February 8-18, 2007
When the German dailies gave this year’s Berlinale an unfortunate post mortem, they merely subscribed to an annual tradition. For although there were some disappointments, very good films screened on the periphery of the festival’s Panorama, Forum and Perspektive Deutsches Kino sections. The Competition surprised no one with its sui generis mixture of star-studded duds (e.g. the Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas vehicle Bordertown ), political or otherwise controversial films (Irina Palm ), and a smattering of veritable gems. The jury, headed by director and screenplay author Paul Schrader and including the actors Hiam Abbass, Mario Adorf, Gael García Bernal, Willem Dafoe, the producer Nansun Shi, as well as editor Molly Malene Stensgaard, bestowed upon the Chinese contribution Tuya de hun shi (Tuya’s Marriage, 2006) the prize for best film. Joseph Cedar won as best director for the Israeli drama Beaufort (2007). El Otro (The Other, 2007) received both the Jury’s Grand Prize as well as the prize for best actor, Julio Chávez. Nina Hoss picked up best actress honours for her role in the German film Yella (2007).
The superior German film in competition was indeed Christian Petzold’s latest. Yella follows a woman from the East German provinces who slithers into the world of venture capitalism. Nina Hoss deservedly won for her turn as the title character (a name Petzold takes from the child actress Yella Rottländer, who played the female lead in Wim Wenders’ Alice in den Städten [Alice in the Cities, 1974]). Yella decides to leave Wittenberge and her estranged husband Ben for a promising new job in Hanover. Although trained as an accountant, she quickly finds herself as an assistant to a venture capitalist, Philipp (Devid Striesow). Negotiations are a psychological game of wits and bluff and Yella’s newfound icy demeanour proves to be a decisive advantage for the pair; Yella and Philipp subsequently develop a romantic bond. This plot summary neglects one major fact: the story is framed by a traffic accident in which Ben drives himself and Yella off a bridge. The viewer must conclude that the entire Hanover sequence is Yella’s dreamscape unreeling in the split-second before her death. Petzold effects the horror vibe of his Carnival of Souls (1962) remake with architecture. His two settings are each ruins. Wittenberge is literally and figuratively a ghost town from which most young people have left. The scenes in Hanover take place largely on the grounds of the 2000 World Expo, an artificially inseminated wasteland of office buildings overgrown after just five years. Petzold continues his preoccupation with death and disappearance (Toter Mann , Gespenster ), not to mention his Bonnie and Clyde (1967) affection for cars and mobility (Die innere Sicherheit , Wolfsburg ). As ever, Petzold deploys a slow tempo and eschews non-diegetic music, although his aesthetic is less radical than “Berliner Schule” comrades Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec.
Twenty-five years ago one still asked if dramatising the Holocaust on celluloid was appropriate. This debate has been forgotten to a large extent in the shadow of box office figures for Schindler’s List (1993) and La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997). World War II and Holocaust films have become de rigueur in Germany in the last 15 years. Indeed, only two German films which have been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar have not had what Germans call the “Adolf-Bonus”. This year’s Berlinale also featured a German-Austrian Holocaust film, Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, 2007), in competition. Austrian character actor Karl Markovics plays Salomon Sorowitsch, a Russian-Jewish nightclub owner. Sorowitsch is deported to Mauthausen and later to Sachsenhausen after the Nazis discover he has been faking various currencies and passports. In Sachsenhausen the enterprising counterfeiter is employed to lead a team of internees to produce millions of pounds and dollars for the German war machine. The conformist Sorowitsch butts heads with Adolf Burger, a communist printer who sabotages the effort. Director Stefan Ruzowitsky, best known for his indie pic Die Siebtelbauern (The Inheritors, 1998) and the Anatomie (2000, 2003) horror film franchise, delivers the concentration camp experience with a handheld camera, soft lighting and zooms. The fine German actor August Diehl, who plays Burger, suffers from a script which plots the historical rebel as a vengeful ideologue without concern for his fellow prisoners. His character, on whose memoirs the story is based, is reduced to a supporting player as the film follows Sorowitsch to Monte Carlo, where the rogue purposely loses thousands of (fake!) dollars at a casino. This scenario exemplifies the film’s problem: its alchemy of melodrama, caricature, and faux-cumentary style ignores the absolute worth and weight of the subject matter. This all leads one to ask whether it might be time to revive the debate on appropriate Holocaust films.
