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Moving Through Past and Present

Transitional Spaces in Go Short’s ‘In Focus: Germany’

notes by Sabrina Vetter

Moving Through Past and Present

In this year’s edition of Go Short International Short Film Festival Nijmegen, one of the In Focus-programs is dedicated to Germany. Centering questions about moving between spaces – inner and outer worlds, materialistic and symbolic places –, identity and existence, the program looks at how German cinema negotiates the country’s past and present. Each of the program’s parts — ‘Berlinsomnia’, ‘New Wave of German Filmmakers’, ‘Kanzler Culture’ and ‘Flaming Views – Female Visionaries’ — looks at transition in one way or another, featuring films made in recent years but also projects reaching back to the seventies.

This way, ‘In Focus: Germany’ ponders on the one hand how the country’s complex history before and around the time of reunification informs recent film releases and how, on the other, recent stories argue for examinations of identity, culture, home and self within changed realities. The films featured do not so much focus on a country as marked by a German Angst but rather explore the subversive possibilities and creativeness of German filmmaking throughout the past forty years.

Navigating Berlin: A City of Restlessness

Najib, one of the three main characters in Otto Lazić-Reuschel’s ‘When I dance, the earth trembles’ (2020), describes himself as a “lost guy”. More familiar with Berlin at night than during daytime, he stumbles into the streets of the German capital where “everybody is drunk” during that limited timeframe when inebriated partygoers return to their homes and drowsy commuters on their way to their workplaces converge. As part of ‘Berlinsomnia’, Lazić-Reuschel’s live action short follows three characters as they navigate city life in these unholy early hours on the cusp of dawn. The short presents Berlin as a city of many people, many stories, many languages and above all, one of restlessness. This restlessness is very much emphasized by the short’s single-take style that goes hand in hand with uncertainty and chaos of existence as central motifs. Without any visible cuts, an unseen person, through whose eyes the audience experiences the events of the film, follows Najib, Manu and Jörg consecutively while they navigate streets, subway stations, sidewalks and remote corners of the city.

The peculiarities of the capital are underlined in little secondary plots: Najib encountering like-minded people heading to or coming from parties, friends meeting by chance among the masses of the metropole, a drunken man trying to get into a conversation with Manu despite speaking a different language, an impromptu party of two people, a dog and a DJ under the bridge. This sentiment of chaos is very much underlined by the way the trio's individual stories seamlessly interconnect, even though their lives do not seem to align much from what the audience can gather in the few minutes spent with them (Najib is partying away his time in the city, Manu is a restless traveler in need of finding a permanent location, Jörg is a family man with financial troubles). The short tells a cohesive story by the time the end credits roll anyways: In a city of a population of 3.6 million people, despair has many faces but still exists in the same streets, in homes only a few streets apart, and within the same moments of the day.

Christoph Doering’s ‘3302 the taxifilm’, though released forty-one years earlier, discusses the city’s restlessness in a surprisingly similar way. The black and white experimental film takes a look at the German city that never sleeps through the nighttime shift of a taxi driver. The film consists of a collage of clips of passengers, from punks to party people to drunks and druggies, some in party mode, some half-asleep, all desperate to get to their destination. Other than ‘When I dance, the earth trembles’, Doering’s film doesn’t go into detail of individual people’s stories but simply offers quick glimpses into their lives. Put together, they make for a grim outlook on navigating the vibrant city when on the job. Doering focuses closely on the night as revealing the crude and ruthless aspects of a metropole and the darkness that the night inhabits.

Starting out at evening time, the more the night progresses, the rougher the short’s depiction of the city and its people: more noise, more turmoil, more sadness and more drunken and drugged-out menaces, including sexual harassment. This version of Berlin isn’t one of happily partying on the streets but a dreadful city with a shocking ending to the night. Made in 1979, it is obvious why and how the Berlin presented here is different from the one in 2020. Doering’s film is shaped by a city torn apart, a reality that doesn’t feature in Lazić-Reuschel’s work, simply due to the passage of time and the political and historical changes it brought with it: by including shots of the Berlin Wall through the car’s windshield, the 1979 film depicts the city’s limits, reminding that at that point in time, the Berlin of today didn’t exist; not as the capital but solely as a divided city, one of East and West.

