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Reality pingpong

Unspectacular and all the more terrifying for it. Matthias Luthardt's film "Pingpong" is the latest addition to the Nouvelle Vague Allemande. By Hanns-Georg Rodek

Christian Petzold comes from Hilden, Valeska Grisebach from Bremen. Henner Winckler hails from Gießen, Christoph Hochhäusler from Munich. Angela Schanelec was born in Aalen, Benjamin Heisenberg in Tübingen. Ulrich Köhler's cradle was in Marburg an der Lahn, Thomas Arslan's in Braunschweig. And the latest addition to the "Berlin School" seems to be Matthias Luthardt from the Dutch city of Leiden, with his debut film, "Pingpong."

Uniting the members of this school is the fact that they have all – Luthardt, born 1972, the youngest; Petzold, born 1960, the eldest – arrived in Berlin, as has the reality of the new, hard-seats republic. And reality is the key to the Berlin School, although it's not the shaky hand-held camera reality captured on the street. This distinguishes them from Dogma vitalism; puts them miles away from the commercial auteur cinema of X filme and light-years apart from Bernd Eichinger's populism.

Mother (Marion Mitterhammer) and visiting cousin (Sebastian Urzendowsky) All photos from "Pingpong" courtesy of medialuna entertainment

What they share is a "spirit of setting," be it the Berlin Mitte of Petzold's "Ghosts" (see our feature "Berlin's ghosts") or the Brandenburg village in Grisebach's "Longing" (see our Berlinale diary) or the vegetation-bedecked bungalow with garden, pingpong table and swimming pool from which "Pingpong" never escapes.

It's a hermetically sealed room containing three people - the father Stefan (Falk Rockstroh), who vanishes on a business trip, the failed-musician mother Anna (Marion Mitterhammer) and the 16-year-old son Robert (Clemens Berg), who wants to take piano lessons. Into this scene storms Robert's coeval cousin Paul (Sebastian Urzendowsky), intent on staying a while. And the family can hardly refuse him because his father has just hanged himself.

Son Robert (Clemens Berg)

We recognize the motivation of this uninvited guest, who disturbs an apparently model family, from Pasolini's "Teorema." The Italian film from 1968 was awash with religious philosophy and sexual liberation theses; Luthardt's ambitions two decades later are a little more modest. For him, as for much of the Berlin School, it's "only" about the most basic social unit, the family, and the centrifugal forces that tear away at it.

Sebastian Urzendowsky, like Terence Stamp in "Teorema", is a pretty-boy rogue, a catalyst, but he's more involuntary tool than agent provocateur. In the absence of the father, an unstable triangle develops. Mother and son see the visitor as a potential ally in their power games and try to coax the emotionally muddled youngster onto their side.

And so Luthardt plays out the duels – as in ping-pong, where the opponents face off across the table: father against mother, mother against son, son against cousin, cousin against mother - and finally, cousin against father. One shot, which has Paul sitting at the edge of the swimming pool at night staring into the sky, says it all: in the house, we hear the gunfire from Robert's Playstation. This is war and the old swimming pool that Paul has been repairing in exchange for the hospitality is about to become a grave.

Father (Falk Rockstroh)

A scene like this could be lurid or accusatory, but nothing could be more foreign to Luthardt or to the Berlin School for that matter, whose defining feature is the casualness with which even highly dramatic moments are presented. As with the attempted suicide in Grisebach's film "Longing", which is followed by happily prattling children, or the woman who flees her family in Köhler's "Windows on Monday", but not before tramping kilometres across the countryside. And the discharging of emotion in "Pingpong," which in Hollywood would have resulted in a shootout and in Chabrol a poisoning, brings in Luthardt's film a single victim, unspectacular and all the more terrifying for it.

If you have to pigeon-hole the Berlin School, then it is best placed alongside France's second New Wave, with the likes of Jean Eustache, Philippe Garrel, Maurice Pialat. It shares their conviction that societal change is imperative, but also shares their experience of the collapse of political utopias. They seek signs of change, but not on macro scale, but within the microcosm of family, friends or co-workers.

The students of the Berlin School are not polemicists but observers, and they don't put reality under the microscope in order to reproduce it, or subject it to irony or psychotherapy, but simply to seal it off and sift it until it has reached its purest form. Reduction serves as sieve: very little is said, there are no expressive gestures, no wild editing. The Berliners avoid the manipulative possibilities of their tools. Like ethnologists, they try to be invisible, so as not to influence the results of their research. Because the truth behind the everyday will show its face eventually, if you wait long enough in the ambush.

Cousin Paul in the pool

Or, as Angela Schanelec states about her film, "Passing Summer": "I asked myself what happens when you try to depict normality." But a cinematic culture that declares abnormality to be the norm, leaves only niches for a view such as hers. This is why the Berlin School is practically unknown even in its own country, although in France, for example, it is already being prized as the "Nouvelle Vague Allemande", in Germany the 120,000 tickets sold for Petzold's "The State I'm In" was its greatest success to date.

Yet the Berliners are cultivating their other way of seeing, although they are not more than flirting with the label and they are certainly not penning any group manifestos like the filmmakers of Oberhausen. Instead they have a pocket-sized magazine, "Revolver", published by Christophe Hochhäusler und Benjamin Heisenberg, a local drinking hole where they meet to talk, a number of fixed teams of directors and camera men and a working exchange with the Austrian production company "coop 99" run by a group of Michael Haneke followers. And new arrivals are constantly appearing on the scene, who although they might not belong to the group as such, are not afraid to declare their influences: Maren Ade ("The Forest for the Trees"), Sylke Enders ("Kroko"), Maria Speth ("Days Between"), Sören Voigt ("Identity Kills").

Matthias Luthardt, welcome to the club no one wants to belongs to!


This article originally appeared in Die Welt on 15 November, 2006.

Hanns-Georg Rodek is a film critic for Die Welt.

Translation: Toby Axelrod - let's talk european