Reviews Short Documentary

ASCONA (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Julius Dommer

Writer: Julius Dommer

Running time: 15mins

For more information on ASCONA, visit the film’s website.

Offbeat German documentaries seem to arrive in my life with the same regularity as the infamously unreliable First buses of Norwich; after a year waiting in the cold two will show up at once. The difference is that when The Angel of History and ASCONA landed in my inbox, I was significantly more pleased than when greeted with one of Norfolk’s rattling, diesel-powered monsters, or its eternally morbid drivers. While the second film might have some issues (we will come to those later), broadly, I’m as happy as a schwein in schlamm.

ASCONA tells the story of a pair of ageing mini-golf enthusiasts, who built and made their home in a new course. This is not just a casual hobby either, it is their life – one of the pair was even part of a team that successfully contested the sport’s European Championship. While those glory days might long be behind her, one of the most charming things captured here is her competitive nature regarding her game of choice.

I watched this film two days after I saw Jürgen Klopp bemoan a throw-in (some three phases away from a decisive goal) that ‘cost’ his Liverpool team a game against Atletico Madrid. The football manager and our mini-golf-matriarch might be from different ends of the country, but it’s hard not to be reminded of Klopp’s “mentality monster” approach to sport when the golfing grandee bemoans Northern German mini-golfers being “already handicapped” due to the inclement winters they face.

Such an attitude might be taken by detractors as being a bad sport, always having an excuse ready for defeat and so forth, but I think it goes deeper than that. It seems like more a deflection of blame for their chosen sport; such is their devotion to mini-golf that they could never believe it is their interaction with the sport causing them to feel the sting of defeat – instead they would sooner fault God and cloud formations.

It’s something everyone with the slightest competitive streak can identify with – we love games of all kinds because they provide us a platform to experience the endorphin-rush of victory, or opportunities to hone specialist knowledge about technique and tactics. When we lose, it was some kind of glitch in the system we aim our abuse at, rather than admit our beloved activities might occasionally make us feeling bereft.

ASCONA subsequently possesses an infectious kind of enthusiasm, and while it’s not exactly The Masters, at no point do we ever find ourselves wondering, “Hang on, don’t I have better things to do than watching a film about the lives and passions of mini-golfers?” That’s one of the most amazing things about documentary when it is done right. Just as Senna managed to get me to engage with Formula 1 – a sport I literally find as engrossing as slow-drying paint – the passion and humanity conveyed by ASCONA’s subjects makes this an utterly riveting spectacle.

On a technical level, this film is also executed exceptionally. Director and Cinematographer Julius Dommer arguably had an open goal here, with the unfolding golfing event taking place at such a scale and pace that he had ample time to shoot any number of innovative and interesting angles of long putts sinking satisfactorily into their intended cups. But as we have so often seen in the world of Indy Film, you still need to keep your eye on the ball to score an open goal – and Dommer has a level of patience and concentration that means he has seized on every opportunity to spice up the film’s appearance. Co-Editor Rita Schwarze also has to take a great deal of credit for this, ensuring that the hits and misses on the course syncronise immaculately with the developing plot of our lead couple.

The area where the film does not necessarily work for me is the idea of the film presenting itself as ‘social analysis.’ According to the Director’s accompanying statement on the film, ASCONA shows a place “that has not changed since the 1950s but still exists…; reflecting the conservatism of the 1950s ASCONA features a cross-section of society.”

As a quaint slice-of-life film, ASCONA works at face value – but this seemingly disconnected attempt to bestow a ‘grander meaning’ on proceedings does not entirely convince. ASCONA might well be unchanged since the 1950s, but that does not make it inherently ‘reflective’ of the society that existed then – particularly in the 40 years before reunification. At the same time, there do not seem to be many efforts in the film to demonstrate how that forgotten Germany might contrast with the modern world; and the film particularly struggles to deliver a “cross-section of society” beyond a distinctly white and aged portion of it.

News from Germany indicates that, in line with the rest of the continent, a large section of the country is starting off down a distinctly dark path. It is difficult to view this portrait of a visually mono-cultural Germany separately from the country that currently faces the arduous struggle to expell a new generation of fascists from cities such as Hanau; fascists who would undoubtedly point to their own forgotten Germany that they hope to revive through their actions – whether or not it ever truly existed.

It does seem to be a rather deflating note to end on regarding such an otherwise charming film – especially as it largely hinges upon aspects of the production’s promotion which are largely absent from the actual end-product. Unfortunately, in a world where hasty assumptions about culture and nationhood are being used to push for a violent regression into Europe’s brutal past, it is impossible to overlook.

Let me categorically state that, regardless of the last four paragraphs, ASCONA is a fine film, with many great positives on show. It is a comforting, enjoyable and funny short, which gives a blissful insight into two particular lives very well-lived. Let me also clarify that I am in no way suggesting its creators are using it to support the far-right – that would be utterly absurd. The problem is, by suggesting that this is a social comment, a documentary with relatively little substantial to that end is left open to cynical and dangerous interpretations from that section of the political spectrum.

Submissions for the 2020 edition of the Indy Film Awards are now closed, and the new year of submissions will open in March. In the meantime, the very best of the films sent for review will be screened at a day-long event in Amsterdam. Tickets are available from FilmFreeway via the link below.

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