Most of the filmmakers associated with the Berlin School have rejected the label in some fashion, or at least questioned the label’s applicability to their work when placed in proximity to that of their peers, and given the individual ascendence of people like Petzold and Ade, who do have idiosyncratic interests that extend beyond the pre-defined set of Berlin School signifiers (a superficially televisual look, something something “the European Project,” etc.) it makes sense that artists increasingly want to claim a personal project rather than be lumped in with a brand. And critics have, from my vantage point at least, followed the filmmakers’ lead. There’s a sense that the Berlin Schoolers have graduated from new wave status, or have at least matriculated from Un Certain Regard to Competition, and ought to be taken more directly on their own terms. But then what to make of a filmmaker like Valeska Grisebach, and particularly Western, which emerged in Un Certain Regard over a decade after her last feature premiered during the height of Berlin School attention and which feels more wedded to the school than the likes of Toni Erdmann or Phoenix? To a greater extent than her more famous peers, Grisebach and her films fit right into the box: a markedly plain style of flat key lighting and un-showy set-ups, an unabashed concern about Germany’s place in 21st century Europe, and a fondness for discreet, almost imperceptible abstraction.
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The talk of the Cannes Film Festival, where it received as rapturous a critical response as any film is likely to get (no less than Amy Taubin said it was one of her ten favorite films of all-time on Film Comment’s festival podcast), Toni Erdmann is finally making its run through the fall festival circuit, and here in Vancouver it capped my first day at the festival. And what is surely a great surprise, it’s a film that lives up to the hype. A nearly three-hour screwball comedy about a father, a daughter, and international capitalism, it’s the best film made about parenthood since Yasujiro Ozu died, and surely the funniest German film ever made. Peter Simonischek plays the father, a large, gregarious and goofy older man, a music teacher with a penchant for pranks of the false teeth and bad wig variety. His daughter, played by Sandra Hüller, is a high-ranking consultant working in Bucharest to help a corporation outsource its workforce. She’s too busy to notice how miserable she is, but after a perfunctory visit home, dad drops in on her life unannounced, generally being foolish and weird and embarrassing. At the halfway point she sends him home, only for him to return in disguise as Toni Erdmann, a life coach who insinuates himself among her friends at parties and work functions. The film is a symphony of double takes, as every character, great and small, is stunned by Toni’s oddity, his eyes twinkling mischievously whenever someone plays along with his games. The final third of the film escalates, in classic screwball style, through a masterful series of set-pieces, as hilarious as they are devastating. It’s difficult to describe the achievement of this film to someone who hasn’t seen it, the way it impossibly negotiates the simultaneous absurdity and despair of life, the way it captures the pride we have in our children and our overwhelming sorrow when they’re in pain. Watching it at VIFF, in a 1,000 seat auditorium, feeling the entire vast room captivated and rapturous with every twist and shock and small poignancy, is one of the great movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.