There are two ways of judging the merits of films: those that are worthy, and those that are great (I will momentarily leave to one side what a philosopher who knew two or three things about the cinema once called “the vast proportion of cinematic rubbish”). That is to say, there are those which are lauded for their services to extra-cinematic goals, for their achievements in advancing political aims, raising awareness about social problems, or militating in favour of a chosen campaign issue. And then there are those films for whom the measure of success resides squarely within the aesthetic realm, those which are notable for simply being great cinema, regardless of their political import. These two approaches to cinematic prowess are represented by two of Europe’s biggest festivals: Berlin and Cannes. For the latter, it is indisputably the greatness of a work of cinema that counts, its purely artistic value, and any other concerns are distinctly secondary in importance. Berlin, by contrast, has always been more interested in a film’s worth, in its potential utility for the (overwhelmingly left-liberal) political inclinations of the festival’s organisers and audiences.
Of course, the extent to which any film can be politically useful is, even now, after a century of debates on the matter, an open question. Jean Renoir once noted with chagrin that Grand Illusion was overtly made as a warning sign to prevent another outbreak of war, and was thus a failure. Now, of course, we are in a situation where virtually the entire film industry was virulently opposed to the prospect of a Trump presidency. Yet here we are. And so, with this year’s Berlinale taking place in the shadow of Trump’s inauguration, the festival was dominated by its political context. Too often, however, the obsessive concern with the political seisms in Europe and the US over the last twelve months led to a certain critical laziness in response to Berlin’s line-up of films. Everything, it seemed, no matter what its content, was read through the prism of “Brexitrump.” Which is no doubt valid, on one level. All is interconnected. But it is also reductive, and diminishes the diverse field of cinematic creation to a single political battleground, in which films intervene regardless of the intentions of their makers. Even works made years or decades before an orange-skinned billionaire dreamed of his Quixotic tilt at the White House were subject to a uniform interpretive schema that marvelled at their eerie resonance for the present situation. Strangely enough, it never works the other way around: we never gape in wonder at how a film from another era has absolutely no relevance for our own day.
Thankfully, there were films at Berlin whose value went beyond their status as signposts for the impending epoch of Trumpism, without, however, absenting themselves from the realm of the political per se. In short, the best films of the Berlinale were those which managed to be both worthy and great. Foremost among these, screening in Competition, was Aki Kaurismäki’s newest film, Tuivon tuolla puolen (The Other Side of Hope), the second instalment, after 2011’s Le Havre, of the Finnish filmmaker’s mooted port trilogy. Here, Kaurismäki returns to his home city of Helsinki, to chart the parallel trajectories of the gruff travelling salesman Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), who leaves his alcoholic wife to open up a restaurant in a run-down corner of the Finnish capital, and Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee fleeing the country’s devastating civil war who disembarks in Helsinki after a treacherous clandestine voyage through Eastern Europe. When Khaled’s asylum claim is refused (on the basis that everything is hunky-dory in his homeland right now), he flees from the detention centre and finds genuine refuge with Wikström and his staff, who hide Khaled from the authorities, furnish him with fake ID, and reunite him with his sister. With his archetypal deadpan humour and unruffled filmmaking style, Kaurismäki infuses his film with nostalgia for a lost past – a trait accentuated by the fact that The Other Side of Hope was both shot and (uniquely in the Competition) projected on 35mm celluloid. More importantly, the film gives us Kaurismäki’s vision of what a compassionate response to the humanitarian crisis taking place on Europe’s borders should be, a stance which should be far less controversial than it currently is. At Berlin – which, to the city’s immense credit, has been more welcoming of the recent wave of asylum-seekers than many other parts of Europe – the director’s unflappable humanism even extended to his remarks at the film’s press conference. When a reporter asked him for his thoughts on the supposed Islamification of Europe, he feigned having misheard the question and responded by insisting that, in spite of their football team’s performance at Euro 2016, he did not think Europe was in danger of Icelandification.
