In the wake of recent political events that have shaken the four-decade-long neoliberal consensus, sundering the political terrain of the major Western nations into a resurgent far left and an emboldened extreme right, the centrist commentators of the pundit caste have with predictable repetitiveness reached for a stalwart couplet from W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, published while the turmoil of World War I, the Russian revolution and the Easter Uprising was still fresh in the mind:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

It is a sign of contemporary hubris, perhaps, to compare the earth-shattering convulsions of a hundred years ago to the election of an egomaniacal billionaire in the US and the travails of the EU. But there is no denying that, since 2016 (if not earlier) the political centre has been hollowed out, on both sides of the Atlantic. The technocratic simulacrum of partisan difference in the old two-party systems is being replaced by ideological confrontation in its most naked form – essentially, racism vs socialism (I, for one, know what side I am on). And we could say much the same for the cinema. More and more, it is cleaving into two irreconcilable forms: a bombastic, formulaic, CGI effects-laden cinema emanating from Hollywood and its kin, on the one hand, and a globally heterogeneous, restlessly experimental yet economically fragile filmmaking culture, on the other hand. Again, I know what side I am on. What is withering away then, is cinematic centrism – what Truffaut called le juste milieu, or what we would now, less flatteringly, dub middlebrow films. It is these films, with their seven-to-low-eight-figure budgets, B-level stars, auteur directors (but not too auteur-y) and superficial arthouse burnishes, destined to play at the Palaces, MK2s and Curzons of the world, which have little place in the contemporary landscape, usurped as they have been by digital blockbusters when it comes to spectacle, “quality” television when it comes to dramatic narrative, and off-off-Broadway cinema and installation art when it comes to exploring the possibilities of the moving image. As such, it soon became clear that the Berlinale this year offered the assiduous viewer not one but two festivals, providing strikingly divergent visions of what kind of a future presents itself to the “genre” of festival cinema.

The Competition

The first festival was to be found in the opulent surrounds of the Berlinale Palast, and largely occupied the Berlinale’s competition section. This year is, notably, the last of director Dieter Kosslick’s nearly two-decade period at the helm of the festival. To say he had not quite endeared himself, during his time at the Berlinale, to the critical corps that dutifully makes an annual descent on Potsdamer Platz is something of an understatement. His programming proclivities have long been derided as staid, unadventurous, even cynical. Certainly, the competition line-up is compelled to satisfy multiple stakeholders, each with their own, often conflicting interests – politicians, funding bodies, studio bosses, not to mention the all-important sales agents. But Kosslick has never given even the faintest evidence of any desire on his part to push, however gently, against these constraints, to sneak more challenging or groundbreaking material into the corners of the festival. Rather, his natural habitat is precisely in amongst the apparatchiks and the haut monde, kissing their cheeks on the red carpet while offering tepid political gestures to placate their liberal anxieties. In essence, Kosslick is the Hillary Clinton of the festival world. The ultimate centrist figurehead, his ever-present red scarf stands as a tokenistic memento of a bygone leftist past, now passed off as radical chic by someone whose only innovation in festival programming, Kulinarisches Kino, was the idea of charging cinemagoers €95 for a meal and film. Like Clinton, his time has definitively passed.

It would have been misguided, therefore, to hope that Kosslick might choose to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. Even past competitions have, after their predominantly mediocre fare has been sifted out, featured the odd exceptional work: Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse in 2011, for instance, or Miguel Gomes’ Tabu the following year, or, more often than not, one of Hong Sang-soo’s regular submissions to the festival. This year, even these kinds of anomalies were largely absent. Almost uniformly, the competition was an uninspiring affair – with Kosslick’s swansong serving as an apt, but far from flattering, symbol of his tenure at the festival as a whole, and a symptom of the atrophying of the type of cinema he has promoted.

Ghost Town Anthology (Denis Côté, 2019)

