Culture

Film

A showcase of the unexceptional: the 2019 Berlin Film Festival

By Shane Danielsen
This year’s offerings did little to arrest the event’s apparent decline

Synonyms. © Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

I’ve been coming to the Berlin Film Festival every February for 27 years. But this year was the first time that I found myself thinking – as I walked out of yet another dud into the chilly environs of Potsdamer Platz – why am I doing this? I’d been flown over for two meetings on a screenwriting project, so technically I was being paid to attend. But why did I also choose to watch 51 mostly lousy movies, in all or in part? What exactly had I been hoping for?

If I continue to attend the Berlinale, it’s because I miss Berlin, and will happily take any opportunity to return there; because I want to see certain friends, both locals and festival visitors (though truthfully, less of the latter are coming – that is, being sent by their bosses or editors – each time); and also, I suppose, because I’ve been coming for 27 consecutive years. The chains of habit, as Samuel Johnson once observed, are too weak to be felt until too strong to be broken.

There’s also the desire, as strong in me now as it was when I started, to see new work; I long to be astonished. But in terms of both art and business, this year’s Berlinale did nothing to arrest the decline apparent in its recent editions. The Competition line-up was dismal. (A fellow critic, charged with reviewing much of it for one of the trade magazines, described it in an email as “a bouquet of turds”.) And after the Netflix- and Amazon-fuelled gold rush of Sundance, just two weeks earlier, its marketplace felt moribund. (“My understanding is, a market needs both sellers and buyers,” one Australian distributor observed dryly.) Perhaps as a result, the mood was first subdued, then increasingly morose.

It opened inauspiciously, to put it mildly, with the world premiere of The Kindness of Strangers, the latest film from Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig (An Education) – a Manhattan-set story of connections in the manner of Crash (Paul Haggis’s, not Cronenberg/Ballard’s), and a work of dismaying, almost touching idiocy. Homelessness, wealth-inequality, domestic violence … the drama handled each of these Issues with all the subtlety of a pro-wrestler slamming an opponent to the canvas.

As such, it represented yet another baffling choice from festival director Dieter Kosslick. Did he honestly think this was good enough? One British colleague, who’d served on a jury with him a few years ago, offered an interesting insight: “It’s true,” he said, “that Dieter doesn’t have very good taste. But he also doesn’t really care about quality. For him, it’s not about whether a film is any good – it’s about whether it says the right thing, and puts him on the right side of history.” (To be fair, in this respect he’s not unlike many other German arts administrators.)

The local press were customarily savage, both about the opener and the man who chose it. “He’s an opportunist,” one prominent broadsheet critic sighed, before a screening the next day. “Totally cynical,” added her neighbour. But there was also light, albeit faint, at the end of the tunnel: after 18 years at the helm (which, let’s be honest, is at least a decade too long for any artistic director), Kosslick has finally stepped down – though not entirely of his own volition. To replace him, the festival has appointed Carlo Chatrian, formerly head of Locarno.

Any joy I may have felt, however, became somewhat less than unconfined with the announcement that Chatrian is bringing some of his programming team with him; I suspect their tastes – which, let us say, incline to the ascetic – might find little favour with sponsors and the German Ministry of Culture, the festival’s principal funder. Like so many financial stakeholders, these bodies want and expect a “Hollywood experience” from a film festival. But the new guard are mostly opposed to Hollywood, indeed to all but the most rarefied and cerebral forms of pleasure. The Berlinale’s 2020 edition – the festival’s 70th birthday – looks set to be interesting, at least.

This year’s Competition comprised 22 films. (Zhang Yimou’s entry, One Second, was pulled at the eleventh hour, reportedly at the insistence of the Chinese government.) Of these, I saw about two-thirds. None was excellent, as Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles had been last year. Most were flat, workmanlike, forgettable; one or two were dismal. I tried to sidestep the obvious landmines – not bothering, for example, with the latest from Spain’s Isabel Coixet, whom after long deliberation I’m prepared to declare the world’s least talented working filmmaker; nor with André Téchiné, whose films I’ve never enjoyed, much less admired.

