I must confess, loyal reader, that there can occasionally be something of a lag between the end of a film festival that I am covering and the moment when I finally transform my scattered thoughts into a legible festival report. The 2020 Berlinale officially concluded on March 1, and I am writing these lines only a few weeks later. But in that time, an eternity has passed. While journalists from around the world gathered in screenings at the Berlinale Palast, COVID-19 was still a distant thought. The outbreak occupied newspaper headlines, but it was in China, and we had seen media hysteria about impending plagues fizzle out before (SARS, Bird flu, Ebola, the list goes on). There were reports of the virus spreading: to South Korea, Iran, Italy… But nobody in Germany had died, and there was little talk of travel restrictions or quarantining, let alone a general shutdown of the nation. People wearing masks or fleeing in terror from someone with a sniffle still seemed a little ridiculous. Dignitaries made risible gestures to the dangers of the virus by greeting each other with elbow bumps. Footballers played in front of packed stadiums, U-Bahn trains loaded with passengers trundled around the city, and the festival proceeded without any significant disruption. Even filmmakers from the PRC such as Jia Zhang-ke – here with his testimonial documentary Yi zhi you dao hai shui bian lan (Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue), a comparatively minor addition to his magisterial œuvre – made it to Potsdamer Platz without too many issues.
Shortly after closing night, however, normality came to an end. In Europe, first Italy, then France and Spain went into lockdown. By mid-March, Germany joined them. Borders were sealed, airlines ceased operations, schools, universities and childcare centres shut down. Draconian social distancing measures were put into place. Leaving one’s house became a rare privilege; in any case, with all forms of entertainment suspended and only essential stores remaining open, there was little to do on the streets, as the major cities of the world became ghost towns. Talk was of a global death count in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and if the mortality rate is yet to have fulfilled the most pessimistic predictions, the economic fallout has been worse than any of us could have imagined: businesses collapsing, unemployment ballooning, societies coming apart at the seams. Images redolent of the great depression have returned: queues at dole offices, empty shop shelves, charities handing out food parcels. Given that it is predicated on thousands of people flying around the world to herd themselves en masse into dark, poorly-ventilated rooms for a couple of weeks, the film festival world could not emerge unscathed from the lockdown. On March 6, South by Southwest (SXSW) announced its cancellation. Other festivals soon followed suit, either shutting down entirely or moving to online only programming. The organisers of Cannes dithered, but eventually had to contend with reality and indefinitely postpone its proceedings. Since then, and for the foreseeable future, the film festival as a cultural event has effectively ceased to exist. There was no way of knowing it at the time, but the Berlinale was one of the final major film festivals to take place before this global hiatus. It was, at least for the time being, the last big film festival.
The bitter irony of these developments is that the 2020 edition was supposed to represent a fresh dawn for the festival. After the curtains were drawn on the 19-year tenure of former festival chief Dieter Kosslick, whose programming choices rarely elicited excitement, Italian-born Locarno director Carlo Chatrian had been drafted into the role, a decision which already represented a promising change of direction for the festival. Under Chatrian, Locarno had consolidated its status as very much a cinephiles’ festival, and his messaging upon being announced as festival head made it clear he harboured much the same vision for Berlin. A subtler change in the festival’s division of labour was also encouraging: whereas Kosslick had responsibility for all areas of the festival, Chatrian was anointed “artistic director”, with the logistical side of the festival coming under the stewardship of Mariette Rissenbeek. This meant that Chatrian could focus on the core task of programming, without being sidetracked by peripheral matters which had evidently monopolised much of Kosslick’s attention.
When the Berlinale program was released, a few weeks before the festival’s opening night, the sense of a new era was palpable. Too often, in the past decade or more, the official selection has drawn yawns of apathy, the prospective highlights too thinly spread among the staid, middlebrow fare that dominated proceedings under Kosslick. For the first time I can remember, the competition actually looked exciting. Even if Chatrian faces some insurmountable obstacles – the Berlinale’s positioning in the festival calendar is an unenviable one, while political and financial backing for the event is contingent on a certain dose of red carpet glitz – the new director had crafted a line-up that could not fail to get a cinephile’s pulse beating in anticipation. His major innovation, the introduction of a sidebar labelled “Encounters”, whose selection criteria was stated to be “courage and the search for a new language”, expanded the festival’s possibilities while also offering a more pure distillation of Chatrian’s curatorial vision, disencumbered of the mutually countervailing demands of the competition. Once the festival-goer took into account the other sections of the festival – Panorama, the Forum and Generation – and a particularly bountiful array of retrospective screenings (with a pair of programs centring on the work of King Vidor and a reiteration of the 1971 Forum selection), then one thing, at least, was certain: there would be no lack of films to see at this year’s Berlinale.
