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Film & Television

Treasures buried at the Berlin International Film Festival

By Shane Danielsen
A lacklustre line-up concealed the beautiful and the beguiling

This year’s Berlin Film Festival began under something of a cloud. A few months earlier, a group of 79 prominent German filmmakers had co-signed an open letter demanding the removal of the festival’s long-time director, the “avuncular” Dieter Kosslick, and his replacement by someone with actual cinephile knowledge and taste. “The goal,” they wrote, “must be to find an outstanding curatorial personality who is passionate about cinema, well-connected internationally and capable of leading the festival into the future on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice. We want a transparent procedure and a new start.” Virtually every major German director put their name to it – including Christian Petzold, Volker Schlöndorff, Maren Ade, Dominik Graf and Fatih Akin – though Tom (Run Lola Run) Tykwer was conspicuous by his absence. Not at all coincidentally, he was also the president of this year’s jury. And Petzold, who had a new film in the festival’s Competition section, walked away mit nichts.

I’ve been somewhat hard on Kosslick myself over the years, but that’s only because he has no fucking idea how to program a festival. Like a blackjack player who can’t count cards, he’s displayed no ability whatsoever to make the most of the few assets he has. His legacy, it seems, will be to have introduced “Culinary Kino” – a sidebar dedicated to films about food, where each screening is followed by a meal prepared by a renowned chef, to which Berlin’s now-sizable bourgeoisie flock each night. Mostly, to quote Alan Bennett, to “hug themselves in self-congratulation at the perfection of their lives”.

In fact, there were some good films at this year’s Berlinale, though you had to work hard to find them. The Competition section, overstuffed and underpowered, was judged once again to be a disappointment: its failure remains the chief reason for Berlin’s perceived decline as a major international event. But in the sidebar sections, a number of treasures could be found.

I didn’t catch Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, which opened the festival, or Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane; there’ll be time for those films when they’re released. Nor did I see the Golden Bear winner, Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not – partly because I’d been warned off it by friends who had (one, reviewing it for a trade magazine, privately described it to me as “abhorrent”), but also because it stars an actor I’d worked with in the past, who I didn’t especially like or want to watch again. By all accounts a forensic study of human sexuality, blurring the line between documentary and fiction, it seems destined for festival play, respectful notices, and not much else. Berlin has a particular knack for consecrating films that you struggle even to remember a few years later. (Have you ever heard of Grbavica? Or U-Carmen eKhayelitsha?) Touch Me Not, alternating full-frontal nudity with breaking-the-fourth-wall interview segments, will likely do nothing to counter that trend.

It’s also worth noting, in passing, that this year Berlin responded to the #MeToo movement by seeking “to provide all of our festival visitors (both audience and industry guests) who experience or witness discrimination, harassment or abuse with contact to counselling centres, anonymous and free of charge”. Yes, gosh darn it, this festival cares about sexual harassment and discrimination! It cares so deeply, in fact, that it never did a thing about it until now, when broader societal pressures obliged it – like a starlet struggling under the weight of some obese producer – to make the obvious and inevitable compromise. Yet this gesture, which already smacked of bandwagon-jumping and opportunism, was further tarnished by the invitation the festival extended to South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, who currently stands accused of harassment and abuse of an actress in his homeland.

My favourite Competition entry – probably my favourite thing at the festival, in fact – was a German film called In the Aisles. Directed by Thomas Stuber, it’s set in a vast, Costco-like supermarket beside an autobahn in the former East, which is staffed by a crew of lonely misfits, with their private codes, rituals and idiosyncrasies; imagine Are You Being Served? as written by Robert Walser.

Our entry point into this world comes with the arrival of a new worker, much younger than the rest: former jailbird Christian, played by Germany’s hottest young actor of the moment, Franz Rogowski – a kind of Deutsche Joachim Phoenix, right down to the harelip. Assigned to Beverages, he’s taken under the wing of a kindly colleague, Bruno (Peter Kurth), who shows him the ropes. And almost at once, he falls deeply in love with Marion (Sandra Hüller from Toni Erdmann), a lovely, sad and mysterious woman who works, entirely appropriately, in Sweet Goods.

Beautifully shot (mostly at night) by Peter Matjasko in a grainily underlit digital that casts whole areas of the frame into deep shadow, it’s also wryly funny – albeit in a specifically Middle-European manner, its laughter tinged with melancholy – and displays a tender and rueful affection for one’s co-workers, the near-strangers with whom we share such a large part of our lives. Christian’s scenes with Marion fairly hum, not with erotic energy – Rogowski is too recessive a presence for that – but with something else, deeper and perhaps more enduring: a shared sympathy, the mutual recognition and understanding of two lonely but hopeful souls. I wound up watching it twice, for the unalloyed pleasure of spending time with these people, in their solitary, singular world.

