Everything new is old again: The 2020 Berlin Film Festival

By Shane Danielsen

Even with a new artistic director, this year’s Berlinale failed to inspire

Red Moon Tide. © Zeitun Films 2020

For the 70th Berlin International Film Festival – the first since its “conscious uncoupling” with long-time artistic director Dieter Kosslick – expectations were unusually high. The old order was gone, overturned at last: let a thousand flowers bloom! Recruited following a stint at the Locarno Film Festival, incoming head Carlo Chatrian clearly recognised the need to renew an event that had, in recent years, been accused of slipping into irrelevancy. Still, a few grumblings could be heard as the event kicked off. “I just wish,” sighed one colleague, a trade reviewer who knows Chatrian personally, “that he hadn’t tried to put his stamp on the entire festival in one go.”

But had he? Sure, there was a new competitive strand – the foggily titled “Encounters” – dedicated to “new cinematic visions”, and given to precisely the kind of eat-your-vegetables stuff that Chatrian and his programmers (a number of whom he’d bought with him to Berlin) had championed at Locarno. In practice, this meant things like Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog – essentially a 200-minute staged reading of an obscure Russian philosophical text about good and evil, and the nature of Christ; The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin), an eight-hour study of “the work and non-work of a farmer” in a village in the mountains of Kyoto Prefecture, Japan; and The Last City, a series of dialogues, shot in various cities, about social taboos, generational tensions and urban architecture, by the veteran German documentarian Heinz Emigholz. All of these left the Forum section, traditional gatekeepers of this kind of High Arthouse Filmmaking, very much uncertain about just what it was meant to be doing.

The main Competition, however, was a grab bag straight out of the Kosslick era: a bunch of past-their-prime auteurs (Sally Potter, Philippe Garrel, Abel Ferrara), a handful of thirsty young up-and-comers, and one or two genuinely significant talents. The latter included America’s Kelly Reichardt, here with the humane, shrewdly observed Western First Cow, and Iran’s Mohammad Rasoulof, who was unable to attend in person due to his ongoing detention in his homeland, yet unexpectedly walked away with the Golden Bear for Best Film for his clandestine feature There Is No Evil.

The opening night selection, meanwhile – Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year, about a perky young intern at a New York literary agency (played by Margaret Qualley), and her telephonic relationship with the reclusive author – was so beige and dull and safe, it could have been selected by Kosslick himself.

The best thing I saw, unusually, was in the Forum: Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide was about a fishing village on the Galician coast, cast into a kind of mournful stasis following the drowning of its best diver. The cause of Rubio’s death remains obscure – he was either drowned by a wave that has since assumed the form of a rock (hey, it happens), or taken by a mysterious, ocean-dwelling beast – but either way, the village is cursed; all their boats return empty. And so, in desperation, its inhabitants summon three witches to bring Rubio back from the dead.

Told entirely in voice over, and about as visually breathtaking as anything I’ve ever seen – its tableau shots, of figures isolated and motionless amid misty landscapes, looked like Gregory Crewdson photographs as lit by Andrei Tarkovsky – Red Moon Tide also conjured a powerful sense of the uncanny, its imagery and sound design becoming more spectral, ambiguous and unnerving as the narrative proceeded.

Burhan Qurbani’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s classic Berlin Alexanderplatz probably made sense on paper – why not update the novel from 1920s Germany to the present day, and set it among the city’s immigrant community rather than the Weimar demimonde? – but proved to be almost as crude and heavy-handed as the Nollywood films its protagonist is seen watching near the start. Not one element of it felt remotely authentic – and certainly not Albrecht Schuch as the tale’s primary antagonist, the pimp Reinhold. Played here as a camp, cartoonishly deformed misfit, a figure who would have seemed louche in Cabaret, he felt like a call-back to an entirely different film and era… ironically, to the very 1975 Fassbinder adaptation (a masterpiece, incidentally) that Qurbani seemed so determined to erase. His stated desire to next remake Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy fills me with a clammy horror.

