Female Western hero stars at Berlin film festival

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Snapping bear traps, howling wolf packs and an amateur amputation in a Canadian forest await 1890s German fortune hunters in "Gold", one of two Western-themed contenders premiering at the Berlin film festival Saturday.

Like Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-nominated "Django Unchained" and its former slave hero, "Gold" subverts the classic Western by putting a woman (Nina Hoss) at the centre of the frontier quest.

Hoss, one of Germany's top actresses who drew rave reviews last year for her portrayal in "Barbara" of a 1980s doctor plotting to escape the communist East, plays a divorcee who joins the Klondike gold rush in 1898.

She was working as a housemaid in Chicago "for a dollar a day" and has little to lose when she breaks off on horseback with an expedition of six other Germans led by an unscrupulous profiteer.

Director Thomas Arslan said he developed the screenplay after finding a book of photographs from the era and journals by Germans who saw the vast North American continent as a chance for a fresh start.

"There was a huge amount of material, particularly from German emigrants -- it was an enormous movement -- so I incorporated it into the script," he told reporters after a press preview that drew cheers.

The motley group, including a father of four from a New York hovel hoping to strike it rich for his family, set off north of Vancouver for what is meant to be a six-week journey overland.

But the posse, including a dozen horses, dwindles as the treacherous terrain claims victim after victim.

In one excruciating scene that drew peals of nervous laughter at the screening, a member of the expedition stumbles into a bear trap's iron jaws and, after Hoss's character Emily frees him, undergoes a brutal amputation with only whisky to dull the pain.

Arslan, who called two months of on-location filming in the Canadian wilderness a challenge, said he had wanted to put a woman at the heart of his Western as the ultimate outsider in such a setting while linking the story to his native Germany.

"I need to have a way into a story," he said. "It would be a little absurd or at least random to have our actors playing Calamity Jane."

Also in competition Saturday was "A Long and Happy Life" by Russian director Boris Khlebnikov about a young businessman who moves to the countryside to operate a farm and mounts resistance when an investor backed by public officials forces him to sell his land.

At first a hero to the residents of the depressed village who see him as a potential saviour, Sascha refuses to give up the fight long after it is lost and turns to increasingly desperate means to stand his ground.

Khlebnikov said he saw his film as a kind of contemporary Western featuring a man trapped by circumstances and driven by vengeance who becomes a gun-slinging outlaw to wrest back power from those trying to keep him down.

But he said the movie, which received public funding and in which civil servants come across as corrupt and unfeeling, was primarily a social commentary on rural life in today's Russia.

"If you're travelling around from one farm to another in remote Russia, they can't make a living," he said. "You have a sense that those villages are sort of dying because there's no work."

"Gold" and "A Long and Happy Life" are among 19 films vying for the 63rd Berlinale's Golden and Silver Bear top prizes, to be handed out by a jury led by Chinese director Wong Kar Wai on February 16.

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