From the wide avenues around the train station, the bus lines meander through narrow streets with renovated historic buildings. The streets open up again, as you continue towards the festival centre, which is housed in the Stadthalle, a prestige building from the 1970s, past the same modern shopping centres that can be found in every city today. Founded in 1991, the FilmFestival Cottbus’s history is linked to the posthistoire of the socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe, a heritage that is also evident in the cityscape. This is characterised by the Plattenbauten, residential buildings made from prefabricated concrete slabs, that can be seen everywhere in the centre between older and newer buildings, as well as in the view over the city. These buildings, once the triumphal success of rational construction and population planning and the epitome of modern socialist living, are now threateningly towering over the cities.
In a neighbourhood characterised by buildings like these, the action of the Czech competition entry Národní třída (National Road) by Štěpán Altrichter takes place. The film tells the story of Vandam, a hooligan who admires the Belgian action star of the same name and has a similarly violent attitude to resolving conflicts. It is the character study of a man who lives in the past, in which violence and a destructive image of masculinity have been passed down by his father, and who proudly carries this legacy before him. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s brother has turned his back on this life and has become part of the modern Czech Republic. But change is also affecting the protagonist in the form of a development project threatening the existence of a pub which is the centre of Vandam’s life. As always, Vandam meets this problem with the threatening and exercise of violence, but this way of life is now reaching its boundaries, because the world he comes into conflict with follows other rules. The film avoids the explicit address and iconography of fascism and xenophobia, in the awareness that the audience itself projects these associations onto the bulky, bald figure in a bomber jacket. Despite these strategies of avoidance, the film remains problematic in its overtly identifying portrayal of Vandam. His brutality against strangers and change is the consequence of his longing for a simpler past. His struggle against every change and “the elites” is empathetically traced in this film, while other perspectives appear only marginally. Thus, the film ultimately falls into the trap of conveying its central character’s worldview to its audience while falling short of problematising it.
Meanwhile, the Spectrum section featured a film that dealt with the question of origin and the confrontation with one’s own family’s and national past in a more reflective way. Gimtine (Motherland, d. Tomas Vengris) follows a woman who, after separating from her husband in the US, takes her son and returns to her homeland Lithuania, which she left as a child, in order to re-appropriate the family property that was left behind. The film cleverly remains close to the perspective of the son, who is from the outset unfamiliar with his mother’s homeland and observes the unfolding events from the outside. This allows the film to reflect on the value of the past and the idea of homeland, the emotional attachment to it and the means to recover it – from bribery to violence – without making simple judgments. And so Motherland succeeds in differentiating between a logic of possession that leads to brutality and the value of memories that are bound to places but not to ownership.
The competition entry Glas (The Voice, d. Ognjen Sviličić), from Croatia, also opens with a scene outlining a mother-son relationship but develops into a study on belonging and exclusion. Garan’s mother takes him to a boarding school because she works abroad. The camera accompanies the new student through the white corridors as he arrives and presents lucid images of an institution that seems modern and liberal. At the same time, a threat remains perceptible beneath the surface that cannot be grasped. The ensuing conflict seems harmless at first but continues to spiral out of control. The pre-lunch prayer is a practiced ritual that does not appear to be of great importance, and only gradually does it become clear that behind the modern façade of the institution and its people lies a fundamentalist, hostile Christian ideology. For the film, the religious orientation itself is not as important as the examination of how structures of inclusion, exclusion and manipulation operate. What happens when a homogeneous group is put into question by the actions of a minority? The Voice examines the mechanisms of this situation, in which the protagonist mostly resists quietly but unbendingly, and shows the effects of the pressure a majority can exercise when it is not yielded to.
Reži (Love Cuts, d. Kosta Đorđević) revolves around a character whose resistance is not cautious, but bursts out of the protagonist unfiltered, in fits of rage. In handheld camera shots we follow tumbling, battling teenage girl Aja through a hot summer’s day in Belgrade. The topos of the Dog Days, which make minds boil and conflicts break out, has been taken up again and again from Sidney Lumet to Spike Lee in films in which the weather seemingly makes the heated social climate boil over. Unfortunately, Love Cuts limits itself to following the destructive behaviour of its protagonist, which always only resonates with her immediate surroundings. Like so many entries in this year’s competition, Love Cuts is also a film that presents a story without really saying anything, in which events and characters are arranged without ideas being developed, and thus remaining largely empty. The handheld camera, which follows its protagonist slavishly and unimaginatively, only underlines this, and in Cottbus one wondered again and again when this aesthetic, which has become the ubiquitous style of cinematic social realism, might finally be replaced by new formal strategies. But questions like these seem to be rather alien to the festival, at least in this year’s competition section.
