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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

New York City based Claus Mueller reviews film festivals and related issues and serves as a  senior editor for Society and Diplomatic Review.

As a professor emeritus he covered at Hunter College / CUNY social and media research and is an accredited member of the US State Department's Foreign Press Center.



New York: KINO! 2016 German Film Festival

From April – 7-14 the independent KINO festival premiered twelve German features and a new short film section with 10 productions complemented by talks from attending German filmmakers, Q&A sessions, and receptions. Held for the third time it is one of the few US festivals focusing on German films. KINO 2016 was supported by Bertelsmann, the German Information Center and other sources.  A special event presented the first US screening of the digitally restored famed 1920 German expressionist film THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI by Robert Wiene with live music by DJ R. Marionneau. Showcasing new remarkable films by KINO has the goal of enlarging the interest in German films among opinion making groups and possibly enhance their sales opportunities.  All films have been shown at festivals, including the Berlinale, seven were co-produced with the German-French Arte consortium and television stations. Several were award winning films.

Their production value conformed to the standard of US theatrical markets and the most prominent distribution platforms such as Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.  What also can help German films in the United States are some recent box office results, festival successes and positive media reviews. These productions include   Christopher Petzold’s PHOENIX, now accessible on Netflix,  Sebastian Schipper’s  VICTORIA and the German foreign language film  Oscar contender LABYRITH OF LIES by Giulio Ricciarelli. They stimulated interest in German films.  PHOENIX was ranked by several US critics as among the best ten films released in 2015, generated impressive box office receipts and is accessible on Netflix.  VICTORIA was on the must see film list of several publications and extensively covered by the trade press. LABYRINTH OF LIES, a politically significant film, covers the background of the first German Auschwitz trial, was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and identified as one of the most revealing 2015 German films.  These three films received many awards and were widely shown on the international film festival circuit.  Unfortunately box office data show that problems for foreign language films in US theatrical distribution also apply to German productions. Films released thus far in 2015 and 2016 scored about $3.5 million, films from India $16.9 million while the total US box office reached $14 billion.  The declining box office of foreign films in the United States reflects long term trends and encourages greater future use of other platforms.

THE FASSBINDER STORY, Annekatrin Hendel, 2015

Superbly composed and visually structured this is  first rate analysis of Reiner Werner Fassbinder as a filmmaker who at the age of 36 passed away, had already directed 44 films working and died while making a new film. He is considered one of the most important European film makers of his time and had no equally influential   counterpart in Germany. The documentary provides a cogent interpretation of his life drawing on never before seen archival material from his youth up to the apex of his artistic life.  It synchs biographical elements with telling excerpts from most of his films and extensive interviews with close collaborators and lovers. Insights generated elucidate a rather complex Fassbinder who cannot be subsumed under one label.  There is the “egocentric alpha man” who herds people around him dominating them through his brilliance and forceful personality which always needs to be at the center.   Driven by work ethic and energy he is an obsessive producer involved in overlapping film productions but also handles a huge project like the ground breaking television series Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Fassbinder takes on taboos such as real estate speculation in Frankfurt involving a Jewish principle and provides astute interpretations of coping with the German past as he did in the classic globally recognized MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. The documentary reveals in a frank discussion his homosexuality, private life, and the costs for those working for him.  There was a close relation between the themes of the films and his personal experience. The background for ALI FEAR EATS THE SOUL and IN A YEAR OF 13 MOONS roots in episodes from Fassbinder’s life. In Ali Fear eats the Soul, 1974, Ali a Moroccan immigrant played by El Hedi ben Salem, gets married to a much older German cleaning woman and faces subsequent rejection. In his real life he was a lover of Fassbinder who broke up with him with El Hedi eventually ending his life by killing himself in jail. In A YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS from 1978, a working class butcher goes through a sex change operation to retain his lover and kills himself because the lover leaves him.  Before Fassbinder started filming Armin Meier, a former butcher who had a long term sexual involvement with Fassbinder committed suicide.  As noted by one of his close friends, Fassbinder was on a Kamikaze tripod with drugs. One day before he died of an overdose he explained that “I hate to lead this life but have to make films”

