What’s Good at the Berlin Film Festival 2015?
Here’s my take on what I’ve seen so far at the Berlin Film Festival, or Berlinale, from great to dreadful with marks out of five.
THE BEST FILMS
The best have been from Latin America: ‘El Incendio’ / ‘The Fire’ (5/5) from Argentina: simply the best film I’ve seen at the festival so far. It will show again twice more this week, so make sure you go. It is a emotional Kammerspiel, or chamber drama, about a couple whose relationship is falling apart as they buy an apartment together. The film is full of tension, dread, and the kind of interpersonal confrontation that only the best theatre actors can pull off.
‘Violencia’ (Columbia, 4/5) interweaves three stories regarding the army and terrorism in today’s Columbia. The stories interconnect subtly and create a rounded picture of the everyday quality of violence that society tolerates and enables. Hannah Arendt readers will immediately think about the banality of evil. As became apparent in the Q&A, one needs some additional information that Columbians know about their own country fully to appreciate the film. And risking a spoiler, it is that the army has been known to kill civilians in order to offer up bodies as proof that they have effectively found and killed terrorists. The director in the Q&A spoke of the film as ‘healing’ and ‘reconciling’ the opposing sides, but I thought it rather a scathing attack on the armed forces. Let’s see how it plays at home.
‘Härte’ (Germany, 4/5) is a documentary about a karate champ, Andreas Marquardt, in Berlin who was sexually abused as a child by his mother, and how this affected his (violent) relations with women later in life. Marquardt cannot forgive his mother, but we are asked to forgive him. Director Rosa von Praunheim stages scenes from Marquardt’s life in stark black and white in minimal spaces, with Hanno Koffler (Freier Fall) pulling off a convincing James Dean-esque performance as the young Andreas. I hardly understand how a film about sexual abuse between a mother and her son should be included in the Teddy awards section (for Queer films–is it because the director is queer? there are plenty of queer directors in the festival that aren’t included). The conflation of pedophilia and homosexuality is regrettably at the centre of the next film I saw…
‘El Club’ (Chile, 4/5) is a Pablo Larraín’s newest film (director of ‘No’) about a rest home for problem priests in a gloomy Chilean seaside town. The film is full of remarkable acting, all shot though a lens like the misty window to the gloomy ocean. For all the lens’ softness, this is an extremely angry film about the Church and child abuse.
‘Mot Naturen’ (Out of Nature) (Norway, 4/5) is about trying to be a good parent, and a good husband, and the reflections of a socially awkward 30-something as he runs through the Norwegian hills. The director plays the lead in a demanding role, as he questions his marriage. He finds he can no longer suppress a mountain of sexual desire, which brings us to the climax of this spare mountain film. Well acted, tight, but with just a few too many enjoyable childish tricks (that have him getting stuck in mud, pissing himself, wanking against a tree and getting caught, etc.)––all communicated with an effective voice-over narrative.
Of the Generation Shorts 14+, I absolutely loved ‘Coach’ (France, 5/5), a film about the relationship between a boy and his father on their way to an England game at the Stade de France, whose car breaks down, and they end up in a bus of football hooligans. The changing father-son dynamics are so well observed and the directors pack a lot of rounded character change into a dozen minutes. Other very good shorts in this section were the wry and morosely ironic ‘Reunion’ (Finland, 4/5) and a Russian film ‘Why Banana Snarls‘ (4/5) that I couldn’t help but take as coded criticism of how Russia deals with difference.
Of the plenty of films I’ve not yet seen, I’ve heard the competition entry Victoria is a winner.
Of the other films I saw:
‘The Forbidden Room’ (Canada, 3/4) by Guy Maddin is an impressive experiment of remaking and splicing together dozens of silent films that were shelved with the arrival of the ‘talky’. There is almost 3 hours of dizzy weaving in and out of plots, in different cinematic styles, tones. The editors had a lot of fun with digital, perhaps too much fun. One gets a little seasick along the way, and starts to miss the old-fashioned hand-cut films for which Maddin is so known. Or is this really the logical ‘po-mo’ next step for this director? Or simply a vomit of plots randomly connected (there is apparently an online component to the film where you can do exactly that: randomly create your own film). The whole action is beautifully framed with a John Ashbery poem about getting in and out of a bath. One cannot help but admire this project, that reflects on the silent-film era, without entirely being able to endure the end product.
‘Histoire de Judas’ (France, 3/4) puts the Gospels in an Algerian wadi, redressing the role of Judas. The film is bathed in golden light, green palms, and Roman ruins. Within this crumbling ensemble, one has very mannered acting––a lot of liturgical seriousness, and self-importance that reminds us we are watching poetry on film. Rather old-fashioned film making, with none of the grit of Pasolini’s Matthew, to which the film is unfairly compared.
‘Angelica’ (UK/US, 3/5): Sometimes I imagine, that somewhere in London or California, there is a ready made set for WW2 London (used by ‘The Imitation Game’) or for Elizabethan London (used by ‘The Tudors’) or Victorian London… used by ‘Angelica’. If you want all the cloying period-piece clichés, framing the well-worn subject of female hysteria (because, apparently, she’s not getting enough of the male member), then go see this film. It’s well acted (Jena Malone is great, who knew?), and refreshingly has a lot more explicit sexuality in it than one would find in, say, a Merchant Ivory production. Beware: a lot of its tricks seem borrowed: a climax that you saw in ‘Gone Girl’ and the abuses of manipulative servants that are the stock of the French novel.
