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Walchensee Forever

Director: Janna Ji Wonders (Germany). Year of Release: 2021

Walchensee Forever is a prize winning film in which director Janna Ji Wonders interviews women (and the occasional man) from different generations of her family, in an attempt to get a sense of how Germany has changed in the past century. The family is based in Walchensee in Bavaria, but many of its members have substantial experience of travel. They also were very fond of making home movies, so Wonders has plenty of material to work with.

As the film starts, we learn of the past experiences of Wonders’ ancestors – of her great grandmother, who moved South to open a lakeside café, of her grandmother who felt guilty when her sister died of Spanish flu but carried on running the café after her divorce, and of the men of the family who were physically and psychically injured by war. But it is when we get to the 1960s that things start to get slightly less interesting.

Anna, Wonders’ mother and Frauke, her aunt, fully embraced the hippie lifestyle. Cue film of naked couples on the beach with their equally naked children. There is way too much gratuitous nudity and facial hair. Anna and Frauke dressed themselves in dirndls and gained themselves a little international recognition as singing yodellers (look, it was the sixties).

A lot of international travel followed. We hear of trips to spend 5 weeks naked in a hut in Greece, to go to an Ashram in India, to Mexico, to San Francisco. Although Frauke is described as the wilder sister, they both seemed to have an adventurous decade. Which should make for really interesting cinema, right?

Unfortunately, not for me, and I think there’s a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the narrative suddenly takes on the absolute self-obsession of the privileged side of the hippie movement. So we hear plenty about finding enlightenment and spiritual healing, but experience absolutely nothing of the range of countries that are mentioned in passing. No sense of experiencing other cultures but lots of solipsistic “finding yourself”.

Second, and I know this may be just me, but I kept thinking: “just how are they paying for all this?” Well, maybe the yodelling business is more lucrative than I thought, but whatever the reason, there was no sense of people actually having to work for a living. So the endless tales of moving from country to country sound more like the lifestyle choices of a rich dilettante than someone who is genuinely spreading peace, love and enlightenment.

Finally, for now, the stories that we are told are highly personal. By which I don’t just mean that they are about close family – there’s a way in which family stories can also include an audience who never knew the people you are talking about. It is more the absolute absence of reference to what is going on in society outside.

What this means is that we (or at least I – I realise that most German critics loved the film) are left with a feeling of looking in from the outside, of watching the home movies of someone who you don’t really know – and of, at one specific point, intruding on a private family tragedy. It’s not that the stories aren’t potentially interesting, it’s more that I didn’t feel that I was or should be part of the audience.

A number of the reviews speak of the women battling against the patriarchy. Well, yeah, some of their relationships did seem to be a bit dodgy, not least in the so-called harem with Rainer Langhans, who is allowed plenty of screen time to justify himself. And maybe the 5-way relationship with Langhans was just a product of its times, even though the one man there did seem to have disproportionate control.

It’s more that, when your reaction to another disastrous relationship is to move to a new country for a lifestyle that is funded by who-knows-what but doesn’t really seem to involve you encountering any real poverty or even mild inconvenience, I find it difficult to relate. And this is before you get to any unfair but natural kneejerk reactions against “fucking hippies”.

Walchensee Forever tells the story of a family which is clearly of interest to a decent sized audience. But their lifestyle and experiences are just so far from my own, that I find it hard to relate or to find any point of contact. Now I know it’s not them, it’s me, but it is me. And I just don’t get it.

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