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11th Annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival

It's Not All German

January often marks the beginning of the doldrums of cinema because the studios have already released their Oscar contenders for the past year. For a change from the bland, check out the 11th Annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, which features innovative films from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

These films are good. They cover the gamut from comedy, thriller, political satire, and documentary to love story and relationship drama -- not to mention the obligatory Nazi-resistance drama. Among the many quality films featured in the lineup are the following standouts:

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)
This 1929 silent film, accompanied by Dennis James on the Castro Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer, is remarkable on many levels -- one of which is its documentary-like depiction of how ordinary, middle-class Berliners spend their precious leisure time. A young taxi driver meets up with a traveling salesman and his sexy female companions. Together they spend a lazy day at the lake, eating, swimming, dozing, and flirting. Eschewing a conventional narrative, the film appears as a series of vignettes that show how carefree life in Berlin was between the wars.
(Castro, 1/17, 7 PM)

It's the last day of Oktoberfest and everyone's attending the fair for one last day of fun. Johannes Brunner's film follows several groups of people as they make their rounds: a group of romantic Italians, a curious Japanese couple, a German father and his estranged children, and several worn-out festival workers (dishwasher, musician, ticket seller, and waitress) whose livelihood depends on this predictable, annual tribute to oompah music. Lurking amid the shadows is a mysterious young man who phones the police repeatedly and questions their ability to keep the fairgrounds safe from terrorists. As their paths intertwine, this Oktoberfest makes a lasting impression on all their lives.
(Castro, 1/16, 5 PM)

Drum Bum (Bon Voyage)
This road movie places Martin, a young German, into various Kafkaesque situations as he travels through Rumania in search of his recently deceased father's remains. The naive Martin is as hopeless as he is hapless. First he loses his wallet. Then his "rental car" breaks down. Next he accidentally slams a good Samaritan's fingers in a car door (twice). This cross-cultural comedy pits this clueless but determined German's big-city expectations against the rural simplicity of Hungarian-Rumanian life.
(Castro, 1/14, 2:30 PM; Point Arena, 1/21, 4 PM)

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
This festival opener profiles The White Rose, a group of university students whose passive resistance sought to cripple the Nazis war machine. Sophie Scholl joins the group and is shortly arrested for distributing leaflets. This film examines the lengths to which people will try to protect others for a cause in which they believe.
(Castro, 1/12, 8 PM)

Barefoot (Barfuss)
This closing night film by director, writer, editor Til Schweiger casts himself as a loser who befriends a suicidal woman in a psychiatric clinic and finally learns to take responsibility for something larger than himself.
(Castro, 1/18, 7:30 PM)

The guest of honor this year is Michael Verhoeven, director of The Nasty Girl (Castro, 1/15, 2:30 PM), his 1990 film that caused a stir in Germany by prying into the conduct of the citizens of a small Bavarian town during the Nazi years. His The White Rose (Castro, 1/13, 3:30 PM) from 1982 is another film about the famed Nazi resistance student group. Finally, his controversial anti-Vietnam War film O.K. (Castro, 1/17, 12:30 PM), based on actual events, concerns a Vietnamese girl who was kidnapped in 1966 by four American soldiers and then raped, stabbed, and shot. When another soldier tries to report the incident, the authorities suppress his account. (Brian De Palma's 1989 film Casualties of War is a remake of this film.)

Germany's own multiculturalism is not overlooked at the festival. Cultural drama Kebab Connection (Castro, 1/14, 7 PM) follows a Turkish hip-hopper who hopes to make the first German kung-fu film while he skirts the cultural divide separating the local Turkish and Greek communities around him.

Meanwhile, Austrian satire Silentium (Castro, 1/17, 8:30 PM) skewers all hallowed institutions in its fictional investigation of a rising suicide rate in Salzburg. And the sobering film North Wind (Castro, 1/18, 4:30 PM; Point Arena, 1/21, 7 PM) from Switzerland profiles the devastation that ensues when a worker becomes unemployed after twenty years on the job.

Running the gamut from box-office hits (in Germany) and documentaries from veteran filmmakers to short films and directors' first features, the festival runs January 12-18 at the Castro Theater (Castro @ Market Street) and continues January 21 at Mendocino's Point Arena theater (on Highway 1 between Sea Ranch and Mendocino).