Like Love Cuts, Pun mjesec (Full Moon, d. Nermin Hamzagić), from Bosnia and Herzegovina, also limits the plot to a few hours and furthermore condenses the narrative space, and is one of the most engaging films of this years’s competition, with its sombre imagery making the tense atmosphere of its setting palpable. After Hamza has brought his wife to the maternity ward, he has to start his night shift in the police station despite all pleas, as there is a staff shortage. This night, strands of fate converge at the station, and social problems come to the fore. Under pressure, in a constant state of concern for his heavily expectant wife, and feverishly wandering the station’s corridors, he tries to maintain order, in vain. On this night, much goes wrong and in the conflict between compassion for the people he encounters and loyalty to his corrupt colleagues, Hamza finally dares to protest the structures in place. The film succeeds in vividly questioning a society in a temporal and spatial condensation without giving simple answers. Exits are repeatedly obstructed, lead into dead ends or prove to be wrong paths. The rough humanity that leading actor Alban Ukaj bestows on his character here was rightly awarded in Cottbus.
In Sestra (Sister), directed by Svetla Tsotsorkova, from Bulgaria, habitual liar Rayna lives on the outskirts of town with her mother and sister. Together they spend their days making clay figures that Rayna sells to travellers passing by, while she tells them false and spectacular stories that arouse compassion and bring a little extra money. The film portrays the passage of time and the stagnation in the lives of the three women who are stuck in carefully composed images, while in the background cars pass through the frame, implying a chance of breaking out of this situation. Rayna’s stories are also an expression of her longing for change, but ultimately shake up the relationship between the characters. The film creates an interesting interplay of words and images by opposing what the characters say about and to each other with the way they act and shows how difficult it is to stop a system of lies once it has been set in motion. At the same time, the film is a portrait of three distinct women, exposed to prejudices and exclusion in the village. They can only rely on each other, and Sister gives a sensitive account of the dynamics of their complicated cohesion. The way the film carefully treats the various interpersonal and social layers of the unfolding events, without giving simple answers or allowing for easy identification, must have convinced the jury to award Sister the main prize in the competition.
The films of the competition were preceded by short clips on censorship and the freedom of art. One piece by the Hungarian filmmaker Bence Fliegauf (Dealer, Just the Wind) highlighted the paradox of the Hungarian film industry, in which increasing productivity and festival success are countered by the silencing of critical political voices. This development could also be seen in the section, Close Up HU, which looked at recent Hungarian cinema beyond the big festival successes and thus formed one of the most interesting programs of this year’s festival.
In 2011, the Hungarian-born Andrew Vajna, a long-time Hollywood producer and friend of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán,1 took over the post as Government Commissioner in charge of the Hungarian film industry. Under his direction funding for the state film subsidy was increased and new tax concessions for film productions were introduced in Hungary, which led to an increase in both national productions as well as making Hungary a sought-after shooting location for foreign productions. Béla Tarr, who made his last film in the year of Vajna’s appointment, strongly criticised this recruitment and the restructuring of the Hungarian film industry planned by Orbán and Vajna. Other filmmakers, however, were able to celebrate a number of festival successes in the following years. In addition to the winner of the Golden Bear Teströl és lélekröl (On Body and Soul, 2017) by Ildikó Enyedi, the films of László Nemes, whose Saul Fia (Son of Saul, 2015) and Sunset (2018) celebrated their premieres in the competition sections in Cannes and Venice, are particularly noteworthy. Cottbus refrained from re-running these prestige productions, which had already been shown in cinemas in Germany, in order to draw attention to smaller films that had previously been hard to see outside the festival circuit. Noticeable, though of little surprise considering Vajna’s background, were the diverse links to American genre cinema in the section.
Based on a real case from the 1920s, A hentes, a kurva és a félszemü (The Butcher, the Whore, and the One-Eyed Man, 2017) is another example of the numerous films in Cottbus dealing with brutality and human abyss. Unlike many others, this film directed by János Szász is not content with a mere depiction of events, but instead develops a powerful visual language between the aesthetics of Béla Tarr and the desolate shadow worlds of Film Noir. The dependencies between a soldier on the run, a prostitute and a wealthy slaughterhouse owner are translated into stark images of sexual violence, mutilation and meat processing. By abstracting the true story as a noir-tale, the film succeeds in turning concrete events into an image of society and history that, in its black-and-white artificiality, reflects on state-sanctioned cruelty, oppression and the abuse of power.
