March 8, 2022

Film

Berlinale 2022 highlights: part two

By Shane Danielsen
Still image from ‘We Might As Well Be Dead’ by Natalia Sinelnikova. Image © Jan Mayntz / Heartwake films

Still from We Might As Well Be Dead by Natalia Sinelnikova. Image © Jan Mayntz / Heartwake films

Films by Natalia Sinelnikova, Simon Brückner and Isabelle Stever were among those receiving attention at the Berlin International Film Festival

For this second Berlinale report, I’m focusing on works screening outside the main competition – with the caveat that this was only a small fraction of what was shown at the festival. The program this year seemed far larger and more diffuse than in 2021, even if most buyers and critics agreed that the overall standard of films was slightly lower.

That said, I was very taken with We Might As Well Be Dead, the feature debut of director Natalia Sinelnikova, which opened the Perspektive Deutsches Kino sidebar, and which played like J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise by way of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. It’s set in a lone residential tower overlooking a forest. Part gated community, part fortress, it’s a proudly “curated environment”, overseen by a committee that makes a Manhattan co-op board seem positively nonchalant by comparison.

Its inhabitants are cultured (they have their own in-house Riverdance troupe!) and more than a little paranoid: at one community get-together, the house band’s song consists of little more than the line “We’re safe in here”, repeated over and over. But, while amusing, these neuroses are apparently not unfounded: the film’s opening scene finds a terrified-looking family arriving at the tower’s gates for an interview; minutes later, the father literally falls to his knees to beg for admission. Inside may be bad, but outside is clearly far worse.

After an elderly caretaker’s dog goes missing, tensions escalate sharply when security guard Anna, trying one night to track down the missing pooch, is mistaken for an intruder from “outside” by a married couple, and barely escapes with her life. Word of this mysterious intruder gets around, and panic quickly sets in: soon, vigilante groups are springing up, “suspicious” residents are being beaten or evicted, and others are told they’ll have to re-apply in order to stay. And as one member of the committee wastes no time in pointing out, as a Romanian Jew, Anna isn’t really one of them…

Sinelnikova – herself a Russian emigré – brings an outsider’s clarity to what could otherwise seem a mere provocation. As a study of escalating tribalism and the enduring dangers of the mob, the satire is both pointed and efficient, never allowing its many quirky elements to overwhelm the bitter truths nestled at its heart; I imagine some German viewers may feel faintly discomfited by it.

From this, it was a relatively short leap, thematically speaking, to A German Party, Simon Brückner’s documentary about the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party, whose nativist platform and growing popularity, especially in the country’s eastern regions, has troubled both German liberals and international observers. Brückner was granted fly-on-the-wall access to the party’s meetings and candidates for two years, on the strict condition that his film premiere in 2022 – that is, after the recent German parliamentary elections – so that nothing he depicted could negatively impact the party’s electoral fortunes. (In fact, the AfD wound up losing more than 2 per cent of the national vote from its 2017 result, when it first won seats in the Bundestag.)

Those viewers hoping for an insider’s exposé of modern Nazism, however – or even a corollary to modern GOP-style evil, à la Josh Hawley or Paul Gosar – may be disappointed. What Brückner reveals is a modern and, per the title, very German strand of extreme conservatism: dry, bureaucratic, incremental. Watching these well-stuffed rstchens debate policy, pausing every so often to express their contempt for the basic structures of democratic governance, is like seeing Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” made pale, pudgy flesh.

There are no interviews; Brückner’s camera, like Frederick Wiseman’s, merely observes. And but for a handful of street confrontations, the documentary finds itself mostly concerned with various ideological divisions within the party, and its inexorable shift even further to the Right thanks to the growing influence of its youth organisation, the worryingly named Junge Alternative. But it boasts at least one fantastic sequence, occurring at the EU’s easternmost border, where a bunch of young AfD hardliners film boastful TikTok videos of themselves – only to practically shit themselves in terror seconds later when they see an actual refugee approaching.

Only slightly more approachable was Grand Jété, a tough, intelligent drama from veteran German director Isabelle Stever. A former ballerina, Nadja now teaches the discipline to young girls, and the years of privation to her body have extended, it seems, to her spirit: she’s clipped and severe, ruthless in her dealings with others and with herself. Having left her infant son Mario with her mother so that she could pursue her career, Nadja now reconnects with him – and to her surprise, finds herself aroused by the handsome, muscular teenager he’s become. (It doesn’t hurt that, on one of their first outings, Mario takes her to a sex club to witness his prowess in an S&M contest, which is just about the most Berlin night out imaginable.) Sure enough, mother and son soon become lovers.

