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Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
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Berlin & Beyond
Now in its fourth year, the Berlin & Beyond Festival has grown steadily in popularity since its inception. The 20 films in this year's program, curated by Ingrid Eggers, program director for the Goethe-Institut, and Anita Monga, programmer for the Castro, are dominated by several themes: coming to terms with the Nazi past; the conflicts created by immigration; and the unification of Germany. The opening night film, Rider of the Flames (Jan. 15), is the visually lush, overwrought story of the tortured life of the poet Hslderlin, who was driven mad by his frustrated love for a ravishing married woman and his passion for poetry and was committed at age 36 to an insane asylum, where he spent the rest of his life. The White Hell of Piz PalY (1929; Jan. 20) is a restoration of the silent film, co-directed by the German expressionist G.W. Pabst, who also directed the classic Pandora's Box. PalY, which will be accompanied by organist Dennis James, stars the controversial filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl as a young femme fatale. Blue Note -- A Story of Modern Jazz (Jan. 18) is the saga of Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, German Jews who fled the Nazis and immigrated to New York, and whose passion for American jazz led them to found the Blue Note record label, where they discovered and recorded such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. (The label is still going strong and celebrated its 60th anniversary Jan. 6.)

In the taut Suzie Washington (Jan. 19), Birgit Doll gives an arresting performance as a canny woman who forges a visa, assumes another identity, and does whatever is necessary to elude the immigration authorities as she makes her way through Europe to her ultimate destination, the land of the brave and the home of the free. Trial by Fire (Jan. 16) is Gen-X angst German-style, and proves that the tribulations of superficial people, no matter what their nationality, don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Will the hapless son of a shipping magnate get laid and move out of his parents' house, not necessarily in that order? And do we care?

The festival will close with Harmonists (Jan. 21), which traces the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the successful Berlin musical troupe that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although the Comedian Harmonists, as they were known, had fans among highly placed officers in the Reich, fame was no protection from the regime's vicious policies -- three members of the group were Jewish and the Nazis banned it. Though the period settings get an antiseptic Masterpiece Theater treatment and the rivalry and romantic intrigue of the plot feel a bit contrived, the music, reminiscent of black-tie jazzy elegance and dry martinis, is transporting. Comedian Harmonists (Jan. 18), a two-part documentary, is a fascinating complement to the feature film, covering some of the same ground and also picking up where the other story leaves off to detail the fates of the group's members after they disbanded.

-- Sura Wood

The Berlin & Beyond Festival runs Friday through Thursday, Jan. 15-21, at the Castro, 429 Castro (at Market), S.F. Admission is $7 ($10 for The White Hell of Piz PalY; $17 for opening or closing party); call 621-6120 or see Reps Etc. on Page TK for a complete schedule.

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Sura Wood

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