Our budding critic filed enthusiastic reviews and attended the closing party, where a local band with the memorable name "Moderbööt" performed in front of slides of lower Manhattan and facetiously insisted between songs that they were "from New York City." Everybody in the audience was in on the joke, but in our cub reporter's final article, the editor removed a pair of crucial quotes, making it seem that the person behind the byline was a gullible sap. To this day, the members of Moderbööt get a good chuckle out of the time they fooled the reporter from the Wiesbadener Kurier -- or so he imagines.
If it isn't clear yet, the cub reporter was me, cutting my teeth on what would be the first of many festivals. We’ve both come a long way since Moderbööt: I have been to a decade’s worth of festivals from New York to Berlin, and exground just celebrated its 25th anniversary at the fully restored Caligari Filmbühne, now one of Germany's most beautiful theaters. I happened to be back in the old country for the occasion and took a closer look at what has changed and what stayed the same -- and what makes a great film festival anywhere.
One look at the program, and it's clear that exground has grown quite a bit -- to a total of 250 films, with 17 world premieres -- and even though the poster shows a mass murderer toting an assault rifle (from Cihan Inan's 180°), there is much less focus on the old staples of splatter gore and late-night weirdness.
My old high school buddy Jörg, a horror buff who joined the festival's volunteer staff years ago, barely sees any of the movies anymore: "I just tend the bar now," he says, pouring me a Hefeweizen. "It's nice to see all the people, and I get free beer."
But that doesn't mean that there's nothing worth seeing - quite the contrary: instead of past favorites like Man Bites Dog, Braindead, and Bad Lieutenant, exground now screens a varied mix of international festival fare. Among this year's selections were critics favorites such as Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, American independents (Alison Anders' Strutter, Nate Meyer’s See Girl Run), documentaries (Roddy Bogawa's inspiring Taken By Storm), German crowd-pleasers (Puppe, Icke & der Dicke) and the Russian comedy sensation Chapiteau Show. A "youth days" sidebar screens films for teenagers, and the annual national focus highlighted movies from Switzerland. The opening film, Rolando Colla's Summer Games, tells a lovely coming-of-age story set on the Italian coast and was Switzerland's entry for the foreign-language Academy Award.
So, has exground gone mainstream while I wasn't paying attention? Not quite: between all the award-winners and critics' favorites, two time-tested directors managed to sneak in some blood, guts, and vampires after all: William Friedkin's ultraviolent Killer Joe and Francis Ford Coppola's 3D horror experiment Twixt, starring Val Kilmer and Elle Fanning. And the short film programs -- favorites with the audience -- included some truly weird and transcendent stuff. I was especially fond of Jan Soldat's wonderfully frank sexual portrait of two aging S&M fetishists, Zucht und Ordnung. On its last night, the festival awards the German Short Film Prize, and the clear winner here was Beige, Sylvie Hohlbaum's appealing and hilarious short concerned with the sartorial choices of the elderly.
As festival director Andrea Wink says: "If we kept on showing the same movies year after year, there wouldn’t be any development. But the entire history of film keeps developing."
Fair enough -- exground clearly isn't the grungy and subversive fest that I wandered into as an unsuspecting freshman in 1991. Like the movie theater it is held at, it has gotten several makeovers, and there are added locations, such as the shiny new theater at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Stiftung. There are long lists of sponsors and media partners, and every screening starts with a sales pitch for bags and shirts.
The movies have gone uptown as well, but exground has kept enough of its original identity: site-specific screenings (A Wall Is A Screen), karaoke nights, art installations, and a talent show where anyone can submit short films keep the offbeat spirit alive. exground's longevity suggests that the festival has found the right balance between the popular and the bizarre to survive in this town better known for its thermal spas. Here’s to another 25 years of shocking and delighting its audience. Cue Moderbööt.