Like Kaurismaki, Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo has an approach to film style that is at once subtly restrained and unmistakably his own, a quality that, in the case of both filmmakers, gives their œuvres a unified, serialist character, with each new entry in their body of work cumulatively building on their pre-existing corpus. Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja (On the Beach at Night Alone) comes in the wake of a celebrity scandal that had rocked South Korea and even threatened to derail his career. Having so often treated the theme of an older male filmmaker having an affair with a younger actress, Hong shocked the puritanical Korean media when it was revealed he himself was having an affair with actress Kim Minhee. Here, as logic would dictate, he casts Kim herself as an actress (named Younghee) who flees Korea after her affair with a married man is brought to light. In a new twist on the standard Hong scenario, however, the director never shows us the male partner in this liaison, and instead hones his camera-eye with laser-like precision on the psychological effects the incident has on the woman who has been unwillingly thrust into the spotlight. Younghee flees to Hamburg, where she visits a Korean friend and has dinner with an unidentified Germano-Canadian couple, but for the most part she is absorbed in her own feelings as she wanders wistfully through the Hanseatic city’s wintry parks and placid riverbanks. Returning to her home town of Gangneung, Younghee reconnects with old friends, but a soju-drenched evening of carousing coaxes the young woman to release her feelings, with an impact that is equal parts comic and devastating, until she ends up, alone, at night, on the film’s eponymous beach. Hong’s latest release largely refrains from the experimentation with narrative structure that marked recent outings such as Jayuui eondeok (Hill of Freedom, 2014) and Jigeumeun matgo geuttaeneun tteulida (Right Now, Wrong Then, 2015), but, in a quiet, understated way, it is one of the most emotionally devastating films in his rapidly expanding œuvre.
James Gray is rarely thought of as an overtly political filmmaker – and yet it is perhaps now time to re-evaluate his work on this basis. Certainly his previous effort, 2013’s The Immigrant, has undoubtedly acquired a political sheen in light of recent developments, even if Gray himself would have only been dimly aware of it at the time. With The Lost City of Z, a project that has been in the pipeline for so long that it threatened to be the filmmaker’s own El Dorado, Gray shows himself to be more conscious of the imperialist overtones of his subject matter, drawn from David Grann’s non-fiction book on real-life explorer Percy Fawcett. Charlie Hunnam plays the British soldier who acquires the exploring bug after being sent to Bolivia on a surveying expedition by the Royal Society. Here he becomes obsessed with the prospective discovery of a lost city (which he dubs Z) after unearthing a handful of artefacts deep in the Amazon, but his ideas are ridiculed by his fellow academy members, scornful of the idea that a sophisticated civilisation could have developed in such inhospitable climes. Undeterred, Fawcett assiduously raises funds for a return mission, even if this means leaving behind his beautiful wife (Sienna Miller), and enlists Robert Pattinson to accompany him on his voyage (cast against type as Fawcett’s bumbling fellow explorer Henry Costin). Their battles against the hostile forces of the South American jungle, including disease, wildlife and, most trenchantly, the native tribesmen, are meticulously followed by Gray, whose decision to film these scenes in the Amazon rainforest itself inevitably leads the viewer to recall Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, Wrath of God, 1970) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), as well as, for a child of the 1980s such as myself, the seminal Franco-Japanese animation series The Mysterious Cities of Gold. Despite having exchanged the New York settings of his previous films for wildly divergent scenery, Gray’s neo-classical aesthetic remains stubbornly intact, and the visual splendour of his rendering of the world’s largest rainforest is heightened by the viscid cinematography of Darius Khondji.
