Plenty of film festivals celebrate independent movies, but few live the indie ethos like the Oldenburg festival. Every year, the northern German event faces the same challenges — attracting stars, finding locations, drawing media attention — as most indie productions. And like independent films, Oldenburg is always chronically short of funds.

But every year, in the best indie tradition, Oldenburg manages to find a way.

In 2001, stymied by the lack of German indie movies, or even a real German indie film tradition, Oldenburg decided to create its own. The festival backed 99euro Films, a short-film omnibus project of 12 five-minute movies — each shot on a mini-DV camera on a €99 ($105) budget — to prove, as the promo blurb put it, “that German films can also be wild, new, modern, funny, political and entertaining … and that young German filmmakers come together, inspire exciting young actors to have an idea and simply film it.” Oldenburg repeated the experiment in 2003 with 99euro Films 2.

The first batch of German indie directors included Nicolette Krebitz, whose 2016’s Wild premiered in Sundance and who was in competition at the Berlin Film Festival this year with AEIOU: A Quick Alphabet of Love; Matthias Glasner, who followed with the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival jury prize winner The Free Will; and Rolf Peter Kahl, whose latest, When Susan Sontag Sat in the Audience, a dramatic re-creation of the “dialogue on women’s liberation” debate held in 1966 in New York’s Town Hall between Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Jacqueline Ceballos and Diana Trilling, just reached German theaters.

In 2005, when Oldenburg needed a location for premieres, festival director Torsten Neumann approached the warden of the city’s high-security prison, the JVA. The result was “Knastkino” (Prison Cinema), now an Oldenburg tradition, where the fest holds annual galas for guests and inmates who sit side by side. The invited guests go through the prison’s full security check to be allowed in. And the prisoners are on their best behavior. The event has come off without a single incident in more than 15 years.

Even in 2020, when the COVID pandemic had shut down public events worldwide and the festival was forced to go online-only, Oldenburg found a way. German regulations allowed for small groups to gather in private homes, so Neumann turned to festival fans to open their homes, and the Living Room Galas were born. Directors and stars of the invited films walked the red carpet to private homes — Oldenburg pimped the front walks with klieg lights and local paparazzi to give it the proper gala feel — where they’d watch their premiere together on the couch and answer questions in an intimate Q&A afterward. Oldenburg streamed the whole thing live.

When it comes to stars, Oldenburg has had its share, though it always leans to the indie side of the spectrum: Nicolas Cage, Amanda Plummer, Keith Carradine, Matthew Modine, Peter Dinklage, Mira Sorvino. And like the local audience, Oldenburg is fiercely loyal. Character actor Seymour Cassel, the John Cassavetes regular who received an Oldenburg festival retrospective in 2008, was so impressed that he kept coming back, with Little New York (2009), Pete Smalls Is Dead (2010), Fort McCoy (2011) and Lost Angeles (2012). Eventually, Oldenburg renamed its acting honor the Seymour Cassel Award and, after Cassel’s death in 2019, the fest held a retrospective in honor of the beloved indie icon.

On the subject of media promotion, Oldenburg knows how to draw a crowd. For Michael Maxxis’ 2020’s opening-night film Puppy Love, Neumann received permission from a newly built apartment house in the city center to let Spanish street artist Okuda San Miguel, who had designed the film’s poster, to create a spray mural inspired by one of the film’s scenes featuring stars Paz de la Huerta and Hopper Penn. The technicolor result, featuring Okuda’s trademark combination of organic forms and geometric shapes, has become an Oldenburg tourist attraction.

Last year, Oldenburg even managed to put a fresh spin on the master class, that hoary film festival tradition of staging interviews with invited directors and stars, by putting the whole thing on the road. The Find Your Wild program saw the likes of Laos director Mattie Do (The Long Walk), Dakota Loesch and Scott Monahan (the writer and director-plus-star of 2021 Oldenburg best film winner Anchorage, respectively), as well as veteran Italian director-producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (TentaclesThe Visitor) step into a Jeep Wrangler to cruise the mean streets of downtown Oldenburg as they talked about their life and work. Think Carpool Karaoke without the singing.

Oldenburg has yet to unveil the lineup for its 29th edition, scheduled to run Sept. 14-18, much less the events, parties and one-off experiments that will make this year’s festival unforgettable. But after three decades of keeping it real and finding a way, one thing is certain: The 2022 Oldenburg fest won’t be just a celebration of indie cinema — it will be an indie experience.

A Movie Maestro Salutes a Master

Thai composer and filmmaker Somtow Sucharitkul had such a good time when he brought his Siam Sinfonietta youth orchestra to Oldenburg last year, he’s coming back for the 2022 edition, this time to honor the legacy of one of his musical heroes, Bernard Herrmann.

Somtow Sucharitkul performing with his Siam Sinfonietta youth orchestra at the 2021 Oldenburg Festival.
Courtesy of the Oldenburg Film Festival

Not many musicians would fly 8,000 miles for an encore. But Sucharitkul and his orchestra are set to again make the trek from Bangkok to Oldenburg.

Somtow says he fell in love with the festival after being invited to the 2021 event. Initially, it was simply to attend the world premiere of The Maestro, a Thai horror film Somtow wrote and starred in (he plays a murderous, power-mad composer). But after talking to Oldenburg festival director Torsten Neumann, Somtow grew more ambitious. He invited his youth orchestra, the Siam Sinfonietta — which performs in The Maestro — to join him in northern Germany. Together, they opened and closed the 2021 festival, performing music from the film, as well as original interpretations of other scores, including those from Oldenburg’s 2021 guest of honor, Italian genre master Ovidio Assonitis (TentaclesBeyond the Door).

“Torsten’s bold idea to ‘just go ahead and do it, screw the consequences’ was something that I immediately admired. [He’s] a kindred spirit. His idea made it possible for me to contribute something truly different,” says Somtow. “This also expanded the repertoire of our kids. They’re very good at Mahler and Tchaikovsky and all that — but there’s not an opportunity to do, say, Morricone in a classical concert that often.”

For this year’s return performance, Somtow is planning a tribute to Bernard Herrmann, the legendary composer whose work spans scores from Citizen Kane and Psycho to Taxi Driver.

“If the film industry had not happened, Herrmann would have evolved into one of the great opera composers of the 20th century. He did write one opera, Wuthering Heights — it’s a movie score on steroids,” says Somtow, who adds that he has composed nearly 20 operas for the stage.

“But when I think, ‘What composer has influenced me in my composing for this dramatic art form more than anyone else?’, I want to answer Mozart or Wagner or Strauss, and I often end up staring Bernard Herrmann in the eye. My love of horror comes from my mother taking me to see Psycho numerous times when I was about 8 or 9. She kept her eyes covered. … I didn’t. The score left an indelible impression.”

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