Nonetheless, while it is undeniably a more modest work than, say, The Turin Horse, the closest thing this year’s competition had to an invigorating aberration was Quebecois filmmaker Denis Côté’s Repertoire des villes disparues (or, as its rather less evocative English title has it: Ghost Town Anthology). In fact, Côté’s latest feature has a few parallels with Tarr’s final work, not least the looming sense of apocalypse in a remote, climatically inhospitable location. Over the last decade, Côté has nurtured an eclectic œuvre, alternating between oddball comedies and minimalist documentaries. Ghost Town Anthology takes the former route: shot in hazy 16mm, the film centres on the tiny, not-quite-post-industrial town of Irénée-les-neiges, a desolate outpost in the Canadian tundra, whose residents slide into lugubrious mourning with the sudden death of a young man, Simon, in a car accident, leaving behind his distraught family and the close-knit community that surrounds them. While the town’s feistily diminutive mayor tries to jolt her constituents out of their torpor, strange things begin to happen in Irénée-les-neiges. Most notably, the dead begin to rise from their graves – initially in ones and twos, but soon they can be found en masse on the town’s streets. Côté’s zombies are far from the menacing creatures of genre cinema: instead, they simply stand there, immobile, mute, expressionless, gazing in front of themselves, their presence all the more uncanny for their unflinching serenity. As provincial authorities are called in to deal with the bizarre incident, the locals ask themselves whether they should stoically stay put in their homes, or pack up and leave for a bigger city with more opportunities (and fewer undead). Injecting this dose of the supernatural into an otherwise kitchen-sink-realist milieu is adroitly managed by Côté, whose instinct for laconic humour is unparalleled, and while the allegorical implications of this tranquil zombie apocalypse for the economic survival of moribund rural settlements are overt, Côté is wise enough not to belabour his point.

Like Côté’s film, Adam McKay’s treatment of the Cheney de facto presidency in Vice mixed elements of the comic and the macabre. After directing a string of Will Ferrell films and the 2015 subprime Lehrstück The Big Short, McKay ups the ambition in his turn to the political biopic. Attention to the film – which had already screened widely in North America, and gained a release in Germany immediately after its festival premiere – has inevitably centred on Christian Bale’s physical transformation into the corpulent, balding practitioner of the dark arts that is Dick Cheney, a feat which gained both the actor and the film’s make-up team prizes during the Hollywood awards season. In contrast, the director lends a Brechtian touch by barely bothering to have Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld, Tyler Perry’s Colin Powell and Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush look even passably like their real-life counterparts.1 In line with The Big Short’s blending of didacticism and gimmickry, McKay’s original manoeuvre is to make a film that is structurally a comedy while being narratively a drama. The diegetic world that Bale’s Cheney inhabits is a sternly serious one – the man is not especially known for loving a laugh – and the film largely plays this straight. But Mackay overlays this with comic framing devices, which include the characters breaking into Shakespearean verse, a waiter reading a list of torture methods to his salivating customers and, most ostentatiously, a fake-out ending in the middle of the film, complete with closing credits, that counterfactually muses about Cheney’s life of retired bliss with his family and dogs in a Virginia retreat, had he not taken a fateful phone call from W. during the 2000 election campaign. These effects create jarring moments in a film that is otherwise a West Wing-style behind the scenes depiction of Cheney’s DC machinations, as he hauled himself up from unemployed drunkard to the most powerful man in the US (if not the world).

Vice (Adam McKay, 2019)

But the film is most let down, precisely, on the level of its political analysis. As a concluding montage condensing the chaos of the post-9/11 years conveys, McKay provides us with the reverse-side of the “Great Man” theory of history, in which the neo-con revolution is attributed to the workings of a single, Mephistophelian individual who, with the help of his slightly befuddled mentor Rumsfeld, implants himself into the corridors of power for the express purpose of unleashing war, torture, environmental catastrophe and corporate profiteering on the globe. Strictly speaking, in fact, McKay furnishes a “Great Woman” theory of Cheney’s ascendancy, ascribing his drive and political nous to his wife Liz (Amy Adams), who here comes across as a Beltway Lady Macbeth. His level of political analysis is embarrassingly shallow, prone to the kind of conspiracy theories that nourish Rachel Maddow’s monologues and Adam Curtis’ TV programs (the latter an avowed influence on McKay), and beholden to a liberal mindset that is satisfied with lamenting the corruption of a fundamentally good political institution by a single bad individual (and his wife).

Two elders of French cinema – Agnès Varda and André Téchiné – were also granted competition berths, both of whom produced solid if not overly groundbreaking additions to their enduring œuvres. Varda’s Agnès par Varda is, indeed, not so much a film as a taped masterclass, where the now nonagenarian filmmaker reminisces about her life and work to live audiences, splicing extracts from her films into the proceedings. Varda has long eased into her slightly patronising sobriquet “grandmother of the nouvelle vague”, so much so that even the act of nostalgically traipsing through her own past itself already seems quite familiar – was this not what she already did with Les Plages d’Agnès in 2008, a film which she mistakenly intimated would be her last? Of course, it is impossible not to warm to Varda’s genial humility, even if the motivations for making her new film seem mostly self-promotional in nature – and indeed Agnès par Varda handily succeeds in instilling the viewer (me, in this case) with the desire to return to her films, or, as in the case of 1994’s Les Cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma, a delirious star-laden flop that led Varda to swear off the feature fiction format, to seek out her more neglected works for the first time.

