Hito Steyerl’s 1998 film The Empty Centre follows the transformation of downtown Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz from a no-man’s land, once split in half by the Berlin Wall, to a central European Times Square, thick with gleaming glass-and-steel buildings. Today, many of these buildings are home to the Berlinale’s screenings, press conferences, opening galas, and European Film Market. The centre is no longer empty, but as Steyerl’s narration intimates, old boundaries give way to new ones. In particular, many of the films at this year’s Berlinale were conceptually rich but struggled to communicate their heady content. My personal preference was less a film than a “happening” featuring a slow-moving Buddhist monk – a small-scale, high-definition performance piece that demonstrated few narrative conceits, preferring to privilege an innovative interplay between cinematic space and time. But first, the rest…
Canadian director Denis Côté describes his latest work, Que ta joie demeure (Joy of Man’s Desiring), as an “allegory of an idea of work”. Similar to his Bestiaire (2012), Que ta joie demeure is stylistically spare and philosophically dense. The film is filled with religious references, from iconography to the eponymous Bach cantata itself and shots of various workers’ near beatific faces concentrated on their tasks or relaxing during a break. (There’s even a carpenter.) By contrast, Bestiaire trained an emotionless gaze on its animal subjects, both dead and alive, and on the humans charged with their care or the preservation and display of their corpses. Côté’s observational approach acquired a moral compass in its editing: the living animals are physically imprisoned, while their human handlers are in turn caught up in the effort to dominate (or stuff and mount) their furry subjects.
Que ta joie demeure establishes a different dialogue – man versus machine. This begins with an abstract wordless sequence of whirling, swinging, pumping machines and occasionally their human operators. The film quickly gives way to a series of awkward encounters between workers in different factories and workshops and a team of actors whom Côté brings on board to spice things up. Among other interventions, the actors utter opaque phrases: “Hard work never killed anybody. Why take the risk?” Occasionally, Côté seems on the verge of approaching an interesting equation between the work of acting (or filmmaking) and manual labour, but he never pushes this tension as surreally far as Leos Carax does in Holy Motors (2012). Instead, actors and workers co-exist but never seem to interact. The former tend to be laconic, while the latter are for the most part ill at ease around Côté’s camera. Whatever made Bestiaire so eerily revealing – as though Martians had descended to study human-animal relations – is missing in Côté’s more recent film.
Philip Widmann and Karsten Krause’s Szenario (Scenario) is a biting critique of postwar West German society, textually similar to Walter Abish’s acclaimed 1980 novel How German Is It, a postmodern black comedy of manners. Set in 1970s Cologne, Szenario outlines in occasionally explicit, highly specific detail the affair between a married business owner and his also married secretary. Aside from a few wordless sequences featuring the assumed couple in various stages of post-coital undress and others depicting the contents of a briefcase from which the “scenario” in question has been reconstructed, all of the visuals are shot in present-day Cologne – public parks, apartment stairwells, building exteriors. Most stand in for the spaces addressed in the narration, while others are more oblique signifiers.
Szenario’s makers appear to be following Masao Adachi’s suggestion that landscapes visually reflect a society’s power dynamics. Their style of recording urban space both illustrates and transforms the monotonic narration. Calmly, methodically, occasionally humorously, Widmann and Krause lead us through an amorous affair that illustrates the capitalist fallacy of equal opportunity in life, work and love. A number of twists toward the narrative’s end reveal the underside of assumed freedoms, and the complicity of urban spatial and social configurations in sustaining male domination in the post-war Federal Republic.
It’s difficult to speak, write, or even think about the spectacle that has become Lars von Trier’s film(s) Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 and Volume 2, particularly since both parts, released separately, have different versions, those released in cinemas and von Trier’s own final cuts. I can only attempt to discuss the commercial releases of both parts, which I saw consecutively upon their release in Copenhagen – at the time, the entire city was plastered with the film’s now-infamous ‘orgasm-face’ ad campaign – as well as von Trier’s cut of Volume 1, screened at the Berlinale.
