Berlinale Reviews: Vintage German sci-fi gems (Part I)

Still from Kamikaze 89 on indieberlin

Kirill Galetski gives a hitch-hiker’s guide to science fiction at the Berlinale Film Festival (in two parts). First up: a German showcase.

Traditionally critics’ least favourite genre (perhaps competing only with its errant cousin, fantasy), sci-fi is nonetheless handsomely represented in this year’s festival, boasting some rare international classics. Suitably, it’s an unlikely German star that shines the brightest among the picks.

Virtuelle Realität

World-renowned director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is not best known for his forays into the speculative, but he had a hand in two of Germany’s most intriguing sci-fi efforts. First is his three-and-a-half hour odyssey Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), one of the earliest films to explore the theme of virtual reality, and Fassbinder’s only sci-fi venture as a director.

Welt am Draht features Barbara Valentin and protagonist Klaus Löwitsch, who would later star in Fassbinder’s best-known film The Marriage of Maria Braun. Löwitsch portrays a scientist who takes on management of a computer program after its previous director mysteriously dies. The program Simulacron-3 (also the title of the original Galouye novel) runs a synthetic world modelled on contemporary society.

Like all great sci-fi, it’s about ideas, not special effects.

After taking over the directorship, Stiller investigates the previous director’s death, starts to have frequent headaches, comes across glitches in the “real” world fears that he may be going mad until some of his suspicions are corroborated by people with which he interacts. All of this leads him to discover that the real world, he inhabits may not be so real after all. Seen it all before? At the time, they hadn’t.

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The film is long – it was premiered in two parts on television – and it’s a bit heavy on exposition, but it gets better as it goes along. Like all great sci-fi, it’s primarily about ideas, not special effects. Indeed, the success of the script is reliant on us suspending our disbelief to make the virtual reality believable. Fine performances all around, and Löwitsch is reminiscent of a mature Christian Slater, while the love interest played by Mascha Rabben resembles a young Michelle Pfeiffer.

Cyberpunk send-off

Fassbinder’s last role as an actor was as Police Lieutenant Jansen in Wolf Gremm‘s 1982 picture Kamikaze ’89. This curious foray into futuristic crime drama was released in the same year as the better-known Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, which is also part of the Berlinale’s retrospective.

It’s 1989, and it’s a suitably dated German urban backdrop. Fassbinder cuts an outlandish and slovenly figure as an undercover cop inside a monopolistic media corp. Unshaven and toting a couple of cyberpunky handheld surveillance devices, he flaunts a questionable leopard-print suit that matches his pistol grip and his dashboard.

The Police Disco remains an unrealised eccentricity

The film’s predictions are hit-and-miss. Modern-day reality TV is pre-echoed when the conglomerate broadcasts a live laughing contest; but the Police Disco sadly remains an unrealised eccentricity. The choice of year is, politically speaking, quite uncanny – but in this story it’s no more than a number.

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Eerie, slightly trashy and rarely subtle, the film is an uneven but intriguing watch. Gremm’s cleverest trick is how he builds our expectation of a climactic showdown, only to skip straight to the aftermath. The ending, with Fassbinder listening to a recording of Neil Armstrong’s broadcast from the moon, is bafflingly oblique.

With crack cinematography by Fassbinder’s regular Xaver Schwarzenberger and a great electro score by Tangerine Dream’s Edgar FroeseKamikaze ’89 is one to catch while it’s in town: there is no official DVD with English subtitles. Furthermore, Gremm’s widow and production boss Regina Ziegler will introduce the film at its screenings.

Part II boldly goes through the rest of the sci-fi listings, with rare Polish, Russian and Japanese offerings.

Many of the retrospective screenings are already sold out, but the Berlinale screening venues typically hold a few tickets in reserve at their box offices for last-minute sales.

Check the Programme section of www.berlinale.de for full scheduling and location information.

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