In the end, however, the festival was marked more by a certain solidity in its programming than by the presence of truly exceptional works – although this in itself is an achievement of sorts, a firm foundation upon which Chatrian can build in future years, with very little dross. It was therefore apposite that the Jeremy Irons-chaired competition jury ended up awarding the Golden Bear to the Iranian dissident director Mohammad Rasoulof. Nobody can doubt the sincerity and tenacity of Rasoulof’s filmmaking, made all the remarkable by the sacrifices he has made for his art: only last year, Rasoulof was again given a prison sentence, with the Iranian state considering his filmmaking an affront to the nation. As with previous films of his such as Dast-Neveshtehaa Nemisoozand (Manuscripts Don’t Burn, 2013) and Lerd (A Man of Integrity, 2017), Sheytan vojud nadarad (There Is No Evil) directly confronts the oppressive nature of the Islamic Republic, but its title should not necessarily be read ironically. The film’s four sequential episodes focus on the death penalty in Iran (a country which uses capital punishment to an alarmingly high degree), but rather than those awaiting execution, it is the executioners themselves who form the focus here. None are presented as sadistic butchers, instead, they are individuals caught within the merciless logic of the state’s carceral system. There is a certain tonal discord between the episodes. The first one most overtly pushes the Arendtian notion of the “banality of evil”. We watch a middle-aged man go about his day, driving through the streets, spending time with his family, and holed up in a tiny cubicle at his work, where he casually presses a button which – a brutally abrupt cut shows us – hangs several of his countrymen. If the protagonist in the first episode is resigned to his gruesome chore, the following three stories show conscripted soldiers forced to partake in the executions on the pain of being court-martialed. They are therefore presented with the most vexing of moral quandaries: inflict punishment or have it inflicted on themselves. While the film’s second episode takes a genre turn with a prospective hangman making a run for it in a getaway car, the final two are far more dialogue-centred pieces, with those who had obeyed commands dealing with the aftermath their acquiescence has on their consciences and relationships. It is strange to say, given the film’s subject matter, but in comparison to the deadening bleakness of his earlier films, There Is No Evil is actually rather less gloomy than its predecessors, and contains moments of levity and brightness. Rasoulof’s films will probably never be a personal favourite of mine, but it is impossible to cavil at the decision to give him the festival’s top prize – even more so in retrospect, given that the pandemic has made questions of mortality and personal responsibility all the more pressing.
There were certainly other highlights in the festival. Like There Is No Evil, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU.Natasha also probed daily life in the suffocating conditions of an authoritarian system. In this case, however, the film that screened at the Berlinale was merely an offshoot of one of the most megalomaniacal projects in cinema history. Rumours had long circulated around the filming of DAU, in which Khrzhanovsky had created a mini-city in the east of the Ukraine in order to recreate the conditions of a military research facility during the Soviet Union’s high-Stalinist period. The prolonged filming process featured a gargantuan cast holed up in the complex 24 hours a day and really subject to invasive practices of control and surveillance, to the point that the filmmaking itself raised considerable ethical question marks. Evidently, though, the project became a chef d’œuvre inconnu for Khrzhanovsky, tormented by the impossibility of turning the hundreds of hours of footage it yielded into a workable narrative film. For years, an impending festival premiere was mooted for DAU, only to be invariably pushed back. Eventually, it opened as an art installation in Paris in January 2019 (after a planned Berlin show was shelved), incorporating no less than twelve separate features. At Berlin, the 148-minute DAU.Natasha’s competition appearance was accompanied by the 6-hour counterpart DAU.Degeneratsia in the Encounters section. The shorter film, even if it consisted of only a tiny corner of the project as a whole, is an astonishing piece of cinema. The titular Natasha is merely a cashier at the DAU institute’s canteen, but when, during a vodka-drenched booze-up, she sleeps with Luc Bigé, a foreign scientist employed in its military research program, Natasha is confronted with an unforgiving state apparatus. Hauled into a police cell, she is interrogated, tortured and humiliated by the secret police for her infraction. The nightmarish recreation of the Cold War-era USSR is astonishing in its methodical precision, from the starchy uniforms worn by the characters to the peeling paint on the concrete walls of Natasha’s prison cell – even the patina of the 35mm film stock used for filming has a period feel to it. Debate will inevitably simmer about the contentious filmmaking methods Khyzhanovsky has employed (most evident here in the unflinchingly graphic sex scene between Natasha and Luc and the later inquisition she faces), but the harrowing majesty of the resulting work should in no way be diminished by it.
