German Film Festival 2021

Peter Malone MSC 20 May 2021

Each year, the German Film Festival screens in all states over the next few weeks, offering a range of the best German films from the past year. Here are reviews for The Space Between the Lines and Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Each year, the German Film Festival screens in all states over the next few weeks, offering a wide selection of the best German films from the past year. Two reviews indicate the range of the selection.

THE SPACE BETWEEN THE LINES/GUT GEGEN NORWIND. An online relationship. Germany, 2020. Starring Nora Tschirner, Alexander Fehling, Ulrich Thomsen, Ella Rumpf, Claudia Eisinger, Katharina Gieron. Directed by Vanessa Jopp. 123 minutes.

The space in this story is cyberspace. And, it is a film about relationships.

This is a German film, set in Hamburg, with interesting views of the city, especially the water and a vast bridge. But, it is very much an interior story – a story of a relationship between a man and woman, and questions of intimacy, real and online.

Some of us remember relationships through correspondence, putting pen to paper and writing to penfriends. (Are they a thing of the past?) The films of the 20th century often have their characters spending a lot of time on the phone. The 21st-century still has phones but how differently they are employed! Well, though it can be voice communication, the quick and instant communication is back to words (abbreviated and accompanied by emojis), constant texting. (And how really romantic can that be?)

The central character is Leo (Fehling), a linguist, takes pride and delight in words. His life seems to be perfect ­– there are plans to propose to his girlfriend, and his job is secure … However, the girlfriend confesses to be in love with someone else. He feels shattered. While receiving some support from his sister, he is distant from his mother, even despite visits, and then the pathos of her death.

The film begins with a text message. A woman has texted Leo to cancel her subscription to a magazine. And later she repeats this. His reply is that she has got the wrong address. And, this seems to be one of the most unlikely beginnings of a personal relationship. But it is. One interesting feature is that we hear the voice of the complainant, Emma (Tschirner), whom he nicknames Emmi but do not see her until 40 minutes into the film. We discover that she is married to Bernhard (Thomsen) an orchestra conductor and his stepmother to his two children. We see her, know what she looks like, how she behaves, her place in her family, love for her husband. Leo has none of this experience.

While there were a lot of scenes of phone calls in those old films, here there is more of a focus on thumbs – rapidly moving, texting, texting, texting, phones buzzing at all hours, anytime, anywhere, light shining in the night, reverberations during the day. And the two have never met, have never seen each other, the relationship, an online intimacy, still with characteristics of anonymity.



So, how do we respond? It probably depends on our attitudes towards this kind of cyber communication, on our own practice and whether we take this for granted – or in our reactions against this personal/interpersonal communication.

There is some drama in the unfolding of the stories, the self-revelations (gradual as they are), the need for some kind of real and personal encounter. By the end, that is what we are left with – what have we been wanting for Leo and Emma, what we think they need, what do we think they deserve?

(And, do we now and in the future have to adapt to the emotional, psychological, social consequences of this kind of communication?)


BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, Germany, 2020, African refugee surviving in Berlin. Welket Bungue, Albrecht Schuch, Jella Haase, Annabelle Mandeng, Joacjim Krol. Directed by Burhan Qurbani, 183 minutes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Doblin, is one of Germany’s classic 20th century novels. It was published in 1929, filmed in 1931. It is a story of Berlin and Germany between the wars, before the rise of national socialism and Hitler as Chancellor. In 1980, it became a 14-part television series directed by one of the star directors of the time, Rainer Werner Fassbender. This was the time of the divided Germany, adapting the basic outline of the novel, and its characters, to the period.

This version, running for three hours, brings narrative and characters into the 21st-century.

The central character is Francis (in the original novel, a prisoner being released from jail). This time (and the film opens with two people struggling in deeper waters), Francis is a refugee crossing the Mediterranean, escaping from Guinee-Bissau, arriving in Berlin, no documentation, some guilt about the drowning of his partner during the crossing, labouring in a vast tunnel engineering project, makeshift accommodation with the fellow workers.

This picture of African refugees and their plight, coming to Europe, trying to survive, is part of today’s headlines. It is all the more convincing with the strong presence throughout the film, substantial, in the performance of Welket Bungue, a Portuguese-Guinean actor-director.

The voice-over tells us that Francis is a good man, wants to be good, but experiences difficulties, temptation, succumbing, reforming, a comment that life doesn’t seem to want him to be the good man he desires.

The film is divided into five chapters, with Francis arriving in Germany, his becoming involved in the world of Berlin drug dealing, gangsters and burglaries, falling foul of the dealers, hospitalised, friends finding him accommodation with a young prostitute…

The other main character in the film is Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a sinister and wily dealer, manifesting ever more manic, even demented behaviour, a tempter, a manipulator, Mephistopheles. (And one might see some intimations of Othello, Francis is Othello, Reinhold as Iago.)

Over the three hours, we are immersed in this Berlin world, especially in clubs and some cabaret (echoes of Berlin in the 1920s and 30s). We have sympathy for Francis. We regret his lapses and bad choices – but, ultimately, he is a man of principle who will be able to survive whatever the Berlin of the future brings him.

German Film Festival
Sydney 25 May – 13 June
Canberra 26 May – 13 June
Melbourne 27 May – 13 June
Brisbane 1 – 20 June
Adelaide 2 – 20 June
Perth 3 – 20 June
Byron Bay 4 – 20 June
Peter Malone MSC is an associate Jesuit Media