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Mainstreaming its cinema

Superb acting and more accessible story lines define this year's six German selections.

November 04, 2005|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

For six years -- the last four as part of AFI Fest -- Made in Germany has brought to Los Angeles a selection of recent releases from a country with a rich cinema history. The six films in this year's mini-festival are more commercial than art-house, diverging from the recent trend of German multiculturalism seen in such films as Fatih Akin's "Head-On." They are extremely accessible films, the type of intelligent mainstream fare Hollywood has decreasingly seemed interested in making.

Different in genre and tone, the films are united by excellent performances that elevate them with a combination of star turns and fine ensemble work in stories that include historical drama, ferocious social farce and music-inspired melodrama. Even the lone documentary features an intimate portrait of one of Germany's best-known actors.

On the fiction front, the subtly harrowing "Sophie Scholl -- The Final Days," is Made in Germany's standout and is also the nation's official submission for Academy Award consideration in the foreign language category. The heroic story of a young German woman who was part of the White Rose, an underground movement of Munich college students devoted to undermining the Third Reich's domination of Europe, the film is exhilarating despite the inescapable bleakness of its outcome.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
"Sophie Scholl" -- An article in Friday's Calendar section about the Made in Germany series at AFI Fest implied that the film "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" was a work of fiction. The movie is a drama based on a true story.

In an inspiring performance, Julia Jentsch ("The Edukators") stars as Scholl, a Protestant captured with her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) in February 1943 while distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets on a university campus. Marc Rothemund's film covers the last six days of her life as she faces down her stoic Gestapo inquisitor Robert Mohr (Alexander Held) in a tense ideological war of words.

Though the White Rose's story has been told before -- most notably in Michael Verhoeven's "Die Weisse Rose" and Percy Adlon's "Funf Letzte Tage," both 1982 -- "Sophie Scholl" uses documents of the interrogations not released until 1990. Jentsch and Held are so resolute in arguing their characters' ideals, they make the long scenes of dialogue riveting.

"The Wedding Party," a dark satire based on a cult comic book, pits two excessively stubborn men in a battle of escalating hostilities. Egomaniacal Hermann Walzer (Armin Rohde) wants his son Mark's wedding to be first-rate and also desires to purchase the country inn where the reception is being held. The inn's proprietor and chef, Franz Berger (the always delightful Uwe Ochsenknecht), despite imminent bankruptcy, is not interested in selling, setting the two men at odds before the first course is served.

When members of the wedding party find the prawn cocktail appetizers less than satisfactory, Hermann immediately ends the meal and orders his guests to leave, stiffing Franz for the multicourse meal in the process.

Unfortunately, the mother of the- groom and the bride are left behind, and they quickly become hostages as Hermann and his henchmen surround the inn with an impressive arsenal of weapons. The standoff becomes increasingly violent and ludicrous, going far beyond what might be rational as the film skewers bourgeois pretensions.

Ripe for an American remake, Dominique Deruddere's bloody farce provides great roles for two midcareer stars looking for something a little unusual. Rohde is just right as the blustery, single-minded Hermann, and Ochsenknecht -- who can do more with a wince than many actors can with a soliloquy -- anchors the film with steely calm.

"Antibodies" owes more than a little to serial killer procedurals such as "Manhunter" and "The Silence of the Lambs" but is nonetheless a well-made psychological thriller buoyed by a strong cast and director Christian Alvart's ability to usurp genre conventions. Wotan Wilke Mohring stars as Michael Martens, a small-town policeman and farmer haunted by the killing of a young girl, the friend of his teenage son.

Martens goes to Berlin hoping to link the murder to serial killer Gabriel Engels (Andre Hennicke), who is suspected in 14 other slayings and is apprehended in an intense opening sequence.

As Engels opens up to Martens, it becomes clear that the farmer's real fear is that the actual killer may be someone closer to home. Heinz Hoenig -- a sort of Teutonic Brian Cox -- is particularly good as Seiler, the city detective who uses Martens for his own means.

A slice of German life is found in Andreas Dresen's "Summer in Berlin," which initially feels like a breezy romance but quietly evolves into something touching and more substantial. Single women Nike (Nadja Uhl) and Katrin (Inka Friedrich) are friends and neighbors in a decrepit apartment building who share the pleasures of the structure's balcony but are unlucky in their pursuit of men.

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