One of the most embarrassing political micro-crises in recent German memory came to an end on February 17 when President Christian Wulff finally resigned. A collective sigh of relief went up, but it was soon clear that little would change—Wulff’s potential successors were, much like him, lobby-backed embodiments of the country’s political malaise.
Since this occurred toward the end of the 2012 Berlinale, you had to wonder what was going through festival director Dieter Kosslick’s mind, since he’d managed to weather a similar storm five months earlier: after the thrashing that the 2011 Berlinale had received, many were calling for his head. And so last October a conference was convened by the German chapter of FIPRESCI to discuss the festival’s problems and possible ways of getting things back on track. Kosslick initially agreed to participate, but when it became clear that the discussion wouldn’t toe his line he backed out and denounced the conference as a “tribunal”—not the only instance in which the language of the festival’s leadership harked back to a certain bygone era. In the end, Kosslick and company escaped unscathed because he had the backing of the political establishment. No politician of note spoke out or suggested that the Berlinale officials have an obligation to discuss the basis, strategy, and aims of their work, and in any case in Germany the arts are little more than an afterthought these days. Kosslick dismissed the whole affair as par for the course for festival directors, who can expect to be given a hard time at some point during their tenure—and besides, didn’t the constantly increasing attendance figures show that his is the right course?
Which brings us to the core issue: the difference between artistic excellence as a value and cultural production as a commodity. Today, market forces rule the Berlinale, just as they do every other sphere of our lives, and plainly this isn’t in the best interests of the population. But whenever there’s a problem, all you need do is cite the needs and demands of the market, and everything will be fine. Until it isn’t.
For a quarter-century or so now, the mantra of the public sector has been that they’re forced to compete with privately-funded commercial enterprises. Take Germany’s once formidable public television: whenever it’s criticized for the ever-sinking quality of its programs, the executives blame the competition from commercial television. But since public television’s only duty is to uphold its educational mandate (private television’s obligation is to keep its investors happy), ratings, i.e. market share, are beside the point, or at least they should be. As long as public television spends funding appropriately, the only criterion for judging the exercise’s worth is its artistic/cultural value, which can’t be quantified. The thing Neoliberals hate most about dem-ocracy is art: it takes time to produce results, it is driven by ideas and education, and progress is subordinated to development.
This is what public television’s maverick master Dominik Graf points out in his excellent Lawinen der Erinnerung, a treatise on German TV’s missed opportunities and ethical amnesia in the form of a portrait of the late television auteur Oliver Storz. Like so many of his peers in the Flakhelfergeneration—those born in the late Twenties and conscripted to participate in the war effort in their teens—Storz was a haunted man. There were certain images he couldn’t get out of his mind, and which surface in his work over and over in one form or another—memories of moments in which he experienced powerlessness in the face of collective indifference or just his own private desires. Storz tried to shape the nation’s conscience through his work, despite the fact that he never truly believed that even TV films as powerful as his 1994 Three Days in April or 2003’s In the Shadow of Power had any cultural value after their broadcasts. Ever the journalist, he regarded his more important films (he did his share of hack work) as political interventions, polemics that took part in the public debate of the day. Storz died last year, disappointed by his medium and his country.
The state of the nation was also the subject of Thomas Heise’s Condition, about last September’s preparations for the Pope’s visit to Erfurt, a Catholic bastion in an otherwise steadfastly Protestant region. Heise hangs around the airfield observing everyone readying for the big day: a police honor guard marches up and down; functionaries repeatedly instruct the participants in protocol; security looks on with tense boredom. In the city, not much is going on—you get the sense that many still remember drills just like these from the good old days of the GDR (East Germany) and know all the moves. The doors of Erfurt Cathedral bear the slogan of 2011’s Catholic Diaspora Day: “We are all together in our beliefs.” Which sounds very Orwell. All of this is captured in unbelievably gorgeous, extremely stylized black-and-white images that make Germany look like an alien planet whose people and customs eerily resemble our own—a bit like a Strugatsky Brothers novel.
And yet there are signs of change. Kosslick and his team never said as much, but the Competition this year looked as if someone had taken all the criticism to heart. The selection was intelligent and featured the right kind of auteurs (Miguel Gomes, Benoît Jacquot, Edwin, Benedek Fliegauf), while certain directors deserving wider attention like Alain Gomis (Today), James Marsh (Shadow Dancer), or Spiros Stathoulopoulos (Meteora) were given a shot at Competition glory, even if once again they didn’t deliver. The latter was a real mess actually, but it worked very well within the Competition’s overall structure, reinforcing its more avant-garde-oriented side. In this context, even all-out disasters like Brillante Mendoza’s brain-dead Captive and Tsui Hark’s blatantly blockbusterish King Hu travesty Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn, were harmless—the usual crap that festivals wind up with when they bet on auteur franchises.
