Maybe it’s a stretch, but I’d call German director Michael Hofmann’s three features, which are screening in a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, a kind of Mundane, as opposed to Divine, Comedy. Each poses a search for redemption via pursuit of an idealized, or demonized, woman through an obstacle course of earthly woes. Unlike Dante’s original, though, this Comedy favors the point of view of the pursued woman: it’s Beatrice’s version of desire, and set firmly in the here and now.
Hofmann begins agreeably enough with a genial Purgatory in Der Strand von Trouville|Trouville Beach (1998). Lukas (Boris Aljinovic), a piano teacher who resembles Mozart, spots Nathalie (Karina Krawczyk) at a traffic light and after a one-night stand decides she’s the one. Finding her poses a problem, but he manages to track her down and pass the time until she returns from abroad by working in a shopping mall and socializing with some of the oddball women who also work there. One, Alice (Antje Westermann), proves a serious rival to his elusive beloved. Will he come down to earth and admit it? Although poignant, funny, and symbolically ambitious, this Purgatory seems like a day on the beach.
Nothing in Trouville prepared me for the hellish brutality and accomplished filmmaking of Sophiiiie! (2002). The title heroine (Katharina Schüttler) has an appointment on Monday to have an abortion. In the meantime, she goes nuts, blasting off on her bland boyfriend’s motorcycle and popping into the worst places in Hamburg for a vulnerable young woman. An Accused-like sequence in C&W bar, shot in remorseless long takes, makes for especially difficult viewing, and it gets only worse as Sophie pushes her luck and self-destructiveness. A few souls in this long night express kindness and humanity: an uptight, but kindly Palestinian taxi driver; a naïve young man working in a movie theater. Most are demonic and predatory, not least of all the guilt-haunted Sophie herself, and by the end even her ironic, desperate courage doesn’t seem enough.
Hofmann pitches his Paradise in Eden (2006); it’s not the waitress of the title, however, but the cuisine cooked up by Gregor (Josef Ostendorf), an obese chef with a specialty bistro whose skills ascend to the orgasmic when Eden becomes his muse. A fine arrangement, except that Eden is married to a loser with low self-esteem who grows jealous of her platonic and gastronomic relationship with the chef. The food-as-sex scenario has been played before in films ranging from Tampopo to Como agua para chocolate|Like Water for Chocolate, but at its best Eden illuminates that fleeting space between people where, regardless of the appetite indulged, Paradise can still be found.