Les Cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma (Agnès Varda, 1994)

If Varda was a pioneer of the French new wave, former Cahiers du cinéma critic Téchiné counts as a member of the movement’s second generation, but his recent output, with its understated neo-classical elegance, has little in common with the nouvelle vague’s youthful brazenness. L’adieu à la nuit (Farewell to the Night) is indicative of this tendency: taking on the topic of ISIS recruitment in Europe, and marshalling the services of the grande dame of French acting Catherine Deneuve, the film largely remains within the conventions of the cinematic mainstream. Deneuve plays Muriel, a vineyard owner in the south of France whose grandson Alex returns to her estate for the summer of 2015. It soon dawns on Muriel, however, that Alex, spurred on by his girlfriend Lila, has been drawn into the orbit of Islamic fundamentalism, and is hatching a plan to join an ISIS brigade in its Syrian caliphate. Téchiné makes a concerted effort to give these characters depth and psychological complexity, rather than reducing them to cartoonish firebrands, and our sympathies remain with them, even if their motivations for joining the Islamic State remain obscure. There are a few interludes where the film begins to flicker into life: most notably the moment when Muriel locks Alex in her stable to prevent him from flying to the Middle East, which functions as an eloquent allegory for the broader struggle against the recruitment drives Islamic terrorist groups – to what extent do these efforts to protect people for their own good end up negating the civil liberties they are supposed to be safeguarding? But this episode, which could have been developed into the core of the film, is soon abandoned, and Téchiné hurriedly reverts to more standard dramatic fare.

Beyond this, however, the competition offered slim pickings for cinephiles. It is true that Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms and Angela Schanelec’s Ich war zuhause, aber (I Was Home, But) picked up critical plaudits, and the former gained the Golden Bear (which is nonetheless a highly unreliable indication of cinematic prowess), but festival scheduling prevented me from taking in either film. Fatih Akin’s Der goldene Handschuh (The Golden Glove), based on a novelisation of a real-life incident, was one of the most high-profile disasters of the festival. For his retro-vision of Hamburg in the 1970s, Akin enlists Jonas Dassler, a pretty boy German actor whose prosthetic transformation into the mangled physiognomy of serial killer Fritz Honka (a virtuoso achievement in make-up to rival that of Bale’s Cheney) was plastered on billboards all over Berlin for the film’s impending release. Honka is a Stammgast at Zum Goldenen Handschuh, a dive bar in the then-proletarian neighbourhood of St. Pauli, who lures old alcoholic women back to his home before violently having sex with them, murdering them, and stuffing their body parts into nooks and crannies of his apartment. The denizens of the wood-panelled pub that gives the film its name are uniformly hideous and depraved, and while the bar itself has a certain resemblance to its counterpart in Fassbinder’s Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul), Akin’s film is notable precisely for the whiteness of its ensemble cast. It is as if Akin is dispatching a concerted riposte to the nostalgia for a pre-multicultural Germany evoked by the reactionaries of the AfD and its like: this is the golden past you yearn for, this macabre parade of drunkards, doddering fools, obese prostitutes and shell-shocked Nazi stormtroopers, in whose midst a gnarled mass murderer roams? As persuasive as this implicit polemic against the xenophobic right may be, it is not enough to rescue the film from sinking underneath the relentless violence and ugliness it depicts.

The Golden Glove (Fatih Akin, 2019)

Marie Kreutzer’s Der Boden unter den Füßen (The Ground Beneath My Feet) replaces the repugnant seediness of Akin’s old-time working-class setting with the gelid sterility of the 21st century German corporate sector. Holed up on a consulting commission in Rostock, Valerie Pachner’s Lola is a kindred spirit to the protagonist of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, but is unfortunately bereft of a prank-playing father. Instead she has to deal with a mentally disturbed older sister Conny, interned back in her home town of Vienna, while keeping Conny’s existence a secret from her corporate overlords, including her ice maiden boss and lesbian lover Elise, lest it jeopardise her perceived ability to pull “48s” (the company’s jargon for an uninterrupted 48-hour work shift). Badgered by phone calls from Conny, which she may or may not be hallucinating, Lola’s juggling act ends up fraying her own nervous state. As a character study of corporate high-flyers, however, Der Boden unter den Füßen suffers the fatal flaw of having precious few characters that we the viewers would actually care deeply enough about to want to study.

