Two women by the sea, their faces framed by cloth that give protection from the wind. They look at each other, the sea is foaming, the beach studded with cliffs: A scene for a painting. But it is not a landscape painting that connects the women, instead it is a representative portrait. A portrait that is intended to make a soon-to-be husband at the court of Milan all the more eager to meet the Frenchwoman and to curtail the time until marriage in the non-digital age. But nothing is cut short here, because it takes time to complete the painting, as the portrayed becomes the actual resistance to the plot. So what happens if someone does not want to be painted? What we see in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is Céline Sciamma’s clever staging of a representation without a representant. She depicts people instead of figures; love instead of gender. Sciamma thus changes everything: as if the flames that destroy the first attempt at painting in the film also burst apart the too-often clichéd film images of love between women. It is extremely smart to link such aesthetic questions of representation with the act of painting in this way. “Did you dream about me?” “No, I was thinking of you.” The appeal of the film lies in the fact that Sciamma is so precise – not only in pictures, but in language, where otherwise the cliché might rage between lines of dialogue, waiting to build up to the same ready-made sentences. Just as painting expresses sensuality, the filmic is also sensual, when cloths are wrapped around faces like passe-partouts, when intimacy is expressed by distance and the canvas between the women becomes a trigger for closeness; where choral chants carry passion and warmth into the cinema.
Even though Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not primarily concerned with women, as was foregrounded at the time of its release, but with love in general, both concerns are not mutually exclusive, and it is important to emphasise this in order to understand what Sciamma has created.
One is usually reluctant to juxtapose films, but when you watch one film after the other in a festival setting, comparison is soon unavoidable. Pelikanblut (Pelican Blood) obviously also attempts to tackle a female main character and the film raises both biological and psychological questions. After the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film screened in director Katrin Gebbe’s hometown of Hamburg, but a critical debate was absent, probably due to the fact that the screening was part of the ceremony to award Nina Hoss the Douglas Sirk Prize. Indeed the actress’ work shroud’s Pelican Blood, fortunately, because the remembrance of Hoss’ performative power masks the narrowness of possibilities this film has given her. Limiting her to a mother figure fighting for the love of her adopted daughter, a child from Romania who becomes an animal that disturbs, bites and abuses. The weakness of the staging is thrown into relief when one recalls Nora Fingscheidt’s recent and thematically similar Systemsprenger (System Crasher). Where Fingscheidt is not afraid to free herself from role models and attributions, Gebbe clings to certain images of femininity, woven from clichés. Her imagery appears cold, raw; the editing is inelegant, and the characters’ interactions seem half-hearted. There is a story to be told here, but not a single image will be remembered after the film. Every explanation is given, everything that could be recognised by itself is recited: Google results have to be read out loud unnaturally; every gesture of affection towards the children has to be underlaid with lines by Hoss. Perhaps even worse, the film commits itself to one-dimensional attributions: thus Romania becomes the origin of neglected children and Romanian authorities are happy to deport their problems. Such simple ascriptions and overly clear outlines take away the soul of strong images.
…and the creative spirit was restive and urgent. He was swiftly mastered by the concept or sensation in him that struggled in birth-throes to receive expression and form, and then he forgot himself and where he was, and the old words – the tools of speech he knew – slipped out.
Jack London describes the beginnings of a writer’s poetry as a kind of birth. After Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, nothing is the same as it once was: the film is a kind of cinephilic rollercoaster. With sensitivity and a gift for observation, he presents the life of Martin Eden, who, through literature, makes his way from poor conditions to the higher classes. In the process, spirit meets love and vice versa, the burden of love becoming a catalyst for his own intellectual self-determination. Not only is the story so beautiful and engaging to follow, but Marcello manages to use filmic means to assemble cognitive experiences. By cross-cutting with archival footage, he creates a dance of visual pleasures from encounters, memories and emotions. The analogue colours (the film is shot on Super 16mm and 16mm, much beloved by this uncategorisable filmmaker) immerse the film in the reality of another era, in which there is much to discover, and the visual language is as fresh and imaginative as if it were unearthing a new genre.
The reason many critics travel to Hamburg is the Vitrina section, curated by Argentinean film critic Roger Koza. It has been for many years now the festival’s cinephile wild card section, with a focus on Latin American cinema, but encompassing the Ibero-Romance language sphere. A transnational approach to curating that should serve as a role model for other festivals. This year the horizon even stretched as far as the Portuguese speaking African country of Mozambique, as Koza never tired of pointing out in his introductions. The section often includes films that often have not yet screened at the main festivals. Above all it is distinctive for its foregrounding of an aesthetic vanguard. Here you can find cinema that dares to do something new and questions the conventional. With films such as Longa noite (Endless Night, Eloy Enciso Cachafiero), La Ciudada Oculta (The Hidden City, Victor Moreno) and Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa), Koza once again created an artistically strong film program, but one that also offered straight narratives, such as the film Hogar (Maternal). No notable visual strategies are created here, but rather a story is told of young mothers in a monastery that supports them in bringing up their children. The character of the young Italian novice, whose grace and care says less about faith than about humanity and describes more a transnational than a national story, allows for immersion and above all curiosity for an unknown milieu. This is a characteristic that makes this film stand out and illustrates how valuable a filmmaker’s prior experience with documentary filmmaking (such as director Maura Delpero has had) can be for fictional material.