In contrast to The Butcher, the Whore, and the One-Eyed Man, the Hungary section featured a series of films akin to the narrative style of independent American films and their portraits of likable offbeat characters. In addition to the teenage-romances Engedetlen (Relentless, d. Zoltán Moll, 2018) and Rossz versek (Bad Poems, d. Gábor Reisz, 2019) these included the coming-of-age story Deva, by Hungarian poet and director Petra Szőcs: Kató is an albino girl who lives in a Romanian orphanage after the death of her parents. After meeting new volunteer Bogi, who develops a close relationship with the girl and introduces her to new perspectives, something stirs inside her, eventually bursting out when Kató escapes from the orphanage. Without great gestures and dramatic effects, the film tells of a situation and a transformation in subtle shifts. The film is not so much interested in storylines as in the interrelation between understanding and remaining alien to its main character, when it repeatedly shows the face of Csengelle Nagy in close-ups, whose precise performance reveals as much as it hides.
Too obvious, on the other hand, was the lurid action film Kojot (Coyote, d. Márk Kostyál) which was withdrawn shortly after its 2017 theatrical release. After the filmmakers had put the film on YouTube, attracting great interest there, it was brought back to Hungarian cinemas one year later. The reason for the controversy was the portrayal of a landowner who, as a patriarch, not only rules over his own family, but also determines all events in the region and asserts his business interests without any regard for the law. This character probably resembled a close friend of Victor Orbán too much to those responsible. Beyond this political issue, Coyote is a straightforward action film with some spectacular scenes, ranging from the caricature of the Hungarian rural population to body-focused action choreographies. The film gets close to but doesn’t quite cross over to farce, due to its conscious depiction of the brutality and the stubbornness of the protagonist, who transforms from a sensible office clerk to an archaic tough guy, and not for the better, as becomes apparent in his relationship to his wife. Thus, despite all the schematic plot developments, there is an awareness of the problematic aspects of the character’s actions here that grounds the characters in contemporary reality and contrasts them with Vajna’s Hollywood fantasies about heroic masculinity, even if the film only marginally touches on this.
In another – rather marginal – program, amidst the many films in Cottbus that had more narrative concerns in mind, there were to be found two works that stood out due to their sophisticated formal language. In a seminar room of the State Museum of Modern Art, a special section was screened that aimed to highlight the connection between the Bauhaus and socialist architecture in the centennial year of the influential school. The fact that this connection is not quite as stringent as the program text announces and that, moreover, it is hardly touched on in the films, but rather owed to a desire to join in on the anniversary celebrations, can be forgiven in view of some of the films shown in the section. In addition to some contributions that are more akin to promotional films in terms of style and content and which have made the international recognition of long overlooked and neglected buildings of brutalist architecture their agenda, there are those that also reflect the study of architectural structures in their own cinematic form.
The Building (Das Haus) by Tatjana Kononenko and Matilda Mester portrays the Derzhprom, the House of State Industry, in Kharkov. At the time of construction one of the largest buildings in Europe, the edifice has remained a monstrous structure to this day, which the filmmakers carefully approach. In the interplay between inside and outside, images of the facade alternate with encounters with the people who work inside. As monumental as it often seems from the outside, the traces of time have been clearly imprinted inside. The use of various digital and analogue film materials, the inclusion of archive material and the setting of the filmmakers inside of the frame, create a panopticon of perspectives that approaches this place while at the same time leaving its history to keep its secrets.
While The Building fragments perspectives, Centar seeks to make the essence of a building palpable through silent intensity. Director Ivan Marković had previously proved his talent for concentrated observation in the first few minutes of Angela Schanelec’s Silver Bear Winner Ich war zuhause, aber… (I Was at Home, But…,, 2019) for which Marković served as director of photography. Where in Schanelec’s film animals are observed in a haunting silence that presents them as something mysterious and impenetrable, Centar also remains without spoken dialogue, but has an expressionistic sound design. This amplifies the natural sounds of the Sava Centar in Belgrade, which has passed its prime as a venue for international conferences and gala premieres and is waiting to be transformed into a capitalist temple of consumption. The film shows the empty rooms and corridors of the building, always threatened by decay and flooding, and the isolated workers stoically defying it. The calm, mostly dark images capture the details of the forms and surfaces, and the bodies moving between them, which seem to have an almost symbiotic relationship to each other, and bear witness to the soul of this building that is going to lose its identity in the prospective restructuring.
And thus, upon leaving Cottbus, passing between the Plattenbauten, old houses and shopping centres, these images remain in one’s head and make the buildings along the way appear somewhat altered. Instead of using cinema to tell stories that are anchored in reality, but often say little about it, a cinematic understanding of reality is at work here, which in subtle observation asserts its own position in relation to the world. This cinematographic power, which changes one’s perception and thinking in an idiosyncratic and original way, often to be seen on the fringes of the festival this year, is something one hopes to find more frequently in Cottbus in the future.
5-10 November 2019
Festival website: http://www.filmfestivalcottbus.de/de/
- Andrew Vajna had shaped the action cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s with productions such as First Blood (1982), Total Recall (1990) and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995). ↩