The Panorama section seeks to bridge the gap between market demands and ambitious auteurist cinema. The Swedish-German co-production När mörkret faller (When Darkness Falls, 2006) flirts more with the former. It weaves a story about honour in Swedish society across three narrative strands. Two daughters from a migrant family rebel against their parent’s sexist rules. The manager and the bouncer at a popular nightclub face the attack and then blackmail of local gangsters. A TV-journalist charges her husband with domestic abuse, only to be shunned by her colleagues. Director Anders Nilsson studiously cops Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004) in criticising violence against women and gays in both immigrant and native Swede households. With high production values, quality art direction and competent acting, När mörkret faller functions well as a mood piece. Taking place on and after Halloween, Nilsson effectively casts Sweden as a horror film set. The narrative form and somewhat caricaturised figures leave much to be desired, however. The honour-killing immigrants strongly recall Sicilian Mafia films; the other characters derive from similarly stiff patterns. Furthermore, the film minimises domestic violence to a psycho-genetic phenomenon with no roots in broader social problems.
Michael Grothe is 37 and teaches at a Berlin high school for slow learners. The committed pedagogue has no easy task in Guten morgen, Herr Grothe (Good Morning, Mister Grothe, 2007): his literature class consists of burn outs, troublemakers, and foreigners who speak feeble German. The time he spends at work has begun to damage critically his personal life and when Grothe takes a particular delinquent under his wing, the rest of the class threatens mutiny. Director Lars Kraume has largely helmed television productions in the past. Here he maintains a good pulse on the realities of Berlin’s lost boys and girls with handheld DigiBeta. Ultimately, however, the feel-good genre flick provides no new lessons.
Fay Grim (2006) is Hal Hartley’s sequel to Henry Fool (1997). The title character (played again by Parker Posey) is a single mother from the New York borough Queens. Her husband Henry accidentally killed a neighbour seven years ago and is now on the run. Fay’s brother Simon, once a garbage man but now an internationally acclaimed poet, is serving a ten-year prison sentence for helping Henry flee the country. Simon believes that Henry’s worthless autobiography actually contains encoded messages about American atrocities committed internationally. In the meantime, the CIA tells Fay that Henry died years ago in a hotel fire in Sweden; the French government now retains Henry’s “Confessions”. Fay becomes a tool and then manipulator of several international espionage organisations as she searches for her husband’s writings and then the man himself. Shot largely in Hartley’s new home city Berlin, Fay Grim clearly bears the idiosyncratic director’s signature. The film uses canted shots from low angles to capture stylised acting and arch dialogue. There are a host of potential intertexts evoked: Jeff Goldblum’s CIA agent is named Fulbright and another character Herzog; a conveniently placed mobile set on vibrate explicitly recalls Posey’s recent role in The OH in Ohio (2006). The perils of overinterpretation, however, have always been at stake in Hartley’s oeuvre and are openly roasted in the narrative here. The ridiculously complicated plot twists suggest a political message about contemporary USA. Hartley reveals the “war on terror” as a paranoid exegesis of empty signs and symbols.
Ferien (Vacation, 2007) was perhaps the festival’s best German feature. Thomas Arslan’s latest outlines the strained composition of a family and the disintegration of a marriage, set in a luminous Brandenburg summer. The film is confined: the story takes place almost exclusively on the grounds of the mother’s country house and the cinematic language speaks only static shots and long takes. Just at the very end of the film does one see the whole family together. Arslan’s feat reveals the shifting constellations of family members in individual conversations and encounters: the grandmother is tender and wise while alone with granddaughter Laura, cold when Laura’s sister Sophie enters, and bitchy in scenes with her daughter Anna. The story’s tragic irony is the incongruity between the stability of each character’s identity in his or her own mind and the constantly changing roles each actually inhabits. Arslan previously employed non-professionals and actors unknown in Germany for milieu studies like Dealer (1999). Here he casts accomplished theatre actors (e.g. Angela Winkler) and the gesture lends the drama a taut focus. This film has neither the explosive (and exploitative?) power of Vinterberg’s Festen (Celebration, 1998) nor the psychological depth of Bergman’s Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973). But Ferien is the most alive. Arslan binds the family scenes with shots of a depopulated nature accompanied by a lush rustling: the film breathes.
