Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Berlin and Beyond Film Festival: A Daring, Shocking, and Lyrical Film Festival

Berlin and Beyond Festival President Sabine Erlenwein and Festival Director Sophoan Sorn

The 16th annual Berlin and Beyond Film Festival is opening Oct. 20 at the Castro Theatre, and this  celluloid gift has been eagerly anticipated by film fans. San Francisco has always had a vibrant German-American community, and the Castro District was the home and business site for dozens of ethnic German families from the late 1800s to the post-WWII era.  When homes and garages on Collingwood Street are renovated, German-language newspapers used as insulation are found in the walls. San Francisco boasts some of the Bay Area’s best array of German restaurants, including the high camp decorated East German restaurant Walzwerk that has catered the festival with its superb goulash.

The media was invited to a Sept. 29 promotional press conference where conversations with Festival Director Sophoan Sorn and Festival President Sabine Erlenwein developed over pastry and coffee. Erlenwein is also the Director of the San Francisco branch of the Goethe Institut, the German Cultural Center that is located in large cities worldwide. Sorn and Erlenwein then mounted the movie palace’s stage to discuss the films, lead a Q&A, and introduce the excellent festival closing night film “If Not Us, Who (Wer wenn nicht wir).”

That closing night film is an inspiration to activists as it introduces the intense, young, disenchanted characters who would become members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, an urban terrorist gang also known as the Red Army Faction that was active in the 1970s. Their dysfunctional personal lives are on display, and the movie complements the numerous other films about the gang, such as the award winning “The Baader Meinhof Complex” of 2009. Germans are still confounded by the gang, since its members were privileged youth who did not just attack government and business officials with handguns, they attacked relentlessly with machine guns. The message of the film and its title is to not be complacent, but to be become activists and form groups to make changes, though not necessarily as extremely as the subjects of this cinematic expression.

The festival is about films, but it also is well known and admired for its high-energy parties. The mezzanine of the silent film era Castro Theatre is the venue for the opening night and closing night soirĂ©es where Blue Angel Vodka and Spaten beer will be served with treats from the Castro’s Hot Cookie and The Sausage Factory (where this journalist shared meals with Harvey Milk).

The festival depends on volunteers, its publicist Jackson Scarlett, and on gay lovers Alex Randoph and Trevor Nguyen, who solve problems and enhance the event using their experience with government service and group dynamics.

The consulates of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have generously supported the festival since its founding, and their gatherings throughout the year advertise the festival and its rich cultural significance. German culture is celebrated in San Francisco and a central focus of that culture is philosophy, art, and music. That essence is captured by the festival film “Young Goethe in Love.” Unfortunately that film will only be screened in San Jose because the filmmakers and distributors have restricted its viewing to theaters of 500 seats or less so it can remain eligible for awards. Controversy may emerge after the film is mass released because recently discovered letters suggest that Goethe was gay or bisexual.

The other unique and stimulating film only being screened in San Jose in the festival is “3 (Drei)” which is a rarely shown scenario of a man and his wife sharing another man, and it was a hit at San Francisco Int'l LGBT Film Festival this year.

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