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Culture

German Favorite at Berlinale Disappoints

This year's hottest German entry at the Berlinale, "Elementary Particles," an on-screen adaptation of the eponymous French novel, boasts a star-heavy cast. But critics aren't impressed.

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The film is studded with a Who's Who of German cinema

There was standing room only in the conference room at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Berlin on Saturday afternoon as the cast of the much-awaited German competition entry "Elementary Particles" appeared to talk to the international media after the first screening of the film.

"It's often said that the German film scene doesn't have any stars, but the podium here shows that isn't true," said the moderator of the press conference as flash bulbs popped incessantly and the crush of journalists thrust a sea of microphones and TV cameras at the stage.

Berlinale Wettbewerb Elementarteilchen Pressekonferenz

From right, Moritz Bleibtreu, Franka Potente and Nina Hoss


Indeed, the line-up of "Elementary Particles" reads like a who's who of German cinema. Starring Moritz Bleibtreu and Franka Potente (both of "Run Lola Run" fame), Christian Ulmen, Martina Gedeck and Nina Hoss (all household names in Germany), the movie is based on the eponymous book by French author Michel Houellebecq. It's directed by German director Oskar Roehler and produced by Bernd Eichinger ("The Downfall").

Houellebecq's book, published in 1998, polarized opinion with its nihilistic view of the world, soulless sex and savage attacks against individualism, commercialization and the idealism of the 1968 generation.

Depressing and cynical

The work, which caused an uproar in France, became a bestseller in Europe and made Houellebecq a literary star. In Germany, the book, with its mix of Nietzschean philosophy, scientific experiment, pornographic scenes and jaded bitterness, became something of a sensation.

Over 80,000 hard-cover versions and 150,000 paperbacks were sold in Germany as at least a dozen theaters toyed with the idea of turning it into a play.

The movie reflects the bleakness of the book in the form of two half brothers Bruno (Bleibtreu), a sex-obsessed school teacher who isn't so lucky with women in real life, and Michel (Ulmen), a brilliant and inhibited molecular biologist who's researching human cloning and has never slept with a woman. Both have gotten to know each other during their teenage years after their hippie mother (played by Nina Hoss) leaves them in the care of their grandmother and heads off to India to revel in sex, drugs and rock' n' roll.

The film, which deals with Bruno and Michel's frustration with life and women, is ultimately a quest by the brothers to find love in their own ways.

Film more conciliatory

Unlike the book, the film is much more conciliatory in tone, with both finding the right women at the end. It also avoids much of the radicalism and repugnance that made the novel such a sensation.

Michel is reunited with his childhood friend Annabelle (played by Potente), and Bruno finds love, albeit temporarily, in the form of Christiane (Gedeck), who he gets to know at a nudist spiritual camp.

Oskar Röhler beim Deutschen Filmpreis 2001

Roehler admits he's toned down the on-screen adaptation of Elementary Particles

Director Oskar Roehler said he could relate to Houellebecq's pessimism.

"The question of whether it's filmable or not, wasn't important for me. It simply fascinated me," Roehler said, adding that he saw himself as something of a pessimist too. "Forced optimism in the face of the current social situation is strange to me," said the director, who took five years to make the movie.

At the same time, Roehler admitted that the film deliberately steers clear of the extreme darkness of the book.

"I find it interesting to show what people do when they are in deep shit," said Roehler. "But the completely fatalistic tone of the book couldn't be just taken over," Roehler said. "Houellebecq gives us a key to understanding society that I find absolutely brilliant," Roehler said.

"But I didn't want to take over Houellebecq's moral. We didn't want to leave our protagonists in the lurch. Our film doesn't deny faith in mankind."

Producer Bernd Eichinger pointed out that the whole point had been to present an overall impression of Houellebecq's work. "You can't film social criticism, only melodramas," Eichinger said.

"Huge testimony to love"

Of all the actors present on stage, Martina Gedeck -- who plays Bruno's true love Christiane, a sexually-uninhibited woman secretly battling a serious illness -- was the most enthusiastic about the film.

Berlinale Wettbewerb Elementarteilchen Filmszene

Martina Gedeck and Moritz Bleibtreu

"Christiane has no sentimental expectations. She's a good loser and how she and Bruno find each other is a huge testimony to love," Gedeck said.

Frank Potente, who became known to international audiences as the sprinting redhead in "Run Lola Run" and also starred in "The Bourne Identity" alongside Matt Damon, said she was excited about being represented at the competition category of the Berlinale for the first time. Potente delivers a somewhat wooden performance in "Elementary Particles" as Annabelle, a 30-plus lonely librarian in Berlin.

Critics slam film

Despite its overwhelming star appeal, the film has largely received poor reviews in Germany.

The Berlin-based newspaper Die Welt called the film "really straight, almost drab," saying the punch was missing. "The most trenchant scenes have been removed, others rendered harmless, the whole thing generally toned down. Houellebecq has been given some really gentle treatment."

"The most impressive thing about 'Elementary Particles' is Nina Hoss' face mask," wrote news magazine Der Spiegel, referring to Hoss' decay as she lies on her death bed in one scene, her aged face mottled with bulging veins.

"Houllebecq, the cynic, drove his protagonists into the abyss with glee. Roehler, the director, on the other hand has sympathy with his characters," it wrote.

"All that the spectator is left with is the recognition that you can't film ' Elementary Particles'."

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