This year’s Berlin International Film Festival (February 11 – 21) offered the chance to watch many historical docs in a city saturated with history

Not all the filmmakers, however, were equally up to the task of rendering the past on film, found MARCY GOLDBERG.

Dealing with its history has always been a challenge for Berlin. Especially now, a visit to that city offers the unusual chance to see the past literally being taken apart and put back together, torn down or restored, in front of one’s very eyes. Perhaps appropriately, this recycling and remixing of history was also a dominant theme in the documentaries featured at this year’s Berlinale. Like the Berlin city planners, it seems not all documentary makers are equally skilled at handling the past.

A number of films on the Holocaust and the Third Reich were featured at the Berlinale. The Special Screenings of James Moll’s “The Last Days” and “The Specialist” by Eyal Sivan and Rony Brauman were perhaps the most prominent, but unfortunately not the most interesting. Moll’s film, which has since won an Oscar, tells the story of 5 Hungarian Jews, deported in 1944, who survived the concentration camps. Although the survivors’ testimony is extremely moving, and the 5 stories deftly edited together to form one larger whole, the film does not move beyond sentimentality to analysis, and relies on clichéd images like marching Nazis and the remains of the camps to represent the past.

With “The Specialist”, Sivan and Brauman wanted to examine the question of the perpetrators of racism through the example of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi “bureaucrat killer” who organized most of the transports to concentration camps during the war, and was later tried and executed in Israel. But by confining themselves to nothing but the 1961 Jerusalem trial footage (taped on very early video technology by Leo Hurwitz), which they then edited and digitally manipulated to create various visual and audio effects, the result is a film which is pretentious in style, but ultimately tells us very little.

A far more resourceful attitude to historical research is found in Katrin Seybold’s “No! Witnesses of the Resistance in Munich 1933-1945” (screened in the Panorama’s doc section). The established German filmmaker has been researching under-documented aspects of the Third Reich and German resistance to the Nazis for many years, and has now followed up on her film about resistance in the Stuttgart area with this one, capturing the testimonies of people who have often literally never told their stories.

A highlight of the Berlinale and undoubtedly of this year’s crop of docs is Volker Koepp’s latest film, “Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckerman” (a Forum premiere). Here Koepp once again demonstrates his talent for drawing out his subjects and subtly linking their stories to the major political and social upheavals of the 20th century. In this case, the focus is on the Ukrainian town of Czernowitz, once a centre of Jewish culture, and two of its oldest living Jewish survivors. In the comically pessimistic Herr Zwilling and the sprightly and cynical Frau Zuckerman (aged 90), Koepp found two excellent characters who convey an often tragic history with intelligence and humour instead of heavy sentimentality.

Two excellent Forum films combined personal history with film history by treating the lives of two intriguing filmmakers. “Brakhage”, by Canadian Jim Shedden, traces the life and work of American avant-garde artist Stan Brakhage, perhaps the most important experimental filmmaker of the post-war era. Shedden’s  film features rare candid interviews with Brakhage, and also includes extracts from his work – the first time the filmmaker has permitted their use. Stefan Jarl’s “Life At Any Cost” is a homage to recently deceased Swedish director Bo Widerberg. It includes clips from Widerberg’s work, material from films never completed, and the masterful participation of Thommy Berggren, a key Widerberg actor. Both films succeed very well at fulfilling a key function of the artist portrait: making you want to see more of their work if you don’t know it already, or see it again, if you do.

A consideration of Berlin and history would not be complete without the figure of rock & roll diva and living Berlin legend Nina Hagen. In making “Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory” filmmaker Peter Sempel enjoyed unusually intimate access to Nina and her mother and children. Made in true punk-doc style, the film captures Nina’s life and music in a zig-zag pattern, using almost no archival material but instead encouraging the singer to reflect on her past from her standpoint now. The Berlin screening offered a rare chance to see the 112-minute “director’s cut” which has since been shortened for distribution.


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