Compared to the divisive reception DAU has gained in its various manifestations, Christian Petzold’s Undine was the source of near-unanimous critical consensus, and is another assured entry in the œuvre of the Berliner Schule director. The storyline derives from fables (as in the 1811 novella by the Prussian aristocrat Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué) of a mythical water nymph fated to kill any man who is unfaithful to her, although Undine’s narrative inspiration is made more explicit in the press materials than in the film itself. Moments of surrealist mystery punctuate the otherwise neo-classical aesthetic that Petzold has pursued throughout his career. In this modern-day retelling of the fairy tale, the titular Undine (Paula Beer) is a loner who works as a guide at the Märkisches Museum in Berlin, ferrying tourists through exhibits about the city’s history. Devastated when her boyfriend callously breaks up with her at a nearby café, Undine soon finds solace in a chance encounter with industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski), as the tremors of their coup de foudre cause a large fish tank in the café to burst (to the displeasure of the owner of the premises). But their blossoming love has a tragic destiny, as Undine’s threat to her former paramour “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you” must inevitably be carried out. Perhaps Petzold’s greatest virtue as a director is his commitment to sincerity – whether in the emotions of his characters or in his own filmmaking style – and Undine is exemplary in this regard. Above all its tale of love and loss conquers the viewer through the charms of the two leads, who reprise their chemistry from Petzold’s 2018 Transit.
Critical plaudits, as well as the Silver Bear, also flowed in for Eliza Hittman’s neo-neo-realist Never Rarely Sometimes Always, whose intimate portrayal of a teenager from rural Pennsylvania who needs to go to New York for an abortion (as state laws in her home state require parental permission for underaged women to terminate pregnancies) is discussed at greater length in this issue’s interview with Hittman. Other highlights in the competition included Philippe Garrel’s Le Sel de larmes (The Salt of Tears) and Hong Sang-soo’s Domangchin yeoja (The Woman Who Ran). The two directors are not often compared to each other, but Garrel’s self-designation as a “gynomaniac” would equally apply to his Korean counterpart. In their Berlinale entries this year, however, both seem to have been affected by the aftershocks of the #MeToo era. Much of The Salt of Tears is easily recognisable from Garrel’s late vein of work: the smoky black and white photography, the bare, unadorned décors, and above all the story of doomed love among Parisian youth. To the taciturn chagrin of his father (André Wilms), Luc (newcomer Logann Antuofermo) transitions from his rural hometown to Paris in order to study carpentry. An insouciant Lothario, Luc is capable of effortlessly seducing a seemingly unending series of women – although a brief episode in which a woman he follows down the street threatens to call the police at least gestures to newer romantic mores in a country which has criminalised wolf-whistling. His carefree attitude to the need to break things off with one partner before pursuing eventually does come back to haunt him, but the film’s narrative then veers into another direction, as the protagonist is unwillingly inveigled into a love triangle due to inadequate student housing conditions. Much as in his preceding “Trilogy of Love”, to which this film can be considered a pendant, if not a fourth installment, Garrel treats the need for narrative closure as nonchalantly as Luc treats the need for relationship closure, and the ethereal sensibility of one of the true poets of cinema remains ever intact. In other ways, however, The Salt of Tears is refreshingly grounded in quotidian reality, most notably in the emphasis he places on the grim economic reality faced by French youth. Once the exorbitant rent for their claustrophobic apartments is taken into account, the characters in the film are reduced to penurious circumstances, to the point that even going out dancing represents a rare luxury.