Raoul Peck is one of the stalwarts of the Berlinale, which has supported his work for more than a decade, and it is perhaps now that this loyalty is paying off, with two strong festival entries from the Haitian director. I Am Not Your Negro screened here as part of an (ultimately unsuccessful) tilt for the Best Documentary Oscar. That it should have been pipped to that prize by Ezra Edelman’s epic series O.J. Made in America should not be seen as a slight on Peck’s James Baldwin project. The Harlem-born writer’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, focusing on the lives of Black political activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, is used as a pretext for exploring the history of the civil rights movement and African-American life in the 20th century more broadly. Peck’s documentary is a densely-layered work, weaving through multiple layers of history and personal experience, and the cinéaste makes ample use of fascinating archival footage showing Baldwin’s incendiary interventions in American television in the 1960s and 1970s. For me, however, the most stimulating aspect of the film centered on Baldwin’s recollections of being a young black boy voraciously watching classical Hollywood cinema in the 1930s, torn between being lured by the flashy spectacle of the dream industry and taking a critical distance from an institution that zealously avoided giving anything but the most tokenistic roles to black actors (and, indeed, is still vexed by this question).
Showing both a versatility of form and a consistency in his political concerns, Peck paired I Am Not Your Negro with a fiction film making its premiere at Berlin, which similarly explored the life of an uncompromising radical, whose animating ideas have, dare I say, been affirmed by the subsequent course of world history. Le jeune Karl Marx (The Young Karl Marx) – the first film dedicated to the life of Marx made outside of the Eastern bloc – is in many ways a most conventional biopic for a most unconventional individual. Marx and Engels, shown when they first meet in their mid-twenties, are here presented as the rebellious middle-class brats they undoubtedly were, penning incendiary texts of revolutionary theory while enjoying nights of drunken debauchery and repeated scrapes with the law. In any other hands, such a project may have been an unconscionable travesty, but The Young Karl Marx is salvaged by the fact that Peck and his fellow screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer clearly know their Marx (both were first exposed to Marxist ideas during the period of student radicalism in the Europe of the 1960s and 1970s). Peck sheds valuable light on the biographical circumstances surrounding the composition of such groundbreaking texts as The Condition of the Working-Class in England, The Poverty of Philosophy and, above all, The Communist Manifesto (which comes at the climax of the film), and even presents a vision of the actual act of writing itself, often a collaboration between the duo in the truest sense of the word. At times, indeed, his depiction of the radical milieux of 1840s Europe is a truly hallucinatory one: the mind can only boggle when we get to see Marx and Engels wander in on a meeting in a field where revolutionary theorist Pierre Proudhon (he of “property is theft” fame) addresses a crowd of radicalising French workers – and bump into none other than the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
An inside view of a politically radical movement, albeit here an absolutely contemporary one, was also on offer with the documentary Politica, manual de instrucciones, which charted the brief history of Spain’s newest left-wing formation, Podemos, from its founding in the wake of the Indignados movement of 2011, to the elections of 2015, which they had a credible chance of winning. In the end, Podemos was not able to overthrow the existing order at the ballot box, but it has at least succeeded in blowing apart the left-right power duopoly that had marked Spanish politics since the death of Franco. As with Marxism in Peck’s film, Fernado Léon de Aranoa’s documentary presents Podemos as the brainchild of a pair of disaffected youngsters, as Pablo Iglesias and Inigo Errejon alternate in their vituperations of la casta, and their efforts at establishing an “electoral war machine” in the political opening created by the intractable economic crisis besetting Spain. Aranoa makes no pretence of neutral impartiality, and the level of access he was granted could only have been given to a dogged supporter of the movement, but this does not diminish the film’s capacity to serve, as its title would have it, as an “instruction manual” for budding anti-capitalist insurgencies. From the standpoint of today, however, where the partnership between Iglesias and Errejon has fractured into a fratricidal war over the direction the new party should take, the seeds of this division in the early history of Podemos becomes, unintentionally, the most intriguing aspect of the film.