Curiously, most of the films that gave the Competition its direction, character, and vision—Edwin’s Postcards from the Zoo, Fliegauf’s Just the Wind, Gomes’s Tabu, and Christian Petzold’s Barbara—came from a single sales company, The Match Factory. Some attribute this to luck, but it begs the question: Will the selection committee come up with similarly calibrated competitions in the future if they don’t get great films served up on a platter? Will they actively seek them out? Or will it be business as usual, i.e., second-tier art-house fare? For now, there’s little more to say than that it was a moderately promising step in the right direction, capped by generally agreeable if not completely satisfying jury decisions.
Farewell, My Queen
Among the less laudable awards was the Silver Bear for Best Script bestowed on Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel for the latter’s comfortably budgeted TV movie of the week, A Royal Affair, which also landed Mikkel Boe Folsgaard the Best Actor prize—all in all a clear mistake, given that Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen, another portrait of a European royal court during the Enlightenment, was far superior. It’s especially grating since the Danes’ screenplay was nothing more than writing by numbers—applied Syd Field with the big sex scene right on cue. The Best Actress award to Rachel Mwanza seemed motivated by the wish to acknowledge the good intentions of all the well-meaning people behind Kim Nguyen’s War Witch. And the Outstanding Artistic Achievement award conferred on Lutz Reitemeier for shooting Wang Quan’an’s White Deer Plain seemed only to fulfill the jury’s obligation to reward Kosslick’s pet Chinese art-house pro every time he shows up.
On the other hand: Ursula Meier’s tense essay on economics and psychological poverty in the midst of plenty, Sister, deserved more than a Special Award (a consolation prize in all but name). The same goes for Tabu, which only won the Alfred Bauer Award for Innovation. Even the modernism-averse agreed that, in its quirky melancholia and caustic politics, Gomes’s film is truly special—the Golden Bear or the Best Director prize would have been more apt. But at any rate the awards that truly honor the work of an auteur’s vision were won by equally deserving films.
Loosely inspired by a recent pogrom-like killing spree perpetrated against Hungary’s Roma and Sinti population, Jury Grand Prix winner Just the Wind is a remarkable piece of realist cinema in which Benedek Fliegauf finally made good on the promise of his work up until now, which has always been interesting but suffered from too many ideas and too much ego. Here, he has finally found that requisite balance between style and content: the raw, propulsive direction perfectly conveys what it means to live in a state of constant fear and makes palpable how your very existence can become a kind of prison.
In fact, being caught in a trap was the competition’s main theme. Every setting was a variation on Huis clos: the royal courts of 18th-century Denmark and France, Communist East Germany and post-Communist Hungary, the civil war–torn Philippines and Northern Ireland, a Ming Dynasty inn and war-ravaged Nanjing, a zoo in Jakarta, a Greek monastery, and an upper-middle-class house in a small German town—all prisons. Perhaps this was the Berlinale’s response to its critics: there’s nothing we can do about things, we’re all prisoners of circumstances in one way or another, as demonstrated by this wide variety of stories and styles, many of which adhere to your aesthetic preferences.
Caesar Must Die
It was almost inevitable that Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die would win the Golden Bear. Set in an actual prison, it features real convicts putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and draws the conclusion that art, far from being a solution, only makes matters worse by making people all the more aware of their predicaments. There’s a lot of fighting spirit in Caesar Must Die, an indomitable energy, as well as an un-forced kindness; its modest virtuousness demonstrates that neorealism is as relevant now as it was 70 years ago.
The festival’s opener, Farewell, My Queen, set the stage. In his finest film in some time, Jacquot presents the first few days of the French Revolution from inside Versailles: no citoyens storming the Bastille, no singing of the Marseillaise, none of the usual 1789 folklore. Instead he gives us a royal court in a state of confusion and increasing disarray, its inhabitants as incapable of imagining life in a new social order as they are of preventing what’s about to happen. Not everyone is surprised—quite a few know what’s happening beyond the gates, but they still can’t comprehend why they are so hated by the masses. Jacquot’s mise en scène attains new heights of glacial beauty. As always, emotions are expressed through space and light, but never before with such force and self-assuredness: here is a modern master working at the height of his powers.
Postcards from the Zoo was equally under- estimated. If Farewell, My Queen seemed too measured and coolly controlled, many felt Edwin’s film, suffused with an atmosphere of general dreaminess, wonderment, and even magic, was too superficially cute and fanciful. About 30 minutes in, a cowboy-magician appears and leads the young protagonist, who has lived most of her life within the zoo’s confines, out into the world, where things quickly go downhill. The brooding darkness at the heart of Postcards from the Zoo becomes apparent once this odd couple encounters an unsavory underworld character. Next thing we know, the cowboy-magician is gone and the woman is now a prostitute. In the end, she’s swallowed up by the mass of zoo visitors—she’s just another disenchanted face in the crowd now.