Hong Sang-soo’s films unavailingly take place in comfortably middle-class surrounds, but in The Woman Who Ran he nonetheless extends a major shift in terrain: whereas the bulk of of his preceding films overwhelmingly took the point of view of a male protagonist (usually a neurotic film director in a romantically messy situation with a younger woman), his new release is marked principally by the absence of men. Hong’s muse Kim Minhee plays a young woman whose husband has left on a business trip, the first time they have been apart in the five years of their marriage. Visiting a series of female friends to stave off her newfound loneliness, the interactions she has during these encounters lead her to re-evaluate her own life. In spite of its willfully low-key, almost amateur production values, The Woman Who Ran offers penetrating psychological analysis into its female characters, and a deep well of sympathy for them. It may be a step too far to call Hong a feminist filmmaker, but few men working in film today would be able to rival him on this score.
Elsewhere in the competition, the results were more mixed. Abel Ferrara’s Siberia was a 90-minute-long hallucination which was carried chiefly by the uninhibited chutzpah of its director, as well as that of Willem Dafoe in the lead role, continuing his recurrent partnership with the New York auteur. Dafoe’s Clint, an American, owns a ramshackle bar in remote snowy wilds which are probably supposed to be in Siberia, but he soon tumbles into a cascading dream journey that plumbs the hero’s tormented psyche. The result of Clint’s mysterious voyage, redolent with symbolist imagery and ruminative voiceovers by Dafoe, may be inconclusive, but the spectatorial experience is thrillingly feverish. Rithy Panh’s Irradié (Irradiated) also follows a stream-of-consciousness logic, but his experimental documentary takes on the accumulated horrors of 20th century history, from the Nazi death camps to the Khmer Rouge. Nobody can doubt the authority with which Panh speaks on this subject – most of his family perished during Pol Pot’s rule, and he has been mining the subject matter throughout his filmmaking career – and here he takes the innovative step of assembling the montage of archival material onto three parallel panels within the widescreen frame, a technique that will doubtless allow the film to make an easy transition into gallery settings. But the voiceover suffusing the film too often resorts to empty platitudes about the evils of war, which give the work a dated feel, as if the audience had been transported back to a debut screening of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog.
Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s Effacer l’histoire (Delete History), by contrast, takes on the most contemporary of themes: the alienation produced by our hyperconnected world. An ensemble of characters living on the fringes of French suburbia confront the Leviathan of corporate Internet culture, whether it is dealing with a sex tape blackmailer or tracking down a dulcet-voiced call centre worker in Mauritius. The perversely maddening behaviour of the cybersphere is ripe (if not overdue) for satire, which Delépine and Kervern duly deliver, although the final third of the film tends to sag. But the directorial duo pack a political punch when the main characters start reminiscing about occupying their local roundabout during the Gilets jaunes movement: it is not surprising that they would have been part of the civil disobedience, but realising that it should have passed so quickly from burning actuality to the realm of wistful nostalgia is nonetheless a jolting moment.
Other films were more underwhelming. I had low expectations for Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken, and it indeed proved to be a piecemeal mess featuring Javier Bardem as a dementia-stricken man dreaming about alternate timelines for his life. But Burhan Qurbani’s contemporary adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz had some promise, transposing the character of Franz Biberkopf to a West African refugee who is drawn into the world of drug dealing and petty crime by the manipulative Reinhold. But Döblin’s literary innovations become gauche in Qurbani’s cinematic hands, with the film’s attempts at modernising the text coming across as overly forced, and the ending is given a ludicrously sentimental treatment that demolishes the logic of everything that precedes it. Similarly disappointing was Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog, which was one of the drawcards of the Encounters section. One of the foremost members of the Romanian new wave, Puiu’s new film represents, a predilection for long-takes aside, the antithesis to the movement’s key traits. Filmed almost entirely inside an aristocratic manor that lends its name to the film’s title, the three-and-a-half hour film is consumed by a series of dialogues between French-speaking Russian aristocrats, inspired by the 19th century mystic philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s writings. But the relentlessness of the crisply pronounced exchanges, with the camera roving from one speaker to the next, is so exhausting as to gradually drive even the most patient of viewers perfectly insane, a tendency exacerbated by the reactionary drivel of the philosophy the characters enunciate. In the end, beyond its overt frustration of spectatorial satisfaction, which pushes well beyond the boundaries of what Puiu has previously dared, there is little to redeem the film.