What shocks the least in Nymphomaniac is the explicit sex. The film’s aggressive ad campaign aside, it contains little that wasn’t already on view last year in Alain Giraudie’s L’Inconnu du Lac (Stranger by the Lake) or Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour), aside from more abundant penis close-ups and, of course, heterosexual sex. A colleague put it best: “Somewhere hidden in this film is the one that he would have made if Cannes never happened,” alluding to von Trier’s overstated gaffe at that film festival in 2012 when he appeared to refer to himself as a Nazi. More remarkable than the sexual imagery is the transparent, sometimes grating, preaching undertaken by von Trier, alternately through actors Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård, the “nymphomaniac” and her father confessor, whose awkwardly asserted Judaism permits von Trier to respond to the 2012 anti-Semitism charges while clunkily denouncing Zionism. In Volume 2, Gainsbourg refers to her two black male lovers as “negroes”, then defends her use of the term with a similarly ungainly justification about the necessity of freedom of speech in a democratic society: a concept drawn directly from von Trier’s caricaturally Danish “cultural radicalism” toolkit.
When pressed in interviews about von Trier’s attitude towards women, his female stars, Gainsbourg included, tend to respond that he “loves” women. That he may hate them as well is of course just as likely – but the question of why he has devoted much of his career to exploring unusually extreme female personalities goes unanswered. Much of what Nymphomaniac tries to say and do regarding sex, desire, happiness, depression, morality and freedom has already been said and done in von Trier’s previous work, from Breaking the Waves (1996) to Dogville (2003) to Melancholia (2011). It makes one think, as my colleague suggested, that if von Trier felt less obligated or imposed upon to explain himself, he might one day resume making visionary work. Nymphomaniac may well be von Trier’s most overtly anxious film, constantly stopping both to question itself and inform its audience of its intentions. Whether the sex is explicit or not is less a concern than whether the material in between is designed to convey something or just provide a context for its limited punch-line provocations.
Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence is doomed from its first title card: “Preface”, it reads. We’re in postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak’s Columbia University office in New York City. She hasn’t bothered to clear the pile of books off the desk in between her and the camera, behind which is concealed a prepared text that she recites, explaining the historical relevance of Franz Fanon’s 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, from which Concerning Violence draws its title and its narration. She then provides an endorsement of the film that we are about to see (or are already seeing?) as necessary viewing. It’s not clear how Olsson imagines this stilted academic introduction functioning in relation to the larger work. It also seems a bit off that, following on the heels of his massively successful The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011), Olsson feels the need to surround himself with so many predetermined points of reference – Fanon’s text, the Spivak introduction, and Lauryn Hill who reads the voice-over (excerpts of Fanon’s text that she recites appear on the screen for added emphasis). But this isn’t simply a Cliffs Notes version of Fanon’s seminal work, though Olsson’s goal is designedly populist and educational.
Following the sources of The Black Power Mixtape, Olsson has returned to Swedish television archives, this time in search of material on African decolonisation struggles, filmed across the continent. Each section of the film is compelling enough on its own – encounters with a racist white Rhodesian, colonial troops, and freedom fighters – but for Olsson the images are pure information (aside from a garish, war-wounded, amputee Madonna with Child sequence which is meant to be poetic), supplemented by additional aural information, a barrage of sounds, voices, words. Despite its textual basis and academic stamp of approval, Concerning Violence is of negligible value even within a limited educational context. It transmits a vision of The Wretched of the Earth as manifesto, not as the tortured but articulate cry of pain that is Fanon’s text. By simultaneously bleeding all the poetry out of the original and refusing to allow his frequently bloody images to communicate on their own, Olsson does justice to neither.
Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal’s Huba (Parasite) is a beautifully shot, hopeless vision of contemporary Poland, a more stylistically experimental form of contemporary Eastern European depressionist cinema. An older, sickly man, a young woman, and her newborn baby share a single apartment, barely exchanging a word, while the baby makes up for the lack of conversation by crying. They visit a doctor who drily scolds the mother for not nursing her child enough. Other dialogue is sparse. This is not a family, but some rough attempt at recomposing a home. It’s not clear exactly why they live together at all, but the title hints at a cynically simple reason: survival. While the baby demands to be suckled by its mother, the older man – in between sleepless nights plagued by waking dreams where he lives alone in a kind of factory where he once may have worked – attempts and fails to eat porridge. The mother has more of an appetite, spooning down bowls of cereal while eyeing the wide-eyed happy adolescent girl on the carton. After returning from a dirt-bike tournament where she doesn’t appear to know anyone, the mother ignites a surreal explosion of food in the kitchen – smashing open a container of corn flakes, followed by spaghetti, milk, jam and other solids and liquids.