Like Kreutzer’s film, Catalan director Isabel Coixet’s Elisa y Marcela features a lesbian relationship – here in the much less forgiving environment of Galicia at the turn-of-the-century (the 20th century, that is). The titular couple meet and fall in love with each other in a Catholic boarding school, and when they reunite years later as teachers, their passion for one another resumes. In order to stay together, they trick an unwitting priest into marrying them by having Elisa pose as a man, thereby provoking an international scandal which led to them fleeing to Argentina. A daring, incendiary act in 1901, Elisa and Marcela’s marriage can only provoke self-satisfied murmurs of liberal assent from festival audiences in 2019. Little wonder, then, that the film should have found a spot in Kosslick’s Berlinale. Like Agnieszka Holland, here this year with her Polish-Ukrainian propaganda piece Mr. Jones, Coixet has long been one of the outgoing festival director’s darlings, in a futile attempt to nurture an auteur who has found little support in other quarters.

Kosslick’s other attempts at giving lesser-known figures a turn in the spotlight – such as Teona Strugar Mitevska’s Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunya (God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya) and Emin Alper’s Kiz Kardesler (Three Sisters) – were similarly underwhelming. As the festival came to a close, I did have hopes that the last film in the competition, Chinese titan Zhang Yimou’s Yi Miao Zhong (One Second), set during the Cultural Revolution, could have been of interest, but this was scuppered when news came through that the film had been withdrawn, ostensibly due to technical reasons. Given the politically sensitive setting, whispers of censorship issues coursed around Potsdamer Platz, but did not result in any concerted campaign to fight for the presence of Zhang’s new film at the festival (his 2002 martial arts epic Hero was shown in the timeslot instead). And so ended Kosslick’s reign over Berlin, on the most anti-climactic of notes, with a cinematic non-event that could not even give rise to a media scandal. A whimper, not a bang.

The Forum

If the festival as a whole were coined from the same stamp as the competition, then my Berlinale would have been a thoroughly dispiriting affair. Thankfully, the Forum, functionally autonomous from the rest of the festival, provided a window into that other cinema blithely overlooked by the competition: films made, for the most part, with micro-budgets, bold and uncompromising in their intent, and in the best cases radical in both form and content. In that sense, this year’s edition ably fulfilled the Forum’s prerogative since its founding by Ulrich and Erika Gregor in the early 1970s. While its sizable slate has a deliberately global outlook, drawing films from as many different parts of the world as possible, a generalised sense of rage at the status quo and optimism for a freer world, both cinematically and politically, was palpable right through the Forum. This was particularly noticeable in the films of the young American cinema. Last year, already, New York-based filmmakers Ted Fendt with Classical Period and Ricky d’Ambrose with Notes on an Appearance had showcased an aesthetic that we could call Straubian Mumblecore: wafer-thin, directionless narratives focussing on the daily existence of over-educated but under-employed young people are combined with a pared back, minimalist formal system, a monotone, almost stilted delivery of dialogue, and a predilection for awkward pauses and longueurs. Such an approach was reinforced this year with a slew of films focusing on the same character types and with similar stylistic hallmarks.

So Pretty (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, 2019)

Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty, for instance, takes as its focus a makeshift commune of genderqueer anarchists living in Ridgewood (a neighbourhood so deep inside Brooklyn it’s not even Brooklyn any more). When Tonia (played by the filmmaker herself) returns home to her lover Frank, the two recite to each other lines from the 1980s West Berlin gay activist and writer Ronald M. Schernikau’s novel So schön!, a text which they are translating as well as, to a certain extent, living out. The parallels between queer subcultures in two different cities, thirty years apart from one another, is a stimulating subtext of the film, but Rovinelli is more overtly concerned with the more quotidian passages in her characters’ lives, as they trade romantic partners, dance in Bushwick nightclubs, read poetry in the park, brandish colourful placards at anti-Trump rallies and face down the ominous menace of police violence. As a document of its moment in time, place and political conjuncture, So Pretty is already of inestimable value, but the film is also marked by assured, sensitive direction and a visual flair that at times matches the intensity of its literary inspiration, proving that low-budget in no way has to mean aesthetically meagre.