Elsewhere, in the Freihafen section for European co-productions, an example of young cinema by a recent German film school graduate was shown. Anna Sofie Hartmann has something in common with Katrin Gebbe, because her Giraffe also carries the burden of the second film. After Limbo (2014), expectations were high and (so it can be assumed) the pressure was high. Hartmann’s new film is concerned with the Fehmarnbelt tunnel, which is to be built between Denmark and Germany. An exciting and politically explosive topic, the story of the tunnel features tales of resettlements and workers who don’t know whether their contracts will run for months or just days. It tells of rich European countries campaigning for climate protection and fair wages, which they then forget about when it comes to major projects such as the tunnel under the Baltic Sea. Something very similar happens to the film. Hartmann begins poetically as if she were expressing ideas of Gaston Bachelard with images and in doing so traverses spaces. She films calmly, with patience and appreciation for these places: abandoned houses, rooms, walls, habitats, spaces in which diary entries are found that evoke past experiences. The camera registers artefacts that have remained in the foundation walls, in the grass and between bookshelves. These are places that will soon have to be left behind because the tunnel excavators are approaching. Places that have perhaps already been abandoned, but still bear stories. Hartmann then goes on to tell a story, and perhaps the problem is that it is not clear which story it is. She departs from her sublime documentary approach to connect the places with a clichéd love story between a journalist and a Polish worker. One doesn’t believe their performances; they move isolated in a film that has lost any idea of what is being shown here. Such a story, which comes across as if it were written for the funding institutions, destroys the poetry of an idea that was there at the beginning. Still, it would be interesting to know how the production process of Giraffe affected the resulting film.
After Hamburg, a question gnaws at me: what is the essential relationship between films and the festivals they screen at? When recommendations are made as to where a film should be submitted – how does a filmmaker know it is the right advice? Market logic means not only competitive pressure, but for festivals like Hamburg it also means curating according to market logic. This becomes especially apparent in the Televisionen program, where new TV productions are screened before they broadcast but, I would argue, it is more about the local television industry populating the Hamburg red carpet rather than screening great quality televisual work. I really like watching German television films because I am tempted to see what is usually written off by German critics without really analysing what is there. I like to closely look at what I deplore, because then it worries me less as I am coming at it in an informed way: a stodgy, formalised mises-en-scène that can’t even inspire actors to perform, or gross dramaturgical editing mistakes (done in haste, given the large and quick output expected of TV productions) that still make it into the final work. But there are not only bad television films, there are also great directors who take the more financially-certain path via television. I am not stating that a television section in a festival is bad per se. It’s just that even German television has better things to offer than this selection would have one believe. All these comments are not new, but they must be made repeatedly to affect change for a more independent curation, fighting the political dependencies of the industry and their urge for currency. If one looks to Berlin, it is the Perspektive Deutsches Kino that has a somewhat similar problem in its curatorial approach. After all, there are young filmmakers in Germany who inspire us with their cinematic power, with their aesthetic demands on the audience, but are often not shown in sections that have a preference for conservative narrative cinema. These sections and festivals reproduce the image of a national film language, instead of opening up to different cinematic varieties. Let alone that these innovative young filmmakers, often more concerned with their work instead of self-promotion, are intimidated by funding regulations which are intended to create obvious narratives. The problem in Germany is not that there is no cinema culture, but that too many people who hold the crucial festival positions are too absorbed in the presets of usual festival programming and are only compiling instead of curating in the literal sense of the word curare, which means caring for what is put together. Beneath various choices seems to be a fear of making decisions. The aforementioned Nora Fingscheidt, who is rightfully celebrated today, first had to make a film that would fill-out her aesthetic consciousness with a strong emotional timbre and thus appeal to a larger audience, in order to be recognised. However, one could have come across her earlier, for example 15 years ago, when she helped to build up the Filmarche, a self-organised, state-recognised film school in Berlin. But if you don’t study at one of the more prestigious film schools and present a commercially structured project, you will not be recognised, seen or heard at such a young age. In Germany, not only must talents be encouraged more, but their discovery must be encouraged. A possibility is to award influential positions that make decisions about cultural funding and festival programs to people who are young, well-connected, internationally experienced and thus breaking apart the convention that fills vacancies with well-established industry figures. Also, one hopes that the people who remain in these positions continually ask themselves if they still have the necessary curiosity and are willing to scrutinise their programming processes instead of continuing with business as usual.
The good thing is that things are starting to come in motion. The Perspektive Deutsches Kino appears to have sharpened the contours of its own section. Whereas in recent years up to 17 films were compiled in an unstructured way, the selection is now focusing on eight films, four documentaries and four feature films each. This is refreshing and gives the impression of curatorial work in the form of a conceptual reorientation. A curatorial line is also evident, according to which the films are subsumed under the antonymous terms Heimatfilm/Heimathorror. It is not with assertions but with questions that the films are positioned in terms of content, thus interlocking the section within current geopolitical social debates. Changes do not have to be huge in order to bring about actual progress, but they must act on the structural mechanisms that are in place. In the case of a film section, these can be factors such as the number of films and a transparent logic behind the selection.
With the showcase of Céline Sciamma’s work, Filmfest Hamburg has shown what it could be if it were to draw on more new ideas from the program team. If there was more thoughtfully-curated cinema in the individual sections, as Roger Koza demonstrates in Vitrina, then something might be in motion in northern Germany that could counter the film strongholds of Berlin and Munich.
26 September – 5 October 2019
Festival website: https://www.filmfesthamburg.de/en/