Saturday, November 30, 2013

2013 Sister Cities Cinema: Zurich/SF

The second series in the San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season was the inaugural 2013 Sister Cities Cinema: Zurich/SF from October 18 to 20 at the Viz.  I didn't know this but San Francisco and Zurich, Switzerland are sister cities.  SF has 17 other sister city relationships including Paris, Barcelona, Sydney, Seoul, Taipei and Shanghai.  You could build six month's worth of programming by extending the Sister Cities Cinema principle to all the other cities which qualify.

Several of the films on the program were double features but I only saw one double bill.  BART was on strike that weekend so getting around was difficult.  In total, I saw four films:

The Fall starring Walo Lüönd; directed by Kurt Früh; Swiss German with subtitles; (1972)
Fraulein starring Mirjana Karanovic, Marija Skaricic & Ljubica Jovic; directed by Andrea Štaka; Swiss German, German, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian with subtitles; (2006)
Medicine for Melancholy starring Wyatt Cenac & Tracey Heggins; directed by Barry Jenkins; (2008)
The Swissmakers starring Walo Lüönd & Emil Steinberger; directed by Rolf Lyssy; German and Swiss German with subtitles; (1978)

Fraulein and Medicine for Melancholy were paired together.  Director Barry Jenkins introduced Medicine for Melancholy but could not stick around for Q&A afterwards because he had to catch the last ferry back to Oakland.

I always thought there were three official languages of Switzerland - German, Italian and French.  In fact, there is a fourth: Romansh which is spoken by a small number of Swiss.  Although Swiss Standard German is one of the official language, many people speak Swiss German.  The term High German refers to the language family of which Swiss German belongs.


The Fall (paired with Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation) was the opening night film.  Rarely screened in the US, the film drew a large audience.  Marija Skaricic is Ana, a 20something woman (she may have been Croatian).  She grew up during the war and she left because there are no jobs.

Walo Lüönd portrays Alfons Grendelmann, a world weary private detective.  A former cop who was forced out of his job, he is now reduced to handling divorce and underage sex cases.  Sexually frustrated, Grendelmann overlooks the age-appropriate secretary (office neighbor?) who shows signs of interest in him.  Instead Grendelmann becomes increasingly fixated on Katrin Buschor who plays a young woman (I believe she was a minor) involved in a sexual relationship with a wealthy businessman.

The Fall reminded me of other 1970s noir films such The Long Goodbye (1973) or Gumshoe (1971).  The close-to-the-vest protagonists give little indication of the building emotions within them.  The finales of these films had less to do with flashy thespian emoting but is a natural outcome of the accumulated events which preceded it.  In the case of The Fall, Grendelmann is seduced by the youth and beauty of Marsha (Buschor).  He decides to double cross his client.  He tells his client that the girl won't go away unless he pays up.  He combines the client's hush money with his own life savings and plans to starts a new life with Marsha.  Despite the clues, Marsha is planning her own double cross.  Some friends beat up Grendelmann and take all the money while she looks on.

The Fall was textbook noir although he didn't commit murder.  Grendelmann is a little guy who gets knocked down by life.  Clinging to his professional in a sad sack sort of way, when Grendelmann risks it all for a girl, he gets knocked down again.  The man can't catch a break so he gets up, dusts himself off and continues on as the movie closes.

The film was a little predictable but Lüönd's performance and the unusual setting of Zurich in the 1970s added to my enjoyment of the film.


Fraulein tells the story of three generations of immigrant women from the former Yugolsavia.  Mirjana Karanovic is a Ruza, a 40something Serbian who left her home country many years ago to escape the war.  Ljubica Jovic is Mila, a 60something Croatian, who probably left Yugoslavia to escape Communist rule.  Marija Skaricic is Ana, a 20something woman (she may have been Bosnia) who grew during the war and left because there were no jobs and the country is in ruins.

Ruza owns a cafeteria and Mila is a longtime employee.  Ana is suffering a disease (leukemia?) but is wandering Europe and shows up in Zurich.  She lands a job at the cafeteria and her free-spirited ways awaken long dormant feelings in Ruza & Mila.  Ruza has spent so much time in Zurich and so much energy in making her cafeteria a success, she has shut off most of her emotions.  An attractive woman, Ruza lives a celibate life.  She ignores her Serbian heritage to avoid any anti-immigrant sentiment but also to not have to discuss  her painful past which involves losing close friends to the war.  Ana grew up during the war and although she lost friends, she is more comfortable with her past because she can't remember a time before the war.

