On the second full day of this year’s Berlin Film Festival, George Clooney’s earnest face peered out with an admonishing pointer finger from one of the local tabloids – not, as one might expect, in the well-worn celebrity snarl at paparazzi, but because he was “advising/warning [German chancellor] Merkel.” The peculiarity of that headline underscored the odd and uncertain state in which Berlin and Germany finds themselves these days. At the festival for the international premiere of the Coens’ Hail Caesar, Clooney and his wife, human rights attorney Amal Alamuddin, went on to meet with the German Chancellor, though not so much to advise her, as the famously yellow local press screamed, but rather to support the Chancellor’s controversial refugee policies. With her surprisingly open policy toward refugees – Germany has taken over a million asylum seekers in the last year, the much larger US by contrast well under 100,000 -– Merkel has come under increasingly histrionic criticism, especially from her own party and the parties to the right of it. Her stance, however, has won praise from many in the film industry, including those on this Berlinale’s international jury (chaired by Meryl Streep), which awarded Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, a documentary about the refugee crisis, the festival’s top prize. That constellation of celebrity warnings and partisan-political theatrics underscores the strange, strained context in which this year’s festival unfolded. Including, but also beyond, the refugee issue, the sundry struggles of Germany and the EU more generally became especially clear in one section, one of festival director Dieter Kosslick’s marquee innovations to the Berlinale, a venue to promote German cinema (“Perspektive Deutsches Kino” – PdK). For both Kosslick and the PdK, the refugee crisis is deservedly the headline topic in these stuttering times for Europe, but the EU (at whose core Berlin rests pretty much indisputably in these uncertain days) has a wider series of challenges that make its future even more opaque than usual: broader (and border) immigration and integration issues for rapidly aging countries (a rejuvenation in which the refugees may or may not play a part, depending on one’s perspective); the continued fiscal and economic struggles in the Euro-zone, especially grinding uncertainty for young Europeans seeking a foothold in ever undulating labor markets; the wars in Syria and Ukraine, both Russia exacerbated and complicated, as well as the instability elsewhere in Middle East (Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Israel/Palestine); the David Cameron-engineered possibility of a British exit (“Brexit”) from the EU; and the risk of terrorist attacks of the sort France sustained last year as well as the racist fall-out in the wide wake of them. These are complicated, troubling times for the EU and Germany, something reflected in the films of the Perspektive section, many of which consider topics that, in light of these many challenges, foreground a changing but trepidatious Germany and Europe. Such transitional moments can make for intriguing culture, and one finds in this year’s PdK exactly what one could well hope for: a considered, canny, and skilled engagement with these challenges and the transformative character of them.
One of the most anticipated films of the section, Aline Fischer’s Meteorstrasse, takes up refugees from another recent war, the 2006 conflict in Lebanon and Israel, although it ruminates on a more general problem – the literal or de facto orphaning caused by the massive movement of migrants and refugees around the world. The title refers to a downtrodden (by tidy German standards) street and neighbourhood near Berlin’s Tegel Airport where two siblings live without their deported parents. A title citing place, particularly a place of relentless land and air transit, fits the film well: through mid-teen Mohammed (Hussein Eliraqui) and somewhat older Lakhdar (Oktay Özdemir), the sibling Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, the film unfolds events tracking the contemporary movement of peoples into and around the far corners of Europe. The film opens with documentary images of the 2006 war, images that turn out to be traumatised flashbacks of Mohammed from when he was a child admiring the streaking beauty of fighter jets seconds before his world exploded. The arc from documentary images to Mohammed’s psyche is telling for the film, which hews closely to the young man’s perceptions and experiences of a subtly hostile Germany – not so much upon arrival as a child but, some ten years after the war, as he seeks an apprenticeship in his area of interest and budding expertise, motorcycles. This close-up focus on the affect and feelings of the downtrodden pays homage to the Dardennes – and the shots that alternate the monotony of a garage apprenticeship with the utopian release astride a motorcycle certainly recall their breakthrough La Promesse. Like the Dardennes, Meteorstrasse proves particularly adept at tracking the fraying strands of generational solidarity among the world’s less privileged. Such unravelling of generational transmission is central in Meteorstrasse, as Mohammed’s only direct role model is his unstable, likely criminal brother, Lakhdar, whereas he wants to learn from a garage owner who considers helping him but also wants out of a mechanical dead-end sector in the newer IT economy. By the end, Mohammed is on the move again to destinations unknown, although Fischer seems to have had Denis’s Beau Travail in mind, an admirable cinematic model that yields some breathtaking images of further/farther movement for Mohammed at the film’s conclusion.
