Docs and robbers

Berlin and Beyond enters the fall festival fray

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Marabou musings: documentary Silver Girls makes its U.S. premiere at Berlin and Beyond

arts@sfbg.com

FILM What are they putting in the water in Germany these days? Seems like gritty crime dramas are at the forefront of young filmmaker's creative output, several of which have made it onto the 15th Berlin and Beyond Film Festival lineup. Also in great supply are a number of slice-of-life documentaries, many of which revolve around the topic of aging. Call it the Cloud 9 effect: after the success of the critically-acclaimed 2008 drama about a love affair between senior citizens, the desire to follow up with more tales of not going gently into the good night must have been irresistible. Three of the featured documentaries have elderly protagonists engaged in atypical post-retirement behavior.

Autumn Gold follows five athletes between 80 and 100 to the World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland, where they compete in discus, shot put, high jump, and sprinting. The Woman with the Five Elephants pays a visit to Swetlana Geier, Germany's premiere translator of Russian to German, who recently completed her masterpiece: a new translation of all five of Dostoyevsky's major works. And my personal favorite, Silver Girls, a completely matter-of-fact portrayal of three professional prostitutes, ages 49, 59, and 64.

Just one of the three, Paula, has been a prostitute since young adulthood, and now runs a brothel of her own. Both the sweetly eccentric Christel, and the eiskalt Karolina, took up the trade in their 50s. In between clients, they lead rather unremarkable lives. Paula surfs the Internet. Christel hangs out with her lovable-oaf boyfriend Bernd and tends to her houseplants. Karolina heads out to a carnival with a grandkid, dressed to kill in shiny leather boots.

The boldest of the three, Karolina certainly looks the part of a sexagenarian dominatrix, with jet-black hair, an impenetrable demeanor, and several visible yet tasteful tattoos. She entertains at Christmas in a revealing, fallen-angel costume, and takes her slave shoe-shopping in a nice department store, kicking him as he kneels before her and telling him she doesn't care whether or not he likes the fit. The other two may be less provocative in public, but as Christel assures us with a roguish grin, there's a larger demand for "mature" services than you might think. Given the state of Social Security at the moment, it's actually comforting to realize you're never too old for a career change.

On the gritty crime front, two films stand out: The Silence, directed by Baran bo Odar, and The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg. In The Robber, Andreas Lust (previously seen at Berlin and Beyond in last year's compelling Revanche), stars as Johann Rettenberger, a man driven mercilessly by his twin ambitions to win marathons and rob banks. Rather mechanistic in his approach to life, Rettenberger certainly doesn't seem to derive any particular pleasure from his adrenaline-fueled exploits. He casually stuffs his loot under his bed and trains obsessively.

Any redemptive grace he might have found in the arms of old friend-new love interest Erika (Franziska Weisz) is shot after she (understandably) kicks him out of her home. And any sympathy the Austrian public might have for his resolve to remain free is pretty much spent after he murders his parole officer with a running trophy. Indeed, his perpetual cold-fish exterior is almost enough to kill the audience's sympathy for him too — but something about his predicament is also fascinating. Like a junkie, Rettenberger must run and rob banks, not out of love or desire but joyless addiction. This apparent helplessness to stop the wheels of his own destruction turn The Robber into an existential antihero of sorts rather than just an unconscionable jerk making poor life choices. 

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