THERE'S NOTHING quite like a film festival drawn along ethnic parameters to make it clear how arbitrary a distinction that can be. The Portland German Film Festival demonstrates the current diversity of mood, style, and subject matter in Germany's filmmaking community, as well as dusting off a few select 20th century gems.
Mercury readers' two best bets might be documentaries: Wacken—The Movie (screening Sat Sept 26) is a gorgeously shot immersion into Wacken Open Air, an enormous, three-day metal festival that, every year since 1990, has consumed (and completely trashed) the tiny country town of Wacken. Metalheads make the pilgrimage from all over the globe for performances from titans like Mötorhead and Opeth—camping in tents, swimming in mud, and unapologetically getting smashed. The filmmakers choose a few offbeat attendees to shadow, including several among the generally underrepresented female demographic and young hopefuls competing in a battle of the bands-style contest. Spliced with concert footage and interviews with headliners, it functions somewhat as an infomercial to sell tickets—if an utterly unnecessary one. (Wacken notoriously sells out the same day tickets go on sale.)
In the Basement (Mon Sept 28), meanwhile, is an unsettling look at the worlds people create in the privacy of subterranean spaces. On concept alone, this is a setup for unease—a feeling that increases as it rolls out subjects from its rather motley crew. These include a man who operates a shooting gallery (but dreams of singing opera), and a tuba-playing Hitler admirer and hoarder of Nazi memorabilia. Like it or not, Basement will lead you right into the drinking circles of both men, underscoring the degree to which racism, particularly directed at Turkish immigrants, still pervades Europe. Sour as they may be, such politics may be easier to swallow than when the film turns its gaze to basements of a more sexual nature, depending on your inclinations. If you have a hard time watching scenes of genital torture, or a naked man cleaning a bathroom with his tongue, Basement will show you very little mercy, and its foray into the shared, red-walled workspace of both a male and female prostitute offers only the smallest of reprieves. Awkward, honest, and remarkably unvarnished, Basement features long quiet shots of the film's subjects sitting or standing in these environments, gazing plainly into the camera, which offers ample time to reflect and react to the nature of our most clandestine spaces. It's boldly uncomfortable, fearlessly unique, and worth enduring a bit of squirming.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the charming Lola on the Pea (Sat Sept 26), centered on the titular nine-year-old girl and tailored to kids of similar age. Living on a funky houseboat with pink hair with a spunky single mom who wears leopard print pants, Lola is a fitting heroine for soft-hearted misfits, evoking sympathy for her heartache over an absent father and admiration for her culture-bridging efforts to befriend a family of Kurdish immigrants (okay, maybe there is another theme emerging here).
Portland's German Film Fest also features a handful of US premieres, including acclaimed Alzheimer drama Head Full of Honey (Sat Sept 26), a restored version of the long-stifled Born in '45—a film whose production was halted in 1966 due to government disapproval of its perceived "glorification of the marginalized"—(Sun Sept 27), and The Misplaced World (Fri Sept 25). Odd and elegant, Misplaced is a family drama centered around two singers—one successful, one not—who uncover a lifelong secret that connects them. Dignified and rather low-stakes, it's nonetheless a pleasant journey into the interior lives of casually glamorous women who are well past the age of interest for most domestic films—and it never utters a single word about it.