But Puiu’s failure was not indicative of Encounters. The work of a younger generation of filmmakers featured prominently, including Josephine Decker’s Shirley, a twisted period piece showing a young couple’s insertion into the tumultuous marriage of writer Shirley Jackson and her philandering academic husband Stanley Hyman, and Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, which continues the Argentine’s series of films inspired by Shakespeare comedies. In a lacunary narrative that skips back and forth between time periods, we see a pair of actresses vie for a part in the Bard’s Measure for Measure while confronting their own insecurities. A study in the emotional tonality of colours, Isabella is also another showcase for the screen presence of its two leads, Piñeiro regulars María Villar and Agustina Muñoz, whose recurrent roles in his films contribute greatly to the sense that they represent individual panels in a grander work of art that has been unfolding for much of the 2010s. As for the older guard, Alexander Kluge added to his voluminous multimedia œuvre with Orphea, a bizarre collaboration with the Filipino enfant terrible Khavn de la Cruz, which reimagines the Orpheus myth with the gender rolls reversed. In the end, though, “collaboration” is perhaps overegging things, since the differences between the Kluge-made and Khavn-made segments of the film are so overt that the viewing experience is akin to watching two films on television simultaneously and flicking back and forth between the channels. At the age of 88, Kluge was omnipresent at the festival: the Volksbühne’s foyer was given over to his installation Das Theater der Kinos, featuring video interviews with other filmmakers and a multi-screen reimagining of his DVD work Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (News from Ideological Antiquity, 2008), while the Forum’s retrospective included his 1971 film Der große Verhau (The Big Mess), making the unflagging Kluge the only figure to feature in both the retrospective and contemporary sides of the festival.
In complete reversal from last year, when its programming marked a refreshing alternative to the tepid competition line-up, the Forum felt somewhat lacking. In parallel to the changes in the Official Selection, the Forum was also under new leadership, with Cristina Nord overseeing her first edition this year, but there is a sense that the Forum has the most to lose in the Chatrian era. Indeed, the Encounters section almost seems tailor made to snap up films that would otherwise have been destined for the Forum. As a result, there were few big names in this year’s Forum – a fact which was further highlighted by the contrast with the retrospective of its inaugural 1971 edition, which included work by Kluge, Marker, Straub, Visconti, Makavejev, Oshima and Med Hondo – and few of the more speculatively chosen films I watched were particularly memorable, with the chief (and symptomatic) exception of Valeria Sarmiento’s restoration/reimagining of the raw footage from Raúl Ruiz’s unfinished debut El Tango delvuido y su espejo deformante (The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, 1967-2019). There seemed to be a focus more on cinema at its margins, particularly in the realm of experimental documentary, perhaps, one could say, a pivoting of its mission to “explore new avenues and unconventional ideas from beyond the mainstream”. The radical film circles around the Forum were no doubt happy to finally see the back of Kosslick, but this may prove to be a case of “careful what you wish for”: under a festival director whose tastes are closer to their own, the Forum’s programmers may have a much harder time in nabbing their desired films, and the margin they operate in could become appreciably more compressed.
And so as I come to the end of my festival report, I am suddenly overcome with a sense of equivocation. In the face of a worldwide health crisis of a scale not seen for a century, is it not a little trivial to write about a film festival? What do the above lines matter in the face of such loss? Now, more than ever, fellow festivaleers, is a time when we need to profoundly think about the nature of the festival circuit and the global jet-setting and elitist hermeticism it implies. Perhaps there are other channels for the cinema, other ways for films to find the audiences they need. Perhaps this really will be the last film festival. Right now, nothing is certain.
Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin
20 February – 1 March 2020
Festival website: https://www.berlinale.de/en/home.html