Adapted from a novel by Anke Stelling, so grim it could be mistaken for the work of Elfriede Jelinek, the film offers an admirably dispassionate study of transgressive sexuality. Nadja and Mario appear at first glance to be polar opposites: she’s guarded, rigidly self-contained; he’s a carefree, gym-obsessed himbo. Yet each defines their identity not merely through their body, but by the limits to which they can push it. Considered this way, their lovemaking, punishing and joyless, is almost inevitable: it’s just about the only way these two misfits could relate to one another. Stever and cinematographer Constantin Campean depict their union with a cold, forensic eye, via a camera that sometimes hovers above the characters like a surveillance drone, and at others seems unnervingly, almost obscenely close, fragmenting the action and isolating telltale portions of their bodies. A muscle tensing beneath skin. The eczema scars on Nadja’s neck. An erect penis.

In Concerned Citizen, screening in the festival’s Panorama section, Ben and his boyfriend Raz have bought a flat together in an “up and coming” quarter of southern Tel Aviv, an area so sketchy that their hipster friends feel uneasy visiting. The new homeowners plan to start a family via a surrogate, and Ben, keen to improve the aesthetics of his new neighbourhood, takes it upon himself to plant a tree on the street outside their building. But then, late one night, he sees two young black men leaning on the sapling as they stand talking, and they don’t stop, even after he goes down and asks them to. In frustration, he calls the police – and then looks on in horror from his window as the cops kick one of the immigrants to death.

Up to this point, the film has played as a comedy of bourgeois manners, as signalled by Ben’s oblivious dinner-table patter about their planned surrogate. (“It’s all done very humanely. They don’t even let her see the baby, so they don’t form any physical or biological bonds.”) But then Ben sees something he shouldn’t, and the film’s tone darkens abruptly and conclusively, as he first tries to pretend nothing happened, and then, racked by guilt, attempts belatedly to make amends. Writer-director Idan Haguel takes aim at a whole slew of capital-I issues here – urban gentrification, police violence, Israel’s racism, immigrant rights, performative allyship – without ever arriving at firm conclusions on any of them. I’m not entirely convinced he knew how to end this story, or even what to do with Ben’s boyfriend, whose character is quickly sidelined. Nevertheless, its outrage, while unfocused, held my attention.

We Haven't Lost Our Way, from Polish duo Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal, was almost the acme of a Forum film: measured, inscrutable and remote. Adapted from a little-known 1961 Swedish novel (To Warmer Lands, by P.C. Jersild), it follows two characters: Eryk, a university professor and would-be revolutionary, whose air of sullen self-righteousness alienates colleagues and students alike, and Ewa, a translator working a succession of odd jobs to stay afloat. Both are unhappy, and each is looking to escape – in Eryk’s case, to a place called The Burning Lake, which may or may not exist. (I sensed a tip of the hat, here, to Michael Haneke’s debut theatrical feature The Seventh Continent.)

Prickly and entitled, neither Eryk nor Ewa is an especially sympathetic protagonist (which, for the record, is in no way a criticism), and so elliptical is the storytelling that it takes a while for us to realise that they were once lovers. But their paths intersect once more when he sends her a notebook, and Ewa undertakes a journey to meet him – whereupon the film becomes a weird, deconstructed kind of road movie, one in which books and photographs (as well as plans and conjecture) take the place of physical movement.

Even at 73 minutes, this will likely test the patience of most viewers. Yet there was something there, a mystery whose resolution remained tantalisingly out of reach, that held me in a state of puzzled fascination right up to its (predictably) unresolved ending.

Also screening in Forum and scarcely less enigmatic was Happers Comet, the second feature from New York indie filmmaker Tyler Taormina. Shot on weekends during lockdown, in and around his Long Island home, and using a cast of family, friends and neighbours, it’s a mesmerising piece of work, a film-object of extraordinary resourcefulness and power. Almost all of it takes place at night, in a variety of quotidian locations: a garage, a strip-mall parking lot, an empty diner. We see people sleeping in shadowy rooms, lit only by the faint, flickering glow of a TV screen, or behind the wheels of their cars, seemingly struggling to stay awake and alert; we follow lone figures rollerskating silently through the darkness.

