Thursday, February 08, 2018

Berlin & Beyond ’18: That Trip We Took with Dad

Ceauşescu was a brutal dictator, but he really did make a public speech on August 21, 1968 condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. It was designed to establish his independence from Moscow and garner good PR, both at home and abroad. The speech was certainly a success in terms of image, but it left Romanians traveling as tourists within the Eastern Bloc in rather awkward positions. This is especially true of the German-Romanian Reinholtz family in screenwriter-director Anca Miruna Lazarescu’s semi-autobiographical That Trip We Took with Dad (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Berlin & Beyond in San Francisco.

Medically trained Mihai Reinholtz has not driven his father William and irresponsible younger brother Emil all the way to East Germany to see the sights. He has secretly arranged for his father to have life-saving surgery in a Dresden clinic—the only place where such treatment is available in the Soviet Bloc. Unfortunately, they headed west just as the East German tanks started heading east. When the columns roll into Wenceslas Square, East Germany puts all Warsaw Pact tourists on lock-down, jeopardizing their appointment.

On the plus side, Mihai meets Ulrike von Syberg, a well-heeled West German leftwing activist, who had come to the GDR to study Marxism (but to his dismay). Ironically, he will have an opportunity to continue the relationship when the Romanian embassy arranges safe passage home through West Germany. Cantankerous old William will most likely be able to receive his treatment there, as well. However, if Mihai permanently defects, it will make life a living Hell for his father and brother, should they return without him.

The Romanian-born, German-based Lazarescu (who also helmed the excellent short film, Silent River) absolutely skewers the radical politics of von Syberg and her clueless fellow New Left activists. Frankly, they are not just naïve morons. They are willfully ignorant to some extent, which is why the presence of the German-speaking, truth-telling Reinholtzes is so awkward for them.

Trip is not so sentimentally informed by the hard day-to-day choices families living under socialism had to make all the time, just to survive. Lazarescu also gives us the emotional grounding and context to understand why some obviously ill-fated decisions get made despite the inevitable consequences. Nothing is easy for the Reinholtzes, but it could be worse. They could be Czechoslovakian.

Alexandru Margineanu is appropriately earnest and frazzled as poor Mihai, while Susanne Bormann gives some depth to the formerly-shallow von Syberg, so to speak. However, Razvan Enciu is a standout, convincingly taking Brother Emil on the widest, most dramatic character development arc, going from an innocent rebel to a broken young man, old beyond his years.

Trip looks back on the Communist era with wistful sadness for those who survived under it, but it also has caustic contempt for those who just didn’t get it at the time. Essentially, it starts out as a very personal family story, but it subtly evolves into something more epic. Very highly recommended, That Trip We Took with Dad screens this Saturday (2/10) during Berlin & Beyond 2018 in San Francisco.