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Melbourne International Film Festival
Awards, icons and looking abroad

Aquarela | © Melbourne International Film Festival

Returning to the city’s cinemas from August 1–18, the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival achieves a familiar feat. It’s significant, too; running for almost three weeks, MIFF boasts the time and space to balance high-profile titles with lesser-known fare, ranging beyond hits and hype to deeper cuts.

That’s true across the event’s 375-plus movie lineup, spanning features, documentaries, shorts, virtual reality and full-dome fare. It’s especially accurate when it comes to MIFF’s German-made, German-language and German-affiliated cohort. Fans will recognise an array of big names, both in individual films and the talent behind them; however cinephiles eager to explore the country’s broader filmmaking footprint over the past year will also find a host of other cinematic rewards.

Berlin's big names

Two of MIFF’s German standouts arrive with ample fanfare, not only playing in Berlinale’s official competition in February, but collecting two of the event’s big awards. Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher received the Alfred Bauer Prize — a gong awarded to features deemed to “open new perspectives on cinematic art” — while Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But earned the filmmaker and Berlin School alumni the Silver Bear for Best Director.  Both accolades are well-deserved, as MIFF audiences can now experience in the film’s Australian premiere screenings. That Berlinale rewarded female German directors, and that MIFF now brings their features to Australia, hasn’t gone unnoticed.
With System Crasher, Fingscheidt makes her feature debut with a portrait of foster care. Nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) is caught in the system but never controlled by it — her erratic behaviour, springing from her troubled upbringing, makes the latter impossible. Although child protection is a difficult topic, writer/director Fingscheidt delves into it with compassion, favouring the psychological side of the story over an easy narrative arc. A commanding performance from Zengel helps, as does the filmmaker’s confidence and delicacy.
System Crasher System Crasher | © System Crasher Schanelec also takes an unconventional approach to a distinctive topic, as her grief-stricken protagonist copes with life as a single mother, including the reappearance of her missing 13-year-old son. Astrid’s (Maren Eggert) plight is far from standard — as should be expected of any character in one of Schanelec’s features, as the filmmaker so convincingly demonstrated in MIFF 2017’s The Dreamed Path. Schanelec not only directs and writes, but produces, edits and shot I Was at Home, But. Unsurprisingly, it benefits from her fondness for feeling over explanation, both in narrative and visual terms.

Herzog, Wenders and Ai Weiwei

Fingscheidt and Schanelec may represent Germany’s new filmmaking stars, but the country’s existing leading lights are also accounted for in MIFF’s 2019 lineup. After screening at the Sydney Film Festival and Revelation Perth International Film Festival, Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev continues its tour around Australia, sharing the acclaimed director’s fascination with the former USSR leader. And although Wim Wenders sits in the executive producer’s chair on It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story, the music-focused documentary fits smoothly into his remit. Directed by Eric Friedler, it unpacks the origin of jazz label Blue Note, all under Nazi Germany escapees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.
In the high-profile camp, Herzog and Wenders are joined by a filmmaker who isn’t German by birth or nationality, yet has happily joined the country’s filmmaking ranks. Based in Berlin during his exile from his homeland, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei now has two German-produced documentaries to his name, both about Europe’s immigration crisis. This time, he hews closer to his subjects than seen in 2017’s Human Flow, honing in specific people as they endeavour to cross borders and navigate a complex socio-political landscape. The refugees in his frame are searching for a better life, and while Ai can’t solve that dilemma for them, he can continue to give the dispossessed, marginalised and overlooked a voice.

Actual streets, actual stories

MIFF’s 2019 selection also champions a pair of smaller German films that mightn’t have reached Australian screens otherwise, and are deserving of local attention. The first, Cleo: If I Could Turn Back Time, excavates history while wandering around the country’s capital. Filmmaker Erik Schmitt makes the leap from shorts to full-length pieces with a movie that’s part hopeful adventure, part reflective comedy. As he follows his titular protagonist (Marleen Lohse), he finds ample detail in Berlin’s streets and stories.
A regular woman A regular woman | © Melbourne International Film Festival A Regular Woman also nods to reality, albeit in a vastly different manner. In a narrative feature, German-American filmmaker Sherry Hormann draws from the true tale of 23-yer-old Hatun ‘Aynur’ Sürücü, who was murdered in Berlin. The slain woman’s younger brother was the culprit, with her death the result of an honour killing — after being married off to her cousin in Turkey and suffering through abuse post-nuptials, Aynur had fled to Germany. Hormann’s film not only tells her story, but ensures she retains focus as more than a victim.

Celebrating co-productions

As continues to prove the case at Australian festivals, the majority of German-affiliated films in MIFF’s program are the result of co-productions — a testament to the country’s collaborative approach. Among the fictional slate, highlights include Sundance Special Jury Award recipient Monos, about teen soldiers in South America; Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf and Sheep follow-up The Orphanage, which is set in an 1980s-era Soviet-run facility; and Karim Aïnouz’s Cannes’ Un Certain Regard prize-winner The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, about two sisters in 1950s Rio de Janeiro.
Sudanese comedy aKasha, which was produced by Toni Erdmann’s Maren Ade, also sits among the lineup’s standouts, as does the India-set Photograph, from The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra. And then there’s the latest Romanian New Wave effort, The Whistlers, from Corneliu Porumboiu.
The documentary bill is just as plentiful, with Victor Moreno’s The Hidden City delving below Madrid’s street level, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam hit Los Reyes chasing Santiago canines Fútbol and Chola, and It Must Be Heaven charting filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s travels as he traverses the globe. Elsewhere, Talking About Trees examines the Sudanese filmmaking scene, Vision Portraits ponders the creative process of artists losing their eyesight and Picture Character goes deep on emoji — while Aquarela laps up the world’s most precious commodity, water.