For 30 years, the Oldenburg International Film Festival has been keeping the faith.
When Torsten Neumann founded Germany’s biggest little film festival back in 1994, it was as a local answer to Sundance, a spot to celebrate innovative, unconventional and, above all, independent cinema. His North Stars were the 1970s New Hollywood genre films he’d grown up with, and the new generation of 1990s indie filmmakers — Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction had won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or just a few months earlier — who were challenging convention and transforming the mainstream.
Three decades on, not much has changed. As Neumann prepares the 30th film festival (the 2023 event runs Sept. 13-17), that original Oldenburg spirit — the celebration of the offbeat, the weird and the fiercely radical — remains his guiding light.
“I’m always more interested in cinema that takes risks, even ones that go too far, rather than movies that try to satisfy expectations,” says Neumann. “A punch in the gut has more impact than a tickle.”
Neumann is still in the early stages of selecting this year’s lineup but, if history is any guide, expect to be surprised. Established indie darlings always have a place at Oldenburg — new films from Steven Soderbergh and Darren Aronofsky, Brian De Palma and Larry Clark, Johnnie To and Takeshi Kitano have all had their German premieres here, and the celebrity guest list over the years has included the likes of Nicolas Cage, Matthew Modine, Asia Argento and Amanda Plummer — but the festival’s real magic comes from Neumann’s honoring of the forgotten or overlooked, his tributes to the likes of the cerebral directing team David Siegel and Scott McGehee (Suture, Montana Story), Greco-Italian exploitation king Ovidio G. Assonitis (Tentacles, Beyond the Door) or Laotian horror director Mattie Do (Dearest Sister, The Long Walk).
“We’re almost painfully independent,” Neumann jokes. “The films we like are often too art house for a fantasy film fest and too genre for an art house festival. But I think that’s where some of the best cinema can be found, and it’s just those kinds of movies that often fall between the cracks.”
“Oldenburg plays a vital role in the future of independent filmmakers, as it showcases, encourages and celebrates stories that exist beyond the boundaries of mainstream cinema,” says Mark Polish, a frequent Oldenburg guest and, together with twin brother Michael, part of the producing-directing duo the Polish brothers (Twin Falls Idaho, Northfork). “The sense of community that Torsten has fostered among like-minded artists is so strong that it truly feels like a family. [The Oldenburg festival] reminds me of the power of cinema to bring people together and create lasting relationships.”
Notes actress Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), a former festival guest of honor, “Oldenburg is a unique blend of film fanatics from around the world. It’s absolutely wonderful.”
At his festival, Neumann goes out of his way to create a communal, even familial atmosphere. Last year, he hosted a joint retrospective of the works of Peter Hyams — cult director of Capricorn One (1977), Outland (1981) and Timecop (1994) — and his son, John, whose genre output includes two Universal Soldier movies (2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration and 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) and the pandemic-themed horror film Sick. A 2017 Oldenburg tribute to the legendary indie producer Edward R. Pressman (The Crow, Wall Street, American Psycho), attended by Pressman’s wife and children, featured a Q&A with the vibe of a 1970s bohemian cafe: Local film students gathered on the floor and hung on Pressman’s every word.
During COVID, when local restrictions forbid large gatherings and made a traditional festival impossible, Neumann, like any resourceful indie producer, found a creative workaround. He organized “Living Room Premieres,” where local festival fans volunteered their own homes as streaming venues. The director and cast arrived — all bearing negative COVID tests — to watch the world premiere of their movie on their hosts’ sofas. Oldenburg even set the scene, bringing in rolls of red carpet, floodlights and local paparazzi to stage-dress each bungalow and semi-detached house with the look of a Cannes gala. The premieres were streamed live for the rest of the city’s locked-down audience to enjoy.
The reopening of cinemas has meant a return to in-person screenings, but Oldenburg continues to innovate. For its 2023 edition, Neumann is teaming up with German virtual reality platform MILC and film review site The Film Verdict to launch a “metaverse” version of the festival, where attendees can build VR avatars, stroll through computer-generated simulations of downtown Oldenburg and attend virtual — but very real — festival world premieres.
“This will be the first time at an international film festival where you’ll have physical premieres that will also take place in the metaverse,” says Neumann. “We’re trying to get them designated as their own special kind of world premiere — a metaverse premiere — separate from the regular national or international premiere.”
