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Depth Charges

”We make a point not to be too, you know, Teutonically deep,“ says Margit Kleinman before bursting into a characteristically cheerful laugh in her bright Miracle Mile office. Kleinman is referring to the potential pitfalls of her duties as program coordinator at the Goethe Institut Inter Nationes Los Angeles, one of the nearly 150 outposts that the German cultural organization maintains worldwide. She cites a recent study that asked ordinary Americans what names came to mind when they heard the word Germany. ”The first name is Hitler,“ she says, ”the second is Helmut Kohl -- so already that’s good.“

As lively and attractive a powerhouse as Kleinman, who also oversees the Institut‘s many other arts and humanities programs, should be enough on her own to contradict entrenched German stereotypes. But so should the fact that for years now the Institut has been home to some of the deepest (which is not to say ponderous) film programming in town. For every retrospective that has hinted at the sort of pucker-faced, mad-genius German artiness that Americans like to lampoon -- the ecstatic tragedies of Werner Herzog, the obsessive experimental narratives of Herbert Achternbusch, the avant-garde masterpieces of Rosa von Praunheim (who, as a recent guest of the Institut, brought along his own group of German university students) -- the organization offers programs that point not only to the country’s profoundly influential cinematic history, but to its again burgeoning movie industry. It was, for instance, nearly two years before actress Franka Potente sprinted into the U.S. consciousness via Tom Tykwer‘s Run Lola Run in 1999 that the Goethe Institut gave Angelenos one of their first tastes of the new New German Cinema by screening Potente’s film debut, in Hans Christian Schmid‘s wonderful It’s a Jungle Out There, as part of the Institut‘s inaugural Goethe Blockbusters series.

Now entering its fourth year, Goethe Blockbusters -- which commences this Tuesday with a screening of Doris Doerrie’s marvelously tender comedy Enlightenment Guaranteed (Erleuchtung Garantiert) -- has provided invaluable samplers of some of the most innovative and thoughtful cinema coming out of Europe today.

Kleinman agrees that, in the last five years, German cinema has seen a rebirth: ”Germans for a long time had problems telling emotional stories. We had problems telling national stories. Because of our horrific past, we did not talk about being German and proud of it. Slowly but surely, though, people are lightening up and knowing that they can talk about personal stories without being corny or kitschy.“

This year‘s Blockbusters series once again shows how, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, German moviemaking has gradually moved from the ’80s trend of wacky provincial comedies to films that are both universal in scope and markedly more introspective. This year‘s three documentaries, for example, look at the roots of terrorism in Germany (Andreas Veiel’s Black Box Germany); a progressive women‘s prison (Helga Reidemeister’s Gotteszell); and the troubled fate of a black policeman chosen to represent the multicultural face of Germany in a national advertising campaign, only to buckle under the scrutiny and turn to crime (Branwen Okpako‘s Dirt for Dinner). Even the comedies take on a searching tone as a woman goes middle-aged crazy in Moonlight Tariff (Mondscheintarif) and three teens face down the meaning of adulthood in Sebastian Schipper’s clever, edgy Gigantic (Absolute Giganten).

Goethe Blockbusters is one of six to eight film series that Kleinman curates each year. In between, the Institut accommodates German-film aficionados with a video-rental center overseen by the media technician Stefan Kloo, who‘s methodically built up a library of nearly 2,000 features, documentaries and instructional films. As to the future, Kleinman is hoping a German perspective will help Angelenos make sense of an issue with which they’ve only recently had to grapple -- namely, terrorism. ”The program I have in mind will include the work of eight German filmmakers,“ she says, ”looking at a phenomenon that we dealt with in the ‘70s and ’80s and which, for some reason, we seem to have overcome.“ Many of us, no doubt, would like to know how.

See Special Events in Film Calendar for a review of Doris Doerrie‘s Enlightenment Guaranteed.

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