The cinema industry knows crises so well that the mere return to normality is already a joy. Neither increased energy costs nor water damage in Saarbrücken’s main cinema could prevent the 44th edition of the Max Ophüls Prize, and so the most important festival for young German-speaking filmmakers after two years of corona restrictions was pleasantly conventional: with presence programs in Saarland cinemas and a selected streaming offer .
With Max Gleschinski’s “Alaska”, the jury chose the most idiosyncratic contribution as the best feature film. The director and author, born in Rostock in 1993, had already won prizes with his debut feature film “Kahlschlag”, and he is directing his second film to the Mecklenburg Lake District.
Gleschinski’s film production is called “From the Beginning Different” and the name says it all. The first 20 minutes ripple along in irritating uneventfulness, which is meant to be taken literally rather than derogatory. Kerstin (Christina Grosse), in her mid-forties, launches her fiery red GDR kayak and begins her journey. Even paddle strokes and Kerstin’s breath – day in, day out -, the nocturnal chirping of the crickets and the croaking of the frogs gently slide into this film.
Lots of family stories without bold Eastern clichés
Eye contact sets the story in motion and two women get closer to each other. At the campfire, Kerstin meets Alima (Pegah Ferydoni) again, warms up, opens up. It becomes clear: Both of them use the journey for processing. Alima’s marriage broke up, Kerstin’s father died.
The drama of this loss emerges with glacial speed, as does the meaning of their journey. “Alaska” takes its time, keeps the audience’s curiosity awake, and is also a film for the big screen because it thrives on its poetry and atmosphere.
Two other feature films in the competition revolved around women with East German backgrounds. In “Tamara” by the Babelsberg film student Jonas Ludwig Walter, the conflict within the family between the generation before and after the reunification comes to light. The worldly Tamara (Linda Pöppel) comes from Berlin to visit her parents’ house in the commuter belt, where she teases her mother not only with the question of organic food. The instructive “Besserwessis” suddenly come from the GDR themselves.
The new program director Carolin Weidner, born in Bad Saarow in Brandenburg in 1989, is delighted to have found this “powerful current” that she had been waiting for. “Filmmakers who were born in the GDR but have hardly experienced it themselves now tell family stories from their perspective, without bold Eastern clichés.”
Questions about one’s own identity and origins drove a number of films from this year, both fictional and documentary. Felix Meyer-Christian’s contribution “Independence” stood out, winning the Film Critics’ Prize. The documentary takes the biography of the German-Mozambican actress Helen Wendt as an opportunity to shed light on political independence movements – both successful and failed.
Two English married couples explain why they experience Brexit as a liberation, a Catalan reports on the independence referendum of 2017. It goes to the youngest country in the world, South Sudan, where autonomy has not led to peace. And to southern Germany, where the leader of the Bavarian party explains the merits of patriotism over nationalism.
This tour de force could easily have failed, but the careful selection of locations and interlocutors as well as Helen Wendt’s clever thoughts and questions from the off create an equally multi-layered and enlightening mosaic, an entertaining cinematic essay.
Two queer love films received multiple awards
Also noteworthy is the Swiss drama “Semret”. We get to know the heroine of the same name (Lula Mebrahtu) as a withdrawn, controlled woman. She lives in Zurich, where she is preparing to become a midwife. Semret observes with skepticism that her teenage daughter Joe (Hermela Tekleab) is making contact with the Eritrean community and is beginning to take an interest in her roots.
The single mother associates a trauma with her flight from her homeland, that quickly becomes clear. Integration serves her to repress. “You are Swiss,” she replies defiantly to her daughter, who wants to know where she comes from. Semret herself dresses in European style, and there are hardly any traces of African culture in her apartment.
The great strength of Caterina Mona’s feature film debut lies in the calmness with which she brings the charged complex of topics about migration and homeland to the screen. Semret never encounters open racism, but the rude reaction of a doctor and the doors of a bus that don’t open give rise to speculation. The subtle screenplay and sensitive staging deserved an award.
Two queer love films from Austria received multiple awards. “Eismayer” by David Wagner tells the true story of a romance in the army and was awarded both the audience prize and the prize for film criticism. “Breaking the Ice” received awards for the socially relevant film and for the best screenplay, among others. In Clara Stern’s first feature film, an ice hockey player is thrown off course by her new teammate, but also by the appearance of her brother. The fun game with gender roles gives her new security.
There were fewer submissions from female directors last year, program manager Carolin Weidner notes with regret and suspects the Corona crisis to be the cause. The management team of the Ophüls Prize, on the other hand, is more female than ever: Svenja Böttger directed its seventh edition, Weidner is in charge of the program together with Theresa Winkler from Graz.
While Winkler has previously worked in film brokerage and as a producer, Weidner has a background in film criticism and science. It will be interesting to see to what extent these different focal points will be reflected in the program in the coming years.
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