Speaking of hysteria… the wandering uterus makes an appearance too in ‘Superworld’ / ‘Superwelt’ (Austria, 3/5), in which a middle-aged woman working at a discounter supermarket in provincial Austria is beset by visions and has conversations with God. This is again settled (spoiler alert) by some human contact and communication in the form of a good shag. The psychotic protagonist is played by the first-rate Ulrike Beimpold, and the film benefits from exceptional cinematography of the terrifyingly standardised Austrian provinces. Q&A with the charming director Karl Markovics reveals that post-production happened very recently, and one has the feeling (hope!) that with a little more distance he will decide to do some radical cutting. There’s just too much wandering, too many of the same kind of visions, sparked by too many similarly low household sounds, and too little variation in character development (until the very end). This could be a very fine film: but as it stands, there was lots of shuffling and looking at watches in the audience.
‘Short Skin’ (Italy, 2.5/5) is a funny, well executed film about a young man who has trouble with sex because of an anatomical problem. The malfunction is a vehicle for tensions between the characters which remain on the level of sweetness, kind of like an after-school special, rather than a profound contemplation on coming of age. Lots of wanking and pictures of penises with stiches in them, but well-directed.
I’m not going to spend much time on the films I didn’t like:
I thought the documentary ‘Jeunesse Allemande’ (France, 2/5) felt more like a loosely connected jumble of images about the RAF rather than an analytical commentary.
‘Ned Rifle‘ (USA, 2/5) is the wooden new film by Hal Hartley, with painful dialogues, 90s clothes and a grating synth sountrack. I know it’s all suppose to be ironic, but Hal really shouldn’t write his own music.
‘How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)’ (Thailand, 1.5/5) is a saccharine film about the relationship between two model-cute Thai guys being recruited into the army as seen by the little brother. The material is great: class difference in Thailand, the accompanying abuses of corruption, compromises made in the Thai rent-boy scene, and a refreshing look into a country with few(er) hangups about sexuality. But what really got my goat about this film was the way it pandered to just about every market interest: a series of sentimental flashbacks at the end to remind you of all the good times the boys had together? Check. A sweet little boy as sidekick in the family to remind you this could be marketed as a family film? Check. Plenty of open discussion of sexuality but PG-rated sex so that you can play it on television if you get rights, even though this film is about rent boys? Check. And after all that criticism of the wantonness of army recruitment, and the brutality of young men being sent to their deaths in the south of the country, interviews in the credits with people talking about how happy they are to serve their country, so as to recuperate anyone suspicious that this film might not be patriotic? Check. Compromises all around: a worrying trajectory for a debut director.
Please, whatever you do, don’t go see Berlinale Shorts (Program II). Just one sample: #Ya (0/5) reduces the political importance of street protest to cool and beautiful young people dancing, having great sex, and blowing things up. How disappointing for those actually committed to radical politics.
Finally, a few thoughts:
It’s hard not to see a lot of crap at the Berlin Film Festival, or Berlinale. Sometimes I feel that I have given blood, that part of my life has been taken from me when I see something truly cringeworthy. Perhaps I just miss the sun, but since we are in Berlin in February there’s not much of that to miss. At the festival, I have tried hard to become a little smarter over the years with regards to avoiding trash cinema. But at the beginning of the festival, it’s really a lottery––unless there’s been a premiere in Toronto or another festival, there’s initially no press to guide you. You need to wait a couple of days before Variety or the Hollywood Reporter start publishing their reviews. These help eliminate the truly awful selections, but here too there’s a pitfall, as often they write with industry and sales in mind, and that auteur masterpiece might be relegated as ‘slow’ or ‘unmarketable’ or ‘boring’. My solution––or rather resignation––has been to see as much as possible, provided I haven’t heard something terrible (like with Werner Herzog’s new film, Queen of the Desert, which was eviscerated by the press). I generally steer away from Competition films that I think I can see anyway in the theatres later on, and also because I don’t want to battle crowds. A lot of the best Forum or Panorama films I’ve seen in the past sadly only appear at festivals. I avoid the Berlinale Shorts which are often terrible, which drag you every deeper into mediocrity with the expectation that maybe–– just maybe––the next film will be better. But it’s often much worse. At least with a feature film you can walk out after 10 minutes. Something’s wrong with the curation in Berlinale Shorts section. Why are the Generation Shorts miles better?
I try to avoid the stress of lines and pick accreditation-friendly venues like Zoo Palast, Cubix, Colosseum or Cinemaxx, that have lots of seats so I don’t risk getting rejected. Cinestar is where I’ve been rejected most often. Finally, a side note: I have observed an incredible amount of anti-social behaviour at the festival in lines, mostly by journalists who with their red accreditation badges hassle the doorkeepers to let them in, abuse them verbally and refuse to wait with the other badges when it’s not a press screening. In one instance at Cinemaxx, someone waiting in line offered to call the police. This is, to say the very least, unfair to the underpaid Berlinale staff, and distressing for everyone present.
Parting shot: Go see El Incendio. I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t get an award.