BERLIN, Feb 11, (Agencies): “The Dinner”, a thriller about America’s festering divisions and “original sin” starring Richard Gere and Steve Coogan, tackled Trump-era tensions Friday at the Berlin Film Festival.
The movie by Israeli-American filmmaker Oren Moverman tells the story of two brothers and their wives whose children have committed a horrific racially charged crime.
Based on Dutch author Herman Koch’s international bestseller, the film “The Dinner” moves the action to the United States, where Gere plays an ambitious lawmaker with a young power-hungry wife (British-American actress Rebecca Hall).
Fellow Briton Coogan takes the part of his brother Paul, who in the book is a history teacher driven mad by the horrors of World War II.
In the movie, he is a man obsessed with the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the US Civil War seen as the turning point for the Union victory over the Confederates.
Moverman, best known for writing the innovative Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” and the Beach Boys story “Love and Mercy”, said both the setting and themes resonated more strongly now given the toxic political mood in the United States.
“We shot the movie last February, so it was before the unimaginable happened,” he said, referring to President Donald Trump’s election.
Moverman said Gettysburg embodied the “original sin” of slavery and national division — “everything that has happened to the United States since and is coming to the surface these days more and more”.
“But also I decided to put the brothers there at a place where brother turned against brother,” he added.
The film however is largely set at an absurdly expensive and pompous restaurant, where dishes such as “young winter roots on pumpernickel soil” are served without irony. The brothers and their wives meet on this neutral ground to discuss what to do about their children’s crime, which is only slowly revealed as the drama is laid out in courses, beginning with an “obscenely” expensive pink champagne aperitif and ending with a comically precious cheese selection.
But Gere is constantly interrupted to check with his African-American assistant on progress winning votes for a bill he has sponsored to expand Obamacare to better cover psychiatric treatment that he sees as crucial to his run for state governor.
Back at the table, unresolved national history and hidden family secrets build to a terrifying climax involving Gere’s adopted black son Paul and his wife (Laura Linney).
At a press conference ahead of the film’s red-carpet premiere, the cast and crew were peppered with questions about Trump, with Coogan commenting acidly that although his character suffered from mental illness, “compared with the president of the United States I think it looks like a mild headache”.
Gere railed against Trump’s travel ban targeting refugees and seven Muslim-majority nations, currently thwarted by US courts, calling the equating of these people with “terrorists” his “biggest crime” since taking office last month.
“Unfortunately we have leaders that stimulate fear and that fear causes us to do really terrible things,” he said.
“I think that is part of what we are talking about in the film.”
“The Dinner” is one of 18 films vying for the festival’s Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded Feb 18.
You may have set aside those cliches about the German sense of humor after the wondrous “Toni Erdmann,” but get ready to dust them off for Sam Garbarski’s sincere but stilted “Bye Bye Germany.” This Holocaust-survivor dramedy accesses an untrafficked corner of post-war history: that of those Jewish people who, having survived the camps, elected to stay in broken, battle-scarred Germany. Yet, the comedy and drama cancel each other out rather than collide in the energetic, provocative way that typifies the best of this tricky category; the result is curiously unmoving.
An end title tells us that 4,000 such people did exist, and strangely adds, “None of them could ever tell their children why they did it.” “Bye Bye Germany,” based mostly on co-screenwriter Michel Bergmann’s debut novel “The Traveling Salesmen,” inspired by his own family history, attempts to account for the phenomenon, but the reasoning proffered is hardly revelatory. Those who stayed, represented here by Moritz Bleibtreu’s David Bermann, did so partly out of defiance, partly out of opportunism, and partly out of attachment to a country that they and their murdered families had called home, sometimes for generations.
Those who left, often for the promise of a new life in America, did so for equally understandable reasons, noble and ignoble. This is a fine, evenhanded assessment — perhaps the only assessment — for this modestly engaging story to have, but should memorializing the Holocaust really be this reductive? There’s a storybook complacency to Garbarski’s filmmaking (indeed the literal translation of the German title is “Once Upon a Time in Germany”) that gives us the impression that all this is snow-globe history, put away behind glass on a shelf somewhere.
David (Bleibtreu), with a neatly trimmed mustache, cuts a fastidious figure as he smokes a cigarette through a holder amid the wreckage of 1946 Frankfurt — featuring devastation that’s just a little too picturesquely dressed for the camera. David is in a camp for displaced persons, many of whom are fellow Jews, a small gang of whom he silkily recruits to his genially shady new business venture. This involves selling linens (his family business before the war) at inflated prices, but since the victims of the scam are Germans, there’s no real sense that David and company are doing anything wrong.