In contrast to the Panorama, the Forum section openly embraces daring cinema beyond the commercial mainstream. Jagdhunde (Hounds, 2007) begins with a shot of a snowy field: two dogs, one black and one white, approach the camera from the far distance. In Ann-Kristin Reyel’s debut feature, the barren landscape of the Uckermark region – which the director calls the loneliest place in Germany – always sets the mood. It is shortly before Christmas; father Henrik (the delicious Austrian comic Josef Hader) and son Lars (Constantin von Jascheroff) have recently moved to the area. The family is there to renovate a barn into a “wedding hotel” and remains completely isolated from the suspicious villagers. Henrik and Lars’ relationship becomes particularly strained, especially after Lars discovers Papa is sleeping with Aunt Jana. The teenager flees into an acquaintance with the deaf Marie, whose connection to her father is similarly tense. The elliptical narrative culminates in an awkward Christmas dinner scene where the mother arrives with a younger lover and finds Henrik with her sister. Reyel’s sensitive drama bears little ironies. The wedding hotel is the site of romantic conflicts. The relationship between Lars and Henrik completely lacks communication and yet Lars and Marie understand one another without words. Apart from a few stabs at psychological formalism, Reyel employs a refreshingly cinematic palette of long, static shots.
Ian Rickson ended his tenure at the London Royal Court Theatre in February with Chekov’s “The Seagull”. Angela Schanelec relocates the classic to three days in contemporary Berlin with Nachmittag (Afternoon, 2007). Following a long absence, the theatre actress Irene retreats to her lakeside villa where her elder brother Alex and her son Konstantin, both writers, live. Konstantin’s girlfriend Agnes returns to her parents’ house next door after a semester studying dance at the university. The relatively event-less plot revolves around long conversations that reveal the doubts and weaknesses in the characters’ relationships. In spite of the theatre-heavy influences, Nachmittag is defiantly cinematic. The first shot of the film is an agonisingly long take from a stage towards the auditorium space. Schanelec, who herself plays Irene, was primarily a theatre actress until 1990, but has become perhaps the most formally rigorous among her “Berliner Schule” colleagues. Her film would be unthinkable even in a different format than 35mm. She excavates a sensuous cinema of flowers, cherry bowls and faces – all lit with a summer’s afternoon light. Unlike her critically acclaimed Marseille (2004), a 75-shot, 95-minute mosaic of long shots, Nachmittag employs an aesthetic of intimacy. Conversations are never transmitted in shot/countershot. Rather, a single pan links the discussants in close-ups, often providing a gaze towards the reactions of the listener. In this form of cinema, off-screen sound commands absolute attention. Schanelec’s dialogue and the actors’ delivery are languid and stylised. In sum, Nachmittag is a challenging hypnotic that bespeaks further development in Schanelec’s craft.
Is it possible to relate the gruesome experiences of female sex and labour trafficking without tears and melodrama? Anja Salomonowitz’s documentary Kurz davor ist es passiert (It Happened Just Before, 2006) responds to this dilemma with a provocative experiment. Instead of shrouding the real women in shadows or using actresses to retell the stories, Salomonowitz employs “everyday people” (a customs officer, a provincial women, a bordello bartender, a diplomat, and a taxi driver) engaged in their everyday activities to recite real reports from trafficked foreign women in Austria. These narrators, who have relationships to the places or professions thematised in the stories, create a parallel narrative: they are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the female trafficking problem. This distanciation effect might remind the cine-literate of Ulrich Seidl’s documentaries, like Good News (1990), Mit Verlust ist zu rechnen (Loss Is to Be Expected, 1992), or Jesus, Du weißt (Jesus, You Know, 2004). His cinema explores both the borders between Austria and its neighbouring countries as well as the boundaries between the documentary and fiction modes. Seidl’s painterly compositions and long takes, however, allow his subjects to embarrass themselves unwittingly. In Salomonowitz’s film even the term “documentary subject” is made ambiguous. As Salomonowitz revealed in an email interview in February:
[The film] is about what people think up while they watch the film. The images that you imagine of the stories of the female trafficking are the actual plot of the film. Something that you don’t see on the screen. It’s like in real life, because these stories are suppressed from the society’s quotidian conciousness.
The most important border zone is the tension between the routine lives of the narrating characters (the bartender, the diplomat) and the perverse narrated information. The connection between narrator and narrated is not arbitrary, but rather an elective affinity: the customs officer, for example, recites the story in which a border crossing becomes a painful experience for a woman forced into prostitution. As these five Austrians play themselves they simultaneously give voice to the silenced women who go unnoticed everyday.
Perspektive Deutsches Kino has traditionally been the most inconsistent category at the Berlinale, and this year was no different. The program serves as a showcase for Germany’s film schools, with almost all contributions originating as graduation assignments. Continuing a trend from previous years, a third of the 12 works on offer were documentaries; nine were directed by women. The section’s fiction features were in general disappointing. Allealle (All Gone, 2007) is Rain Man meets Wim Wenders with a kick of There’s Something about Mary humour. Milan Peschel plays an alcoholic drifter named Dohmühl who one day receives an unexpected guest: the mentally handicapped but physically burly Hagen. The inevitable hijinks ensue until Ina arrives and Dohmühl falls in love. Pepe Planitzer’s second turn as director injects local colour and a good sense of atmosphere into a somewhat tired plot.