B-MOVIE, Joerg A. Hoppe, Klaus Maeck, Heiko Lange, 2015

Subtitled ‘Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989’ this extraordinary documentary covers the vibrant social subculture of alternative music and art in West Berlin in the decade before the wall crumbled. Guided by Mark Reeder, a British expat hailing from Manchester who was part of that sub culture and is played in B-MOVIE by Marius Weber, the documentary is an exhaustive compendium with re-enactments, home movies, television clips, and other archival material. Reeder was enmeshed in the scene as a sound specialist, concert promoter and band manger, and even played with his New German Wave group Shark Vegas. Rare footage depicts ground breaking bands like Tote Hosen, Geniale Dilletanten, Aerzte, Einstuerzende Bauten, and the electronic Malaria band.  Mark leads us to ultra-cool clubs frequented by the artistic underground as The Loft and The Jungle, as well as to venues where punk rock and experimental pop music bloomed.  The creative West Berlin island attracted young Germans escaping the mandatory draft and many music driven foreigners merging the multiple new German wave music tendencies with U.S. Rock and Roll trends, breaking all conventions. There are glimpses of David Bowie, Christiana F., Martin Kippenberger, Keith Haring, Nina Hagen, True Heino, and Tilda Swinton who all figured in the West Berlin counter culture. Yet the socio-political background of the city during that period also shapes the scene. There are the dispossessed, occupation and restauration of abandoned buildings, radicalization of the squatters, and violent street battles with police evicting them. A growing gap between the freedom and energy of the artistic and music underground and the static official cultural and political base of West Berlin readily emerged. Against the background Chernobyl, AIDS and the collapse of communism this charged counterculture faded away at the end of the eighties.   B-Movie is an enormous and persuasive Fleissarbeit, a compilation of a seemingly endless number of film, music and interview clips.

A HEAVY HEART, Thomas Stuber, 2016

Depicting a period at the end of Herbert Stamm’s life this feature is a psychological study of his social isolation and the impact of ALS, Lou Gehrig disease. Stamm is an elderly former boxer who was successful in East Germany but is now barely surviving as a debt collector and bouncer, still linked to his past by training boxers at a gym. He has a part time relation with his prostitute companion, but is otherwise lonely. His wife has left him and his daughter refuses any contact. After a collapse he is diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease.  He slowly loses control over his muscles, has difficulties walking and problems communicating, and eventually enters a phase of physical and mental immurement. Lacking uis wifeH a source of income he refuses to accept help and rejects old friends and associates yet is driven to establish a relation again with his daughter Sandra who he abandoned years ago out of shame serving time in jail. Thus facing the inevitable loss of his life, a crisis of identity and seclusion he sets out to repair his family relations, which now also involve coming close to Sandra’s small daughter who he never met.  Now hospitalized, he is barely able to communicate and sends her a recorded message. Her emotional response breaks Sandra’s resistance to her father who can now engage in a healing process. Peter Kurth provides a superb performance in his role as Herbert. The script is certainly emotionally charged but Kurth’s acting does not fall prey to any melodramatic overtones. To the contrary like other principal actor in A HEAVY HEART, there is under acting-making the narration plausible and convincing.

THE WEATHER INSIDE, Isabelle Stever, 2015

According to Stever who also wrote the screenplay, the film is based on information she gathered from individuals who were very familiar with the international development and refugee industry. Though many elements of her film may be sourced to the stories she heard, as a totality the narrative, though well executed, lacks plausibility.  The composite is not persuasive, though individual parts could be. Thus Stever’s comment during the Q&A session that the film will add to a better understanding of the refugee problem Germany faces now remains a mystery to me. THE WEATHER INSIDE was the opening film at KINO’2016 and certainly held the attention of the audience given its dramatic content and pace of action. Yet the applause appeared somehow muted. Dorothea Nagel played by Maria Furtwaengler is a middle aged rather attractive manager for public relations and fundraising contracted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Her principal project serves to generate funds for a program sending refugee children to study in Europe. Working in a Middle Eastern country ravaged by war she resides in a suite in a luxury hotel which is also the base for ambassadors and development industry executives competing for lucrative contracts. Dorothea is superbly dressed and known for consuming large amounts of alcohol, a habit accompanying her throughout the action. In an empty refugee camp she locates a young woman who receives her program’s scholarship but subsequently disappears in Paris. Meanwhile Dorothea falls in love with Alec a local of uncertain origin and vocation who could be her son and she shares with him liquor and passionate sex. Alec is paid by her but also has the habit of destroying the furniture of her suite and introduces her to heavy drugs. She makes it clear to a wavering supervisor from UNHCR that the rules of the agency do not apply to her. Having overdrawn her credit cards she is forced to hand over some of her jewelry to the hotel management to avoid being evicted because of the damage in her suite. In between there are mini episodes like Dorothea and Alex bribing soldiers to give them a midnight joy ride in a tank, the British ambassador trying to get a UNHCR contract for his incompetent son, and Dorothea giving a television interview while drunk. She continues inebriated at her successful  gala fundraiser barely standing up. She learns to her (and the audience) surprise that Alec is the recipient of the scholarship rather than his male companion she had UNHCR persuaded to accept. After the gala she leaves for the refugee camp. With the armed conflict over, there will be lots of refugees and opportunities for the development and refugees industries.

Claus Mueller



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