Peter Parlow’s The Plagiarists, written, produced and edited by James N. Kienitz Wilkins, takes the opposite tack: shooting with an antiquated Betacam videocamera, its deliberate arte povera vibe was accentuated by the massive CineStar screen on which this critic watched the film, which blew every pixellated glitch up to gargantuan proportions. Like Rovinelli, Parlow also evokes a European literary luminary in his film, but this time the role of Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing within the film is a much more fiendish one. Anna and Tyler, a young, middle-class white couple – she an aspiring writer, he a wannabe filmmaker, it almost goes without saying that they live in Brooklyn – are driving upstate to stay with a friend when their car breaks down. It is a cold night and they are stuck in the woods, but help comes in the form of an older black man named Clip, who offers them his place to stay overnight while their car is repaired. Despite Anna and Tyler’s trepidations, only exacerbated when they find a young child mysteriously camped in Clip’s house, they open up to him over glasses of wine. Tyler is overjoyed to find old filmmaking equipment in the basement, while Anna relates her own anxieties about her chosen métier, prompting Clip to dive into a trance-like poetic recitation about a childhood incident. Months later, Anna makes an unexpected discovery about this episode (the film’s title is something of a giveaway), leading her to question the bond she thought she had felt with her erstwhile host. The self-absorption of the protagonists can at times be grating, and at any moment, The Plagiarists threatens to succumb to a feedback loop of its own self-referentiality, but its narrative twists and swerves enable it to avoid this fate, while its formal gambits warrant the close attention of the viewer: it was not until reading coverage of the film after the screening that I found out that the actor playing Clip (musician Michael Payne) never shares the same frame as the rest of the film’s cast, and to this day has not even met them.

Dan Sallitt is an older and more established figure than the youthful tyros responsible for So Pretty and The Plagiarists, and turning out films with his personal savings, in his time off from a day-job in IT makes him something of a pioneer in the modus vivendi that now prevails among up-and-coming Brooklyn-based filmmakers. With Fourteen he paints a subtly shaded portrait of a pair of women in their early thirties living in Fort Greene. Mara and Jo have been friends since their teenaged years, but their life trajectories are increasingly taking them in different directions. Mara is leaving her youthful waywardness behind: she has finally landed a permanent position as an elementary school teacher, and in the course of the film even finds a semi-acceptable boyfriend, with whom she eventually has a child. Jo, in contrast, despite or because of her statuesque beauty, is finding the transition into adulthood a much more difficult passage to navigate. Her cavalier approach to workplace punctuality leads to her losing her job as a social worker (an ironic career choice, given how tenuous her own grip on social functionality is), and the men in her life have a tendency to be, well, dirtbags. Mara finds herself increasingly put out by Jo’s flakiness, whether it’s a missed dinner appointment or threatening her latest boyfriend with a knife. As it becomes clear that her friend is actually going through a full-scale breakdown, Mara is nonetheless faced with a profound choice: help Jo through her problems, even if it entails sacrificing her own emotional well-being, or wean herself off her destructive companionship. As the film elliptically skips forward to its tragic dénouement, Sallitt provides us with an ethical quandary to which there is no easy answer: we all could be better friends to those we are close to, but whether we should be is another matter entirely.

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt, 2019)

With The Souvenir (which screened in the Panorama section but would have had a more appropriate spot in the Forum), Joanna Hogg similarly trains her focus on youth and the treacherous passage to adulthood, but here she displaces the setting to London in the 1980s. Overt signs of the period nature of the film, however, are kept to a minimum, and it is quickly apparent that the film is largely autobiographical in nature. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda, who plays her mother) is a posh film student who enjoys tinkering with 16mm equipment and musing about making a documentary on the freshly closed Sunderland shipyards, while living in a West End flat gifted to her by her well-to-do parents (which would now no doubt be worth several million pounds). The rakish Anthony, who supposedly works in the foreign office, insinuates himself into her life, almost against Julie’s will. Initially blithe about his quirks, as Julie persists with her studies, Anthony’s secretive lifestyle becomes more of a problem: her flat is robbed, she comes home to find strange men in her bedroom, a whirlwind luxury trip to Venice ends up being entirely on her dime. Threatening clouds menace her life, while outside of this cocoon the country is gripped by Thatcherite class war and IRA violence. Despite the political climate her film is set in, Hogg opts, like her counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, for a deft handling of her material rather than an incendiary stance, and her approach pays off. Indeed, a sequel to The Souvenir has already been announced.

