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Film

Why German film lacks guts in Locarno - despite mountain perils and adultery

Ötzi the iceman hits the big screen, a mother flees and a family takes an unsettling vacation in the German contributions at the Locarno Film Festival. For DW's Julia Hitz, the German entries weren't daring enough.

It is hot during the day in Locarno. At dusk, when the films are presented on the Piazza Grande, the central meeting point and heart of the Swiss film festival, it isn't noticeably cooler. Festivalgoers stare skeptically at the threatening clouds in the sky, wondering whether tonight's showing will take place or be rained out.

Nature is a part of the cinematic experience here. If it stays dry, over 8,000 pairs of eyes will focus on the screen all at once. For actors and directors, the outdoor screenings are an extraordinary experience.

This year, two German films are being voted on by the audience at the Piazza Grande. Both are set in the mountains.

Copper-age iceman Ötzi gets his own film

Director Felix Randau tackled the story of Ötzi, the famous Stone Age man whose well-preserved body was found by hikers in 1991, frozen in alpine ice on the Austrian-Italian border. The chance discovery begs the question of how we even know what the late-Neolithic mummy's story is.

Ötzi is the oldest natural human mummy in the world, estimated to be around 5,300 years old, and very little is known about his life. Genetic analysis of his corpse has revealed a few facts, but whether Ötzi was lactose intolerant, had Lyme disease or suffered from circulatory problems are not important issues in Randau's film.

Jürgen Vogel in the film Iceman (Picture-alliance/dpa/M. Rattini/Port au Prince Pictures)

"Iceman" uses an ancient tonal language

The story that the Berlin-based director sketches out in his film, "Iceman," is one of vengeance and catharsis. Though it entertaining to watch star Jürgen Vogel as a bearded late-Neolithic man tackling extreme situations, the storyline is too weak to fill 90 minutes.

It was Quentin Tarantino who turned revenge stories into their own genre - and set the standard very high. Randau's "Iceman" lacks innovation and consequently doesn't quite reach the bar.

Read more: Switzerland's Locarno Film Festival promises self-discovery - and a mummy

Copper-age grunts instead of dialogue

The director originally wanted to make his film without text but ultimately decided to use a kind of tonal language, similar to an ancient form of communication used in Rhaetia, a province of the Roman Empire located in the Eastern Alps.

"I find nothing more comical than to watch a film about the Romans in which people speak in perfect Oxford English," Randau, who also wrote the screenplay, told DW.

That was a courageous move, but not courageous enough, though the director should be applauded for his effort.

"Many kind of view ancient humans as half-apes," the 43-year-old determined during his research. "Jürgen Vogel was my top choice for the lead role. He is a very physical actor, but also radiates warmth and intelligence."

But while watching the film, you find yourself hoping that Vogel will finally break out his famous smile, with the gap in the front, and make a funny quip that will get him out of his cave man conundrums. 

Complex family conflicts

Precarious mountain scenes also can be found in the second German film shown this year at the Piazza Grande.

In "Drei Zinnen" (Three Peaks), a woman played by Bérénice Bejo, her new partner and her son go on vacation to a remote mountain hut.

Director Jan Zabeil uses the rugged rural setting to focus on the emotional drama between the stepfather and stepson. Calmly and with precision, he illuminates their deepest, darkest feelings. Zabeil manages to let his viewers shudder without allowing the film to become a horror story. 

Film still from Drei Zinnen (Rohfilm Productions)

"Drei Zinnen" focuses on the relationship between a step-father and stepson

"It was important to me to show the otherwise unnoticed relationship between a stepfather and stepson," Zabeil told DW. "Some people think everything is hunky dory in blended families - or that they are a catastrophe and the conservative model is better after all.

"I wanted to show the problems and the consequences that can come about even when everyone makes an effort and has the best intentions."

Zabeil manages to do just that, not least thanks to his cast. Eight-year-old actor Arian Montgomery manages remarkably well to keep up with his co-star and on-screen stepfather Alexander Fehling.

The carefully filmed images of the three-peaked mountain range in Italy's South Tirol, known as Tre Cime di Lavaredo in Italian, not only add a symbolic touch but also seem to invoke the true and unbeautiful feelings of the three protagonists. And that children are capable of a great deal of mischief, as all parents know. 

When freedom becomes complicated

In addition to the two films that will face an audience vote, one German film is competing for the Golden Leopard, the prize awarded by the festival jury to the best film in the International Competition: Jan Speckenbach's polarizing contribution "Freiheit" (Freedom).

Johanna Wokalek plays Nora, who leaves her husband and two children seemingly without reason to go off to Berlin, Vienna and, ultimately, Bratislava. The story presents itself as a cinematic triptych that jumps between Nora's life and her husband back home - and doesn't reveal the beginning until the very end. One person's freedom, it seems, becomes another person's bondage. 

Film still from Freiheit (One Two Films)

Freedom can come with a price in Speckenbach's film "Freiheit"

"For us, freedom is often equated with financial independence, and even that is symptomatic," Speckenbach said about his motivation for making the film. "We have all witnessed the refugee crisis and seen the people who are really fighting for their lives. Maybe we should start thinking about everything we've achieved here in the West and how much it's worth fighting for."

The director said he likes his controversial main character. "She is searching, which is something I can sympathize with." But not all viewers see it the same way.

"Opinions about the main character are divided. Some like her a lot, while others think she's a real twerp. The judgments are usually pretty extreme," said Speckenbach.

The reaction the film provokes speaks for its story, even though the puzzling question of what this woman is really up to can make viewers aggressive. The images are so painstakingly composed - the way the Danube River is used as a metaphor, for example - that they make it possible to overlook the hefty sex scenes that may be provocative but don't further the plot.

A new bourgeois film era?

Although the German-made stories told in Locarno span thousands of years, they still seem to spring from the same very middle-class generation. They are somehow liberated, but also trapped at the same time.

While German film is well represented in Locarno, the candidates could have been a bit more diverse and courageous, both in form and substance.

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