It was in the sad month of February,
When the days had become dreary,
And when the wind whipped at the trees,
That I made my way to Germany.
And when I to the border came,
I felt a mighty hammering
In my breast, I even think
My eyes welled with tears.
And when the German tongue I heard,
I had the strangest sensation;
It felt as underwent my heart
A pleasing exsanguination
– Heinrich Heine
Attending a film festival, as I have had cause to note in the past, is essentially a grand act of montage. So there may be no more appropriate site for a film festival than Berlin, a city which, itself, seems to have been constructed with montage principles in mind. Nowhere else do different historical eras brush up against each other so strikingly. Nowhere else are the tragedies of the past still so palpable in the present. And nowhere else can one so abruptly pass between such contrasting environments: from the sterile glass skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz to the industrial wasteland of Moabit, from the Prussian stateliness of Unter den Linden to the GDR grunge of Friedrichshain, from the Turkish enclaves of Kreuzberg to the international hipster colonies of… Kreuzberg.
Mit der 41 in die Stadt.
The same, perhaps, can be said for the festival itself, which is unrivalled in terms of the disparate nature of the films included in its intimidatingly immense program, with entries ranging from Hollywood blockbusters to experimental para-cinema. But whereas Berlin the city thrives on its myriad contrasts, Berlin the festival seems to suffer from its lack of coherence. What critic, attending the Berlinale in recent years, has not had cause to find fault with the festival? Trying to be all things to all people, it invariably comes across as schizophrenic and directionless, unable to truly satisfy on any level. Of the world’s major festivals, Berlin seems particularly afflicted with an intractable identity crisis.
This has only been highlighted in the last couple of years, with the near-unanimous critical favourite of the festival in both 2011 and 2012 – Belá Tarr’s A Torinói ló (The Turin Horse) and Miguel Gomes’ Tabu respectively – also being the Berlinale’s starkest outsider, and such a disjunction was all the more keenly felt when, in both years, these films were overlooked for the Golden Bear, with the jury opting to award more conventional efforts, namely Asghar Farhadi’s Jodái-e Náder az Simin (A Separation) and the Taviani brothers’ Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die).
Entschuldigen Sie, ist das der Sonderzug nach Pankow?
There was, sad to say, no Turin Horse in this year’s edition of the festival. Nonetheless, the competition jury – headed by Wong Kar-wai, whose new action film The Grandmaster also opened proceedings – still contrived to award the main prize to the wrong film. Calin Peter Netzer’s Pozitia copilului (Child’s Pose) was, to be frank, a mystifying choice for the Golden Bear. Not that there was anything flagrantly deficient about the film, it merely underwhelmed on almost every level. With its story of Cornelia (played by stalwart actress Luminitia Gheorghiu), a middle-aged bourgeois mother who wields her wealth and influence to twist the law into exculpating her cosseted son after he has run over a small child, Child’s Pose shines a light on the class contradictions and logic of power in neo-capitalist Romania. The film will undoubtedly be slotted into that country’s ongoing New Wave – with Netzer more closely aligned to Radu Muntean than Cristian Mungiu – but it lacks the incisive bite of the movement’s earlier standout works.
Child’s Pose’s inability to inspire may well have had something to do with the fact that the competition had already screened a clearly superior film, which had such unerringly similar subject matter that critics were quick to dub “strong women” as the defining theme of the festival. The protagonist of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria is also a middle-aged bourgeois mother, but in this film, she is divorced, and seeks happiness at over-50s singles’ bars. It is here that – in a nod to Flaubert, perhaps – she meets Rodolfo, a night of passion with whom leads to a tentative relationship. But Rodolfo cannot sever himself from his dependent wife and children, and has an inopportune tendency to vanish without a trace, to the great embarrassment of Gloria. Our heroine is wounded, but resolute; she will not be cowed by the experience. What is there left to do, then, but carry out an act of revenge in the most ironic way she can conjure, and return to her habitual nightspot? The film’s conclusion, reminiscent of Claire Denis’ Beau travail (1999), features a stirring use of Umberto Tozzi’s anthem “Gloria” (of course!), and Paulina Garcia’s monumental performance as Gloria the woman guaranteed her the Best Actress award. But in the perverse logic of festival competitions, this seemed to unjustly invalidate Gloria the film from consideration for the bigger prizes.
Torheit, du regierst die Welt, und dein Sitz ist ein schöner, weiblicher Mund.