Stranger still was a drama from Poland, screening as part of the Forum: a semi-experimental strand known for testing the patience of all but the most tolerant (or pretentious) of viewers. Tower. A Bright Day. (yes, those are two full stops) is a domestic drama in the apocalyptic mode. It begins fairly inauspiciously – Kaja accompanies some friends to her sister Mula’s house in the country, having just been released from psychiatric care – but quickly adds layers of unease, ambiguity and dread. A local priest, delivering his sermon, suddenly forgets the name of Christ; TV news reports, barely overheard, hint at vast social cataclysms occurring in the outside world. Mula is understandably tense – it’s eight-year-old Nina’s first communion, and the child has no idea that Kaja, not Mula, is actually her mother – but these complicated family dynamics soon become the least of their problems.

Fuelled by Kacper Habisiak’s hair-raising sound design and Teoniki Rozynek’s droning, atonal score (indebted to the work of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson), the air of immanent menace mounts steadily – is Kaja, clearly a schizophrenic, capable of actual violence? – before climaxing in a sequence as unnerving and inexplicable as any I can remember. Forget Mother! – this film delivered 10 times the impact, playing, in the end, like a cross between Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent and Dawn of the Dead. Writer-director Jagoda Szelc is being tipped as a major new filmmaker in her homeland, and on the basis of this startling, technically immaculate debut, it’s not hard to see why.

Just as accomplished, and a good deal more saleable, was a drama from Spain in the festival’s Panorama section, the somewhat regrettably titled Sunday’s Illness. Written and directed by Ramón Salazar, it details the uneasy reconciliation of Anabel, a wealthy woman in her early sixties (Susi Sánchez), with Chiara (Bárbara Lennie), the daughter she abandoned three decades earlier. After a set-up of extraordinary elegance, set at a lavish banquet, the film becomes a two-hander: Chiara demands that her mother spend 10 days with her in the country on the French border, in the house in which she was born and where she continues to live; thereafter, she says, she will renounce all claims upon Anabel, financially and emotionally.

Their rapprochement is gradual and entirely convincing, culminating finally in a scene of stark, piercing sadness. Possessed of an unusually refined compositional sense, Salazar allows his story to unfold in a string of magnificent images: the Aquitaine countryside here feels somehow more northern, as darkly mysterious as a Caspar David Friedrich painting, or a Marcus Larson landscape. Meanwhile, the film’s stunning costumes remind you of just how much narrative shorthand a gifted designer can convey. (Full credit to the film’s costume designer, Clara Bilbao.)

But the real draw here is the psychic warfare between these two women – Chiara trying to penetrate her mother’s carefully cultivated hauteur, Anabel slowly, almost reluctantly thawing. It’s thorny, complex, never easy. One afternoon, at a village fair, Chiara seems for a moment to relax; she tells her mother she can ask her one question and she’ll answer it honestly. But the self-serving nature of Anabel’s query (“Does anyone else know?”) only causes the younger woman to retreat further. It’s one beautiful moment in a film replete with them; this is grown-up cinema, made for adults to ponder and savour. Why, then, was it not in Competition? Only Dieter can answer that. Thankfully, it will come to Netflix, who were listed as investors in its credits. You must see it.

From mainland China, meanwhile, came An Elephant Sitting Still, a nearly four-hour-long debut from writer-director Hu Bo, about the intersecting lives of a handful of lonely people in a third-tier northern city, all of whom (in the kind of coincidence beloved by first-time filmmakers) dream of escape to Manzhouli, a town in Inner Mongolia on the Russian border.

By no means perfect, prone to airy philosophising and occasional longueurs, it was nonetheless surprisingly gripping. The film plays out in a series of artfully constructed long takes, and the performance of its four principals is superb, their unforced naturalism rubbing up against the filmmaker’s extremely stylised mode of narration. (Hu deploys shallow focal length and tight framing to keep the focus firmly on his actors and to exclude their environment, while his director of photography, Fan Chao, contributes some of the most beguiling digital cinematography I’ve yet seen, I assume with an SLR camera: a subtly but distinctly un-filmlike aesthetic of desaturated colours, hard outlines and glassy textures.)

I’ve never bought into the critical delusion that excessive duration confers importance. (This year, noted Filipino bore Lav Diaz bought to Berlin an “a capella rock-opera”, Season of the Devil – short by his standards at 234 minutes – and managed to alienate even his usual cadre of obedient defenders.) But this one seemed to justify, not just occupy, its length, and displayed an uncanny feel for daily life in China, and the discontents of its striving, somewhat rudderless middle class. All in all, it looked to herald the arrival of a major new talent … or would have, had its maker not committed suicide in October last year, aged just 29. On the basis of this, his sole completed film, his death represents a considerable loss to international cinema.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Sunday’s Illness

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