At first blush a distinguished entry alongside such cleverly constructed and lovingly crafted mockumentaries as Orson Welles’ “F for Fake,” Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” Werner Herzog’s “A Trick of the Light” and even recent B.O. phenom “The Blair Witch Project,” Gordian Maugg’s prodigiously imaginative and altogether enthralling “Hans Warns — My 20th Century” has the added emotional punch of being a true story. Bravura item is a must for fests, while current popularity of this cinematic approach suggests strong arthouse possibilities and vigorous ancillary life.
Maugg makes dead-on use of Warns’ original footage and photos, supplemented with staged sequences faithful to silent and docu aesthetics, in the service of a seafaring story spanning a century of German history.
“My photographs don’t reveal my thoughts to the people who admire them today,” says 94-year-old German seaman and amateur photographer Hans Warns on the occasion of an exhibit of his pictures in 1993. But his modesty is misleading. Born in the seacoast town of Bremen in 1899, young Hans signs on the “classy bark” Herbert in 1914, persuading his mother to shell out five marks for a still camera before setting off for Chile and a life of adventure.
As his hobby grows into an obsession, Warns supplements his photographs with primitive motion picture footage, documenting the Herbert’s six months of capture during World War I; his study of navigation in mid-1920s Hamburg and subsequent life at sea; the wooing of neighbor girl Wilma and their long but sporadic family life together; German prosperity in the 1930s (including 1936’s “summer of the century,” featuring the Olympic Games); his courageous wartime feats of blockade running as a merchant seaman and postwar escapades.
Warns is played convincingly by a succession of four actors, while Julia Jessen strikes a contempo note as the unflaggingly patient Wilma. Tech credits are first-rate, defying identification as real or staged. Utilizing a panoply of techniques and effects, including sepia tinting, irises, decorative chapter titles and multilingual intertitles, unintentional jump cuts and distressed footage, pic consistently delights in its own premise, with Maugg’s innate understanding of the strictures and eccentricities of silent and docu aesthetics lending equal parts dignity and mischief (a baby pulls on projector cord and film obligingly stops) to the proceedings.