Hannah Schweier’s Aufrecht stehen (Stand Straight, 2006) also considers an unassuming milieu, although her proletarian world is urban and far more sinister. Joe earns his living by playing the loser in rigged boxing matches. He encounters the waitress Rosa at one of his matches and the two form a tentative connection. Unlike in Allealle, in which alcoholism functions more or less as a gag, Joe’s down and out life reeks pitiful with all the trappings: estranged daughter, perilous and humiliating job, zero prospects. At 30 minutes, Aufrecht stehen promises more than it delivers, but should be a ticket for Schweier to ride.
Like both Allealle and Aufrecht stehen, Blindflug (Blind Flight, 2007) investigates male self-destruction vis-à-vis stronger women. In this film, however, everyone is employed, upwardly mobile, and thoroughly miserable. Slick Rainer has a well-paid job, a BMW and an attractive wife. But when he announces to Lotte he also wants a child, she takes off. Henrik seeks a new beginning and promptly destroys his apartment and car and buys two tickets to Australia. The three meet at the airport, where the characters forget social graces and begin, perhaps for the first time, to reflect upon their lives. Ben von Grafenstein’s debut feature is a snappy, episodic film. The narrative pushes along with bursts of physical comedy followed by dialogue-heavy encounters. Schizophrenically alternating between music video and think piece, Blindflug is nonetheless – or perhaps therefore – a satisfying indie experience.
Von einem der Auszog – Wim Wenders’ frühe Jahre (One Who Set Forth – Wim Wenders’ Early Years, 2006) chronicles the director’s childhood and film work up to Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend, 1977), the breakthrough after which he moved to the States. The story of Wenders’ youth is nearly unbelievable: convinced “existentialist” at 15, meeting with Peter Handke at the premiere of “Publikumsbeschimpfung”, watching 1000 films in one year at Paris’ Cinémathèque Française, undergoing psychoanalysis with one of Freud’s former students after an overdose of hash brownies. As sensitive as Wender’s films are, the documentary implies how neglectful he could be of his lovers, friends and collaborators. Long-time cinematographer Robby Müller’s interview is excruciating to watch; the pain and bitterness Wenders caused him are plainly legible after so many years. The German’s exodus to his country of projected fantasies burned all bridges behind him. Current wife Donata diagnoses her partner with an “almost autistic” communication style. Indeed, the documentary depicts Wenders as a brilliant or perhaps genius filmmaker, but socially handicapped.
The best film in the series was Bettina Blümer’s documentary Prinzessinnenbad (Pool of Princesses, 2007), which trails three sexually precocious girls through the streets and parks of Berlin. The film begins at the Prinzenbad, an open-air public pool in the heart of the multicultural Kreuzberg district. There we meet protagonists Klara, Tanutscha and Mira, three foul-mouthed but not unsympathetic 15 year-olds. The girls have grown up fast and largely fatherless and their mothers act like kids themselves (Klara’s mom: “We only have two rules here: no heroin and don’t get pregnant”). It is thus no surprise that the trio searches for father figures. Mina can’t imagine going out with anyone younger than her 20 year-old steady; Klara, who claims to have already slept with over 30 men, dates a Turk nine years her elder. Although the girls have only a vague idea of how they hope to shape their adult lives (one vacillates between porno star and zoologist), they are clear on what they will not become: in Tanutscha’s words, “squares who buy organic food.” Blümer captures the (in)famous neighbourhood and its inhabitants with a sensitivity that well surpasses the TV-niveau. Even after 92 minutes one yearns for more about the characters in this witty and dynamic film.
This year’s Berlinale reflected a German cinema in-flux. The national cinema is exploding quantitatively: in 2006, 174 fiction and documentary feature-length films premiered, compared with 70 in 1998. Simultaneously, this proliferation has also yielded a transition in terms of thematic focus. Unlike the 1990s, recent years have seen a rising proportion of milieu-specific works. The youngest filmmakers are once again attentive to the local colours and sounds of Germany, even if many of their films ultimately conform to generic patterns. Furthermore, the so-called “Berliner Schule” has consolidated a recognisable position at festivals and begun to enchant the international press. It is premature to predict whether this cinema in-flux represents a new renaissance in domestic filmmaking or remains a phenomenon analogous to the bright spots in Berlin’s weather – a Zwischenhoch – a high between two lows.