A key function of the festival, especially of the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section, is the discovery of emerging filmmaking talent in Germany, most often from Germany’s film schools. Usually this means that an exceptional graduation film might make it into the festival, but an impressive feature-length debut from David Clay Diaz was not even that, but rather a third-year film-school work that was better directed than many of the mature entries around the festival. Diaz was born in Paraguay and followed his mother to Vienna, where he studied philosophy before enrolling at the Munich film academy. Although at times a little gimmicking in its plot conceit and narrative structure – it is cross cut between two young men who do not knowingly meet, both hurtling toward a somewhat contrived end – the film impressed for its atmospheric portrait of the Austrian capital and above all direction of the excellent performances. The film is especially vivid in approach and execution of character, its dual protagonist embodying the struggles of middle Europe’s young generation amid an economically cloudy future – it ends up a cross between Xavier Dolan’s emotionally arresting travails of young men and Ulrich Seidl’s close-up exploration of the peculiarities of the Austrian body. Agony opens with a wide shot of a stately Austrian military building in front of which waits a recently discharged Alex (Alexander Srtschin), headed back to the high-rise, low-rent apartment of his mother, policeman father, and little sister. In this claustrophobic world, Alex works out, boxes and raps with surprising, arresting effectiveness, a creative endeavour that betrays deeper uncertainty and struggle. Alex’s working-class trajectory is intercut with the more middle-class life and ambitions of a law student from Germany, Christian (Samuel Schneider), who makes himself study long hours, impress bourgeois friends with polished phrases and hair, all while hiding from them his modest job at a local cineplex. The film deftly explores how the two young men handle their gnawing frustration and growing anger in a world that contains few outlets. As with Dolan, Diaz proves particularly effective (and surprisingly assured) in depicting intergenerational relations and using music, all to achieve a memorable melange of fury and early onset melancholia for Europe’s struggling youth.
Julius Schultheiß’s Lotte also engages the struggles of the younger generation in a rapidly changing middle Europe, though in the kind of effective comedic register that has seen Germany grow its domestic market share considerably over the last years. Bad Santa, Bad Grandpa and even, as the Hollywood Reporter from Day 5 of the festival screams, Bad Cat (“Forget Garfield, he’s a pussy,” we are told) – it is a subgenre of comedy that can be somewhat one note (mischievous inversion of a positive social role) but that can, for all the apparent monotony, turn out quite funny. Lotte (Karin Hanczewski) the title character is an ostensibly bad, thirty-ish mother: she abandoned her daughter Greta (Zita Aretz) in the provinces fifteen years ago and has subsequently been living a life of debauched abandon in Berlin every since. Her lifestyle also clashes quite funnily with her day job as nurse (to a patient: “if you have a problem . . . just please call someone else”), the job that brings her back into touch with her now fifteen year-old daughter. The daughter Greta puts up initial resistance (“I’m far too young to smoke” to Lotte’s encouraging “Well, I smoked like a chimney at your age”), but, when Greta realises Lotte is her mother, she allows herself to be introduced to Lotte’s craven lifestyle, including not only smoking, but wanton drinking, drugs and sex. The comedy is well-written and executed over most of the film, driven by a well-timed but also subtle performance by Hanczewski as more precipice – than fun-loving Lotte (she solves one argument with Greta by a competitive drinking game). The writing and performance drive the film beyond the merely comedic subgenre into deeper character and emotional territory that works convincingly in Schultheiß’s second feature, so he and Clay Diaz are, in my opinion, directors to watch.
Another effective film with a strong woman at its core is Kamilla Pfeffer’s artist documentary Wer ist Oda Jaune? which also, by its end, provides more memorable evidence for Germany’s benefitting from its relative openness to immigration. The film opens with a montage of Jaune’s paintings and footage of her at work, but then, quickly, challenges this placid, pleasing opening with the painter’s abrupt resistance to having cameras and crew in her studio. It is an opening salvo that foregrounds questions about the meaning of her provocative work and her processes of creating it. The paintings are regarded (viewers hear during the film) as overly brutal and excessively sexualised, as many depict naked bodies in extremis and even with external organs (among her favourite artists are Picasso and Francis Bacon). But Jaune herself seems quiet, modest, and unpretentiously interior, even as the camera plays with her looks – the filmmaker informs her that she has been called the most beautiful painter in the world by one film professor in Germany. Of particular interest and effect are interviews with some who collect her work, including the German star-actor Lars Eidinger (best known internationally as the male lead in Maren Ade’s Everyone Else) and theatre director Thomas Ostermeier (based at the same Berlin theatre as Eidinger) as well as the French collector Anouk Martini. To hear them discuss Jaune’s work opens up the intriguing gap between artist self-understanding and collector’s interpretations of her elusive meanings. The film also seems geared, in a subtle but moving way, to emphasise how Germany has benefited from its at time stuttering openness to immigrants: Ms Jaune went from her native Bulgaria to the celebrated Düsseldorf Art Academy, where she became a master pupil, then wife, of a professor at the Academy, German painter Jörg Immendorff. While Jaune never took Immendorff’s name, she asked him for an entirely new name (to avoid confusion with her sister, also a showing artist). He created a fake fantastical, even lyrical passport with her new name and an impromptu German Federal Eagle on it, an act of notable love and welcome.
