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Berlinale highlights: part one

By Shane Danielsen
This year’s Berlin Film Festival presented its strongest line-up in a decade

Fabrizio Rongione, Juan Trench, and Stéphanie Cléau in Andreas Fontana’s Azor (2021)

Like a salmon swimming upstream, I’ve spent every February in Berlin for the past 29 years – including the six years I lived in the city. For a long time the Berlin Film Festival was like that: something you pretty much had to attend, if you were interested in that kind of thing. But the growing hegemony of the Cannes Film Festival, coupled with some less-than-stellar leadership on Potsdamer Strasse, has seen the festival’s reputation decline badly over the past decade. The big films proved harder to come by. International buyers started skipping it. Members of the press stayed home. 

So it’s bitterly ironic that this year, as a global pandemic necessitated the shift to an online-only event, and everyone remained at home, the Berlinale should present its strongest line-up in a decade. In recent years I’ve considered myself fortunate if I find three or four good films to recommend – this year, there’s nearly a dozen. And so this report will be split over two instalments: this one concentrating on discoveries, and the next on the official competition and new work from more established directors.

In the second year of the festival’s “experimental” Encounters section, the clear stand-out, for me, was The Girl and the Spider, the second feature by Swiss-German filmmakers Ramon and Sylvan Zürcher, and the long-awaited follow-up to their superb 2013 debut, The Strange Little Cat. That film was set in a single apartment on a single day, as an extended family prepared for a dinner; this one is set in two apartments over three days, and follows a young woman moving house. You could say it’s a development, but really, it’s more of the same, only deeper, richer and even stranger, if that’s possible. Walter Pater famously suggested that all art aspires to the condition of music, and that’s certainly true of this film. Its contrapuntal construction, its insistence on form as intrinsic to feeling, is akin to a piece of chamber music, expertly arranged and performed by a small, well-rehearsed ensemble.

Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of the apartment she shares with Mara (Henriette Confurius, to my mind the most interesting young German actor of her generation), clearly against the latter’s wishes. They’re roommates, but judging from Mara’s steely and implacable hostility to everyone in sight, there’s also something deeper between them, a passion that may not be requited or even acknowledged. What follows is a roundelay of commonplace action: family members, friends and neighbours arrive and depart; handymen are summoned and set to work. Household objects are carried from room to room and passed from hand to hand as people talk and flirt and bicker – while children, on the sidelines, silently observe everything, and animals wander in and out of frame. (One dog in particular, who surreptitiously steals an item from every shot he’s in, deserves an Oscar.) 

The Zürchers favour the medium shot, the default set-up of visually impoverished filmmakers, yet manage to infuse it with grace and even poetry – aided in no small measure by Alexander Hasskerl’s warm, vividly hued camerawork. And within it, they stage the most precise choreography of entrances and exits since Ernst Lubitsch or early Hal Hartley. People are constantly coming and going; the frame may be static, but the compositions within it are continually shifting and reconfiguring. It’s almost 40 minutes before there’s a full-length shot, of an old woman sitting on a bed, gazing sadly out a window – I assume because every other floor is littered with marks, taped out for the actors to hit in order to bring off the intricate, pinball-like dance the film requires.

In the traditional sense, nothing happens here. Yet the air seems electric with possibility, courtesy of the directors’ exacting mise-en-scène – with its remarkable use of offscreen space (and sound) – and dialogue that manages to be totally naturalistic, yet freighted with implications, mysteries, hints of other narrative threads left unexplored. (“I wish it was you moving in,” remarks a downstairs neighbour, an older woman, to Mara, apropos of nothing. “We’d have fun.”) Slowly, connections are teased out and personal histories filled in – yet the film never entirely clarifies, nor loses its fundamental sense of surreal, the network of tensions and contradictions that lurk beneath the most ordinary human interactions.

Coincidentally, the other major Encounters discovery was also Swiss: Andreas Fontana’s drama Azor sees private banker Yvan De Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) travel to Buenos Aires with his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau). He’s hoping to track down his missing partner René Keys, who has mysteriously vanished, and to shore up relations with their Argentine clients, whose confidence may have been shaken by Keys’ abrupt disappearance. It’s 1980, and the country is in the grip of the military junta; everyone they meet seems either compromised, duplicitous, malevolent, or some combination of the three. Just when Yvan thinks he’s met the most sinister of these fascist goons, a lawyer with an unsettling permanent smile (and, it must be said, an uncanny resemblance to Tim Heidecker), he encounters someone worse still: a Monsignor who makes George Pell seem like Mr Rogers. Finally, in a last-ditch attempt to learn what became of his partner (or to outrun the long shadow of Keys’ influence, perhaps), he takes a boat and journeys upriver, deep into the jungle…

If the structure sounds familiar, it’s because it’s basically Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – and that title feels equally applicable here, since the film is like riding a deliberately paced ghost train into hell. Co-writing with filmmaker Mariano Llinás (whose 14-hour opus La Flor gave the high arthouse set the vapours last year), Fontana has done his research: the pace is measured, but the details, both historical and pecuniary, feel absolutely right. He’s not remotely a visual stylist – there’s barely an elegant or arresting frame here – but he proves expert at evoking and sustaining a mood of overwhelming corruption. And while the film doesn’t quite have the budget to depict the gilded world of privilege in which it’s set, even scaled back to the oak-panelled drawing rooms and poolsides it does inhabit, there’s a real sense of profound moral decay here, a rot whose stink almost comes off the screen.

