To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘New Short Films from Germany’ panel connects young filmmakers over Zoom

On Thursday, March 18, the Center for German and European Studies (CGES) held a virtual panel called “New Short Films from Germany,” one of many such events it has held to support artists during the pandemic. The webinar was produced in partnership with the Goethe-Institut Boston and was hosted by Benedikt Reynolds ‘19, a Brandeis alumnus and the founder of the Boston Student Film Festival.

The webinar started with an introduction from CGES Director Sabine von Mering (GRALL/ENVS/WGS) and Karin Oehlenschlaeger (from the Goethe Institut). They introduced the panelists, three young filmmakers who have all have recently produced award-winning short films in Germany: Jannis Alexander Kiefer with “Meeting,” Daniel Theiler with “Top Down Memory” and Borbála Nagy with “Land of Glory.” Throughout the webinar, Reynolds guided the conversation through various topics, from the state of the German film industry to the filmmakers’ varying experiences with their craft.

All three film shorts are wildly different and excellent in their own right. Each demands a piece of its own, but for the sake of brevity a synopsis will have to do. Kiefer’s “Meeting” is a hilarious and relatable satire of Zoom social life. The project was filmed and edited in just one week in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic. It gives us a glimpse into the intense planning that goes into many a Zoom meeting, right alongside the awkward exchanges and the less-than-genuine moments we’re all accustomed to by now.

“Top Down Memory” is surprising and compelling. The experimental documentary dives into the meanings of the balcony as an architectural object, using it as a site to examine Germany’s socio political history. It explores the manipulation of history in the context of the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, or the Humboldtforum. The film shows drone footage as well as green screens, cleverly juxtaposing archival footage with present-day reenactments to ask questions about authenticity and collective memory.

Land of Glory” is a stunning, yet biting, portrait of Hungarian national identity. The film starts with a group of unenthused students who are preparing for the Hungarian Prime Minister’s visit. We follow the story of a young girl who yearns to rebel against the school administration. Each scene of the film is shot in one take; the camera glides patiently through the school’s halls, focused on the main character Márti (Hanna Angelus) while immersing us in the awkward intricacies of school life. 

As different as the films were, von Mering noticed that there was a thematic thread connecting them. “What I thought worked so well between the three films,” she said, was “that there was this sort of element of questioning truth in all three films.” In “Land of Glory,” we see the conflict that Márti experiences when pressured to present a view that she disagrees with. For von Mering,  the green screens and drones in “Top Down Memory” were “reminders that not only do we live in a pandemic time, but we also live in a time of fake news and of fabrication of truth.” Even Jannis’ film, von Mering said, was critical of the human instinct to project falsehoods.

The panel lasted almost 90 minutes, but the conversation left no room for boredom. Reynolds excelled as a moderator, giving the filmmakers plenty of space to talk about their creative process. His open-ended questions flowed well and were guided by his own experience as a filmmaker. The event started off with more formal questions, but took a casual turn as the filmmakers began to ask questions of each other. Spontaneous conversation is always hard to achieve on Zoom, so any free-flowing talk on this ubiquitous yet flawed app should be applauded.

Inevitably, COVID-19’s effect on the filmmaking industry was a big topic of discussion. Kiefer’s film “Meeting” was produced in just one week. He joked about the artistic merit of his film. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure if it’s really a film or just a gag,” he said during the panel. Reynolds asked Kiefer whether he’d gotten pushback from viewers, since the industry has leaned toward escapism during the pandemic. While curating his own film festival, Reynolds said, he found that pandemic-related films were “Sometimes…hard to sit through, because I don’t want to experience this again because I’m going through it now.” 

Theiler pushed back against this idea, saying that the film isn’t about the pandemic but about communication and distance: “You can see the people behind the characters…In the end, they all have the same cheesy strategies…to meet in this stupid room.” Nagy pushed back against the escapist instinct in filmmaking. “[COVID-19] really changes our lives and our world…why ignore it?,” he said during the panel.

The panelists discussed the filmmaking industry, from its pleasures to its pitfalls. Nagy is currently in post-production for a feature film, and lamented that she misses filming. “I don’t think it’s good for a director not to work with actors for three years,” she said during the panel. She’s still thinking about how to fill those gaps with shorter projects, because without shooting, “you get out of shape.” 

Theiler lamented that, as a first-time filmmaker, he was unaware of the sheer amount of fundraising that goes into the filmmaking process. Kiefer also complained about fundraising. “To be honest…you work many weeks for all the fundings and then maybe get none of it…You could work at McDonald’s for 10 Euros per hour and then have some money to make a short film for sure, it’s probably easier,” he said during the panel.

“Well, I hope it doesn’t preclude you from making more films,” von Mering said. She closed the event by inviting the filmmakers back to Brandeis whenever they release new work. 

Although the pandemic has disrupted the filmmaking industry like nothing we’ve seen before, this webinar was a heartening way to see that filmmakers are still pursuing their art and connecting from afar. Attending a live event with foreign filmmakers from my laptop was not something I ever envisioned for my life—but I’ll take it. For all the obstacles COVID-19 has brought, it has also introduced some exciting possibilities.The webinar recording is available on the event website. The Center is also hosting many other exciting events this spring, and the full calendar can be found here.

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