In Jules Hermann’s Liebmann, it is the German who flees abroad, this time to northern France, for reasons unexplained and mysterious. This mystery sits squarely in the foreground from the film’s opening moments, when a voiceover describes the curiosity that is a peacock, a bird whose diverse feathers, if found separately, would never be pinned on the one and the same animal. That allegorical approach suggests a canny sophistication under what appears a simple story. With his halting French and bashful ways, the emigré at the film’s centre, Antek Liebmann (Godehard Giese), seems quite far from a parading peacock: simple in look and affect, he, a school teacher, does not seem overly complicated or needy in his dealings with the friendly and curious locals. He worries a little about an alleged murderer in the woods, though he still finds himself wandering there; he falls into a mild love intrigue between a single-mother (Adeline Moreau) and a bearded pastry-chef (Fabien Ara). The film manages to engage despite its bare-bones plotting due to a somewhat surrealist tone, reminiscent of Otar Iosseliani, guided by an impressively assuredly light touch of quizzical absurdity that simultaneously reflects and critiques the world we inhabit. When Antek’s sister Ines (Bettina Grahs) abruptly appears at his Gaulic digs, he abruptly ends all amorous involvements, probably because his sister recalls his pained reasons for fleeing west.
Directed by Martin Hawie, a Peruvian who attended film school in Barcelona and then immigrated to Germany in 2005, Toro also unfolds, in its plotting and brooding images, a very new Germany. Although they inhabit German, all be they marginal, spaces, the film’s dual protagonists are Polish- and Spanish-speaking – in fact, just about the only ethnic Germans in the film are the johns for this pair’s hustling. Piotr (a heavily muscled boxer nick-named “Toro”, Paul Wollin) takes female clients and Victor (Miguel Dagger) male clients, but both see it merely as a means to end: Piotr is saving diligently to take Victor back to his small town in Poland, but Victor is using his more improvisational proceeds to feed a lingering drug habit. Things grow more complicated as Victor’s sister Emilia (Leni Speidel) and his many debts catch up with him. Although some scenes and especially dialogue degenerate into cliché – Victor’s well-worn troubles with his drug dealers do not particularly help the film – Toro is effectively anchored by a restlessly, relentlessly physical performance by Paul Wollin as Piotr, trying to maintain dignity and a modicum of standards in a lifestyle affording very little. Atmospheric black/white images effectively sketch a downscale, post-industrial Germany that is occasionally forgotten in the hype about the de-facto European leader, although it is these space and places – it is this Germany, the film suggests – that many of the country’s immigrants and refugees will inevitably end up inhabiting.
In Sebastian Hilger’s well made science-fiction thriller We Are the Tide, a German coastal town Windholm has seen the tide go out never to return, at the same tragic time that all of its children mysteriously disappear. Some fifteen years on, Windholm is now under military lockdown with access limited to residents and approved scientific investigators – it remains eerie both for its lack of children and the ghost-like condition of its stubbornly remaining adults. But a physics grad student from Berlin, Micha (Max Mauff, recently of Victoria), is drawn to the town, he insists, only to investigate the gravitational oddity that changed the local tides. Although it hardly seems the best idea for a make-up trip with an ex, Micha and his former girlfriend Jana (Lana Cooper) travel to Windholm, lie their way in, and come to know the residents and their complicated past. The German title of the film (Wir sind die Flut) refers actually to both the (here MIA) tide as well as a flood, which hints strongly, like the town’s name (“Wind-hollow“), at the larger climate issues addressed in the film: the presumption is that human interaction with and manipulation of the environment has an impact on quotidian aspects of our daily lives as well as on that held purportedly most dear. Despite having recently taken a back seat to the refugee situation, environmental issues figure centrally in German society, economy and politics, something the film steers into the past and future of even the country’s smallest communities.
A documentary shot in Skopje, Macedonia – that is, deliberately foregrounding an Eastern Europe too often forgotten in central and western Europe – Maximilian Feldmann’s Valentina offers a familiar, if still surprisingly effective approach: foregrounding an entertaining, sympathetic child in an impoverished household to unfold the wider familial and social world of that poverty. Viewers witness Valentina’s family’s rummaging through dumpsters for other basics like clothes and good shoes as well as their daily struggle for food (of course, it occurs to one, it must be cheaper to butcher one’s own poultry). For Valentina’s Roma family, panhandling is a regular part of life and can be resorted to for a bit of time throughout the day, but it also carries significant perils, as the state has taken into custody various of Valentina’s brothers and sisters at times for the infraction. Throughout, Valentina’s perspective on it all remains if not entirely innocent – she knows that certain aspects of her family’s life are not legally or socially acceptable – she remains open and non-judgmental in a way most adults would not. She is especially perplexed and upset by how state officials would arbitrarily break up their family: one sister is gone indefinitely, others seem in and out of institutional custody, even though both parents are there and the children look adequately, if not lavishly, fed and happy to be at home. The filmmakers demonstrate a canny and appropriate awareness of their own privilege vis-à-vis the family: one scene pointedly portrays their paying the family for filming them at such length, while in another, particularly memorable moment, the father Asim says to a fellow-dumstery-rummager, “These guys are from Germany, let us show them how hard we work.”
Perspektive Deutsches Kino
Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin
11-21 February 2016
Festival website: https://www.berlinale.de