Friday, April 06, 2012

Disappearing Act IV: The System

Communism ripped apart scores of German families. Perhaps the Hillers were one of them. Aimless twentysomething Mike Hiller cannot say, because his mother refuses to speak of his late father’s shadowy past. The murky ambiguity of the former East German elites’ post-reunification experiences are explored in Marc Bauder’s intriguing thriller The System (trailer here), the opening film of Disappearing Act IV, the annual New York showcase of European films unjustly overlooked after their well received festival runs, co-presented by the Czech Center, the Romanian Cultural Institute, and the Group of European Cultural Institutes.

Mike Hiller suspects his father’s death was no ferry accident and his mother’s silence only stokes his resentment. Still, as a former low level Stasi clerical worker, she has her reasons for reticence. She was married to Rolf Hiller, a hotshot confidential operative charged with acquiring hard currency for the state through dodgy international transactions. Ironically, he would have been one of the few East Germans well positioned to prosper after the fall of the Wall, just like his ex-partner, wheeler-dealer Konrad Böhm. When through the machinations of fate Böhm interrupts Hiller and his punk buddy burglarizing his home, he decides to take the young underachiever under his wing, out of respect for his late father. Or perhaps he is just playing Hiller.

Quickly Hiller is immersed in the world of Russian pipelines, kickbacks, and blackmail. Yet, it is clear East Germany’s corrosive Communist past eats away at the characters in the present, like a lingering toxin. Intelligently written by Dörte Franke (who will take Q&A with Bauder after the screening) and Khyana El Bitar, System’s storyline is often murky and morally ambiguous, but never overly complicated in the obscure Le Carré tradition. Frankly, it critiques crony capitalism as much as it does Soviet era socialism, explicitly linking the two.

Jacob Matschenz (outstanding in the inter-connected Dreileben trilogy) is certainly convincingly petulant and rebellious as Hiller, sometimes at the risk of overdoing the Holden Caulfieldisms. However, Bernhard Schütz is totally riveting as the manipulative and mercurial Böhm. Watching him spar and toy with Matschenz’s Hiller is jolly good cynical entertainment. Yet, there is an ethical center to the film represented by Jenny Schily, quite compelling as Hiller’s widowed mother, always a victim of circumstances beyond her control.

It is rather bizarre this will be The System’s premiere American screening, because it is the sort of smart, sophisticated political thriller that ought to have been a cinch for mucho festival play. Of course, Disappearing Act is all about catching up with such inexplicably neglected films. Enthusiastically recommended, The System will be the only paid admission during Acts IV when it opens the festival-showcase this coming Wednesday (4/11) at the IFC Center. All other selections are presented free of charge, including Mila Turajlic’s Cinema Komunisto, a fascinating documentary survey of Yugoslavian cinema under Tito, screening at Bohemia National Hall this coming Thursday (4/12).