A City Puts Itself in the Spotlight

“Desire will set you free” by Yoni Leyser
“Desire will set you free” by Yoni Leyser | Photo (detail): © Desire Productions GmbH

The filmmaker Klaus Lemke once described Berlin films as “subsidized nonsense for uptight daughters and sons” – and then ending up shooting one himself. The German capital, as a place where dreamers and creative individuals come together with those whose lives have collapsed and others who have mastered the art of living, remains a popular film motif.

Berlin has a long filmmaking tradition. Yet the city’s enormous appeal can be traced back to the West Berlin of the 1980s: “I feel good, I’m crazy about Berlin”, sings the band Ideal in B-Movie (2015), a documentary film that reminisces nostalgically about the punk scene which existed in the divided city at the time. “Berlin was even more kaput than Manchester”, recalls Mark Reeder, a Brit in exile who narrates the film. The sound of bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and Malaria! expressed this attitude to life. Even David Bowie ended up here for a while. The state of standstill upon which the angels in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (1987) gaze melancholically is part and parcel of this image of the divided city. Subculture blossomed between the entrenched lines of the Cold War.

Hip, hipper, hipster: reinventing oneself in a global metropolis

Trailer: “Desire will set you free” (2016) by Yoni Leyser (Youtube.com)

These days Berlin is a global metropolis, and this is also reflected in its films. In Desire will set you free (2016), a Russian callboy and an American author with Jewish roots, played by the director Yoni Leyser, fall in love. The crowdfunded project is a testament to the city’s thriving gay scene, which no longer has to battle for visibility. “As a transvestite”, says the man at the job centre, “you will always find work in Berlin.” Klaus Lemke’s 2012 film Berlin für Helden (i.e. Berlin for Heroes), a hair-raising parody of the hipster scene there, is also about love, sex and work. Born in 1940, this veteran of the spontaneous underground film genre sends a jaunty little group of disoriented new arrivals off on a series of vain self-indulgences. Keen to constantly reinvent and showcase themselves, sooner or later they all end up in bed with one another. What drives them was aptly summed up in the 2012 road movie Puppe, Icke & der Dicke (i.e. The Girl, Me & the Fatty) by Felix Stienz: “You know nothing, you do nothing, so go to Berlin!”

Between idyll and gentrification

Aeons seem to have passed since the films of the early years after reunification, which were dominated by East-West themes and a tense uncertainty. Even a more recent film like Andreas Dresen’s 2005 comedy Summer in Berlin, in which a true Berliner and a woman from the south of Germany live together in the Prenzlauer Berg district before gentrification destroyed the idyll, already appears like a historical documentary: in the meantime, the process of commercial redevelopment of this sought-after area with its period properties has long been completed.
 
Trailer: “Oh Boy” (2012) by Jan Ole Gerster (Youtube.com)

The running joke in the tragicomedy Oh Boy (Jan-Ole Gerster, 2012) are the fruitless attempts by Niko, who is in his late twenties, to find an affordable coffee now that his economic circumstances have changed – “Columbia or Arrabiata?”, coos the South German woman behind the counter. Niko, who has dropped out of university and is drifting aimlessly through life, is a late descendant of all the dreamers, eternal students, conscientious objectors and shirkers who have long characterized the image of those exiled in Berlin. His night-time journey through the new Berlin, shot in elegant black-and-white, depicts a melancholy lone wolf who no longer wants to keep pace with the city’s development.

Quiet moments in the party capital

Trailer: “Victoria” (2015) by Sebastian Schipper (Youtube.com)

No film has managed more spectacularly or more authentically to capture the city’s state of constant flux than Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015). In this bold experimental film, shot in a single 140-minute take, a young Spanish woman allows herself to be picked up after a long night out clubbing by four young men, takes a walk with them around the city, and finally accompanies them while they rob a bank. Chatting her up in broken English, the likeable Sonne describes them as “real Berliners, not zugezogen” (referring to people who have moved to the city from other places), the sort of thing that can be heard on any night in the highly-charged atmosphere of the city’s booming going-out and entertainment areas. In a quiet moment, Victoria tells her story: the lack of any prospects in her highly-indebted home country drove her here, where she now works for a pittance in a café. Berlin is not only a wild and colourful party capital, but also a haven for refugees from all over the world, for migrant workers and hedonists, for voluntary and involuntary expats, all full of hopes of a better life.

Real Berliners, real problems

“Real Berliners” also exist, as in the wonderfully eccentric tragicomedies made by Axel Ranisch (Ich fühl mich Disco/I Feel Like Disco, 2013) in Berlin’s outlying districts. One comes closest to them, of course, in a documentary film – as for example in the 2007 film Pool of Princesses, Bettina Blümner’s hard-hitting portrayal of three girls from a deprived background whom she met at the Prinzenbad swimming pool in the city’s Kreuzberg district – the open-air pool is a multicultural meeting point which symbolizes the way in which people from different cultures coexist in the city, something which is not always easy but works all the same. Klara, Mina and Tanutscha chat about German and Turkish boys, smoke, drink and flirt, and represent more of the tough, warts-and-all face of Berlin than is good for such young girls hearts.
 
Trailer: “Prinzessinnenbad” (2007) by Bettina Blümner (Youtube.com)

In Neukölln Unlimited (Agostino Imondi, Dietmar Ratsch 2010) we are introduced to Hassan, Lial and Maradona, three siblings from a family who fled from Lebanon. All of them born in the “problematic district” of Neukölln, they have been fighting deportation for years; only in breakdance do they attain the recognition which society refuses them. The intelligent way in which Hassan talks about the absurd terms used in Germany’s bureaucratic processes (like the word “Härtefallkommission”, meaning hardship commission) belies the heated integration debates of recent years. Of all the filmmakers in Berlin, he is the only one who can truly call Berlin his “Heimat” – the place he is originally from.