If a film festival is marked by imposing female leads, then it seems inevitable that Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert would duly make appearances, and so it was with the Berlinale, the latest battleground in the Binocho-Huppertian war that has rumbled on in arthouse cinema over the last couple of decades. Binoche puts in a credible, if incongruous, performance as the titular character in Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel, 1915, charting the incarceration of Auguste Rodin’s erstwhile lover in a monastic insane asylum. Dumont leaves the question of Camille’s actual mental health open-ended: while she insists on her sanity when visited by her brother Paul, who she vainly hopes will rescue her from her plight, she is also prone to bouts of paranoia about being poisoned. The shot with which Dumont concludes the film, a close-up of Binoche against an immutable stone wall, was for me one of the enduring images from this year’s festival, but the film’s major point of interest comes in the clash of acting styles enlisted by Dumont, who juggles the consummate professionalism of Binoche with the use of genuine mentally disabled people in more marginal roles, the highpoint of which comes in a subtly self-reflexive scene where the asylum’s occupants struggle to rehearse bowdlerised lines from Molière’s Don Juan.
In contrast, Huppert’s turn in Guillaume Nicloux’s La Religieuse could not redeem an irrecuperably stale film. Once again, the cottage industry of French period-films strives to tame an incandescent work from earlier times – this time, the victim is double: not only is Diderot’s incomparably subversive novel marshalled for the forces of middle-brow convention, but the legacy of Jacques Rivette’s equally fiery 1965 adaptation is also sullied. Nicloux clearly relished Huppert’s participation in the film, and underscores her late entrance with a belaboured reveal-shot. But in terms of a cruel misuse of an actress’s bountiful talents, the film is only outdone in the festival by the Deneuve-vehicle Elle s’en va (Emmanuelle Bercot), while its status as a tepid literary adaptation is only matched by Bille August’s Night Train to Lisbon, which, with its continental cavalcade of big-name actors mangling Portuguese-accented English in various ways, could probably be used in textbooks as the archetypal example of a Euro-pudding film.
Hallo, ich bin der Dieter, ich verkauf’ die MOZ.
More than Huppert or Deneuve, or even Binoche, the true stand-out French performances of the festival came from the decidedly less renowned figures of Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer in Denis Côté’s Quebecois film Vic+Flo ont vu un ours (Vic+Flo Saw a Bear). A return, for Côté, to the wry character-based humour of Curling, after the minimalist experimentation of Bestiaire, the film centres on a lesbian couple trying to refound their life after long bouts in prison (for crimes that are never fully explained), by holing up in a remote sugar plantation owned by Vic’s paralytic uncle. Their hopes of starting a new life, punctuated by visits from a fastidious parole officer, are cruelly dashed by the arrival of “Marina”, whose jovial façade masks the vicious vengeance she threatens to wreak on Flo for past misdeeds. Côté’s cinema is known for a certain mischievous streak, upending the spectator’s expectations, and here it is exemplified by his adroit guidance of the film from quirky comedy to suspenseful thriller, culminating in one of the most horrifying scenes of the festival.
Nie wieder DeutSSchland!
Although Berlin struggles to hold its own against Cannes and Venice in the sempiternal tussle for big-name directors, this year’s festival fulfilled its quota of established auteurs. Perhaps the most anticipated film of the Berlinale was Jafar Panahi’s Pardé (Closed Curtains). The indomitable Iranian, still subjected to house arrest and an official ban on filmmaking, offered us a work which forcefully shows his prodigious talents have not wilted under the weight of political repression. Here Panahi turns the necessarily underground nature of his shoot into a narrative conceit: a writer (co-director Kamboziya Partov) retreats to his beach house, and covers up the windows with dark curtains in order to conceal the presence of his pet dog (illegal under Iranian law). His repose is interrupted when a young female journalist and her “brother” burst into the house, on the run from the authorities after a crackdown on a beach party. A more fundamental rupture, however, comes approximately halfway through the film: what had up until then been a relatively straight narrative is disrupted when some curtains are pulled down to reveal framed posters of the director’s earlier work, and then Panahi himself calmly walks across the screen, ushering in a dizzying mise en abîme which dominates the rest of the film. Jafar Panahi, in a way, is the Lionel Messi of the cinema: nothing could be less unexpected than for Panahi to pull such a move on the spectator, but no matter how well we prepare ourselves for the crucial moment, he still manages to leave us flat-footed, as he effortlessly dribbles the ball past us.
Ha Ho He! Hertha BSC!
