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Long verboten DDR films surface in Cottbus

The 16th Cottbus International Film Festival festival closed its five day run on Saturday November 18th with the distribution of the prizes and the premiere of the new German film "Herzentöter" (Heartbreaker) by Cottbus born director Bernd Heiber.
This absurd slap-sticky comedy set completely in the local Spreewald area, went over well with the local audience but is not likely to travel very far from Lusatia.
The main prize, 25,000 €, for Best Film went to the Serbian competition entry "Sutra Ujutru" (Tomorrow Morning) by Oleg Novkovic which tells of the misadventures of a Serbian immigrant to Canada who returns to Belgrade after a twelve year absence and upsets everybody including himself.
The Best Director prize, 7,500€, was awarded to the Romanian Radu Muntean for his film "Hirtia va fi Alabastra" (The Paper will be Blue) which centers on the events of 22 December 1989 when Ceausescu and the Communist regime were overthrown, particularly on the chaos in the capit al, Bucharest.

Another Romanian film, "East of Bucharest" by Corneliu Porumboiu, was awarded a special prize for "An Outstanding Artistic Contribution". This film offers another view of the Romanian revolution as seen through the eyes of several people in a remote Romanian village which was far from the action, 16 years later. "Sutra Ujutru" picked up two more prizes, one 10,000€ from the city of Cottbus "To Suppport Distribution of a Festival Film" -- (good idea!) -- and also the foreign critics FIPRESCI prize, making it the most decorated film of the festival.

Aside from the Balkan focus, the big discovery of this year's Cottbus film festival was a trio of brilliant East German documentary films, made in the late eighties just before the fall of Commununism in the "by a practically unknown Sorbian director, Peter Rocha. The films were shown in the context of the Sorbian film retrospective and elicited such a strong audience reaction on the next-to-last day of the fest, that an extra screening had to be scheduled on saturday "by public demand". All three films deal with life in the Cottbus Spreewald area and were not allowed to be shown publicly when made because of their controversial content -- the rape of the Sorbian landscape by coal strip mining "developers" who not only laid waste vast tracts of forest but also flattened entire villages in the process uprooting many ethnic Sorbians and threatening their entire marginal culture with extinction -- ethnocide. The last part of this triptych, "Zalosci Nam Luzyca" (The Pain of Lus atia) is a sixty minute masterpiece in which even yellow tracts of new wasteland look like beautiful sand dune canvasses, and whose abstract musical soundtrack is in perfect emotional sync with the passing imagery.
What is special about all of these films of varying length is the painterly cinematography, not surprising since director Rocha, born 1942 into a Lower Sorbian family, studied painting before taking up film studies. He worked as a director at the DEFA Documentary Studio from 1970 to 1991 but most of his projects were regarded as too politically incorrect to be aired and were suppressed by the Communist censors. Among his films is a documentary about a large group of children who survived Buchenwald -- a little-known Holocaust story. Peter Rocha is a documentary artist whose works deserve to be widely seen -- and are overdue for a retrospective at a major international festival.

Aside from the official focus on the Balkans Hungarian films were strongly represented in Cottbus with three prize winners of the current year; the romantic comedy "Sex and Nothing But", the Gymnastics drama "White Palm" and the regurgitation orgy, "Taxidermia", grand prize winner this year in Budapest. Having seen the Hungarian box-office smash "Csak szex és más semmi" (Sex and Nothing But) only at a commercial screening in Budapest without benefit of subtitles, I was fortunate to catch up with it here in an English subtitled version. Produced by hotshot ex-patriot Hollywood Hungarian "Andy" (Andras) Vajna, the picture stars Judit Schell (32), Csányi Sándor, and Bodo Kata, and is directed by Krisztina Goda (B. 1970). Goda attended film school in England and this is her feature film debut. A delightful, perfectly-paced, romantic comedy in the tradition of the old Hollywood Screwball Comedies, this 2005 Hungarian production was the big hit of the year in Hungary and sold over 400.000 tickets on home territory in the past year.
Dora (Judit Schell) an attractive blonde in her mid thirties, has had nothing but bad luck with men, hears her biological clock ticking and now wants nothing more than to bear a child and raise it without benefit of father -- before it's too late. She works as a theatrical dramaturg (script supervisor) on a new Hungarian production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" where her buddy and roommate, Zsófi (the vivacious redhead, Kata Bodo), is the female lead, and Valmont, the hero is played by Tamas (Sandor Csanyi) who is, in real life, much like the Valmont character, an inveterate heart breaker who has bedded down half the girls in Hungary.
Dora places a sex ad in the personals stating that her aim is "just sex and nothing else". Of course, every loser and creep in sight turns up, much to her dismay. The news of the ad gets around and soon everybody she knows is vying for her attentions, including the actor Tamas, who first met her clad only in her birthday suit on the balcony of his apt. bldg. in the opening scenes. Though it is obvious that they are meant for each other she doesn't trust this skirt chaser as far as she can throw him, but finally allows herself to be seduced by him, just to plant the right seed. Other potential affairs intevene, and a muscular young Turkish Kebab dealer goes so far as to perform a naked snake dance for her on the landing before her apartment door. Just when it looks like she will marry a "safe" suitor and go off to Canada with him, best friend Zsófi tries to commit suicide. This confrontation with the near death of her best friend jars her into reality and she leaves the safe guy she doesn't love in the lurch and lurches off to serenade her true love Tamas under his balcony in the pre-dawn Budapest hours. Besides the central, chemically active love story between Schell and Csanyi the film is also notable for the way it portrays the female buddy relationship between Schell and Bodo.