Nostalgic Memory, Historical Knowledge

‘New Wave of German Filmmakers’ picks up on the notion presented in ‘Berlinsomnia’ that the present is not only informed by the past but its realities always also need to be negotiated with history in mind. ‘Michael Ironside and I’ by Marian Mayland and ‘AIVA’ by Veneta Androva, both from 2020, take a step back from explicitly discussing life in Germany and are more interested in the possibilities stories about memory have to offer. Mayland’s narrator remembers youth by ways of film and television characters, their stories on-screen and the fates of the actors who portray them. The audience is presented a succession of shots depicting rooms of male adolescent characters from the 80s & 90s tech geek films/TV shows ‘WarGames’, ‘Real Genius’ and ‘SeaQuest DSV’. The re-imaged fictional sanctuaries – a childhood room in a suburban family area, a dorm room on a university campus and a cramped almost claustrophobic space on a futuristic submarine – are shown in fragments accompanied by a male narrator going into detail about the film and TV stories they ought to depict. The narration includes descriptions of fictional characters (Matthew Broderick’s David, Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight and Gabriel Jarret’s Mitch as well as Jonathan Brandis’ Lucas Wolenczak) and notable events in the lives of the actors who portray them. Due to the narration as well as a retro feel emerging through attention to detail of set decoration and production design including then up-to-date technology (from corded telephones to iconic computer games), the short transports its audience through time into these eighties and nineties stories. The film is a presentation of nostalgia that displays memory and knowledge through popular culture.

The themes of nostalgia and retro feel are in contrast to how ‘AIVA’ negotiates memory. AIVA is a Female Humanoid Artist designed by a cis-male engineering team. AIVA’s painting skills are computer-fed, her approach to art is solely based upon statistics and an artificially-generated understanding of the history of art with a detailed focus on the grand male masters. All the knowledge AIVA displays of the skill of painting is a data collection in the literary sense, her knowledge an accumulation of pixels and facts coming together as some sort of knowledge, which however lacks a personal opinion on aesthetics. Androva introduces a female voice into the male-dominated history of art where names such as Caspar David Friedrich and Michelangelo are a mainstay and from which work AIVA’s data collection is sourced. A diversity of voices is missing in this history of art, and AIVA is to fill in the lack of female voices in art history, according to the short’s official synopsis.

The film, which is set up as a faux news segment with an interviewer speaking off-camera, is one of contrasts: While AIVA dives into her AI knowledge of painting and its histories to describe her work focused on the male nude, the interviewer makes use of sensual descriptions of the human body and its forms and shapes as well as the process of painting. The clash of the sincere human observation of art and AIVA’s computer-generated interest in painting becomes even more apparent with the realization that she never does any actual brush strokes. Her painting process is never depicted: AIVA is only shown standing in front of an empty canvas stating computer-fed facts about human emotions such as confidence, strength, bravery and power – all of which AIVA has never experienced. AIVA as an artificial figure thus processes knowledge only through data memory and storage but has no skill to show it.

In line with AIVA’s by-the-book knowledge, also the short’s animated visuals are static. Despite the sensualities of the human body at center, the short’s characters are very recognizable as computer-generated, reminiscent of a 90s computer game aesthetic. This approach, which steers away from a photorealistic uncanny valley, is a conscious choice by the filmmakers to juxtapose the visuals with a topic that is very much reliant on corporeality. In handling this subject, AIVA projects the male gaze with which she was created and turns it on its head in her work. She’s interested in painting the male nude body, all of her work is inspired by and focused on the phallus. Hers is a female gaze hyped up to an almost comedic level, a critique of the creation of a female painter, who, in the eyes of her cis-male creators, must have no other interests than centering her work around a man’s genitalia.

Growing up Is Hard to Do

Androva’s story’s cheeky tone might surprise also because if Germans aren’t known for one thing, then it is their sense of humor. The section ‘Kanzler Culture’ wants to do good on this outdated stereotype and shows how the country’s filmmakers are able to tackle emotional stories coupled with a comedic tone, all the while making sure not to undermine the significance of the themes they center. Two selections from ‘Kanzler Culture’ approach questions of adolescent identity navigating insecurities, self-doubt, teen angst, as well as relationships with parents, contemporaries and oneself with a comedic take.