So too with Hong Sang-soo, who can be accused of many things, but not of unpredictability. In their content, tone and cadence, his films are as reliable as the passing of the seasons. It is almost utterly superfluous to note that the plot of his latest outing, Nugu-ui ttal-do anin Haewon (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon) revolves around a married filmmaker/professor (Director Lee) in love with one of his students. This time, however, the story is told from the student Haewon’s perspective, and the focus is more on her pervasive ennui than on the twists and turns of her love life. Bazin was fond of comparing the classical cinema to the gradual carving of a riverbed: at a certain point, the river reaches a “profile of equilibrium” – a mathematically ideal curve which allows it to permanently flow towards its mouth without further widening its bed. Hong, it seems, has reached his own profile of equilibrium: he will continue making the same film, year after year, with only minor variations, but each one will be a manifestation of the ideal state which his filmmaking has reached. It is pointless to consider any of Hong’s films by themselves – rather, they reverberate with each other like chords in a symphony. Such a notion at least finds a metaphor in Haewon: in an image of crushing beauty, Lee sits forlornly on a hilltop, his hunched body silhouetted against the setting sun, the hazy sky daubed with streaks of pink and yellow, as he listens to a tinny cassette recording of Beethoven’s Seventh playing on a portable tape deck. Such an image is, I dare say, a small moment of cinematic sublimity.
Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral!
Hong’s ever-present work aside, Asian cinema was rather under-represented at Berlin, but one notable exception was Yoji Yamada’s Tokyo Kazoku (Tokyo Family). This updated re-working of Ozu’s seminal Tokyo Story (1953) had the potential to be a misguided undertaking, but Yamada – an Ozu disciple who is now more than 80 years old himself – is remarkably able to maintain the deftness of the original in spite of some significant plot changes (most notably the modified role of the Noriko character). In the end, the film made it into my good books merely by dint of being one of the rare contemporary works to be screened on 35mm. The moment when a film festival will be totally bereft of film is, alas!, depressingly near.
Morgenrot, morgenrot, leuchtest mir zum frühen Tod.
George Sluizer, meanwhile, provided us with a curio, which, even more curiously, made its way into the competition. Two decades after River Phoenix’s death during the filming of Dark Blood, Sluizer decided to return to the incomplete footage and fashion a semblance of the finished work. As he explained in a prologue to the film, he was able to give a third leg to what, until then, had been a chair with two legs, but the fourth leg will always be missing. The bizarre effect of watching a festival premiere featuring the ghostly apparition of a long-dead actor was only heightened by the inadvertently Brechtian device of Sluizer’s Dutch-accented voiceover interrupting the action to read out descriptions of scenes from the film which were never shot. Beyond this, however, the film lacks any intrinsic interest, and illustrates Sluizer’s precipitous decline as a director after the superb Spoorloos (The Vanishing – the Dutch version! – 1988).
Die Heroisierung des Durchschnittlichen gehört zum Kultus des Billigen.
Ken Loach, in contrast, shows sustained vigour even well into his seventies. His turn to historical documentary with The Spirit of ’45, on the Labour Party’s post-war electoral victory and the subsequent moves to establish welfare programs and nationalise industry, met with a predictably jaded critical response tarring him with doe-eyed idealism and a stubborn refusal to account for the flaws of a supposedly outdated social model. Against this consensus I must maintain that there is nothing wrong with this film. Loach does, in The Spirit of ‘45’s concluding segment, issue a critique of the Labour program – but it is a socialist critique, focusing on the problems of a bureaucratically-imposed, top-down approach to social transformation. The rest of the film, meanwhile, rightly focuses on the genuine improvements to the everyday life of workers engendered by removing the profit motive from areas such as health, housing, transport and major industry. Of course, the unavoidable counterpoint for the film, and assuredly Loach’s main motivation for making it, is Europe’s present deep crisis, with the current commitment to neo-liberal austerity a painful contrast to the vision shown after World War II, a vision which – with some scattered exceptions – is utterly lacking in today’s political landscape.
Die Bettler! Die Organisation der Bettler!
Berlinale stalwart Raoul Peck returned with a documentary project whose rebarbative polemic contrasted with the optimistic tone of Loach’s film. In the three years since the crippling Haiti earthquake, Peck issues a sharp attack on the international aid agencies which quixotically came to the Haitians’ rescue. His argument is unequivocal: national governments in disaster-stricken areas should have aid money funnelled through them, rather than be circumvented by the independent undertakings of NGOs, which are inevitably inefficient, unfamiliar with local needs and, yes, corrupt. With this broader argument, devastatingly demonstrated by the calamitous reconstruction effort in Haiti, I have little quarrel. While Peck makes no claim to objective neutrality, however, his film is distinctly marred by the hagiographic stance towards former president René Préval, and the glaring absence of any mention of Jean-Baptiste Aristide (Peck, as we know, has close ties to Préval, briefly serving as a minister in his government, and his Tropical Moloch  is ample evidence of his hostility to Aristide).
