Festival of German Films in Australia, April 2013

April 25, 2013

(This article originally appeared in a slightly different format in the Australian Jewish News on 25 April 2013.)

German films about Jews and Judaism carry a heavy weight of history.  While the many hundreds of American films that feature Jewish characters and themes focus mostly on upper-middle class angst (come on, Woody Allen lovers, admit it), German films deal with big issues.  The lingering impacts of Nazi persecution along with the guilt of later generations and the questions of communal responsibility for Nazi atrocities: these issues continue to engage German film-makers seven decades after the Holocaust.  For every “Go For Zucker” comedy, there are more than fifty Holocaust dramas.

The Goethe Institute’s annual “Festival of German Films” takes its pick of the best recent German films.  And this year the dominant Jewish theme is how German Jews and German Christians make life-long connections.

“My German Friend” is undoubtedly the highlight Jewish film of the festival. Writer/director Jeanine Meerapfel’s parents were German-Jewish refugees living in Argentina when she was born in 1943.  At age 21, she went to Germany to study film, and all of her films reflect the dislocation that she and her family have felt.  “My German Friend” is clearly a semi-autobiographical story – Meeraapfel’s own.  A young Sulamit Löwenstein (Celeste Cid) becomes friends with a neighbouring boy, Friedrich (Max Riemelt), who in turn is the son of a former senior SS officer.

The film charts the course of their relationship over twenty years through two countries and numerous political upheavals. Produced in Spanish and German, it arrives with five recent Argentinean film award nominations.  “My German Friend” has some flaws:  shot on a limited budget, the young actors who play the main characters in early scenes are not strong and some of the director’s pacing is slow.  The necessity to include such a long span of years burdens the film with a great deal of narrative and incident.  But something happens mid-way through “My German Friend”:  as Sulamit and Friedrich grow older and mature, their characters’ responses to the historical events start to live, giving a deep insight into the German-Jewish South American émigré experience that I cannot recall shown so well on film.  A scene towards the end – when Sulamit visits Friedrich in remote prison – is an understated but powerful experience.

Meerapfel has written articulately about her childhood. German Jews and the former Nazis “emigrated to Argentina within a few years of each other [and] came from the same German cultural circles …. It is an irony of history that the German Jews and the German Nazis in Argentina favoured similar places to live, had similar tastes in architecture, and chose similar places to holiday.”

The Australian-German documentary co-production “German Sons” tells a similar story, although without the same level of danger for its characters.  Philippe Mora was born in Paris and emigrated to Australia with his artistic parents (Leipzig-born Georges who fled the Nazis in 1930, and Lithuanian Mirka, who barely escaped deportation to Auschwitz) while very young.  He started making films at an early age, with his second film (“Swastika”, 1973) one of the earliest films to examine the popularity of Hitler.  After many years of successful film-making in Australia and the USA, Mora met Harald Grosskopf, the German son of a Nazi party official, and the two of them decided to make a documentary together, exploring and comparing their family histories and the legacy of the Nazi period.  The result is “German Sons”, a very personal account that will hold special interest for the many fans of the Mora family, who have made such a profound contribution to Australian art, film, acting and restaurants.

Also playing in this year’s Festival are two other films of special interest.  “Cinema Jenin” is a documentary about how German film-maker Marcus Vetter helped to restore and re-open a cinema in Jenin, on the West Bank, working closely with Israeli actor and political activist Juliano Mer-Khamis (who was later assassinated).  “Hotel Lux” is a delightful but biting political satire set in Russia and Germany in the 1930s; it has previously screened in Sydney and Melbourne and this year travels to Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Byron Bay and Newcastle.  The “Audi Festival of German Films” starts in Sydney on 30 April, Melbourne on 1 May, followed by the other locations.

Fiji Reflections

April 25, 2013

My second trip to Fiji, a South Pacific island nation about four hours flying time from Sydney.  It’s a beautiful place, with the largest population (about 870,000, although curiously the “Lonely Planet” guide never mentions this) of any of the South Pacific nations.  I first visited in 1989 and remembered from that trip:

(1) The food – good Indian food, because of the large number of Indian Fijians (“Indo-Fijians”, who comprise about 38% of the population), who were originally brought there by the British colonial powers to work in the sugar cane industry.

(2) The friendliness of the residents – “Bula” (pronounced “boolah”), being the operative word that you are greeted with by Fijians.  It literally means “life” and is the common greeting for “hello” – like the Hawaiian “aloha”.  You could even compare it to the Australian “g’day”, although I feel that “Bula” probably has a more spiritual connection (I hope that I am not simply romanticising Fijian life and culture when I write this).  At the end of each day we compared:  how many “Bulas” did you have today?  My average was six.

(3) The beauty of the place (photos below).  Islands. Reefs.  Clear water.

(4) The weather. Tropical. Warm. Can get steamy and wet in the summer months.  Lots of sun.

(5) Ease of access for us western English-speaking tourists.  Everyone speaks English, and all of the signs are in English (the official languages are Fijian, English and “Fiji Hindi” – whatever that is).