Laura Lehmus’ animated short ‘AlieNation’ (2014) excites. It is multi-layered in its presentation of teenage identities, with its style of filmmaking making it thoroughly enjoyable and its subjects inherently relatable. The short’s appeal is heavily grounded in its aesthetic. Lehmus tasked different animators to create their versions of teenage aliens. The results are interchangeably hand-drawn, claymation-style, computer-animated aliens whose looks range from featuring too large heads for their bodies, to physical shapes that do not resemble humans, to more than five fingers on each hand or more than two hands to begin with. Still, these creations are easily recognizable as teenagers due to their clothes, their hairstyles, the settings they are shown in (skating parks, gym classes, school hallways) and braces which peek out when they speak. The filmmaker connects the artists’ creations with interviews she conducted with a group of teenagers about anything of concern for them. However, instead of showing the faces of the interviewees, Lehmus substitutes them with the alien figures, while the real voices of the teens are heard when the animated characters speak.

Obviously, the title has a double meaning when discussing teenagehood. “Alienation” describes this state of transition from childhood to a semblance of adulthood including this feeling of detachment from your parents, your peers, and even yourself, while “Alien Nation” is what teenagers are to parent and grandparent generations and onlookers who have long forgotten the ups and downs of puberty.

For her short, Lehmus conducted interviews with teens on a wide range of topics, such as social media, quarreling with parents, love life, zits, beard growth, hairstyles and anything else related to changing bodies and looks. In their interviews, the teens speak with surprising honesty and with a large amount of self-awareness thus countering long-held and still persistent beliefs that their complicated selves are nothing but manifestations of a spoiled existence. The interviewees spell out in the quick glimpses they give into their lives that they are not always perceived as adults while also no longer children, revealing the complicated state of existence during one’s teenage years. This way, they are confidently able to describe their alienation from their own selves, with some of them not ready to take the leap from childhood towards another stage in life, others realizing how their perception of other genders has changed, or how change of voice, mood swings and physical changes affect them and those around them. This uncertain state of being is represented in the animation styles and alien looks that perfectly fit the individual interviewees behind the voice. Lehmus is at no point interested in making the teenagers she interviewed a laughing matter despite the joyful animations, but, due to making the interviewees anonymous and thus making it able for them to speak openly, is able to uncover a self-awareness that governs teenagehood which is often forgotten about.

Yallah Habibi’ from 2020 also discusses a state of transition in German adolescence. The live-action short by Mahnas Sarwari and Felix Pflieger revolves around 18-year-old Elaha, who lives in her childhood room in her Afghan parents’ apartment in a German city. This living arrangement leads to the usual spats between children and parents about cleaning up one’s room, earning money and showing respect. To make a living, Elaha works at a nightclub’s cloakroom. She saves up her salary so she can move out of her parents’ home and become roommates with her friend Ina, a plan that she keeps a secret from her mother. ‘Yallah Habibi’ focuses on the transition from leaving your childhood home to moving into your own space in two ways. First, Elaha hesitates to tell her mother that she will soon be leaving the secure space her family’s home provides, as this move might forge a possible shake up of the mother-daughter bond. As much as this relationship is marked by commonplace quarrels as described above, it is also a safe haven. In a worst-case scenario, the move could rupture their bond irreparably. In a second narrative, Elaha ponders with notions of belonging, but not in relation to transitioning from one physical space to another. As a first-generation German, she is caught between cultures: that of her parents, that of Germany and the one Elaha forges for herself as a child of immigrants. Two scenes especially make this state of back and forth Elaha find herself in obvious: a cashier who greets her in Pashto feels offended when she responds in German; when a neighbor visits the family and Elaha’s mother bakes an apple pie from a traditional German recipe, an Apfelkuchen, Elaha scolds her mother as this is not typical for the family’s household.

As the short’s main character exists in various transient stages – between homes, between cultures, between stages of human development – the film ponders how the individual negotiates these transitions. Elaha’s way into adulthood is therefore not any easy one, but the humorous route the directors take in their storytelling also reveals the joy of being young and ruthless. As described by the individuals in ‘AlieNation’, Elaha’s story is similarly marked by insecurities in relation to family, friendship, love and empowerment. Though some years older than the teens in Lehmus’ short, she still struggles with how to be in the face of the push and pull of exterior and interior life of how to navigate stepping away from childhood towards adulthood.