Amerika, du hast es besser.
American indies were strongly represented across the Berlinale’s various sections. While Gus van Sant (with Promised Land) and Steven Soderbergh (with Side Effects, supposedly his last film) were present in the competition, the extent to which this constituted a coup was blunted by the simultaneous theatrical releases of these films in the US. Of more interest was David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche. With his earlier work veering from Charles Burnett-style neo-realism (George Washington, 2000) to stoner comedy (Pineapple Express, 2008), his new film strikes a middle ground of sorts. A remake of an Icelandic film, Prince Avalanche charts the blossoming “bromance” between Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch (the latter channelling Jack Black) as they do road repairs on a strip of bushfire-scarred Texan countryside in 1988. While Green punctuates the film with poetic interludes of abstract imagery, and even throws in a hint of the supernatural, in the form of an old woman hovering around her burnt down house, the film’s real, if modest, strong point comes in its impeccably detailed rendering of the late 1980s, right down to Hirsch’s yellow and green striped gym socks. Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess similarly mined the 1980s for its retro treasures. An eccentric shift from his mumblecore roots, this oddball film’s take on the computer chess wars of the early 1980s, when university graduate programs battled it out to develop a chess software program capable of beating a human player, was marked above all by the bold choice to photograph the entire film in faded, smudgy-lensed, black and white VHS, to the point that the screen came close, at moments, to being swallowed up by indeterminate grey blobs of matter.
Ich bin Demokrat. Aus Überzeugung.
With Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach ventures into territory that Bujalski had already explored in the early 2000s with Funny Ha Ha (an uncannily similar title, methinks) and Mutual Appreciation, but this picaresque film improves markedly when it moves beyond Dunhamesque quips on the life of twenty-something New Yorkers to sculpt a touching portrait of Greta Gerwig’s impetuous Frances, as she lurches from crisis to crisis in her prolonged adjustment to life after college. The film’s nods to Truffaut and Carax have been amply commented on, but these are not as preponderant as has been made out, and scenes such as Frances’ ill-starred trip to Paris allow the film to stand as an assured work in its own right. But it was down to Richard Linklater, the grandfather of mumblecore (oh, how he must bridle at that sobriquet!), to show these indie kids how it’s done. Nine years separated Before Sunrise (1995) from its follow-up, Before Sunset (2004) – that is to say, an eternity! And nine years have now elapsed since the second film – that is to say, no time at all! Yet we are due for a new instalment, and Linklater obliges with Before Midnight. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are now in their forties, and, with twin daughters in tow, they quarrel their way around a Greek island. There is a diminishing rate of return to this series, and one can only wonder how many more episodes we are in store for. Personally, however, I’m looking forward to 2022’s Before Teatime, where our aging protagonists spend ninety minutes arguing about who should put the kettle on.
Ich kann gar nicht so viel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte.
But enough about the dinosaurs, let us move on to the babies. By far the most satisfying experience of any festival is the discovery of hitherto unknown filmmaking talent. When they originate from distant lands not reputed for robust film financing structures – all the better! In this year’s Berlinale, the most exciting works from emerging directors seemed mainly to come from the former Soviet bloc. The most striking of these efforts, in my view, was the 28 year-old Kazakh Emir Baigazin’s Uroki Garmonii (Harmony Lessons), a haunting tale of an adolescent boy raised by his rustic grandmother, who, when not tasked with gutting sheep on the farm (a confrontational opening shot), is routinely bullied at school. When the boy acts on his impulse for revenge, he and his friend are taken into interrogation by the police, where they are systematically tortured. Darezhan Omirbayev, the grand old man of Kazakh cinema, made one of the best films of 2012 with the unheralded Student. With the Bressonian precision of his shot composition, an innate sense for pacing and an unflinching exposure of the cyclical violence inherent to the mafia-capitalism of modern day Kazakhstan, Baigazin ably follows in Omirbayev’s imposing footsteps.
