, Berlin and Beyond offers another chance to see this entertaining account. The film charts the effects of the award-winning African-American lesbian poet’s visiting professorship in Berlin. Not only did Lorde spark the Afro-German movement, but she inspired white women to move beyond white privilege to deal with racial difference.
Another teacher helping students push past differences is the lead character of Sebastian Grobler’s drama “Lessons of a Dream.” Young teacher Konrad Koch has been hired to teach English to the boys of an 1874 German private school. To break past the students’ learned prejudices regarding England, the teacher resorts to such unconventional methods as introducing the boys to the new English sport of football. More traditional fellow teachers and influential parents, though, want to have Koch removed.
Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer is one of American literature’s most quintessential characters. Hopefully, Berlin and Beyond attendees will not suffer culture shock when they hear Sawyer, his friend Huck Finn, and new girl in town Becky Thatcher speaking fluent German in Hermine Huntgeburth’s adaptation “Tom Sawyer.”
For sheer cultural mashup, one must turn to Berlin and Beyond’s Centerpiece film Veit Helmer’s “Baikonur.” Not only is the film a German-Russian-Kazakh co-production, but one will hear lots of Russian, English, and French dialogue. This will not be surprising given that the setting is a small Kazakh shepherding village located near Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. Space-obsessed villager Gagarin helps salvage Baikonur’s space scrap. But after beautiful space tourist Julie gets rescued by Gagarin, the young man learns that not all fairy tales end the same way.
Another unusual film is Nicolas Steiner’s Swiss documentary “Battle of the Queens.” The titular queens are cows brought in from around the Swiss countryside to participate in a series of head-to-head fights. Will this film discourage cow tippers?
A more familiarly mind-blowing documentary subject can be found in Martin Witz’ “The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD.” It traces the nearly 70 year history of Hofmann’s consciousness-raising and criminally abused drug.
Closing out Berlin and Beyond is Marten Persiel’s strange-but-true documentary “This Ain’t California.” It’s the tale of how one of the first skateboarding crews behind the Berlin Wall became considered a political threat to the former GDR. Presented with period footage of the “roller boarding” days, images of ultra-short jeans shorts and naked girls, and blistering 1980s German punk, Persiel’s film will make Bart Simpson appear more of an anti-authoritarian underachiever than he already is.
(The 17th Berlin and Beyond Film Festival will screen between September 27, 2012 and October 4, 2012. Venues will be the Castro Theatre (429 Castro St. (at Market), SF) and the Goethe-Institute Auditorium (530 Bush Street (at Grant), SF). For further information and advance tickets, go to www.BerlinBeyond.com )

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