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Cottbus / Chosebuz Fest kicks off with early Sorbian silent classic

"Chosebuz" is the traditional name of the city of Cottbus in the local Sorbian (Wendish) language, a minority Slavic tongue which is now unfortunately on the verge of extinction, but the culture of which survives in various forms in this border region of East Germany. The Cottbus Film Festival, now in its 16th edition was established in 1991 in order to promote the films of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This is one international film festival (as opposed to single country film weeks such as Gdynia and Budapest) where one will never see a single Hollywood product or, for that matter, western European films, except for certain German films since this is, after all, Germany. This festival tends to spotlight the films of a different geographical region each year and presents a general survey of anything e3ast and southeast of Germany itself.

This year being the 850th anniversary of the founding of this former Slavic-speaking city, the festival is concentrating on films which are either in the Sorbian language (not many) or have something to do with the local Spreewald culture. The Spreewald is an idyllic marshy wooded area extending from here to the Polish border not far away. The area, roughly 100 kilometers Southeast of Berlin, is dotted with villages where the colorful local costume can be seen on holidays and where, to some extent, the Sorbian and Wendish languages are still spoken by an aging population. In the city of Cottbus most street signs are bi-lingual in German and Sorbian, for example "Bahnhofstrasse" (Main Street) is seen as "Glowna Droga" which any speaker of Polish would immediately recognize as a variant of Polish.

The opening film on November 14, presented at the classic Art Nouveau Staatstheater, was a truly rare silent from the Berlin archives entitled "Das Fremde Vogel" (The Strange --or foreign --Bird) which is a film shot completely in the local Spreewald back in 1911. The star of the film and the "strange bird" of the title was silent screen legend Asta Nielsen of Denmark, and the director was Urban Gad, also a Dane, with the rest of the cast German and English. Asta, her father, an English gentleman, and her English fiance arrive in the idyllic Spreewald woods for an outing of boating and picnicking. They are poled about on the flatboats which traverse the streams in this marshy country by a robust young man in rolled up shirt sleeves, a Sorbian for whom Asta soon falls head over heels much to the consternation of papa and English beau, but also to the frumpy local lass to whom the oarsman is engaged -- and her mother in the fantastic local garb, featuring the elephant-ear like headress know as a "Haube". When the Sorbian country debutante catches the new couple in flagrante making out passionately they decide to run off together into the woods. Aha, the woods – the deep woods. They get lost and separated and when Asta tries to find her way back alone, the poor tenderfoot loses her footing at the river bank and plunges straight into the water, where, of course, she immediately drowns! The plunge is so primitive that it brings a peal of laughter from the audience, but, whether naive by today’s standards or not, this is a charming romantic film, full of local Sorbian color and a real pleasure to watch, especially in the glistening black and white print shown, and with the remarkable musical accompaniment that was part of the program. Instead of the usual single piano which usually accompanies a silent screening, on this evening there was indeed a pianist at one end of the stage and, at the other, a young man in thick beard and long hair playing on a startling array of stringed and percussion instruments. Their musical interpretation was a musical event in itself, more like a John Cage improvisation than the music usually heard on such occasions. Bravo there!

In addition it was quite a treat to see one of the great silent screen stars in action. Asta Nielsen had been a very popular theatrical actress in Denmark and was already in her late twenties when director Gad discovered her and turned her into a screen actress. In the silent days language was no barrier and Asta quickly became the darling of all of Europe. During World War I she was an international pin-up girl, her pictures being carried into the trenches by British, French and German soldiers alike. She married Gad and together they became a movie team somewhat like von Sternberg and Dietrich would become a bit later. Gad was a major silent film director who made over fifty films between 1910 and 1927 whereas Nielsen appeared in 85 flickers including a couple of early talkies, her last in 1932. She then retired and lived on in Copenhagen until 1972. The screening was followed by a classy champagne reception in the foyers of the marvelous Jugend-Stil Staatstheater building – a grand opening to a small but significant festival.

Other than the Sorbian films scheduled this year, the main focus is on two Balkan countries, Bulgaria and Romania. After a dry period following the political changes of 1989 (the fall of Communism) the film industries of both countries went through a bleak period of heavy stagnation from which they now seem to be emerging with vim and vogor. Three prize-winning Hungarian films will be on view, “White Palm”, “Taxidermia” and “Nothing But Sex”, and a whole lineup of short films from countries such as Poland, Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Slovakia are also on tap. The closing film will be “Herzentöter” (Heartbreaker) a first feature directed by Cottbus native son, Bernd Heiber (1964). The star of the film is Katja Flint, one of the most popular actresses currently on German TV. The festival is headed and brainstormed by Roland Rust, an energetic Berliner who started out here as an assistant in 1992 and took over the reins in 1996. Under Roland’s tutelage Cottbus has developed from a smallish curiosity among European festivals in the early post DDR days (remember, this was the forgotten hinterland of Communist East Germany) into what is now perhaps the foremost showcase in the world for the presentation of Central and East European films, as well as for the much more exotic lands of Central Asia. If you want to see the latest from Kirghizia or Tadzhikstan, Chosebuz (in Lausatia) is the place to be in November.

Alex, in the Spreewald


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