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Lost at the movies

Annual film series at the Goethe Institut places contemporary German film in dialogue with the country’s cinematic past

It’s been nearly half a century since the signing of the Oberhausen Manifesto, the proclamation that sparked a new wave of bold experimentation in German film – and Wim Wenders is looking a little forlorn.

Looking back on his career, Wenders, one of the key directors of New German Cinema, remarks that each of his films attempts to answer a persistent question: “In these times – with all the things we experience and what happens in the world – how can we manage to find out what we live for?”

Though the German film scene seems to have lost some of its sense of urgency over past decades, this question is still very present in the films at this year’s “German Highlights” series, a two-month showcase of new discoveries in contemporary German cinema that just opened at Montreal’s Goethe Institut.

Many films feature aimless protagonists, who go to extreme ends to break out of the loneliness that presses in on them. Maria Speth’s Madonnas follows a woman’s attempts to get by as a young mother and the dysfunctional family situations she ends up in, following a painfully awkward reunion with her estranged father and several years in prison for petty theft. Much as she tries, a conventional family life seems just out of her reach.

The characters in Martin Gypkens’s Nothing But Ghosts travel to exotic locations trying to escape from each other and themselves. We see girls in bikinis languishing in the Jamaican sun, romanticizing the “simpler life” on the island. As constant hurricane warnings come in over the radio, one of the girls imagines the thrill of crouching in the basement with the storm raging overhead. “I hope it comes,” she says. Bored and self-absorbed, Gypken’s characters desperately seek something to bring feeling back into their lives.

Made up of five loosely connected narratives, Nothing But Ghosts depicts how people pass around each other without making real contact, but sometimes unexpectedly collide. The most personal encounter Marion experiences, while visiting her preoccupied parents in Venice, is a shared glance with a man who masturbates in a public café. On a tense road trip through the American Southwest with his girlfriend Ellen, Felix has been unmoved by the desert scenery for most of the trip, writing off the Grand Canyon with the remark: “It looks just the same, just like in the movies. The whole country does.”

Stopping for the night at a roadside motel, the couple meets a pudgy ghost hunter in a flowered dress, come to pay a visit to the miners allegedly haunting the building across the parking lot. In the bar, a man named Bill lectures the couple on the joys of buying a baby’s first pair of shoes. Quirky moments like these manage to touch their jaded souls.

Rolf Dieter Brinkmann embodies a different kind of discontent, with his intense focus on the present moment, on the “now and now and now and now.” The late underground poet, subject of Harald Bergmann’s documentary Brinkmann’s Wrath, has been called “the only genius of West German literature,” and has a reputation for his furious stage presence. Bergmann’s documentary brings together original recordings of Brinkmann’s spoken word performances with the poet’s own Super-8 films. Both screenings are to be followed with a talk by McGill’s Karin Bauer, chair of the German Department.

The series finishes with Wenders setting off to find something lifelike in the bleak industrial landscapes of Germany’s post-war Economic Miracle, armed with an 8mm camera and his own unique perspective. Marcel Wehn’s documentary One Who Set Forth: Wim Wenders’s Early Years takes us back to the energetic beginnings of New German Cinema, when the University for Film and Television in Munich had just opened its doors and all the students had to work with was “one creaky old camera that had to be plugged in.” Wenders’s first short films captured familiar terrain in a new way. “No one had filmed Munich and its surroundings like that before,” an old professor of Wenders’s says. “No one had seen it like that before.”

Wenders’s first wife Edda also reflects on his unique way of seeing the word. “On my own I’d never have noticed a chewing-gum machine,” she recalls. “He always managed to get toy rings out of them for me…Things like that are charming, aren’t they?”

As Ellen snaps picture after picture in Nothing But Ghosts, Felix irritably points out that millions of tourists have already taken the same pictures. “I want to find my own way of seeing things,” he says.

Get him an old 8 mm, and maybe he’ll be on the right track.

“German Highlights” is running at the Goethe Institut (418 Sherbrooke E.) from April 3 to May 30. Visit for more information and a list of showtimes.