Fiji mountains

Second trip a month ago.  All five factors still operate.  Over the course of five days I had a number of Fijians come up to me and say – very genuinely – “Thank you for visiting our country.”  They really meant it.  Imagine going to France and someone there coming up to you and thanking you for visiting France.  Or here in Australia – surely we probably never thank our many hundreds of thousands of overseas visitors  Not that we don’t appreciate them, we simply don’t want to “bother” them or really consider how valuable their tourist dollars are.  We mostly ignore them.  Unless you are the tourist industry – but how many people in that industry genuinely thanks our visitors?  Precious few or any, I would guess.  In fact, Fiji is the only country in the world (and I have visited 22, at last count) where I have been thanked for visiting.

But there’s a downside:  Fiji is poor, as any trip outside the tourist areas immediately makes apparent.  And the last ten years have not been kind to the country:  the Global Financial Crisis, the collapse of the sugar industry and continuing ethnic (Indian-Fijian) political strife have all damaged the country’s economy.

It’s still beautiful, lovely and friendly, but I felt like it was just hanging on, irrespective of those amazing Gold Coast-style houses and time-share units being built on Denarau Island, not far from Nadi’s international airport.  Just pop over to Nadi to see the enormous difference in wealth.

There’s also a really big cost differential:  my Indian lunch in Nadi cost about $2.40 (Australian/US); it would have been at least ten times that amount at the Denarau hotel we stayed at.

Relaxing on Tivua Island1

View from Tivua Island

Chapel on Denarau Island

The best public art in Sydney you may have missed

April 14, 2013

The world’s best cities are filled with outstanding public art – large scale, durable pieces of art that are commissioned and sit (or stand or hang) prominently in public spaces.  Well, here’s some of the best public art you may have never seen – or perhaps you walked past them for weeks, months or even years without noticing them properly.  I know I did.

These two pieces by Sydney architectural glass designer and artist Marc Grunseit hang in Sydney’s “The Galeries”  – a four-storey shopping complex located at 500 George Street in downtown Sydney (in part under the Citigroup Centre office building) that takes up a significant part of the block bounded by George, Pitt and Park Streets.

The Galeries art shots April2013 007

This is prime real estate, almost sitting on top of Town Hall Station, just about one of the best locations you can get in Australia.  (It also contains one of my favourite Australian bookshops – Books Kinokuniya, but that’s a different discussion.)

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The Galeries Marc Grunseit

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I have been walking under Grunseit’s two great architectural glass designs since they were first installed in October 2000 (including each weekday for the past thirteen months).  So how is it that I only really noticed these great works of art a few weeks ago?  It seems astonishing that I somehow have missed them for so long.

But yet I have.

Part of the reason is that they are located in narrow hallways and positioned quite high, so that the daily pedestrian traffic – so used to negotiating the downtown Sydney crowds and examining the up-market shop windows – may not have looked up to see them.  Another reason is that the two pieces are not easily visible from the street, partly obscured by the Sydney Monorail, which, thankfully is due for closing on 30 June 2013, with total removal by mid-2014.  The pieces are located at the two Pitt Street exits (entrances) to The Galeries.  The best (and in fact the only) views of the works are as you walk out from the shopping complex onto Pitt Street.

These are impressive works, filled with bright colours and deeply Australian in their themes, reminiscent of Aboriginal paintings.  In his website, Marc Grunseit describes them:

The first design [“The Song of the Magpie Dawn”] was inspired by the lyrical calls of the Magpie, heralding the Australian dawn. The colours of the rising sun progress from seashore to desert, presided over by the spirit of the songster. It is very much a companion piece to the larger installation, being at once a map of the land and its spirits. The larger design is of a serpentine landmass surrounded by ocean, simultaneously viewed from various perspectives and levels of magnification, referring to a range of Australian environments populated by surreal fauna.

Grunseit artwork The Galeries Syd far

Grunseit artwork The Galeries Syd close

The larger one is my favourite, and can be interpreted in so many ways.  It’s called “This Land”; according to the artist, it was named after the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land”.  I have found the small plaque (see photo above) describing “Magpie Dawn”, but the plaque for “This Land” unfortunately has long since disappeared or been hidden so well that I have not found it.  What a shame that these two pieces are not given their full due: they are two of the greatest works of architectural glass I have ever seen.  They are good enough to become one of the required “photo op” stops in Sydney, along with the Archibald Fountain  and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.

Postscript on 7 August 2013:

I have heard from the artist Marc Grunseit, who does not appear to be bothered by the lack of awareness that most people have about these two works.  He writes:  “You and many people walk under the work without seeing it is actually a compliment. There is a concept, known in my game as ‘Civic Inattention’. It is reckoned that if the artist’s ego is in proportion, the artwork will not leap out of the architecture waving it’s arms about calling ‘look at me’. The aim is to blend it in so it looks like it should be there. Maybe I succeeded.”

It’s unusual to find an artist who does not want to scream to the heavens “here I am!”, but it seems we have one.  How unique.  But the pieces are still worth looking at, for the scope, the size and the colours, as well as the deeper meaning of the landscapes that they portray.