Film Fests: Noir City and Berlin & Beyond

by Sura Wood

The New Year gets off to a rousing start, cinematically speaking, with two first-class local film festivals.

Opening this month: "Berlin & Beyond," which offers a full complement of the latest contemporary German language films, and "Noir City 12: It’s a Bitter Little World," a homegrown festival of classic and newly restored film noir, packed with fedoras, femme fatales, rogue detectives and criminal intrigue.

A favorite of Bay Area audiences, "Noir City," now its 12th year, regularly plays to sold-out houses at the Castro Theatre during its 10-day run. In addition to screening masterpieces of the genre such as Carol Reed’s "The Third Man," based on the Graham Greene novel, Jules Dassin’s perfect heist movie, "Rififi," and films starring Joseph Cotton, Ava Gardner, and Orson Welles, Gene Tierney and other durable American icons, this year’s program will have an unexpected international flavor.

"I felt the time was right to expand "noir" beyond the boundaries of Hollywood," explains "Noir City" founder Eddie Muller. "There is literally a whole world of classic noir out there from Mexico, Argentina and Spain waiting to be rediscovered. We are even screening in 1949 Norwegian noir, ‘Death Is a Caress,’ directed by Edith Carlmar," a cautionary tale of illicit lust and greed where a young, soon-to-be married auto mechanic is bewitched by a glamorous, manipulative socialite who, it turns out, wants more than her car fixed. Ida Lupino’s "The Hitch-hiker," the only U.S.-made noir directed by a woman, is shown on a double bill with "Too Late for Tears" (1949), a nearly forgotten gem starring Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott in the story of a housewife who’ll stop at nothing to keep a bag of stolen cash.

Through his connection to a well-known Argentine film collector, Muller unearthed two exceptional South American noirs never seen outside of Argentina. Although it’s set in Buenos Aires rather than New York, "Apenas un Delincuente" (Hardly a Criminal) is reminiscent of Jules Dassin’s "Naked City," another gritty crime drama where the asphalt jungle is a central character, and "The Black Vampire" (El Vampiro Negro), starring Olga Zubarry, the "Argentine Marilyn Monroe," in a feminist take on Fritz Lang's "M," which focuses on the mothers of children terrorized by a psychopathic pedophile.

Muller’s program emphasizes films produced in the period immediately following the Second World War, an especially dark and foreboding era for international noir. "If you think Hollywood noir was about disillusionment and guilt and the cloud of atomic warfare--wait until you see noir made in Germany, Italy and Japan," he says. Take "The Murderers Are Among Us" (1946), one of the first German movies to directly address the legacy of World War II. Shot amidst the rubble of Berlin, it’s a powerful, disturbing indictment of German atrocities and the nation’s culpability in which a former Nazi surgeon, haunted by his role in the regime, falls in love with a survivor of the death camps; he plots revenge against his commanding officer who was responsible for the mass killing of civilians on the Eastern Front.

"I believe that the pervasive themes and style that define noir will be a way for viewers to explore the differences and similarities between America and foreign cultures," notes Muller. "People used to seeing Hollywood films created under a censorial Production Code will be surprised to see films (from other parts of the world) made at the same time, about the same things, that don't shy away from darker truths. American movies look a little naive in comparison."

Jan. 21- Feb. 2, the Castro Theatre. Program information:;

Berlin & Beyond

Highlighting the best in cutting-edge cinema from German-speaking countries, this year’s "Berlin & Beyond" features personal indies by new filmmakers, costume epics, biographical portraits and "Ludwig II," the last work from veteran husband-and-wife filmmaking team Peter Sehr and Marie Noëlle (Sehr died last summer). It’s a lavishly produced historical drama recounting the reign of the legendary Bavarian king, a well- intentioned though naïve monarch who sought to have his kingdom dominated by art and aesthetics rather than war and conquest. Ill-equipped to cope with harsh political realities, he falls under the spell of Richard Wagner and the composer’s grandiose operas, retreats into a dream world and pillages the royal treasury to fulfill his visions and build opulent gilded palaces.

Walter Steffen’s "Munich in India" documents the experiences of the virtually unknown German artist Hannes Fritz-Munich, a former bank clerk who followed his dream and became a court painter of the Indian Maharajas. (He was traveling through colonial India when the Nazis seized power in Germany.) The artist’s grandson, Konstantin Fritz, retraces Steffen’s steps, searching for clues to the mystery of his grandfather through his paintings and diaries, hundreds of rare photographs taken some 80 years ago and the historical 16mm footage he shot illuminating life under the reigning princes between the two World Wars.

Anchored by strong performances, Lars-Gunnar Lotz’s debut feature, "Shifting the Blame," grapples with grief, guilt and rage and the possibility of redemption in its complex story of a violent young thug confronted with the human consequences of his crime. He’s forced to come to terms with his actions and the woman he once carjacked and brutalized when he’s transferred from jail to a progressive foster home where she’s a social worker. At first she doesn’t recognize him--he and his accomplices wore masks and hoods during the attack--but as it slowly dawns on her that he was involved, she faces a moral conflict between the philosophy of forgiveness she embraces and the pain of putting those precepts into practice.

"Measuring the World," based on Daniel Kehlmann’s bestselling book, brings the exploits of 19th-century scientist Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss to vivid life. Each man employed vastly different methods to understand and ascertain the universe; the intrepid Humboldt visited remote locations and documented the size and nature of things, while the cerebral Gauss buried himself in calculations and theorems. The film, whose dramatic cinematography was shot by Slawomir Idziak (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), is shown in 3-D at a special Late Show presentation: for night owls only.

Jan. 15-19, The Castro Theatre and Goethe Institute,