The 24th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival opens in San Francisco this week with the North American premiere of “What Might Have Been,” a riveting drama about a middle-aged German woman whose troubled past catches up to her while she’s on a weekend getaway with her boyfriend in Budapest.
Interestingly, the film’s star Christiane Paul — slated to attend Friday night’s screening at the Castro Theatre to accept the festival’s spotlight acting award — has a few things in common with Astrid, the character she plays. Both have East German backgrounds and both are doctors.
Paul, an accomplished TV, stage and film star who gave up medicine for acting in 2006, is excellent in 2019’s “What Might Have Been,” (“Was gewesen wäre”), directed by producer Florian Koerner von Gustorf in his feature debut and based on a novel by Gregor Sander.
Not only is the movie a rich psychological drama, it tackles politics, too. Astrid finds her romantic weekend with her new love Paul (Ronald Zehrfeld) eerily disrupted when they unexpectedly run into her first love Julius (Sebastian Hülk), who she hasn’t seen in decades. The movie flashes back to their teen romance in East Germany, ultimately revealing how it ended, and how their stances on socialism played a part.
“What Might Have Been” also is beautiful. The performers all have movie-star good looks (Paul is a former model) and Budapest is showcased nicely, too, with gorgeous shots of the Danube River, its picturesque bridges and the art deco Hotel Gellért.
Many offerings in Berlin & Beyond, which is presented by Goethe-Institut San Francisco and billed as “the largest festival of contemporary German cinema in the Americas,” are premieres, including the centerpiece film “The Collini Case” (“Der Fall Collini”) directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner and screening at the Castro on Saturday.
The 2019 legal thriller, debuting on the West Coast, is based on a novel by Ferdinand von Schirach about a savvy young German lawyer (Elyas M’Barek) who comes up against the system in his first courtroom case. He’s appointed to defend an alleged murderer — who stubbornly remains silent — whose victim was high-profile industrialist with a past linked to Nazi Germany. Twists are aplenty, too, as the murdered man also happened to know the young laywer, and was his benefactor.
On Sunday’s closing night at the Castro, actress Alina Serban will appear at a screening of “Gipsy Queen,” in which she plays a single mom who turns to boxing to provide for her children. As well as being a sports story, the film offers a realistic depiction of the Roma community.
Berlin & Beyond’s “Youth 4 German Cinema” programming, curated by select high-school students, screens two movies for free at the Castro on Friday: “All About Me” (“Der Junge muss an die frische Luft”) tells the tumultuous coming-of-age story of popular German comedian and TV host Hape Kerkeling. Based on his best-selling autobiography, it’s directed by Caroline Link.
And director Sarah Winkenstette is slated to attend the West Coast premiere of her film “Too Far Away” (“Zu Weit Weg”), about a bullied 11-year-old boy who bonds over soccer with a new-in-town 12-year-old who’s a refugee from Syria.
The festival, running seven days in The City and East Bay, boasts additional programming, including Kino Now, featuring recent independent and studio films; documentaries; short films; and movies from German-speaking countries Austria and Switzerland.
IF YOU GO
Berlin & Beyond Film Festival
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., Goethe-Institut, 530 Bush St., Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F.; Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
When: Feb. 7-13
Tickets: $9 to $20 per screening; $75 for opening night film and party
What Might Have Been: 6:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at Castro; 4:30 p.m. Feb. 10 in Berkeley
The Collini Case: 7:15 p.m. Feb. 8 at Castro; 6:45 p.m. Feb. 10 in Berkeley
Too Far Away: 9:30 a.m. Feb. 7, Castro
All About Me: Noon Feb. 7 and 11 a.m. Feb. 9, Castro