The bureaucratic bungle heard 'round the world

Documentary about the Berlin Wall and a comedy about a German Sumo kick off Goethe film series

In Stanley Kubrick's pitch-black 1964 comedy Dr. Strangelove, one lunatic Army officer's dementia and fear of decreased sexual potency begins America's unstoppable journey toward nuclear war. Kubrick's nasty, uproarious satire of an intractable bureaucracy that, once its course is set cannot stop world war, bears a curious resemblance to a 1999 German documentary playing in the Goethe-Institut's annual Recent Films From Germany series.

The documentary When the Wall Came Tumbling Down — 50 Hours That Changed the World details a similarly absurd snowball effect, only one that ends in freedom, not mass destruction.

It all begins when an East German party representative, Gunter Schabowski, commits a history-altering blunder and accidentally leaks news at an international press conference that his party is considering unrestricted travel for East Germans. The media begins a feeding frenzy, announcing the collapse of the Berlin Wall while the East German bureaucracy goes into frantic overdrive, trying to decide how to correct Schabowski's gaffe without looking foolish.

The responses of higher-ups in the government and military are often hilariously candid — rivaling the hysterically clashing egos and chest-thumping braggadocio of Dr. Strangelove's military men and world leaders. An East German Chief of Passport Control is astoundingly honest, wondering, after hearing news of crowds amassing at the Berlin Wall and demanding passage to the West, "What deranged bullshit is going on?"

Deputy Soviet Ambassador to East Germany Igor Maximychev expresses similar chin-dropped bewilderment upon hearing of Schabowski's epic screw-up. He recalls, "My opinion was — putting it indelicately — this government has lost its marbles."

When the Wall Came Tumbling Down begins rather dryly, with its parade of talking heads, largely male, exceedingly officious and often ludicrously superimposed over backdrops of monuments or office buildings to give the film an unconsciously comical, manufactured quality. The filmmakers Hans-Hermann Hertle and Gunther Scholz are in super-serious, journalistic mode as they work to magnify the drama of the unfolding events that led to the November 1989 destruction of the ugliest symbol of the Cold War.

But When the Wall is often most enjoyable as a Kafka-meets-Kubrick farce of how the complicated checks and balances of bureaucracy can be rendered chaos by one small, very human, innocently stated screw-up. Major witnesses to the fall, from Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Tom Brokaw, offer their personal perspectives on events, expressing with uncommon candor their memories of the elation and nervousness that accompanied a case of epic fumbling escalating into tumultuous freedom.

The high seriousness of Hertle and Scholz's approach is countered with the lighter side of new German cinema in the second film in the Recent Films From Germany series, Sumo Bruno — The Story of a Big Man's Dream, a lightweight tale of a heavyweight. This likeable dramady, directed by Lenard Fritz Karwinkel, involves the depressed, housebound, unemployed 420-pound Bruno (Hakan Orbeyi), who finds his calling, a sense of self-worth and a babe named Anna (Julia Richter) in the new craze of Sumo wrestling.

Inspired by true events, this absurdity-fringed tale of a backwater Riesa man who trains to compete at the Sumo Wrestling Amateur World Championship has all the earmarks of a Full Monty-style crowd pleaser. But Sumo Bruno's nontraditional ending and loaded political message of gentle-hearted determination winning out over sinewy thuggish might often exceeds the limitations of that feel-good genre to produce a populist charmer.


Recent Films from Germany at the Goethe-Institut Atlanta presents the following screenings: When the Wall Came Tumbling Down — 50 Hours that Changed the World Oct. 3; Sumo Bruno — The Story of a Big Man's Dream Oct. 10; Der Schrei des Schmetterlings (The Cry of the Butterfly) Oct. 17; Aimee & Jaguar Oct. 24; Fussball ist unser Leben (Soccer Rules) Oct. 31. Movies are in German with English subtitles. All screenings are at 7:30 p.m. $4, $3 for students/seniors, free for Friends of Goethe members. 404-892-2388. www.goethe.de/uk/atl/.??