Though I only made it to one film yesterday at the Miami International Film Festival, it proved a memorable screening due to the fact that I stayed for a question and answer session with the film’s director. My German Friend had its North American premiere at the festival and sold out both nights. When I arrived at the film’s second night, a huge crowd had gathered with scores hoping to get their hands on standby tickets. It played at the intimate Coral Gables Art Cinema and was only one of about five 35mm prints at the festival. However, I later learned it was shot using the industry-favored Red digital camera with 35mm components, according to director Jeanine Meerapfel.
The film is quite a sentimental affair tackling an extremely complex matter: the first generation of Germans (of both Jewish and Christian faiths) growing up in Argentina. The clash of cultures is seen through the Romeo and Juliet type pairing of a Jewish girl, Sulamit (Julieta Vetrano), and a Christian boy, Friedrich (Juan Francisco Rey). As they grow (played as adults by Celeste Cid and Max Riemelt), so does their love and the entanglements associated with their cultural contrast. Considering the history of the Holocaust, which remains an unshakable part of their past, I had expected a more involving film, but it fell flat, for the most part.
Though the film opens with a promising grand aerial-view sweep of the Patagonian landscape contrasted with some very intimate shots between the lovers at the center of the film as children (particularly a glance at them at the bottom of a staircase from above), the film’s framing soon became distant and banal. The chemistry between the older couple also proves difficult, as Cid, well-known in Latin America as a soap opera actress, does not speak a word of German and uttered her lines phonetically, according to Meerapfel.
Ultimately, however, the cultural impact struck a very interesting and raw nerve in the crowd. Many seemed enraptured by the film, which features a stirring orchestral score by Floros Floridis, a Greek jazz musician, who was also present at the screening. This film will appeal to Germans, Jews and Argentines alike, as the film spans several decades from the 1950s onward and covers definitive political and cultural themes as our heroes travel from Argentina to Germany and back again to tragic consequences.
During the Q&A with Meerapfel, who is of German/Argentine descent, and after the usual banal questions of budget and duration of the shoot, one woman wanted to comment from the Cuban perspective. She told the director she found the film “repulsively leftist” because of Friedrich’s decision to join an Argentinian guerrilla movement, not to mention the cultural presence of Mao Tse-tung in the student movement virtually everywhere in Europe during that time. However, a German man sitting just a row in front of her choked back tears as he said the film spoke to his shameful past as a German. As far as relevance of commentary, I would side with the German. This is not a Cuban film informed by that experience, which is another entire other monster.
It stands as a testament to a dark and complex history that a mostly cold and sentimental film like My German Friend could have such a powerful impact. If only it had as much life in the filmmaking. I would still expect this film to have quite a life ahead of itself at niche festivals like Jewish Film Festivals or German or Argentine festivals.
On schedule for today is another highly political movie, No. One of five films nominated for the Foreign Language category at this year’s Oscars, I have higher hopes for this one to stand above the crowd of the films I have seen thus far at MIFF. It screens at 7 p.m. at the Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami (this is a hyperlink to tickets). My coverage of this screening is scheduled to appear in the “Miami New Times” tomorrow, so expect a briefer post here and a link to that final article at the paper’s culture and arts blog “Cultist.”