I was looking forward to the latest from Israel’s Nadav Lapid, whose last feature, 2014’s The Kindergarten Teacher, had been one of my favourite works of that year. But this one, a Paris-set drama called Synonyms, felt directionless and oddly one-note; it lacked both the formalist rigour and the hermetic, dream-like strangeness of his previous work. Nor did I entirely enjoy the Angela Schanelec film in Competition, I Was at Home, But …, though I did recognise evidence of intelligence, care and craft within it. That film, in fact, proved the festival’s most intensely frustrating experience, in that it alternated flashes of sublimity with stretches of arid, sub-Bressonian posturing; as a result it was consistently, maddeningly backsliding – one step forward, then two more back.

Meanwhile, a US critic who wasn’t at the festival – and a pompous ass of the kind usually found only in Anthony Powell novels – tweeted that most critics were “ignoring” the parallel Forum sidebar because they were slaves of “the Entertainment Media Complex” … and lazy, to boot. Apart from the fact that watching and condemning a piss-poor Competition was hardly advancing the EMC’s nefarious cause (whatever that might be), I’d like it submitted for the record that I saw eleven Forum films – no lazybones, I – and with one conspicuous exception they were fucking dire: airless, protracted, barren.

One of them, an Argentine drama called Far from Us, was so deliberately obscure, so determinedly anti-dramatic, so visually drab (when it wasn’t badly under-lit) and so poorly acted, that when its two directors got up at the end to take a bow – to conspicuously tepid applause from those members of the audience still remaining – I could only marvel at their chutzpah. Really? Was this the film they wanted to make? And if so, why?

The exception was a Japanese entry, Sho Miyake’s And Your Bird Can Sing – a three-sided relationship drama that married the slacker aesthetic of much contemporary Japanese cinema to a genuinely affecting narrative, a study of arrested adolescence among two mismatched flatmates and the girl who beguiles them both. Lightly influenced by Korea’s Hong Sang-soo, it was more vividly alive, more deeply felt, than anything that auteur has made in a decade; its final moments, in particular, packed a powerful emotional punch. (And confirmed Shizuka Ishibashi, so memorable in 2017’s The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, as the most interesting Japanese actress to emerge this decade.)

Having missed its first screening, I was urged to see Agnieszka Holland’s Competition entry, the historical drama Mr. Jones. Set in 1932–33, it follows its titular protagonist, a Welsh journalist, as he journeys to the Soviet Union to uncover first-hand evidence of the epic failure of Stalin’s agricultural reforms, and the subsequent famine visited upon the Ukraine.

Sincere but overstuffed, the film was not Holland at her best (the montage scenes, supposedly inspired by Eisenstein, were especially amateurish), and wasted two of the best character actors around: the dependably excellent Peter Sarsgaard and newcomer Vanessa Kirby, recently magnetic as the young Princess Margaret in The Crown. But damned if it wasn’t determined to be relevant: we were barely two minutes in when an actor playing George Orwell (whose writing of Animal Farm, supposedly inspired by the dispiriting information Jones revealed to him, constitutes the drama’s framing device) was muttering, in voiceover, about fake news reports, the rise of fascism, and other things of discomfiting resonance to our current situation. Yet even he seemed to acknowledge the futility of this call to action: “The world is being invaded by monsters,” he sighed, “but you probably don’t want to know about all that.”

It won nothing. Which is fine: it didn’t deserve to win anything. The Golden Bear went instead to the aforementioned Synonyms, a film about a young Israeli man so disgusted by his homeland that he flees to Paris to begin a new life. Trouble is, he can’t get out of his own way: refusing to speak Hebrew (a language he considers contaminated), he also fails to properly speak French, falling back instead on a babble of words that, ironically, wind up pushing him further away from the life he’s trying to inhabit. A study of extreme solipsism, of introspection supplanting experience, it offered a near-perfect metaphor for a festival that desperately wanted to say the right things, but couldn’t find the words to do so.

Shane Danielsen

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

Synonyms. © Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

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