Visiting professor Thalheim screens his film ‘Westwind’
By Varun Bhuchar, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, April 23, 2012
German filmmaker Robert Thalheim, who screened his latest film “Westwind” (2011) in Loew Auditorium on Friday, is a man of many talents. He’s an acclaimed film director, a distinguished film historian and he is a visiting professor in the College’s German studies department this term.
Thalheim was born in Berlin in 1974 but graduated from high school in Indiana before moving back to Germany. After completing his education, he published a book on Polish film history and directed a few short films before hitting it big with his first feature-length movie “Netto” (2005), followed by “And Along Come Tourists” (2007). He brought the latter film to Dartmouth two years ago, and German professor Gert Germunden was thoroughly impressed, Thalheim said.
“I was here to show my movie ‘And Along Come Tourists’ on campus, and [Germunden] introduced me to the possibility to come here as a professor,” Thalheim said. “I liked the campus very much and thought it would be a great opportunity to teach abroad.”
This term, Thalheim is teaching “Dokumentarischer Stil im deutschen Spielfilm,” a media seminar that details how German films incorporate techniques and styles used in documentaries.
“I’m a filmmaker, and I’m not used to teaching at all,” Thalheim said. “So I set up the course more with a bunch of movies [that] I love myself or have influenced me and my work.”
“Westwind” is the story of twin East German girls — Doreen and Isabel, played by Friederike Becht and Luise Heyer — who are sent to Hungary to train for an upcoming rowing competition. In Hungary, Doreen falls in love with a West German man played by Franz Dinda, which threatens not only the girls’ rowing career, but also their relationship.
“Westwind” was a unique endeavor for Thalheim as it was the first film he directed for which he had not written the screenplay. The film is based on a true story and was co-written and produced by Susann Schimk, one of the twins who served as the basis for the film.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking having her there,” Thalheim said of Schimk’s presence in a question and answer session following the screening. “There was this pressure to get everything right,”
Despite the film not relying on a story he had written, Thalheim was extremely familiar with the material, he said. Thalheim remembered growing up in West Berlin during the Cold War as a sort of surreal experience.
“It was always strange,” he said. “The wall was a few hundred meters behind the house of my parents, and we were used to this situation, living in a divided city.”
Strangely, the film’s romance also mirrors that of Thalheim and his wife because unlike Thalheim, she was born and raised in East Germany.
“My wife, she comes from the east part of Berlin,” he said. “We a lot of times wonder what would have happened if there had not been a wall, if the wall had not come down.”
Although it starts off slow, “Westwind” grows and blossoms into a beautiful portrait of love and family. While there are no documentary characteristics in the film, Thalheim proves his versatility as a director by coaxing powerful performances out of his leads, particularly from Heyer as the spurned sister. Her pain at having to choose between her country and her twin is particularly compelling and heartbreaking.
Of course, I shouldn’t gloss over Becht’s turn as a lovestruck teenager, nor should I ignore the chemistry of the two sisters. Despite not looking at all alike, the two girls get along swimmingly enough to be sisters. Special plaudits should go to rowing supervisor Ronny, played by Albrecht Schuch, who served as the comic relief for the film, primarily with his nonsensical campfire songs.
The most impressive part of the film is most certainly its aesthetics. I’ve never seen Hungary portrayed on film before, but it looks absolutely breathtaking. The lake, where much of the film is set, is shot beautifully, and the water looked as blue as if it were in the Caribbean.
My personal favorite aesthetic choice in the film was the soundtrack, which featured a plethora of music from the 1980s. The use of Depeche Mode over the opening credits was a pleasant throwback to an era I fondly wished I had experienced. All in all “Westwind” is a great German film production, and it was a great opportunity for students in Thalheim’s class, which he describes to be more focused on filmmaking than academic German studies, to see their professor’s own feature film.