"Mostly Martha", a film by Sandra Nettelbeck and set in a Hamburg luxury restaurant, has received its world premiere at the Locarno film festival in canton Ticino. Its mood is melancholic and conciliatory.
There was a time in the 1970s and 80s when German films were heavy with political meaning, featured earnest and despairing characters, and tended towards preaching.
Throughout the 1990s, German film-makers seemed to turn away from what had become a cliché. They made comedies, and the social and political problems associated with the nation's re-unification process hardly ever featured in their films - surprising given the previous generation of film-makers.
"Mostly Martha", which received its world premiere in Locarno on Monday, falls well within the newer - some have called it escapist - stream of German filmmaking. But Nettelbeck, who is 35, has still created a very different kind of film, one that touches the hearts of its audience with
intelligence and charm.
Its main character Martha, superbly played by Martina Gedeck, is a chef in her mid-thirties in a Hamburg luxury restaurant. She is only happy when she can create dishes in the restaurant's kitchen; or better still - because she doesn't need to communicate with anyone - in her own kitchen at home where she experiments.
But two characters step into Martha's world, where culinary rhymes with solitary. When Martha's sister and single mother die in an accident, Martha looks after her eight-year-old niece, Lina, who hesitatingly adopts her as a substitute mother, and her apartment as a new home. Meanwhile, over at the restaurant, a new Italian chef, Mario, raises moods as well as sound levels with his charm and wit.
Nettelbeck, who said in interviews that her film is about the pursuit of happiness, acknowledges that "Mostly Martha" is more in the French than German tradition of comedies. There is much melancholy at play, and when the characters find relief from their worries and begin to mend their own weaknesses, the mood is one of smiles rather than laughter.
"Mostly Martha" also breaks new ground in being the first German "food" film. The creative process of cooking is delivered in delicious detail. The theme also features in many conversations, allowing the film's characters to avoid the more difficult issues that weigh on them.
The kitchen scenes were all created initially by professionals, and then re-created by the actors. As a result, "Mostly Martha" is an homage to the detail and perfection that goes into cooking and servicing in a good restaurant.
The film's makers have been less scrupulous with the details of the script, which lacks consistency at some crucial turns. Spectators are made to believe, for instance, that newcomer Mario, who has an eye on Martha, hasn't been told by any of the other staff about the tragic reason behind Martha's stubborn grumpiness at the beginning of their working relationship.
by Markus Haefliger