Throughout my first year of teaching in West Bend, my paychecks always misspelled my name.
Forgiving others for overlooking my surname’s very German second “n” has always been easy—after all, I have more than four decades of practice—but for me that doubled consonant is an unforgettable part of my identity, a family keepsake that, in its small way, enshrines in my mind the sacrifices my ancestors made when they left Germany for Milwaukee. Too much, you say? Very well. Chalk it up to my German Überschwang.
That same exuberance is embedded in the Milwaukee Film Festival’s annual embrace of local customs, so it’s no surprise that its 10th edition, which opened Thursday, toasts the Cream City’s German roots with a new strand focused on German cinema.
The Das Kino division joins Cine Sin Fronteras, now in its third year of presenting stories about the Latinx diaspora, as a permanent festival category dedicated to specific international films. MFF first highlighted Deutschland movies five years ago as part of its now-defunct Passport division, which from 2011 through 2015 showcased a different national cinema each year.
Milwaukee, of course, is the most German of American cities—think beer, brats, sausages, polka—but that cultural heritage stretches equally to Washington County, where over half of all residents claim German ancestry that can often be traced back to the county’s earliest years. By the mid-1800s, new arrivals to West Bend were predominantly German and most business and church activities were conducted in German, a language still taught in area schools.
Corey Petzold, a German teacher at West Bend West High School, plans to catch at least one of the festival’s six Das Kino movies and has encouraged his students to do the same. He says movies made in Germany have a distinct, challenging style that might intrigue Washington County filmgoers.
“German films tend to be a little bit slower in the rising action and they kind of build characters more than our American films tend to do,” Petzold said. “One thing that maybe will appeal to our local demographic is that most of (the Das Kino selections) revolve around World War II, or Jews after the war, a classic theme that some of us are more interested in. People around here really find World War II, the Holocaust, and that survival story, really interesting.”
Let me vouch for “Bye Bye Germany” (12 p.m. Oct. 30, Oriental Theatre), which is set in the aftermath of the Holocaust and explores survivor guilt in unorthodox ways. After all, few other comedies would dare to focus on the Jews who elected to stay in a traumatized Germany—including a charismatic swindler who may or may not have been a Nazi collaborator—or carefully use its period caper elements to show why these survivors see rebellion, opportunism and nationalism as the same thing. It’s a rare crowd-pleaser that also has an intricate, human grasp of history.
Despite its contemporary setting, “Transit” (7:15 p.m. Sunday, Avalon Theater) is by all reports an echo of Nazi-controlled Europe in 1942. Based on Anna Seghers’ novel, the plot involves a refugee fleeing the German troops who gets caught in a bewildering web of bureaucracy while hiding in Marseilles.
Wartime evacuees are also central to the documentary “It Must Schwing!: The Blue Note Story” (3 p.m. Tuesday, Oriental Theatre), which tells the story of two Jews from Berlin who started a jazz music label in New York City and found common ground with black musicians suffering discrimination at the hands of their fellow citizens.
Valeska Grisebach’s slow-burning “Western” (3:45 p.m. Thursday, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill), which I’ve seen, concerns German construction workers building a hydroelectric plant in the Bulgarian frontier hills. Like American Westerns, though, it’s much more interested in the masculine interplay between the invading laborers and the suspicious locals, who remember how Germany used Bulgaria as a base during World War II. Grisebach’s primary subject is the male psyche, and to my Midwestern eyes her observations sting with universal truth.
Some of the Das Kino films look beyond the war to describe other aspects of German history and culture, including “In the Aisles” (12:30 p.m. today, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill), a workplace romance set inside a German superstore, and “3 Days in Quiberon” (3:45 p.m. today, Oriental Theatre), a black-and-white biopic about Romy Schneider, one of Germany’s most celebrated actresses.
Germans also revel in their beer—in fact, one of the first industries in West Bend was a brewery—and the Milwaukee Film Festival has plenty on tap.
Slotted inside the Film Feast division, the nonfiction “Brewmaster” (12:30 p.m. today, Avalon Theater) chronicles the recent ascendancy of the craft beer industry. One of its subjects is a Milwaukee-based educator striving to earn Master Cicerone certification, which involves passing a two-day exam that requires mastery of all technical and aesthetic aspects of, um, beer. After today’s screening, viewers are invited to Burnhearts Bar for a tasting event featuring brewed concoctions from the area’s top artisans.
Sprecher Brewery will sponsor an event called Short Pours with Short Films that’s paired with MFF’s “Surprise, Surprise” program (3:45 p.m. Oct. 27, Avalon Theater), a collection of seven twisty short films. Enjoy complimentary beers, seasonals, ciders and sodas at Sprecher Walker’s Point Tap Room after showing a valid ticket stub.
“Brewmaster” screens again 6:45 p.m. Tuesday. Each Das Kino film will play at least twice during the festival, which runs through Nov. 1.
The full lineup plus ticket and venue information are online at mkefilm.org.