Tits and Fun – Anatomy and Autonomy

While the teen stories in ‘Kanzler Culture’ centers struggles for how to come into one’s own, two films shown in ‘Flaming Views – Female Visionaries’ reach into adulthood to depict sex-positive self-empowerment – a mental as well as physical state of being coming to the surface once inhibitions are left at the door.

“I had a lot of fun,” says filmmaker Anja Czioska about making the short ‘One Pussy Show’ (1998). And it shows. The six-minute film consisting of two parts each a length of 3 minutes and played at 12 frames per second shows Czioska surrounded by several piles of clothes, while she changes from one outfit into the other. The up-speed tempo coupled with 60s music and Czioska’s dance moves show how fashion and nudity can be fun. Czioska changing in and out of several outfits – from a colorful dress to her naked self to a basic black dress to naked again and so on – reveals what difference style and clothes can make. Confronted with the canvas of a woman’s naked body, the audience becomes an observer to the possibilities of physical change through alternating clothes alone. This way, the filmmaker, in the short time of six minutes, inhabits many roles: from elegant to colorful, from silly to sensual. And she is ready for any kind of occasion: night time dinner, after work get-together, beach party, the bedroom. Czioska’s cheerful attitude throughout the film also plays against the notion that there is supposed to be a sense of shame about being naked. Whether dressed or clothed, the director shakes her hips along to the music, moves her feet to the beat and never loses a joyful spunk. In ‘One Pussy Show’, Czioska is here to celebrate all of herself.

Monika Treut’s short ‘Annie’ from 1989 about sexologist, feminist sex educator, porn actress, performer, artist and stripper Annie Sprinkle equally celebrates body and sexuality in a joyful manner. In the short, Treut, a seminal figure of New Queer Cinema in Germany, takes a look at Sprinkle’s work. In ‘Annie’, Sprinkle introduces herself by her birth name Ellen Steinberg. Revealing that she feels ugly as Ellen, she transforms into Annie by putting on false eyelashes and high heels. Easily moving in-between identities, turning into Annie makes her feel powerful, glamorous and sexy, she states. In the following, the short presents a series of pictures taken of the performer on stage as well audience members during performances of her act ‘Public Cervix Announcement’. The series of photos are intercut with Annie performing parts of the act for Treut’s camera. At the performance’s center is Sprinkle inserting a speculum, opening her vaginal canal and then inviting the theatre audience to take a look at her cervix with a flashlight – something which she also re-enacts for Treut’s more intimate recording and thus the audience of the short. However, an educational biology class simply stating anatomical facts this isn’t. Sprinkle’s work is all about body and sex positivity with lots of fun. Statements such as “I like tits” and “I’m into tit art”, contemplating that America is obsessed with large breasts, and the power of transformation of the self, show that speaking about sex does not always have to be a serious matter. Similar to Czioska, Sprinkle also has a cheerful approach to presenting her body to an audience. Her performances live off of Sprinkle’s joyful attitude, her lack of inhibitions about her body and her frank approach to a topic many feel ashamed about, come together for a mix of laughter and a little shock as well as curiosity about bodily anatomy and autonomy.

A similar duality marks the broad film selection of the ‘In Focus: Germany’ program, as audiences should walk away with two things. One: there are no limits to the creativity of Germany’s short film filmmakers, as their stories are memorable no matter the choice of style. Whether animation or live action, fiction or documentary-style, experimental or traditional three-act-structure, all films display the creative body of work found in the German short film sector. Two: spaces of transition are many-fold in the films shown in the program. City, memory, identity and body are used to negotiate past and present German identities. The films come together to describe how the former informs the latter, while current stories reveal changed realities differing from the past. These spaces are interchangeably described as mapped areas in which people move, such as the metropole, or exist as more metaphorical places discussed as memory or the transformations of mental and physical existence. Stories about immigrant experiences, female empowerment, adolescence of digital natives and the vibrant dynamics of co-existence (re)present, in the face of the history of a country once split in two, inner and outer worlds of a nation and its people restlessly in transition.

© Images

1 'One Pussy Show' (Anja Czioska, 1998)
2 '3302 the taxifilm' (Christoph Doering, 1979)
3 'AIVA' (Veneta Androva, 2020)
4 'AlieNation' (Laura Lehmus, 2014)
5 'Yallah Habibi' (Mahnas Sarwari & Felix Pflieger, 2020)
6 'Annie' (Monika Treut, 1989)