The latter is shot from a camera placed on the kitchen floor and we see (and hear in marvelous sonic isolation from any other ambient noise) the various food items splattering into one another, as though tumbling unchewed from a useless esophagus into an empty, linoleum-tiled stomach. Huba is a work (and one of shockingly few works at this year’s Berlinale to be actually shot on film) concerned above all with sensations and gestures, mostly relating to human needs. Desire has little place, apart from the mother’s longing to escape from her daily routine of eating and feeding. Her rage at herself, and implicitly at her child, for merely being hungry embodies the directors’ rejection of a society condemned to do little more than subsist – meanwhile the old man is rendered useless, literally denuded and dispossessed by his own inability or lack of energy to do even that.
In his most recent novel, La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory, 2010), French writer Michel Houellebecq features a caricatured version of himself in what gradually becomes the book’s central plot. L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq (The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq), directed by Guillaume Nicloux, enacts a variation on this theme by having the writer play himself, though it’s never clear how much of this depiction is real or constructed, one of the many games that the film plays with notions of celebrity. Kidnapped by a band of mixed-martial arts fighters and former Israeli soldiers, handcuffed to a bed in the countryside outside of Paris, Houellebecq mainly focuses on consuming his impressive daily quota of red wine and cigarettes, a process rendered difficult by his kidnappers’ refusal to allow him to keep his own lighter. What would otherwise border on slapstick is offset by Houellebecq’s unassuming intellectual deftness and the war of wits that ensues between his captors and himself on subjects ranging from the author’s excessive drinking to his – to them – unintelligible writing. The situation’s absurdity is underlined by the kidnappers’ trust that Houellebecq’s nihilism won’t prompt him to give them up once freed. In a final scene, the writer promises to return to visit one of his kidnappers’ elderly parents, at whose house he’s been held captive. An appropriately crooked portrait of the uncompromising and secretive writer, L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq often holds forth on literature and French politics, occasionally philosophising without neglecting its spontaneous, whimsical rhythm.
On their own, Tsai Ming-Liang’s consistent use of long, static shots, an aesthetic approach straddling cinema and video art, and an evident love for French cinema past and present fail to make him particularly original. And yet few other filmmakers today choose to emphasise rather than attempt to transgress the limits of high-definition cinema, insistently producing minimalist content in detail-rich form. In Xi You (Journey to the West), Tsai fetish actor Lee Kang-Sheng arrives in Marseille, in southern France, reprising his role as a slow-moving monk in Tsai’s ongoing Walker cycle. Marseille turns out to be a unique urban environment for Lee’s red-robed monk to stride through, creating his own slow-motion timescape. While passers-by walk past and around him, Lee’s monk laboriously moves his feet one excruciating inch by inch, occasionally arousing interest, and at other times creating eddies in the flow of crowds, like a slowly rolling stone in a fast-moving stream.
Tsai makes use of the languorous urban environment of France’s second-largest and most ethnically diverse city to liberate Lee from the more frantic surroundings of the East Asian metropolis, while similarly diverting passers-by who encounter Lee from their daily routines. Composed of fewer than fifteen individual shots and lasting less than an hour, Xi You is marvellously concise and riveting. The peregrinations of Lee’s monk (occasionally shadowed by French actor Denis Lavant, also a veteran of street performance in his collaborations with Leos Carax) through Marseille’s shadowy stonewalled passageways as well as its more contemporary constructions (architect Norman Foster’s “Ombrière”, an immense mirrored awning on the city’s Old Port) reveals some of the city’s quirks as well as its relative openness. If the monk’s real-life observers tend to lose interest in his snail-like progress after a few seconds or minutes, we stay tethered to him, caught up in his wake.
More than a transient intermediary between the city’s spaces and its inhabitants, in a metaphysical sense Xi You’s monk appears to be everywhere at once. He is space in in the abstract, in its simultaneous expansion and contraction, its everywhere-ness. Following the screening, a crowd of Berlinale cinemagoers spilled out of the East German-era Kino International onto the sidewalk of Karl-Marx-Allee, cars whizzing past us. Confused, panicked, momentarily lost, we looked around for the monk; his lack of questions or answers, his plodding progress with no fixed destination, a blissfully empty centre unto himself, an eddy in the stream.
Berlinale – Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin
6 – 16 February 2014
Festival website: http://www.berlinale.de