Abel Ferrara’s Siberia was self-indulgent rubbish (and utterly wasted the great Simon McBurney); Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken showed star Javier Bardem chewing the scenery so determinedly, you’d think he’d just escaped from Fat Camp. And with The Woman Who Ran, Korea’s Hong Sang-soo delivered precisely the same film he’s been making two and sometimes three times per year for the past decade. I get that some people dig this – the ungraded images, the careless framing, the gin-and-tonic dialogue – but Hong, to put it very mildly, just ain’t my thing. Like the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard, his work strikes me as absolute banality masquerading as plain-spoken wisdom.

Rather more concerning was Christian Petzold’s latest, Undine, an under-developed sort-of mermaid tale, and a story with almost as much pedigree in German cinema as Berlin Alexanderplatz. I didn’t love Petzold’s last feature, Transit, despite my passion for the Anna Seghers novel on which it was based: his decision to set it in the present day, rather than World War Two–era Marseille, seemed a creative conceit more suited to a stage adaptation than a filmic one. Even so, it felt a good deal more focused and rigorous than this one, a baggy supernatural romance that plays like a Berlin School remake of The Weight of Water.

Where was Petzold’s usual glacial precision? One friend – a long-time admirer like myself – attributes the filmmaker’s recent decline to the death of his teacher, mentor and unofficial dramaturge, Harun Farocki, and after hearing his theory (which, hilariously, involved a close reading of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), I found it hard to disagree.

Perhaps the mostly hotly anticipated title in Competition – indeed, at the whole festival – was the premiere of Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s DAU. Natasha. If you don’t know the story of the DAU project, look it up. (There’s an excellent article here.) Financed by a Russian oligarch of seemingly limitless resources (and patience), it’s one of the most unbelievable examples of hubris in cinema history: a real-life version of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, created in a vast, fully functional re-creation of a 1950s Soviet city that the filmmaker had constructed in Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine. There, about 400 principal actors and 10,000 extras lived, worked, ate, slept and (central to the filmmaker’s design, this) fucked, for more than three years. All under the watchful eye of Khrzhanovskiy’s cameras.

The first fruits of this enterprise were supposed to premiere in Cannes in 2011. But that never happened. Nine years after that, it finally yielded a multimedia exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and at least five feature-length films, one of which was shown at Berlin. (Four others, which may or may not be those screened at the Pompidou, are reportedly forthcoming.)

Fun fact: I was approached, more than a decade ago, to co-write this behemoth. I still have Khrzhanovskiy’s script for the original feature in my files. (It’s only 108 pages! How naive we all were!) Alas, my notes to the primary producer – per my email of August 12, 2008: “There’s WAY too much masturbating in this script” and “the sex scenes as currently written are too hardcore, and will make it hard (sorry) for international buyers” – displeased the young auteur, and my services were terminated… thus sparing me up to 36 months’ internment in this Stalinist folie.

Notwithstanding my own momentary history with this project, it would be nice to report that the result justified the massive investment of time, labour, craft and money ploughed into it. It does not. A grubby and enervating slice of misery-porn, DAU forsakes any kind of historical context or psychological insight for a banal, unremitting examination of people making each other miserable through sex and violence. Intended presumably as a metaphor for totalitarianism, it could be taking place anywhere, at any time – which I’m pretty sure wasn’t its maker’s point. Worse, you barely get to see the re-created city: but for two brief exterior shots, the action (which, inevitably, includes some gruesome hardcore sex) is confined to a series of murkily underlit rooms and corridors.

I remember reading an article a few years ago, which claimed that “oppressed” East German women had enjoyed, on average, twice as many orgasms as their counterparts in the supposedly free West. Khrzhanovskiy’s film, an accidental corrective to that study, could easily be used by Ted Cruz to promote the unassailable virtues of the free market. Amazon may be screwing its workers, but at least the lights are on.

Shane Danielsen

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

Red Moon Tide. © Zeitun Films 2020

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