U.S. premiere of ‘Herbstgold’ has boffo reception, and revelations
They laughed. They cried. But of course. For the audience at the U.S. premiere of “Herbstgold” â€” the masters track movie featuring Lahti worlds â€” the German documentary was a revelation. “Oh my God,” exclaimed one lady Saturday afternoon as she watched M90 sprinter Herbert Liedtke of Sweden perform an exercise on the “Brutal Bench.” (See it here.) Said another among 100 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica: “That was the most wonderful movie. I say that as a 76-year-old.” Berlin filmmaker Jan (call him “Yon”) Tenhaven and producer Christian Beetz relaxed. Their nerves at being in an industry moviehouse in an industry town were assuaged.
After the screening, Jan and Christian were interviewed on stage by Annette Rupp, the lady in charge of the German documentary film festival that brought “Autumn Gold” (the English name) to America for the first time.
“We chose a very small selection of the essence of German movies,” Annette said. “It’s a brave film. It’s different from the others.” (See some stills from the film.)
How different? The documentary following five older age-group athletes has been accepted for screening at the IDFA film festival next month in Amsterdamâ€” the most prestigious of its kind in the world. And the film is Germany’s entry in the first round of Academy Awards. Cross your fingers that it makes the final cut â€” as a nominee in the Best Documentary Feature category.
Although “Autumn Gold” has an international distributor, the goal now is to find an American distributor. Ultimately, a DVD release on services like Netflix would make the documentary available to everyone. (But a German DVD release is possible before Netflix gets hold of it, so stay tuned.) Jan says bonus features would include new scenes of each athlete.
Jan said he first read about masters track in a newspaper â€” about an upcoming competition. When he decided to make the movie, he needed to make sure potential investors didn’t consider it a “freak show.” But the humanity and humor in his original trailer touched some folks with deep pockets, and the movie got the green light.
Made for 500,000 Euros (about $700,000), “Herbstgold” production actually started two years before Lahti worlds, Jan told the audience in the Q&A. (See my photo gallery.) He originally settled on eight athletes to profile and follow, but opted to feature five in the movie â€” hedging his bets against one or more not making it to Lahti.
In fact, M100 thrower Alfred Proksch of Austria said he couldn’t promise he’d be alive at Lahti. But he was â€” and his appearance at WMA worlds was a crowning moment of the film.
Three athletes who didn’t make the movie â€” Ireland’s Nick Cornish, Germany’s Christel Happ and Scotland’s Christine McLennan â€” still made it to Lahti, however.
In Santa Monica (and possibly Sunday in San Francisco, where the movie was again shown), Jan was asked: What is the secret of old age?
Jan said: “I don’t know. If I did, I’d write a book and get rich.” But he said the common denominator of the 80- and 90-something athletes in his movie was their attitude toward life â€” always “looking ahead” rather than looking back. And after making the film, he said, “I have a problem defining ‘old.’ ”
Of M100 Alfred, Jan said: “He had this goal to be (in Lahti).” He made it despite having a total knee replacement only six months before worlds and suffering a heart attack only three weeks before the meet. “He had to be re-animated,” Jan said of Alfred and his cardiac arrest. “It’s the ambition that drives them.”
Sadly, that was Alfred’s last big meet. Although he still lives in the same Austrian flat shown in the film, he’s frail and very tired these days and spends a lot of time sleeping, Jan said.
About 150 hours of footage was shot, he said, and it took six months in the editing room to reduce it to its 94-minute final length. Making it even harder: The movie features no narration. Only the athletes (and their families and observers) speak.
For me, the movie is a nostalgic delight, since it brought back all my fond memories of Lahti. The first glimpse of the Lahti stadium â€” a panoramic shot â€” made tears well up. But it’s the sensitive telling of five stories that give the film its power. We learn about widows, widowers and one married couple, and how they focus on Lahti as their purpose in life. It’s a magnificent display of human will over physical frailty and decline.
And it’s just plan fun â€” a hoot to boot. Just like masters track.