With the Georgian-German co-production Grzeli Nateli Dgeebi (In Bloom), filmmaking couple Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß mirror Baigazin’s tale of two boys with a tale of two girls, this time in Georgia. Set shortly after independence, as the Caucasian nation slid irrevocably into civil war, this film also shows the cascading effects a nation’s descent into violence can have on its inhabitants. The film has a notably rhythmic quality, exemplified in a long wedding dance scene, as well as typically icy cinematography by Oleg Mutu, but it stands out, above all, for the powerful performances by the two young actresses, which reach a crescendo when the girls engage in a final confrontation with each other, shouting with all their might in a compact Soviet-era kitchen.
Brav gewühlt, alter Maulwurf!
I admit to harbouring suspicions about Za Marksa… (For Marx…), Russian artist Svetlana Baskov’s foray into feature filmmaking. Was this tale of striking steelworkers in contemporary Russia merely an elaborate ruse, an ironic nod to political art movements of yore, playing with a wink to irredeemably cynical festival audiences? Thankfully, no. The film is refreshingly earnest; its scathing depiction of class struggle in the not-yet-deindustrialised heart of Russia is not without a degree of caricature, but this only puts it in the best tradition of Eisenstein’s Stachka (Strike, 1924) or Godard’s Tout va bien (1972), and Baskov seems serious in her wish to tour it around factories, à la the revolutionary cine-trains of Vertov and Medvedkin. Indeed, perhaps her most searing indictment is reserved for the corrupt heart of the contemporary art world: the factory owner refuses to grant his workers meagre pay rises or sorely-needed safety improvements, but insists on buying up Rodchenko and Malevich paintings at Sotheby auctions in order to impress his German trading partners.
Denis Tanovic is by no means new to the cinema, but with Epizoda u Zivotu Beraca Zeljeza (An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker), he too wears his politics on his sleeve. A significant departure from his earlier work, which I have never been overly enthralled by, this micro-budget film’s merging of documentary and fiction (a Gypsy family in Bosnia essentially play themselves) ensures that, in recounting a scrap-metal merchant’s odyssey through the country’s privatised health care system when his uninsured wife suffers a miscarriage, it stays just on the right side of melodrama.
Jedes Wesen soll der Liebe / wonniglich wie wir sich freuen.
If there was one film which truly stunned me, however, it was not from Eastern Europe, but from Argentina. Matías Piñeiro’s masterful Viola, the 30 year-old’s fourth film, takes a rehearsal of Twelfth Night in Spanish translation as its starting point, before the story switches focus to Viola, a delivery girl for a pirate DVD outfit called Metropolis. But the narrative structure follows more of an annular than linear pattern, as typified by the repetition of Shakespeare lines looping in on themselves, or the circular camera movements, panning between radiant close-ups of the female leads, in a magisterially mysterious scene shot in the back seat of a car, where Viola encounters the actresses from the play. For such a dense film, harbouring innumerable intricate secrets, Viola is a pure joy to watch – and even though my beloved Diotima had already submitted herself to the film’s charms several times before the Berlinale, she was more than ready to join me for another ride on this cinematic merry-go-round. But the primary value of Piñeiro’s film, which stands in the best tradition of Rivette’s work – I couldn’t help but think of L’Amour fou (1968) and La Bande des quatre (1989) while watching Viola – is that it transforms our ideas of what the cinema can do, of what the cinema can be. We simply cannot ask for more from a film.
Noch ein Wunsch?
But the true montage-effect of attending the Berlinale is the disjunction between the screenings – whether in the cosy cinémathèque of the Arsenal, the multiplex madness of the CinemaxX, the faded glamour of the International or the bombastic enormity of the Berlinale Palast – and the city outside. Whereas at Cannes or Venice, or even Rotterdam or Toronto, festival-goers are ensconced within a cinephilic bubble, in Berlin the aura of the city invariably invades the movie theatre; its sights, sounds and smells linger on while we watch images plucked from across the globe. In fact, I will go further – the over-arching montage-effect at work is the jolt between everyday reality and the surreal interlude of visiting a film festival. In this case, I was making a Heimkehr to a city I knew all too well. But Berlin is not what it once was – rampaging gentrification is seeing to that. And I am not what I once was – alas… thank God… Wo es war, soll ich werden. In the morning of my final day in Berlin, having bid a teary farewell to Diotima, I caught the U-Bahn. Zurückbleiben, bitte! By lunchtime I was riding the New York subway. Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Montage.
Wie der Zwist der Liebenden, sind die Dissonanzen der Welt. Versöhnung ist mitten im Streit und alles Getrennte findet sich wieder.
– Friedrich Hölderlin
Berlin International Film Festival
7-17 February, 2013
Festival website: http://www.berlinale.de/en/HomePage.html