(Pictured: Ludwig II.)
Easily the best German language film festival west of the Rhine, Berlin & Beyond is back in town this week and back in its rightful midwinter slot on the crowded Bay Area cinematic calendar. Being collectively a portrait of modern European culture, these recent films from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland tend to work best when grappling with heavy histories, be they national, personal, or both. Many of this year's festival highlights look like they've been powered by intense reflection.
In Nana Neul's Silent Summer, an outwardly successful art historian (Dagmar Manzel) has an odd encounter with her estranged husband (Ernst Stötzer), then seems to go permanently mum. She withdraws to a family mansion in the south of France, where her muteness gradually inspires everyone around her to go a little crazy -- not least for reminding them of some presumed-unmentionable secrets lurking in this family's past.
Adapting Julia Franck's novel with his mother Heidi, director Christian Schwochow delivers a humane and haunting character study in West. With Cold War paranoia pervading a tensely divided 1970s Berlin, a determined single mother (Jördis Triebel) and her curious young son (Tristan Göbel) cross over to the more prosperous side, where their lives only get harder.
Shifting the Blame, the dynamic feature debut from director Lars-Gunnar Lotz, explores the relationship between conscience and recrimination. In an experimental halfway house, a thuggish young criminal (Edin Hasanovic, outstanding) struggles toward stability, social skills, and the prospect of "offender-victim reconciliation." But the latter is, for reasons best not given away, especially thorny. Lotz and screenwriter Anna Maria Prassler's scenario suffers from a few contrivances, but a great cast, including especially Hasanovic and fellow standout Julia Brendler, puts all platitudes of amends-making to a useful and emotional test.
Saturday's late show at the Castro, director Detlev Buck's Measuring the World, recounts the exploratory adventures of scientist Alexander von Humboldt (Albrecht Schuch) and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (Florian David Fitz) at the turn of the 19th century. A multilayered madcap saga, like some Teutonic Terry Gilliam movie, it's also a paean to curiosity -- this Gauss, for instance, is routinely distractible from sex by his own burgeoning number theory -- and a way of remembering that history often moves forward in ways not merely militaristic.
Type "Ludwig II" into Google lately and the additional keyword suggestions you'll get right away are "castle," "gay," and "movie." Happily, most of your questions about the first two of those results will be answered by the third. Ludwig II the film, this festival's centerpiece, greets the so-called "fairy-tale king" as he assumes his throne in 1864. "Bavaria will become the center of all beauty," he declares while warming up a coronation speech (and kissing his own reflection, rather intensely); a dreamy romantic, and a superfan of Richard Wagner, this Ludwig showed little interest in matters of state -- which, at this place and time, had become fatefully tricky. Newcomer Sabin Tambrea is riveting in the role, somehow combining the wiry weirdness of Crispin Glover, the actorly intensity of Ralph Fiennes, and his own unique personality. Historically rigorous but refreshingly unencumbered, Ludwig II was co-written and co-directed by renowned period-piece specialist and talent-spotter Peter Sehr, who died last May, and to whom an award tribute will begin tonight at the Castro at 5 p.m., prior to the 6 p.m. screening. Sehr's widow and creative partner Marie Noëlle will be in attendance.
The 18th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, through Jan. 19 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.; then through Jan. 21 at Goethe-Institut, 530 Bush St., S.F. For tickets and more information, visit berlinbeyond.com.