Sexy actress Schell is an amazing discovery who's previous work has been limited mainly to theater and TV, but who is now all set, make no bones about it, for a lead-role movie career. Krisztina Bodo made a big splash in Vajna's 1997 hit comedy "The Straying Minister" and will also star opposite Csanyi in Vajna's highly touted upcoming 1956 Revolution drama "Szabadság, Szerelem" (I Love Freedom). Handsome, dark-haired brooding Sándor Csányi, 31, is currently the hottest leading man in Hungarian cinema and was awarded the Best Actor of the year for his Tamas role in this film.

"White Palm" helmed by Szabolc Hajdu, is possibly the only feature film ever made whose central subject is the specialized athletic domain of Gymnastics. It follows the life of a talented young gymnast in the city of Debrecen in Communist Hungary, to Canada, and finally, as a mature trainer years later, back to Debrecen for one last international competition -- after which he joins a circus. The gymnastics scenes, which take up a goodly portion of screentime, are especially realistic as both the director, and his brother Zoltan Miklos Hajdu, who places the hero, Dongo, at maturity, are both trained gymnasts! Nothing like making a picture about an occupation you know something about...
"Taxidermia", the second film by "Hukkle" director György Palffi, is apparently intended not only to outrage the bougeoisie, but to test the theory that if you can disgust the critics enough with endless scenes of vomiting, they will declare your film a work of art. "Taxidermia" made enough people in Hungary puke this year to convince the critics that it was the "Best Film of the Year" --different shucks for different folks.

One of the nice things about Cottbus is that it often screens lost gems of the Communist East German (DDR) cinema which are rarely seen anywhere else. In the context of films relating to the Spreewald-Lausitz (Lusatia) region one sparkling example was "Sehnsucht" (Longing), a 1989 drama directed by Jürgen Bauer and starring the strikingly beautiful redhead, Ulrike Krumbiegel. The setting is a local Lusatian farmstead and later, Paris. This is a tender love story with an occult twist and a great vehicle for this most unusual East German actress.

An interesting Croatian competition entry was "Sve Dzaba" (Everything Is Free) the feature film debut of 29 year old director Antonio Nuic. This is a rather bleak, absurdist view of life in the provinces of Bosnia after the terrible war which devastated that country in the early nineties. While there are amusing sequences the overall feeling of the film is much like a Samuel Beckett dead-end excursion into despair. Goran (Emir Hadzihafis-begovic) has his established routine terminated abruptly when his two best drinking buddies shoot each other dead. With money he has inherited he buys a lunch wagon and while living in this improvised mobile home travels about the Bosnian countryside giving all his food and drunks away for free. This often arouses suspicion but the people flock to his free lunch anyway. In one town he meets a fetching red-headed waitress and it's the coup-de-foudre for both -- One catch --she's also the mistress of the local boss -- which leads to big trou ble and ultimately -- despair. Actor Emir H. is an appealing loser and Natasha Janjic, a bigtime actress in Croatia, is a sight for sore eyes -- but a pain-in-the-neck to our hero, Goran. Femme-fatale Croatian style!

Bengt Buder, a European film activist, formerly the main programmer for the famous East Berlin Kino Babylon, and a long time associate of the Cottbus fest, introduced the director after the screening for a Q and A session.(I was the only one who asked any questions). Over breakfast the next day I had an enlightening conversation with Mr. Buder covering various aspects of the film festival scene, especially that of film placement strategies. Regarding the fact that opening and closing films at festivals often tend to be overrated or just plain not very good, Buder had this to say. "Producers of expensive but weak films often try to place their film in an opening or closing slot in order to avoid bad publicity --Two reasons for this: (1) It gains them a certain prestige but also avoids the need to have the film appear in competition where it might be condemned by the jury and consigned to the waste bin, and (2) especially on closing day following the awards ceremonies, most of the press does not stick around to see the film, but hurries off to the press room to file their final festival reports. Again, prestige for being listed as the closing film of the fest, but few if any bad reviews by the international press. Certainly makes sense to me as a tactic in the complex field of film placement strategies. And that's it for Cottbus 2006. A fine time was had by all, hospitality included sleek auto pickup at the Berlin airport 50 miles away, lodging in the best hotel in town, transportation from place to place in town by festival cars and, in general a most congenial and helpful staff. Hats off to a small festival that knows how to treat its guests!

Alex Deleon

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