I saw three films at the 2010 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival - all of them at the Castro Theater.
Pope Joan starring Johanna Wokalek and John Goodman; directed by Sönke Wortmann; (2009)
The Robber; directed by Benjamin Heisenberg; German with subtitles; (2010)
The Silence; directed by Baran bo Odar; German with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
This was the first year that festival founder Ingrid Eggers was not programming the festival. As I recall, she officially retired due to age limits for the employees at the Goethe-Institut. I've also heard she was forced out due to a power struggle. That seems awfully byzantine but who knows. Ms. Eggers founded another festival called German Gems which screened a number of films earlier this year at the Castro Theater. I cannot recall the exact reasons but I was busy watching other films when her festival ran.
This is also the first year which Berlin and Beyond was held in October. It previously ran in January. There were a number of reasons given for the switch and they may be valid but for me the change was unwelcomed as it puts Berlin and Beyond in the October film schedule which is the busiest time of the year. This year, I passed on SF DocFest so I could see some Berlin and Beyond (among other) films.
The new festival director at Berlin and Beyond is Sophoan Sorn who is of Cambodian descent and immigrated to the US at a young age. He founded the San Joaquin International Film Festival.
I found the three films to be middling affairs.
The centerpiece film was the ponderous Pope Joan which lasted nearly 2.5 hours. Oddly filmed in English, the film is set in the French/German border area and Rome of the 9th century. That started the film off on a strange note. The protagonist is born of an English father so there is some reason to have her speak English but strangely, John Goodman is cast as the Pope who is Italian but also speaks with an affected British accent that is distracting. The film suffers from lack of editing and weak performances. This could have been a decent 90 minute film but predictable and one-dimensional characters pop up again and again and the actors cannot add anything to the poorly developed characters. Based on a novel by Donna Woolfolk, the film surely must suffer in comparison to the novel as well as the famous legend upon which is based.
Equally unsatisfying was The Robber. An hour shorter than Pope Joan and with German dialog, the The Robber tells the story of a paroled convict who does two things well - runs and robs banks. The audience is never really given any insight about why this man is so solitary in his pursuits. Tellingly, the best scene in the film involves the man's heart monitor. He wears it as he trains and downloads the data to his computer. You see him maintaining a level pulse rate which spikes (presumably when he robs the bank) and then returning to normal.
The man's parole officer has the man down pat. He tells him that he needs to make friends and talk to people or else he'll slide back to his old criminal habits when something goes wrong. The PO will find out who accurate his prediction is. As for me, I had no idea what drove the man to rob banks as he was earning prize money for winning marathon races and having a relationship with a childhood friend (even living at her flat). I was passionately apathetic about the robber's plight.
The best film of the bunch was The Silence which at 2 hours was also in need of some editing. The story was familiar to me. There was a Clint Eastwood film a few years back that covered some of the same ground and several films before that. Pia, an 11 year old girl is raped and murdered in 1984; the crime is never solved. That crime emotionally devastates the girl's mother, the lead police detective and the accomplice of the perpetrator. 23 years later, a 13 year old girl is missing from the area and her bike is found in the exact same place in the wheat field where Pia's bike turned up. This sets in motion a reunion of sorts between the three previously mentioned characters as well as the 1984 killer/rapist, the parents of the missing girl and another police detective mourning the loss of his wife.
The plot has potential but I thought there were too many character and too much back story which resulted in a lot confusion and the 2 hour length. I think I would benefit from a second viewing but I wasn't engaged enough to really want to see it again.
The best scene was when the killer shows his accomplice what appears to be a snuff film or child porn. The girl looks into the camera with a forlorn look that really cut through me. I wish I knew the name of the dark-haired actress who played the girl.
13 hours ago