Christian Petzold recounts a similar tale in Barbara. In this case the zoo is East Germany in its twilight days, and the eponymous heroine imprisoned within it has been punished for applying for an exit visa by being posted to a job in a small town. Planning to flee the country in secret, Barbara (played by Petzold axiom Nina Hoss) refuses to conform to a system that has betrayed its promises. And she’s not the only one; some, like the doctor she gets to know at her new job, try to make the best of things; others, like the girl who escapes from a forced labor camp for young offenders, prefer to rebel at all costs. Choices will be made. Recent Petzold films like Jerichow and Dreileben: Beats Being Dead suggested that the writer-director was looking for a new direction and with Barbara, his finest work in almost a decade, he’s found it. His handling of the material is as masterly as ever, a model of precision and narrative economy, but he’s shifted the genre framework from thriller to postwar East German melodrama, and so the film’s resolution involves the enactment of a sacrifice.
What’s to be done?, as Lenin asked exactly 110 years ago.
If the competition offered nothing in the way of feasible political perspectives, at least the sidebars featured a few works that begged to differ, chief being Nicolas Rey’s differently, Molussia and Romuald Karmakar’s Democracy Under Attack: An Intervention, but also Andrey Gryazev’s Tomorrow, a stunning portrait of Russian art-core collective Vojna and their take-no-prisoners approach to conceptual creativity (which includes stunts like tipping stationary police cars), and Minze Tummescheit and Arne Hector’s In the Works, an experiment in putting collective production into practice and what this opens up in political terms.
Shot on 16mm Gevaert color reversal stock developed as negative, differently, Molussia contains some of the most stunning images in a long time. Based upon The Molussian Catacomb, a posthumously published novel written in the early Thirties by philosopher Günther Anders, Rey’s film is not an adaptation per se but rather takes the book, which is a kind of cycle of didactic parables about power, politics, economy, and resistance, as a starting point, or perhaps a quarry from which slabs of text are extracted. Rey took sections of the novel selected by friends and constructed a film of nine acts (each the length of a reel), featuring eight extracts from the novel, plus a sound-and-image entr’acte depicting sites of rural and industrial labor from all over France, with occasional glimpses of suburbia in all its post-industrial melancholia. The nine reels are intended to be interchangeable, with no fixed sequence, further cultivating the element of chance already at play in the initial selection of the texts. Yet whatever the sequence of the reels, the film inevitably produces certain political insights, no matter how you structure your argument…
The same goes for Karmakar’s Democracy Under Attack: An Intervention. Last December a remarkable symposium took place at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in which 10 intellectuals from a variety of disciplines convened to deliver statements about the current economic situation and how to respond to the dominance of free-market ideology as the guiding principle in politics. With one exception the speakers spoke in alphabetical order; Karmakar’s contribution, a six-and-a-half-minute film entitled Elliott Waves, served as the event’s random entr’acte. If all of this sounds very rarified and theory-prone, in fact the symposium ran on sheer indignation and a burning desire to speak out, and what was striking was that no speaker stuck to his or her own train of thought, but tended to pick up on and amplify or develop things brought up by earlier statements—everybody worked from notes or delivered prepared speeches, but they nevertheless engaged with the discourse as it developed.
Even Karmakar’s film coincidentally expanded on an idea introduced by the preceding speaker. When Karmakar agreed to take part in the symposium, he didn’t intend to make a film about it. Democracy Under Attack: An Intervention is really an afterthought—he was moved by the event and wanted to share the experience with others. For now, he only permits the film to be shown in cinemas or cinema-like venues, as he wants people to gather together to see it, allowing for the possibility that after the screening viewers can share their thoughts and responses. This condition is key to the project: People need to convene so that they can discuss things and develop perspectives—slowly. The cinema as an Agora? Why not? Basic and bourgeois in the most enlightened sense, at least it’s a start. Back to democracy’s roots.
Top 10 Berlin
1. Democracy Under Attack: An Intervention Romuald Karmakar, Germany
2. differently, Molussia Nicolas Rey, France
3. Tomorrow Andrey Gryazev, Russia
4. Farewell, My Queen Benoît Jacquot, France
5. Parabeton: Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete Heinz Emigholz, Germany
6. Tabu Miguel Gomes, Portugal
7. Barbara Christian Petzold, Germany
8. Bestiaire Denis Côté, Canada
9. A Night Too Young Olmo Omerzu, Czech Republic/Slovenia
10. Green Laser John Greyson, Canada