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Review: Walchensee Forever


- Janna Ji Wonders’ winning film of Thessaloniki Documentary's Newcomers section is an autobiographical family saga spanning four generations of women who grew up and lived on the titular lake

Review: Walchensee Forever

With her first feature-length documentary, Walchensee Forever [+see also:
film profile
, German-American filmmaker Janna Ji Wonders won the Kompass-Perspektive Award at the Berlinale, the Bavarian Film Award and, most recently, the Best Film gong in the Newcomers competition at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (see the news). The film is an (auto)biographical family saga spanning four generations of women connected by the titular Bavarian lake.

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It is very much a picture about women living through different eras, but not because of some ideological agenda. Instead, the Weller family always depended and was centred on women, while men came and went, leaving various influences. The story starts with Janna's grandma Norma, who is 104 near the end of the interviews conducted for the doc. She moved to Walchensee with her mother in 1924, after her sister died due to an epidemic. They opened a cafe-restaurant on the lake, and ever since, the women in the family have been leaving it and coming back to it. But Norma was the one who dutifully ran it the longest.

Even though the old lady manages to provide some insight, even in her twilight years (there is also footage that looks perhaps 15 years old, where she is in much better form), the primary interviewee is Janna's mother, Anna. She was very attached to her sister Frauke, six years younger than her, and a yin to her yang: Anna was shy and observant while Frauke was extrovert and daring. At one point, they pick up a guitar and a dulcimer and travel to the USA and Mexico, wearing traditional Bavarian costumes. After a stint in the Latin American country, where Frauke discovers peyote, they end up in San Francisco. The film does not reveal any time stamps for most of the events, but it is definitely the Summer of Love over there, which leaves a strong impact on both of them. In addition, their Bavarian folk-song act is a hit with US students, and they return to Walchensee with big dreams.

But those dreams soon evaporate: "Men came into our lives," says Anna. Frauke's situation with men is complex, to say the least, and she eventually ends up in a mental hospital – although the exact course of this development remains quite unclear. It is certainly not only the relationships with men that drove her to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Meanwhile, Anna travels to India, becomes a Kirpal Singh student and develops an unorthodox connection with Rainer, a charismatic hippie type in Munich, before finally meeting Janna's father when she returns to San Francisco.

Instead of a more typical kind of documentary storytelling technique that might see different eras overlap and create parallels between the women in various segments of the film, making it engaging but superficial, Wonders opts for depth and analysis. The narrative is fully chronological, and the similarities and differences between the generations are implied and left to the viewer to construct. Each of the interviews contains very intimate questions and honest answers, or a lack thereof in a couple of cases when Anna does not feel comfortable. The social and historical specifics remain in the background, with the director counting on the viewers' general knowledge. This means the film is not easy to process and digest, but what we manage to take from it leaves a very strong, very definite taste. Visually, it consists of a large archive of photographs and video footage that directly follow the words in voice-over, edited smartly but not rapidly. The huge variety of technologies used over the century gives the film a richness in terms of textures and atmospheres, and intermittent images of the Walchensee at different times of day and during different seasons serve as an anchor for the viewer, just as the lake itself did for the women from four generations.

Walchensee Forever is a production by Germany's Flare Film, and Leipzig-based Deckert Distribution has the international rights.

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