In comparison with the 19th century struggles of the historically ascendant proletariat in The Young Karl Marx, Sebastián Lelio’s Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman) focuses on the very 21st-century issue of transgender politics. Here, I must confess that my common practice of doing as little research as possible into a film before taking in a festival screening paid handsome dividends with the Chilean filmmaker’s follow-up to his warmly received 2013 Berlinale entry Gloria. In my blissful ignorance, the dawning realisation that the protagonist is in fact a transgender woman was one of the most piquant moments of the festival. Marina is the beautiful mistress of a wealthy older man, Orlando, who has just left his wife for her, but when Orlando suddenly drops dead, a grieving Marina has to deal with the hostilities of an icy widow and persistently invasive cops. Transgender actress Daniela Vega turns in a remarkable performance which will no doubt receive accolades, and rightly so. But after a scintillating opening stanza, Lelio’s film loses steam in its second half.
Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits is perhaps less centrally concerned with such hot-button issues, but the young filmmaker’s fifth feature is no less powerful a work. Having focused, in The Color Wheel (2011) and Listen Up, Philip (2014), on male protagonists, who, let’s be honest, were thinly veiled versions of Perry himself, his latest two films have squared the ledger with an emphasis on strong, emotionally complex female characters. In Golden Exits, an intricate constellation of individuals living in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn is disrupted by the arrival of the Australian ingénue Emily Browning, who comes to New York to work as an assistant for archivist Adam Horowitz. Horowitz develops an attraction to Browning despite his marriage to Chloë Sevigny, and has to compete with Jason Schwartzman for her affections, but the two men are, in the end harmless dopes, and it is the female characters in the film who are engaged in a psychological war to the death with each other. Like Gray, Perry’s mise en scène has a certain classical stateliness to it, accentuated here by cinematographer Sean Price William’s studious avoidance of handheld camerawork, but this prevailing aesthetic is pierced by an unsettling score from Keegan DeWitt, and Perry’s close-ups on his actresses’ faces brim with an acute intensity that threatens to explode at any given moment.
This is not to create the impression that this year’s Berlinale was laden with nothing but unmitigated triumphs. Far from it. As is invariably the case, the competition was swollen with middle-of-the-road, middle-brow films pitched to middle-class, middle-aged audiences. The just middle, quoi? As their titles would suggest, Sally Potter’s The Party and Oren Moverman’s The Dinner were structurally similar, with both centring on soirées that progressively unpeel the tensions within social circles made up of individuals who otherwise lead materially comfortable and professionally rewarding existences. With Return to Montauk, Volker Schlöndorff hoped to repeat the trick of his earlier adaptation of Max Frisch’s Homo faber (Voyager, 1991), but here the Swiss author’s confessional about a weekend liaison on Long Island is denuded of the provocative spark that the original text possessed, with Stellan Skarsgård and Nina Hoss ambling through the proceedings without troubling themselves to hit any high-notes of dramatic power.
It is sad to think that twenty years have passed since the release of Trainspotting, and that Rent Boy, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie have by now shuffled off into middle-aged dotage. Indeed, perhaps the most affecting aspect of Danny Boyle’s sequel is the visual evidence it provides us of the aging of the characters. Apart from this, T2 wallows in the spectator’s nostalgia for its predecessor, teasing the target audience (essentially, people who had posters of the film on their walls as students in the ‘90s) with call-backs to the original, including snippets of its memorable soundtrack. But the fact that the sequel is constitutionally incapable of creating its own iconic moment is an indictment not only on the laziness of the filmmakers but on the crushing unoriginality of our culture itself, content more to rehash past glories than to undertake the trickier task of creating new works speaking to contemporary life. Returning to Leith from Amsterdam, Renton is accused by his old friends of being a “tourist in your own youth.” But the cynical gamble of the film is that we, too, would prefer to be blithely carefree tourists in our own youth than to lucidly confront the problems of the present.