After some initial disagreements, the two women bond despite the differences in their age and outlook.  Ana's exuberant behavior stirs something inside Ruza; perhaps reminding her of her own youth.  Mila has been longing to retire in Croatia as she and her husband have been building a house there for many years.

Unsentimentally, Fraulein captures the joys and hardships of life as experienced by these three women.  It also touches on the immigrant experience in Switzerland which The Swissmakers would also explore.


Medicine for Melancholy was the only film of the four I saw which was set in San Francisco.  Fraulein explored the immigrant experience of the three women in Zurich; Medicine explored what it's like to be African American in San Francisco.  I suspect the film is partially autobiographical since director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins mentioned he now lives in Oakland since he can't afford his old Mission District apartment (what about rent control?).

The differences between these two films encapsulates the differences between the genders and European vs. American attitudes and behaviors.  Wyatt Cernac is Micah, an African American man.  As the film opens, Micah wakes up Sunday morning next to Jo (Tracey Heggins), an African American woman.  As the film progresses, I realized that it unlikely Micah would have a one-night stand with anyone other than a African American woman.

After some awkwardness, they leave the house where the party was the night before and have breakfast.  Micah is interested in Jo but she doesn't seem to reciprocate.  They share a taxi back to her place.  Actually, at that point she was using a fake name and the taxi dropped her off in her neighborhood but not directly in front of her house.  Micah finds her wallet in the backseat and tracks her down.

She lives in a nice house in the Marina and her boyfriend is out of town.  I don't recall her confirming this salient fact but Micah assumes her boyfriend is white...and this plays into his stereotypes.  I don't recall the stereotype of the white guy/black woman couple but regardless, Jo does not deny or correct his assumption about the ethnicity of her boyfriend.  Her silence could be interpreted as confirmation or she just holding back the details to see how the race obsessed behaves.

Intrigued by Micah, Jo agrees to spend the rest of the day with him.  This includes a trip to the Museum of African Diaspora, cooking dinner together and a trip to a dance club.  As the day progresses, Micah continuously pontificates on being a black man, the gentrification of SF, the demographics of SF, societal stereotypes of black people, etc.  In short, Micah is the sort of putz I encounter all too often in SF.  Granted, I don't encounter black guys like Micah because as he notes, African Americans only make up 7% of the City's population but people who feel the need to enlighten me about whatever social/economic/political issues they are passionate about are still alive and well in the gentrified City.

Medicine for Melancholy wears its politics too plainly to be an interesting film for me.  Cernac & Heggins play their roles effortlessly although I couldn't understand why Jo would waste an entire Sunday on Micah.  At one point, we are treated to townhall style discussion group about San Francisco housing policy which foreshadowed Jenkins own departure from the City he loves so much.

Micah's dismissive attitude towards miscegenation when it comes to black women all but assures that the couple won't have a happy ending.  Indeed, the final scene is the audience watching Jo bike away from Micah apartment on Monday morning, presumably to return to her difficult life in the Marina with her wealthy white boyfriend.  About halfway into the film, Jenkins finds it difficult to resolve this romance.  He telegraphs the ending so the last half of the film feels like filler material.  We're just waiting for this night (and the film) to end and wondering how the two characters will part.  It turns out to be more of a whimper than a bang.

Jenkins won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Marlon Riggs Award for Courage & Vision in the Bay Area Film Community in 2009 for his work on this film.  Medicine for Melancholy screened at the South By Southwest, San Francisco International and Toronto International Film Festivals in 2008.  This film was well received at the time it was made but to me it seems oddly incomplete five years later.  I wish I would have watched Medicine for Melancholy in 2008 so I could have a comparison point now.  Actually, I can barely remember 2008 so I don't know if I could remember this film had I seen it that year.


The Swissmakers needs a little historical context.  Switzerland had a liberal immigration policy in the 1950s and 60s but as increasing numbers of immigrants flocked there, stricter immigration laws were passed.  The Swissmakers satirizes this by creating a fictitious agency charged with evaluating immigrants based on their ability to assimilate into Swiss society.

Max Bodner (Walo Lüönd) is an experienced immigration officer.  His trainee is Moritz Fischer (Emil Steinberger).  Taking his job seriously, Bodner shows his partner the ropes as we watch the pair interact with immigrants of all nationalities.  A comedy, The Swissmakers allows the filmmakers room to poke fun at immigrant stereotypes and the absurdities of Swiss bureaucracy and immigration policy.

The 1978 film was one of the most popular Swiss films of all time.  I think much of the humor in The Swissmakers was lost on an American audience in 2013.  Although it had its moments, I was mild about The Swissmakers.

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