Film Scouts Diaries

2002 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
Karlovy Vary Diary #4: The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music... Sort of

by Henri Béhar

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, July 7th, 2002 - No sooner said than... voilà: a second Festival trailer by David Ondricek. Still one-shot, still with the three Czech Stooges singing (we use the word loosely), mercifully shorter.

TransGas is one of the major sponsors of the Festival and every year the natural gas importer throws a Party with a capital p. Generally attended by a whole bunch of CEOs and high-level executives, not to mention a couple of politicians. Exclusive beyond exclusive - even the VIP room has its VIP room. The party's theme this year was Baz Lurhmann's "Moulin Rouge", complete with exec-heavy trapezes descending from the ceiling and the Festival head's rendition, karaoke-style, of Ewan McGregor's love song. Why am I glad I missed it?

It may be less prominent on international film screens, but northern countries have as strong a sense (albeit different) of magic realism and the presence of the dead among the living as, say, Latin-Americans do, and Viersturs Kairiss's "Leaving by the Way", from Latvia (in competition), is proof of that. A highly imaginative kid thinks his beloved father is just about to return from a long journey at sea. In fact, the father is (probably) dead, but who is going to tell him and his little sister? Even the mother has not given up hope, although she has embarked in an affair with her neighbor whose wife may be a witch... Sharply cast and simply directed, "Leaving by the Way" juxtaposes the kids' world, far more complex that grown-ups are willing to acknowledge, and the adult world, horribly - and often unnecessarily - complicated...

Every smoker in the world will sympathize with Spain's "Smoking Room" (in competition), co-directed by Roger Gual and Argentina-born Julio Wallovits. Set in an office environment where anti-smoking may soon soar to a religious war American-style (the Spanish company was just taken over by an American concern), the film, that focuses on the petition through which an employer tries to win back the right to smoke in a dedicated office area, however small, actually deals with the web of frustrations and diffuse threats (with assorted manifestations of cowardice) that increasingly become the defining components of job situations worldwide. Interesting and debate-worthy, no doubt, but the film is marred by excessive simple-mindedness (yes the new CEO is American, must he also be AFRICAN-American?) and by an unnecessarily jumpy direction. One can only dream of what a Neil LaBute could have done with this.

Also boasting two directors, "Gebirtig", an Austrian-Polish-German co-production (in competition), sets out for an almost impossible task, as it attempts to deal, with equal empathy, with the impact of the Holocaust on the generation that followed those who experienced it -- on both sides. Danny's father died in a concentration camp; Konrad's father was a Nazi doctor who ended up appearing at the Nuremberg trials; Susanne's father joined the Communist party as a protest against nazism and was interned in the Ebensee camp. Forty years later, as he is about to die, he recognizes a former SS guard from the camp, who is immediately arrested. The lives of the three descendants intersect as Susanne flies to New York to convince Hermann Gebirtig, a famous Jewish composer and the last survivor from the Ebensee camp, to return to Vienna and testify... With considerable restraint and incisiveness - no breast-beating here - co-directors Lukas Stepanik and Robert Schindel focus on the faces, on what is not said as opposed to what is said. Although produced on a lesser scale, it might worth watching alongside such epics as Andrzej Wajda's early work, Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List", and Roman Polanski's forthcoming "The Pianist", which got the Palme d'Or at the latest Cannes Film Festival.

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