Germany provided films with a similar thematic focus – whether it was the loopy depiction of a post-doctoral researcher’s fight with the maddening bureaucracy of a fictional Berlin university in Weitermachen Sanssouci (Music and Apocalypse, Max Linz), or the summertime ménage à trois between Berlin twentysomethings in Heute oder morgen (Today or Tomorrow, Thomas Moritz Helm). But both films were let down by their own winking, film-school knowingness: DFFB alum Linz packed his with so many insider jokes that the appreciative audience in Prenzlauer Berg’s Colosseum was also, basically, the film’s entire potential public, while HFF graduate Helm’s debut outing was fatally brought down by the overt eagerness of his efforts to instil his film with coolness, which, of course, inherently makes it come off as profoundly uncool.

Offerings with a more experimental edge could be found elsewhere in the forum. In Die Kinder der Toten, Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, a Floridian-Slovakian filmmaking duo taking inspiration from Guy Maddin, use silent Super 8mm to tackle Elfriede Jelinek’s Austria-set apocalyptic novel: while Syrian refugees are rebuffed from a Styrian restaurant, heavily made-up zombies rise from the grave, disinterring the region’s own historical skeletons, as the film heads to a crazed crescendo. For their part, in A rosa azul de Novalis (The Blue Flower of Novalis) the Brazilians Gustavo Vinagre and Rodrigo Caneiro adopt as the motif for their film the eponymous German poet’s image of the blue lotus in Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a Romantic symbol for the unattainability of true beauty. A rosa azul comprises a 70-minute meandering monologue delivered by a frequently naked exhibitionist Marcelo Diorio, as he muses about the gay hook-up scene in São Paolo, contemplates his HIV diagnosis and history of family abuse, and philosophises about art, beauty, love and mortality.

Our Defeats (Jean-Gabriel Périot, 2019)

For me, however, the towering achievement of this year’s festival was Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Nos défaites (Our Defeats). The French filmmaker had already signalled his interest in the contemporary legacy of the wave of political radicalisation in the 1960s and 1970s with his found-footage compilation on the origins of the RAF group in 2015’s Une jeunesse allemande (A German Youth). Here, he continues in this historico-political vein by using high school students from the Parisian suburbs to reenact French militant films from the May ’68 era. With filming taking place in May 2018, fifty years after the événements, scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, Alain Tanner’s La Salamandre, Chris Marker’s À bientôt j’espère, Marin Karmitz’s Camarades and the direct-cinema work La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder are all faithfully replicated by his band of teenage performers, who are then interviewed for their thoughts about the relevance of the politics of these films for their present-day lives. Through this dash of Raymond Depardon, Périot elicits a range of responses from the lycéens, from curiosity to disengagement, but the common theme in all of these exchanges is the cavernous distance separating the political utopianism of the ’68 films from the reality of contemporary French youth. As the pessimism of the film’s title suggests, Périot’s preliminary hypothesis for his film is governed by the sentiment that Enzo Traverso has called “left-wing melancholy”, the post-1989 loss of faith in any ability to fundamentally change society, no matter how predatory the neoliberal order becomes, and a replacement of hope for the future with a wallowing in the honourable defeats of the past. But to his immense credit, Périot allows for history to refute his project’s presuppositions. In an epilogue appended to the end of the film, the same students are shown seven months later. As all of France erupts into a protest against Macron’s turbo-capitalism, Périot’s actor-interviewees had themselves radicalised. When a fellow pupil of theirs was given a heavyhanded punishment for a graffiti tag, they successfully occupied their high school for several weeks demanding his exoneration, even in the face of police brutality of teens at nearby schools. Whether their exposure to the militant films of 50 years ago aided in the students’ later politicisation or not, one thing is indisputable: we have entered a new age of political struggle.

*          *          *

The future, then, belongs to the young – a category in which, alas, I can no longer unequivocally include myself. As with politics, so with cinema. In another quote which, shorn from its context, has served as a quick go-to for journalists grappling with the breakdown of the political status quo, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once said, “The crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The worst of the Berlinale consisted, precisely, in the morbid symptoms of the dying old order. The best was the new that is still struggling to be born. Well before Kosslick had departed the scene, the Berlinale had already chosen his successor. Poached from Locarno, the Italian Carlo Chatrian is now faced with the choice as to which direction he should take the festival in the post-Kosslick era. Between the old centrism and the radicalism of the young, he would do well to opt for the latter.


  1. Indeed, Ferrell himself was more convincing as Bush in his early 2000s SNL sketches, but it is obvious why McKay refrained from going down that route.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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