Amidst the red carpet premieres and gala parties that draw international attention to the annual Berlinale, the festival often maintains a serious, sometimes even somber mood, often debuting films about weighty matters and political issues. Among the high profile new competitive titles that have had attendees buzzing at the Berlin International Film Festival this year is Stefan Ruzowitzky‘s “The Counterfeiters” (Die Falscher), an Austrian/German production that takes a unique look at German history, namely the Holocaust. Exploring the compelling story of “Operation Bernhard,” Ruzowitsky’s film depicts the almost unbelievable secret Nazi program aimed at destabilizing their enemies by counterfeiting British and American currency.
While Germany looks at its past, U.S. entries in Berlin are taking a critical look inward as well. Stirring sentiments are a pair of Panorama titles, Jamie Babbit‘s rambunctious “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” and Lynn Hershman Leeson‘s revealing “Strange Culture.” Chatting with indieWIRE the other day, Panorama section head Weiland Speck explained, “The American independents are back to originality and ‘radicality’ and this is good news because this is exactly what Berliners want to see.”
Questions of Conscience in “The Counterfeiters”
Master faker Salomon Sorowitsch, who spends made-up money inside Monaco casinos, faces a crisis of conscience when he is apprehended by the Nazis and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to carry out the operation. There he leads a life unlike that of other imprisoned Jews, living with fellow counterfeiters in upscale barracks as they are forced to perfect the fake currency. As the festival notes in a description, “Perhaps they can save their own skins, but they will put the lives of so many of their fellow-sufferers in jeopardy. All of sudden, it’s no longer a question of survival, but one of conscience.”
Based on a book by Adolph Burger, who is depicted in the film, the story follows the dramatic developments as a group of counterfeiters are rounded up and forced to work together to support the Nazi operation. As media reports have already noted in writing about the suspense-filled new film, it marks a shift away from documentary takes on the Nazi era here in Germany, instead exploring the story with an intriguing dramatic script that seems too incredible to be true.
Admitting that making a film about the Holocaust is “very tricky subject matter,” Ruzowitzky added during a press conference in Berlin that he was comfortable using the setting and subject as a way to explore both history and broader issues. “Some people… many people have very strong emotions (about) this,” he explained, “For me, (there was a) need to report on this,” but he added, “there has to be suspense, emotion, not just a duty to feed this information to your audience.”
“I was always waiting for an opportunity to take a position on this whole issue, especially as someone coming from Austria where we have a lot of politicians (who) still have a somewhat disgusting closeness and proximity to some of the ideas of the past,” Ruzowitzky explained. “I was looking for this opportunity to make a film about normal, every day life in a concentration camp, not only talking about history. (This is) not a history lesson, it is also about universal issues which I thought were important.” [Eugene Hernandez]
Lesbian Activists Power Up in “Titty”
America’s right-wing is all too well known here in Europe, and one U.S. conservative’s infamous chastisement of the continent’s left of center governments as “old Europe” still holds some sensitivity. But, German audiences were treated to a dose of America’s nascent left with Jamie Babbit‘s Berlinale Panorama film “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” The film centers on a young lesbian, Anna (Melonie Diaz), who has yet to find her political self. After a chance encounter with the seductive Sadie (Nicole Vicius), she is swooped up into the antics of a radical group of feminist punks called C(I)A (“Clits in Action”), an activist cell that fights the objectification of women by staging shocking operations.
Politics aside, Anna also has a thing for activist Sadie, who lives comfortably with her older and more established girlfriend (Melanie Mayron). Though Sadie also has the hots for Anna, she’s hardly the extreme radical her exterior would suggest, maintaining the relationship for the security that a nice home and material well-being offer remains her paramount concern — even if she denies it. Along the way, the CIA has some modest success grabbing local media attention, but the sexual drama among members — with Anna at the center — nearly brings down the group. Following a drunken romp with one member that nearly tears them all apart, Anna conjures up a new commando operation to end all stunts, radically altering the CIA’s imminent demise.
The film itself came from within an activist group. It was produced by POWER UP (Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching Up), the six-year-old organization aimed at supporting diversity and the visibility of lesbians in entertainment.
“Music was a big inspiration of the movie,” explained Babbit, after a screening of the film here in Berlin. She used a considerable amount of material Washington-based punk and alternative rock label, Kill Rock Stars. Her own participation in radical groups of the ’90s also provided some of the backdrop for “Itty Bitty.” “I started noticing common themes in [AIDS activist group] ACT UP and lesbian micro-groups,” said Babbit, after a rousing showing here in Germany. “The politics were important, but sex was also a motivation.” Babbit, director of “But I’m A Cheerleader” as well as episodes of “Ugly Betty,” “Nip/Tuck,” and “Popular,” explained that members of these groups were committed to the issues they were fighting for, but also hoped their activism would result in some good “hook-ups” as a convenient by-product.
In the end, the young and naive Anna overcomes her self-centered motivations for joining CIA and pulls off a triumph. “I wanted there to be a story about a ‘clueless’ girl who meets a mentor,” said Babbit about her often hilarious film. “But in the end, the girl has something to teach the mentor.” [Brian Brooks]
Leeson Doc Depicts U.S. Artistic Chill
In Berlin with an unconventional documentary that tackles some weighty issues is filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose “Strange Culture” premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival. Citing, “Issues that caused me and my colleagues to drop everything we were doing to make it,” Leeson talked about the movie after a Panorama screening here that kicked off the Panorama Dokumente section. The provocative doc explores the true story of artist Steve Kurtz whose tools and supplies were impounded after his wife suddenly died of heart failure. In an era of hyper-sensitivity and increasing clamp downs on artistic expression, suspicion was cast upon Kurtz as he prepared to present (at MASS MoCA), a project exploring genetically modified food. The artist and lecturer, and a founding member of the art and theater group, Critical Art Ensemble, was named a terrorism suspect in charges that have yet to be cleared and he now awaits a trial as he faces the possibility of a lengthy prison term.
Because of pending litigation and other complications, actors Tilda Swinton, Peter Coyote, and Josh Kornbluth were hired to depict the scenes for which the actual people can’t speak for themselves, resulting in a hybrid doc that reveals a surprising story. Writing about the film for indieWIRE at Sundance, Dennis Lim noted that “Strange Culture”” is, “Probably the best and certainly the most urgent film in the Frontier section.”
“There is an awareness to this case that is growing,” Leeson explained after the showing, noting that her film is drawing attention to Kurtz’s case and raising issues about the freedom of artistic expression in the modern era.
“In a word,” film producer and rep Steven Beer said, “9/11 changed everything.” Adding, “And those in power have exploited it to advance their agendas.” Explaining the situation to an engaged Berlin audience, Leeson and Beer noted that the case has already had an effect on other artists whose work is like Kurtz’s.
“The chill is unfortunate and a pernicious by-product,” Beer told the German audience, “First in the art world and then beyond that.” Those involved have noted that combined with the redefinition of habeas corpus for the so-called ‘enemy combatants,’ the case may prove the ability of those in power to, “silence and neutralize those that are against them.”
Cinema Vault recently secured international sales rights and is selling the film at the European Film Market in Berlin. [Eugene Hernandez]
indieWIRE’s coverage from the 2007 Berlinale and the European Film Market continues in a special section.