But going where? And for what reason? We never find out. There’s no dialogue and no real narrative, just a succession of interstitial moments – and also, by pure implication, an accumulating sense of dread that belies the apparently unremarkable nature of what we’re witnessing. (A slow tracking shot of leaves blowing along a strip of empty road exerts an almost palpable unease.) The filmmaker’s debt to David Lynch is signalled in its first image – a close-up of a rotting corncob lying in the dirt, a clear homage to the opening shot of Blue Velvet – and by POV shots of a highway in blackness, the dividing lines flaring in the headlights as a car speeds along it.

At times you feel like you’re watching scenes cut from another, quite different film, the connective tissue linking a narrative from which, for no clear reason, we’re excluded. But it builds to a surprising climax – no pun intended – amid a cornfield that’s as filled with copulating bodies (and silent, stealthy voyeurs) as a Saturday night in the Bois de Boulogne. Odd and defiantly unclassifiable, and perhaps more suited to a gallery environment than a cinema (a lot of it reminded me of Malerie Marder’s excellent 2003 piece At Rest), this was nonetheless one of my favourite films at the festival.

Mahmoud Ghaffari’s The Apple Day, meanwhile, proved one of the stronger entries in the festival’s Generation section, harkening back to the unadorned neo-realism of early Kiarostami. In a decidedly unlovely suburb of Tehran, all cement courtyards and anonymous high-rise towers, Morteza and his nine-year-old son Saeed scrape together a living selling apples from the back of a van; his wife Mahboubeh is a washerwoman. Morteza longs to return to their hometown, but Mahboubeh is adamant: despite their present poverty, their children have better opportunities in the city.

On his first day at school, his younger son Mahdi is instructed by his teacher to bring 30 apples to class on the day they study the letter A. But then the family’s van is stolen, and as his parents scramble to survive, Saeed feels a responsibility to help his brother keep his promise to his classmates.

After the deliberate obfuscations that characterised much of the Berlinale’s program, Ghaffari’s refined simplicity of style was like a glass of cold spring water. He shoots economically, giving every scene no more than is strictly required, and extracts uniformly superb performances from his cast – the young children, in particular. And while his vision of city life is as pitiless as de Sica’s (The Bicycle Thief is another clear influence), his portrait of family life, of the deep unspoken bonds between couples and between siblings, is compassionate, generous and tender. Nor is he above the occasional lyrical flourish: the prevailing tone of austere realism is punctuated every so often by brief, wordless glimpses of the countryside the family have abandoned – vividly coloured, and lit with a lambent, magic-hour glow. Like daydreams.

My virtual Berlinale ended uncommonly well, with a retrospective screening of Beyrouth, la rencontre by the Lebanese filmmaker Borhane Alaouié, who passed away in Belgium last September. The film, which premiered in competition at Berlin in 1982, has been lovingly restored by the Belgian Cinematheque. Set during Lebanon’s civil war, it’s a story of missed connections, and the doomed, self-abnegating love one can have for one’s homeland.

Haidar and Zeina were friends in college; he’s Muslim, she’s a Catholic. After years away from the capital, he’s just returned to Beirut and, finding the phone lines briefly operational between the city’s east and west, calls Zeina to reconnect. She’s about to leave for the US, she says, but invites Haidar to meet her in Ashrafieh, in the city’s east. But major roads are closed, and many of the streets are blocked by traffic jams, or by crowds of locals queuing for rations, or simply by piles of rubble. (“There’s no logic,” a cab driver tells him mournfully. “This is God’s wrath.”)

When he fails to show up, they decide instead to each record a cassette tape, detailing their experiences of the war and their hopes for the future, and then exchange them at the airport – but this plan, too, goes awry. A deeply pessimistic film, it was notable less for its doomed sort-of love story, than for its documentary qualities, its on-the-ground depiction of the ruined grandeur of the Lebanese capital, circa 1981. The empty facades of bombed-out buildings, the piles of trash accumulating in the streets. Right now, we’re seeing the same thing play out once more, in a different part of the world, with even more widespread violence and destruction likely to ensue. Time goes by, yes, but our stories don’t change that much. And in the face of aggression, the consolations of art can only go so far.

Shane Danielsen

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

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