Also screening in Encounters was Taste, the debut feature from Vietnamese filmmaker Lê Bảo – not so much influenced by as a direct homage to the Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, whose Vitalina Varela was, by some margin, my favourite film of 2020. Like Costa’s films, Taste is set in a shadowy underworld – in this case, the slums of Ho Chi Minh City rather than those of Lisbon – and eschews most narrative conventions, as it depicts an African footballer (Nigerian Olegunleko Ezekiel Gbenga) who moved to Vietnam a few years earlier to play for a local team, in order to support his young son back home. But when his career is cut short by an injury, he moves in with four middle-aged local women, as wretched as himself, and begins a kind of shared de-evolution. Naked in a bunker-like dwelling, far from sunlight or prying eyes, the five wash together, prepare food together, excrete, watch TV, fuck. And, little by little, the differences between these humans, and the beasts they keep (and consume), begin to disappear.

Bảo’s fixed-camera, diagonal compositions are striking, and his view of human relations is bracingly unsentimental; there’s a debt here to Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang as well as the aforementioned Costa. But where those filmmakers’ work feels both anthropological and fiercely political, rooted in the geography and history of their settings, this one seemed artificial and mannered; some of the locations – their living quarters, in particular – have a stagey, set-designed air that aestheticises the poverty at the expense of drama. There’s no psychology to speak of, and little dialogue; most characters are silent, going emotionlessly about their daily business (preparing food, washing floors), and those who do speak do so in soliloquies, while other characters either stare impassively back at them or gaze steadily out of frame. 

In short: it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Still, this kind of thing exerts a certain sepulchral power to which I’m not immune, and except for a scene in which Gbenga delivers a long speech to his own dick I mostly enjoyed the art-installation experience of watching Taste – even as I hoped its 31-year-old maker would outgrow his influences to create something truly his own.

The problem Taste runs up against – how to depict extreme poverty via a medium that requires considerable if not extravagant resources – is handled more successfully by Dirty Feathers, the debut nonfiction feature from Mexican-American filmmaker Carlos Alfonso Corral, a frequent collaborator with the acclaimed Italian documentarist Roberto Minervini, who serves as a producer here. Set in the border town of El Paso, Texas, it depicts the daily lives of a number of individuals shut out, by dint of their continued drug use, from “the OC”, the city’s Opportunity Center for the Homeless. Denied even the scant resources of the system, they huddle together on a handful of filthy blocks, trying to shore up their shelters before the worst of winter hits.

I drove through El Paso just last month, and can confirm its fundamental wretchedness; not even this film’s lustrous monochrome cinematography can make these mean streets look appealing. But the lives here, while desperate, are never less than compelling: little snapshots of institutional failure and personal ruin. Even as her husband talks optimistically about opening a soul food kitchen one day, expectant mother Reagan knows better. Slumped behind their heaped possessions on the pavement, she raises a crack pipe to her lips and takes a long toke. “I feel the baby move,” she says softly, “and it makes me feel like shit.”

The film’s title, meanwhile, comes from another of its subjects, teenager Ashley, whose awed, almost childlike voiceover reminded me of Linda Ganz’s narration in Malick’s Days of Heaven, even as her words recalled Emily Dickinson. “I would have been happy,” she declares at one point, “to know that I dirtied the feathers of God.” Quite why this statement made me cry, I can’t say. But it did.

More audience-friendly, if scarcely more comforting, was a drama in the Panorama section: Brother’s Keeper, from Turkish filmmaker Ferit Karahan. Set in a boarding school for Kurdish boys, high in the mountains of Eastern Anatolia, it briefly sets out a world of dismal routine and cruel, almost arbitrary punishments, before going on to tell a story as sad as it is simple. It’s the middle of winter, and one of the students, Memo, is punished for a minor transgression with a cold shower, only to fall ill the following day. Twelve-year-old Yusef feels a concern for his ailing classmate that seems to elude their supposed guardians, and so begins a desperate, lonely quest, first to get Memo medical attention, and then, when his condition worsens, to save his life. But then the roads are blocked by a sudden snowstorm. 

A friend described it as “a kind of pre-teen Death of Mr Lazarescu. But shorter.” And sure enough, it has that film’s sense of individuals caught up in the wheels of a vast and impersonal bureaucracy, while the clock ticks pitilessly away. But I’d also add Miloš Forman’s great The Firemen’s Ball (1967), since despite the gravity of Memo’s plight, there’s a sneaky thread of pitch-black satire here, directed at various teachers and administrators too craven, bored or self-obsessed to do the obvious and necessary things until the gravity of the situation begins to hit home – whereupon they swiftly begin blaming each other. (Also, actor Mahir Ipek, playing the school’s headmaster, looks like he walked straight out of 1960s Prague.) The director reportedly attended a school like this as a boy, and his palpable anger is rendered in stark, haunting images, as chilly as the mountainous landscape. It feels like an act of expiation, an atonement years in the making.

Shane Danielsen

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

Fabrizio Rongione, Juan Trench, and Stéphanie Cléau in Andreas Fontana’s Azor (2021)

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