“Dogtown and Z-Boys” meets “The Lives of Others” in “This Ain’t California,” a spirited not-quite-documentary portrait of the skateboarding subculture that flourished in East Germany in the early 1980s. Ostensibly forged from a treasure trove of Super 8 homemovies and archival footage, some of which is quite literally too good to be true, writer-director Marten Persiel’s debut feature is a rather ingenious fabrication, with reams of uncanny period re-creations (right down to the stonewashed cutoffs and knee socks) and at least one fully fictional character (though possibly more) masquerading as fact. Currently receiving a single-screen New York theatrical run after a long life on the fest circuit, where it picked up several documentary prizes, this multilayered curio should enjoy a long shelf life with the surf/skate crowd and spark much debate among nonfiction purists.
There was an underground skate scene in the GDR, but beyond that, pretty much everything in “This Ain’t California” is open for debate — not least the film’s principal subject, Denis Paracek, a devil-may-care anti-authoritarian who chafed at his father’s efforts to mold him into a champion Olympic swimmer and instead became the leader of the local skate pack in the suburbs of Magdeburg. It’s Paracek’s untimely death, as a soldier on the front lines in Afghanistan, that Persiel uses to frame the action. Sitting around the now-gutted apartment block where they came of age, childhood friends Dirk and Nico (David Nathan) reminisce about their fallen mate and the trio’s first, tentative strides on their homemade boards. Also on hand is a former skate reporter (Tina Bartel) who supposedly first wrote about Paracek and company in the West, and may have had more than strictly jounalistic relations with her subject.
But while Persiel has been coy in interviews about his fact-to-fiction ratio, this much has emerged since the pic’s acclaimed premiere at last year’s Berlin Film Festival: The Paracek we see onscreen is in fact contemporary skater and model Kai Hillebrandt (who wasn’t yet born in the early ’80s), playing a character that has at the very least been fictionalized, and quite possibly been invented wholesale. The forged images are remarkable, however, deftly intercut with real news footage to prolong the illusion. And the story Persiel tells is a good one — of unbridled, rebellious youths shredding and carving their way through the “gigantic concrete desert” of the East, led by a brilliant, earless rebel who’s like a cross between Holden Caulfield and “Dogtown” enfant terrible Jay Adams. (Upon relocating with Nico to East Berlin, Paracek rechristens himself “Panik,” and a true star is born.)
“This Ain’t California” runneth over with indelible characters and setpieces, from the mustachioed Patrick Steffens — the crown prince of extended handstand skating — to a 1988 “Euroskate” competition that brings together the best skaters from the Eastern Bloc. Did that really happen? Google says yes, but who can be sure? Did the skaters eventually come under surveillance by the Stasi, who, in an effort to curb their subversive pastime, had competitive skate jumping declared an official national sport? Maybe not, but it makes for terrific cinema.
Persiel himself has called his film a “documentary tale,” though an even more fitting term might be the one his countryman Werner Herzog has coined for his many films situated astride the realms of reportage and yarn-spinning: “ecstatic truth.” “This Ain’t California” arrives at what feels like a watershed moment for such hybrid works, on the heels of Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” (with its own elaborately faked homemovies) and Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” (with its genocidal musical numbers). Persiel’s film may ultimately be more true in spirit than in letter, but it is surely no more quixotic than a bunch of East German teens who once imagined they might ride their skateboards to freedom.
This Ain’t California
(Documentary — Germany)
Reviewed at Maysles Cinema, New York, April 14, 2013. (In 2012 Berlin Film Festival — Perspektive Deutsches Kino.) Running time: 95 MIN.
A Wildfremd production in co-production with Arte, RBB and MDR. Produced by Ronald Vietz, Michael Schoebel. (International sales: Wide House, Paris.)
Directed by Marten Persiel. Written by Persiel, Ira Wedel. Camera (color/B&W, HD), Felix Leiberg; editors, Maxine Goedicke, Toni Froschhammer, Bobby Good; production designer, Anne Zentgraf; costume designer, Simone Eichhorn; assistant director, Manuel Siebert; casting, Karen Wendland.
With: Kai Hillebrandt, David Nathan, Tina Bartel, Anneke Schwabe.