A love story between two socially awkward slaughterhouse workers in Budapest who discover that they both dream about deer every night, Teströl és lélekröll (On Body and Soul) by Hungarian Ildikó Enyedi was mystifyingly presented with the Golden Bear by the Paul Verhoeven-led jury. The film builds to something of an emotional climax, but is marred by the continuous indecisiveness of the director, uncertain whether she is making a work of mundane kitchen-sink realism or eccentric surrealism – whether, that is, she should take the path of Loach or Buñuel. The same tension – and the same presence of deer – characterised another Eastern European entry in the competition, Agnieszka Holland’s Pokot (Spoor), which centres on a school-teacher living in rural Poland who, increasingly horrified at the heartless killing of local animals by hunters, resorts to drastic measures to redress the injustice.
For true weirdness, however, it was to the retrospective that festival-goers needed to head, here dedicated to science fiction and given the fitting title “Future Imperfect”. While the program contained some well-known stalwarts of the genre, the true discoveries were the Eastern European works, which presented visions of the future from the standpoint of a social system whose days, we now know, were numbered. Presented on a 70mm print, the program’s opening night film, Hermann Zschoche’s Eolomea (1972) was one bizarre highlight, with an otherwise straight science fiction premise of interstellar travel striated by moments of tongue-in-cheek campness, such as a late cameo by a robot which looks like it was stranded from the production lot of Lost in Space, and whose programming code prevents it from deciding between obeying a direct command and complying with a higher ethical principle. A “mechanical Hamlet,” one of the characters points out. A pinnacle of bizarrerie was reached, however, with Andrzej Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1978/1988), an adaptation of the 1905 novel by Żuławski’s uncle (Jerzy), about the offspring of a group of space travellers on a distant planet who adopt a shamanistic belief system before attacking the indigenous population. After production was halted by the studio in 1978, Żuławski returned to the project a decade later, under different political conditions, and filled in the missing scenes with a voiceover description of what went unfilmed – which now has the merit of making the narrative at least somewhat comprehensible. The team responsible for the new digital restoration conceived of it as the third moment in the completion of On the Silver Globe, returning the film’s colour scheme to the original intentions of the filmmakers. The success of this venture is open to examination, but in any case, the radiantly delirious quality of the film remains thankfully unimpinged by the digital makeover.
Finally, I should mention two films from the Forum section. The Harvard-based Sensory Ethnography Lab has given rise to some of the most vivifying works of cinema of the last decade, and its latest product, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s somniloquies, combines abstracted footage of people sleeping in the dark (with tiny digital cameras roving over their bodies) with a voiceover drawn from the recorded sleep-talking of Dion McGregor, who gained renown in the 1960s for the vivid manner in which he spoke while he slumbered. The film itself has a deeply somniferous effect on the spectator, who is lulled into drowsiness through the dark, slow-moving imagery and trancelike voice-track. In contrast with the pure somatic immersion of Castaing-Taylor/Paravel’s film, Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki gave a more political slant to the emergent genre of “sensori-ethnographic” films with El mar la mar. Capturing 16mm footage of the Sonoma desert, which straddles the border between the USA and Mexico, Bonnetta/Sniadecki mingle imagery of landscapes and vegetation with traces of the manmade frontier intruding into the endless expanses of the natural world, while accompanying this visual stream with voiceover testimonies of a range of people involved in clandestine border crossings. Evidently, this film has a deep political resonance to it in the wake of Trump’s xenophobic stance on immigration, the chaotic effects of which were already in evidence during the Berlinale. I have no idea how far the genesis of this project goes back, and whether it was intended as a direct riposte to the new administration or not. To tell the truth, it doesn’t matter. The US-Mexico border, the longest direct boundary between the First World and the Third, has been a geopolitical flashpoint for decades, and Bonnetta/Sniadecki’s work not only intervenes on this thematic level, it is also an invigorating experiment in film form. Just as much as Kaurismaki, Gray or Peck, the filmmakers point the way forward for cinema to be not just worthy, but great.
Berlinale – Berlin International Film Festival
9-19 February 2017
Festival website: https://www.berlinale.de/en/HomePage.html