It’s unclear whether the Oldenburg metaverse will also include virtual versions of the festival’s legendary “secret” parties, held every year at different, one-time-only venues across this picturesque medieval college town. Oldenburg party pop-ups in the past have included fetes in bank vaults, fire halls, train stations and even an abandoned McDonald’s. In 2015, when Andrew Wilson and Luke Wilson brought their directorial debut, The Wendell Baker Story, to the festival, the brothers partied with the locals at an abandoned elementary school, squatting on gym mats and drinking beer like college co-eds.
“One of my favorite ‘only in Oldenburg’ experiences was dancing in the underground clubs with every gorgeous, long-haired German [I could find] that was a good dancer,” says Cassidy.
It was at one of these legendary Oldenburg parties, back in 2010, that Canadian actress Deborah Kara Unger, star of The Game, Thirteen and Fear X (and jury president that year), hooked up with the festival director.
“We’d both been busy so we hadn’t seen each other the whole festival, until the night before the closing ceremony,” Neumann recalls. “Deborah came over and said, ‘I need five minutes of your time.’ I said, ‘You can have two hours.’ ”
Neumann and Unger have been together ever since — “the next day I called our travel office and canceled her return flight, that was my big romantic move,” Neumann recalls — and Unger is now an inseparable part of the Oldenburg team.
Aside from the parties and Neumann’s one-of-a-kind programming — “brilliantly eclectic” notes Cassidy — Oldenburg is probably best known for its prison premieres. Every year, the festival hosts screenings at the JVA Oldenburg, Germany’s highest-security prison, where festival guests and inmates sit side by side.
“When my film [2013’s Gefährliches Schweigen] premiered there, there was a serial killer sitting on one side of me and a rapist on the other,” says German actress and producer Veronica Ferres, whose new film, Passenger C, directed by Oscar-nominated producer Cassian Elwes, will have its international premiere in Oldenburg this year. “And I was talking to them about my movie, what it did to them and also about their lives, the events in their lives that led them to this place. It was a tremendous honor just to be there, to be able to have that experience.”
Much more than a gimmick, Oldenburg’s prison screenings are integrated into the facility’s rehabilitation programs. Inmates interview directors and talent, producing shows for the in-jail newspaper and television channel, Gitternet TV (roughly, “iron cage” TV).
“I have never experienced anything else quite like that at another festival,” says Do, a 2021 guest of honor and member of last year’s jury, “to exchange creatively on a personal level with the inmates there, to be able to speak to the inmates about how art, culture and film have affected their perspective toward writing a new chapter in [their] lives.”
It is, admits Neumann, “a lot, a whole lot” of work putting all this together: The maximum security premieres, the secret parties, the fiercely independent lineup of the ignored or the overlooked. But after 30 years, Mr. Oldenburg sees no reason to stop.
“If I had a regular job, I’d probably go crazy,” he says. “When it works, the festival gives me what the best independent cinema gives you — that sense of adventure, that feeling that here’s something I’ve never seen before.”
THREE CAN’T-MISS FILMS AT OLDENBURG THIS YEAR
This trio of titles from the 2023 lineup demonstrates how, 30 years on, Germany’s Oldenburg Festival continues to shine a light on indie and avant-guard moviemaking that defies the mainstream.
Part high-altitude thriller, part behind-the-scene Hollywood industry docu-drama, this black-and-white feature, the directorial debut of legendary indie producer and talent agent Cassian Elwes (Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mudbound), chronicles Elwes’ real-life encounter with an unruly passenger on a Bluejet redeye from New York to Los Angeles and the surprising, traumatic aftermath that would transform both men.
The Nothingness Club
A surreal, experimental and deliberately multi-fractured look at the world and life of surreal, experimental and multi-fractured Portuguese modernist writer Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under some 75 different “heteronyms”: fully fleshed-out fictional personas with their own distinct histories, literary styles and life philosophies. Cult filmmaker Edgar Pêra — director of Magnetick Pathways and O Barão — imagines Pessoa’s many literary personalities into a noirish world of smoky bars and femme fatales where the greatest threat comes from the increasingly violent and deranged Álvaro de Campos (one of Pessoa’s most famous nom de plumes).
This debut feature from Truman Kewley, constructed like a found footage film with a dispassionate, Terrence Malick-style voice-over and with a visual style that brings to mind a young Gaspar Noé, is a disturbing, first-person-look at a violent kidnapper that updates William Wyler’s The Collector for the incel age.