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A movie a day for 60 years: cinema sustains a Berlin love

It's a love that was born in a cinema in 1950s Cold War Berlin and that has been nourished for over six decades by taking in at least a movie a day together.

A movie a day for 60 years: cinema sustains a Berlin love
Erika and Ulrich Gregor at a movie theatre in Berlin. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP
At this week's Berlin film festival, Erika and Ulrich Gregor, now in their 80s, are absolute fixtures. Year after year, they can be spotted gingerly making their way, arm in arm, from theatre to theatre to catch as many screenings each day as they can.
 
“We've watched thousands and thousands of films together,” Ulrich, 85, told AFP in an interview at the Arsenal cinema they helped found. “We're curious and we want to be on the cutting edge, so to speak. So we watch five movies a day (at a festival), sometimes even six. And when we're not watching movies, we're talking about them.”
 
It's that kind of shared passion that the Gregors say has kept their relationship thriving after nearly 60 years of marriage. The pair met as students at West Berlin's Free University in 1957, when Ulrich was hosting a film evening.
 
“It was 'People on Sunday',” a 1930 German silent film, “and there was one woman who had very strong views,” he said.
 
“Everybody loved the movie but I thought it was sexist and said so,” recalled Erika, 83. “There was a stormy debate but I wouldn't back down. When it was over I walked out and the moderator (Ulrich) ran after me and said 'Please come next
time' and promised to show a film that was more humanistic. And he did, it was terrific.”
 
'Polish films and vodka'
 
She was immediately taken with Ulrich, who stands two heads taller than his petite wife.
 
“I thought he was the cleverest of all of them. And I think cleverness is something wonderful,” Erika said, adding: “Especially for men, who in general are not very smart.”
 
She ended up joining the film club's board.
 
Ulrich returned from the Cannes festival one year raving about Polish directors such as Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk. Erika suggested they start showcasing cinema from behind the Iron Curtain — a controversial move with capitalist West Berlin on the front lines of geopolitical tensions.
 
“We hopped on a Vespa and rode to the Polish military mission in East Berlin and rang the bell,” she said. “We said 'hello, we're students and we'd like to show some Polish films'. They were quite surprised and offered us vodka. But they finally agreed and said we could come back and pick up the films.”
 
Ulrich said that because of “strong anti-communist prejudices” they had to fight hostile administrators to show Eastern European films, but Erika's more impulsive style and his diplomatic skills “complement each other in a really special way”.
 
“Together no one can beat us because we're always stronger.”
 
Erika and Ulrich Gregor. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP
Erika and Ulrich Gregor have seen at least one film together every day for 60 years. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP
 
 Eventually, children came too
 
The Gregors married in 1960 — a year before the Berlin Wall went up — and soon started a family. But it didn't stop their nearly obsessive moviegoing.
 
“It wasn't easy because we had two children. We were lucky because they could have hated the cinema — it took their parents away from them. But the kids got used to it and we raised them that way,” he said. 
 
“It was a different time, when I see how mothers parent today,” Erika said. “When I needed to go to the cinema I told them 'I trust you so be good and Mama will be home again in a few hours'. Eventually we started taking them with us to the movies.”
 
That meant bringing the children to film festivals as well: Venice, Locarno, Moscow and the biggest of all, Cannes, which they still attend every year.
 
 'What's love?'
 
The Gregors collaborated on writing about film history in books and articles, founded an arthouse cinema and ran a section of the Berlin film festival showcasing avant-garde movies that is still going strong. They were early champions of filmmakers such as Wong Kar-wai, Theo Angelopoulos, Aki Kaurismaki and Belgium's two-time Cannes winners Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
 
“Everything we did ended up being a shared project — you couldn't draw a dividing line between my work and hers,” Ulrich said.   
 
For all their love of cinema — and each other — both say that it's a difficult emotion to capture on film.
 
“What's love? It's respect, it's affection, it's trust. But the love stories we love on screen are all tragic,” Erika said, citing Michael Haneke's “Amour”, “The Cry” by Michelangelo Antonioni and Yasujiro Ozu's “Tokyo Story” among their favourites.
 
Ulrich said as much as they both enjoy a satisfying ending, there's still nothing quite like the promise held in the start of a film.
 
“When the cinema goes dark and an image appears, it's a primal feeling that never fades. You're electrified every time.”
 
By AFP's Deborah Cole

WOMEN

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)

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