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Sydney Film Festival 2019
Celebrating the future, recognising the past

With 'Sandgirl', German director Mark Michel makes his feature-length debut.
With 'Sandgirl', German director Mark Michel makes his feature-length debut. | © Mark Michel

For Sydney cinephiles eager for a huge helping of German cinema, June promises a plethora of riches on the city’s big screens. The German Film Festival (GFF) will still be in full swing for the first third of the month, while the year’s biggest German-language film hits theatres as July draws near. And, of course, Sydney Film Festival (SFF) arrives right in the middle.

By Sarah Ward

From June 5 to 16, this year’s SFF takes a quality-over-quantity approach to filmmaking from Germany. Due to its close proximity to GFF, the festival’s German-language cup was never going to run over; however as a snapshot of German cinema both then and now, it serves up a solid program. Ahead of its general release, the aforementioned Never Look Away will compete for SFF’s $60,000 film prize, with its acclaimed director in attendance. Elsewhere, fresh talents and beloved veterans sit side by side, as do new features and restored classics — and, as always, a number of German co-productions.


One became an Oscar winner with his first feature. The other has been plying his talents behind the camera for 57 years. Both within and beyond their homeland, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Werner Herzog are well known. As a result, in a year that has seen the former direct another film to an Academy Award nomination (after emerging victorious for The Lives Of Others), and will soon see the latter appear on-screen in the eagerly awaited Star Wars TV spinoff The Mandalorian, it’s fitting that the two filmmakers lead SFF’s German contingent.
The controversial 'Never Look Away' brings Gerhard Richter’s life to Sydney. The controversial 'Never Look Away' brings Gerhard Richter’s life to Sydney. | © Never Look Away
Fresh from its international festival success, the controversial Never Look Away brings Gerhard Richter’s life to Sydney (read Sarah Ward’s thoughts on it here). Charting the applauded artist’s formative years on either side of the Second World War — and fictionalising its protagonist, it’s an involving and handsomely shot film, albeit one that suffers from convenience and simplicity over its three-hour running time.
Although he also contemplates the aftermath of conflict, Herzog takes the opposite approach, crafting a 90-minute portrait of now-87-year-old ex-Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Aptly entitled Meeting Gorbachev, Herzog’s latest documentary is a talking-head piece comprised of interviews between the filmmaker and the Cold War-era ruler, as shot over six months. It arrives in Sydney after premiering at the Telluride Film Festival in 2018.


On the emerging talent front, SFF’s German lineup spreads to two diverse strands — Screenability, which provides a platform for filmmakers with and stories about disability; and Europe! Voices of Women in Film, which showcases up-and-coming female directors. Again, the two relevant films couldn’t be more different. Of course, showcasing the diversity of German filmmaking is something that the festival has frequently done well, even with only a handful of applicable titles on its lineup.
With Sandgirl, German director Mark Michel makes his feature-length debut, although it’s his second film about Veronika Raila. With her collaboration, his expressive movie explores the young woman’s struggle, coping with Aspergers syndrome and physical disabilities since childhood. At birth, her parents were told by doctors that she had an IQ of zero. Now, she creates poetry, and is studying modern German literature and catholic theology at the University of Augsburg. Through sand art work and animation, and with Raila credited as a co-writer with Michel, the documentary endeavours to delve inside her imagination.
SFF’s second German film from an up-and-coming talent, Endzeit – Ever After, couldn’t be more different to Sandgirl, thrusting the zombie genre into the festival’s spotlight. Writer/director Carolina Hellsgård hails from Sweden and lives in both Stockholm and Berlin; however this account of two young women navigating a dystopian world is her second German — and German-language film. Owing as much to fairy tales and folklore as narratives about the undead, the movie’s cast and crew are almost entirely female.


Last year, German filmmaking featured prominently among SFF’s retrospective section thanks to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Eva Braun. This year, the festival journeys back 99 years with a classic of German Expressionism, screening a restored version of The Golem: How He Came Into the World — one of the cinema movement’s early pioneers.
The 2019 SFF screens a restored version of 'The Golem: How He Came Into the World'. The 2019 SFF screens a restored version of 'The Golem: How He Came Into the World'. | © The Golem: How He Came Into the World
Co-directed by and starring actor-turned-filmmaker Paul Wegener, The Golem marks his third film based on the German novel of the same name by Gustav Meyrink; the other two, made in 1915 and 1917, are considered lost. Its influence is considerable, including as a precursor to film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — and at SFF, it will be accompanied by a live score by Berlin-based electronic composer Lucrecia Dalt.


For other German-relevant films, SFF once again turns to co-productions, including Carlos Reygadas’ nearly three-hour-long existential drama Our Time. From there, it’s a considerable list, ranging from Sundance Film Festival Special Jury award-winner Monos and Berlinale Golden Bear winner Synonymes to Claire Denis’ stellar sci-fi feature High Life and fellow genre effort The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia.

Mumbai-set romance Photograph, comedy Akasha, feminist drama Flatland and Bangladesh-shot terrorism tale Saturday Afternoon also feature, as does Turkey’s Sibel and A Tale of Three Sisters, the Chinese-focused Leftover Women, emoji exploration Picture Character and Spanish biography Yuli. And, among the rest of the bunch sits documentary Martha: A Picture Story, Sudanese crowdpleaser Talking About Trees, Screenability’s Vision Portrait, a restoration of Béla Tarr’s mammoth Sátántangó and Agnes Varda’s early doc Daguerreotypes.
Berlinale Golden Bear winner 'Synonymes' also screens at SFF 2019. Berlinale Golden Bear winner 'Synonymes' also screens at SFF 2019. | © Synonymes
Also worth noting, for fans of German filmgoing as well as films, is the prominence of features from Berlinale in this year’s SFF competition program. Including Never Look Away, Monos and Synonymes, five of 2019’s contenders screened in the German capital in February, with God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya and The Souvenir joining them.