Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal, Thin Ice

I had spent much of my time in Berlin thinking things were better than expected, but after the dismal awards, which befitted a mostly unwatchable competition, it took a look through the schedule to summon up memories of the festival’s many worthwhile movies.

It’s difficult to push the competition and the awards, the festival’s nominal center, out of mind. When the Golden Bear went to Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, many were speechless, unable to believe that the jury had fallen for a run-of-the-mill neo-noir with embarrassingly tacky stylization. But no, the jury was serious—so serious that they also honored its star, Liao Fan, with the Best Actor award. And there was yet another award for a PRC production: Zeng Jian, the DP of Lou Ye’s more artistically ambitious than accomplished Blind Massage, won a prize for Outstanding Artistic Contribution. Cynics commented that the Berlinale was doing its bit to support Angela Merkel’s foreign policy by showering lots of love on a key international trade partner.

In the context of the immediate competition, Black Coal, Thin Ice was one of some half-dozen works best described as crime films for people who hate crime films—mid-level art-house fare that tries to look different by toying with genre elements while taking care to avoid being mistaken for an outright thriller or a policier. All part of a typical Dieter Kosslick gambit: assembling a clutch of films deemed easy to sell to a press corps that likes to be put through its paces and to an audience that it is assumed needs spoon-feeding. The aim is to provide easy answers so that nobody asks difficult questions.

History of Fear

History of Fear

First-time director Benjamín Naishtat’s History of Fear, the best of the bunch, might have turned out well had it settled for being a straightforward urban-paranoia thriller with a morally uncomfortable vigilante edge instead of a politically respectable drama about a gated community’s fear of the outside world and the state’s use of fascist tactics to stoke class warfare. Yannis Economides’ Stratos could be described as great, albeit trying for those unfamiliar with one of Greece’s finest and therefore unprepared for 137 minutes of verbal mayhem. As always with Economides, characters regularly break into endless rants that culminate in howls of rage. Only the eponymous protagonist, a hit man, remains silent. He has plenty of work in a country whose economy has gone belly-up and where seemingly everybody is trying to make a buck by any means possible. As his 2010 Knifer suggested, Economides has a taste for the unpleasant and knows how to make trash-talking crooks look exciting. As he sees it, Greece gets what it deserves.

As for the rest—No Man’s Land, Ning Hao’s absurdly artsy attempt at doing a noir Western in the desert of Xinjiang; ’71, Yann Demange’s brain-dead take on the Irish Troubles; In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland’s miasmic medley of Scandinavian crime-fiction clichés; and Two Men in Town, Rachid Bouchareb’s vile defilement of José Giovanni’s 1973 origial Deux hommes dans la ville—there’s only two words: the pits.

Back to the awards, and why they were so wrong. Truth be told, nobody would have cared that Black Coal, Thin Ice scored the Big One had the press and public not been unanimous in embracing Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This decade-plus-in-the-making labor of love whose protagonists age and mature right in front of your eyes is a sprawling yet intimate vision of life and strife presented as a piece of pure Americana—the work of an auteur at the zenith of his art. But the jury opted to award Boyhood a Best Director Silver Bear—a bad joke, as was the Alfred Bauer Award for “a feature that opens up new perspectives,” which went to Alain Resnais for doing in Life of Riley what he’s been doing for some 30 years: presenting life as a play, the world as a stage. Another congenial adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play, the movie finds Resnais in perfect form. As ever, the production design is fantastic and the performances brilliant, this time in a hilariously reckless over-the-top register. The jury should have understood that this would be the final chance to bestow top honors on an axiom of modernist cinema for an all-but-posthumous film. It tells the story of a dying man (who remains unseen until the end) through the eyes of those around him: the wives and lovers, friends and foes who will remain after he’s gone. Maybe the jury thought that Boyhood and Life of Riley were just too obvious as top honorees. Sometimes the truth isn’t subtle.

The Beloved Sisters

The Beloved Sisters

The rest of the awards? Best Actress went to Takako Matsu for Yoji Yamada’s highly agreeable The Little House, which provided some desperately needed straightforward old-school cinema; the Grand Jury Prize was awarded to The Grand Budapest zaganza that eventually grows tiresome; and finally Anna and Dietrich Brüggemann took home Best Screenplay for Stations of the Cross, which might best be described as a misreading of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith diluted with the dreadful histrionics of Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes plus a dose of smarty-pants posturing that’s all the directors’ own.

The other outstanding competition entry, Dominik Graf’s eagerly awaited The Beloved Sisters, went home empty-handed. Graf, one of German cinema and television’s most beloved auteurs, has been on a roll for some years now, reaching new and unexpected heights. The Beloved Sisters proved to be an expansion of what may be his finest film to date, 2007’s Das Gelübde: both take the intimate lives of major German writers as starting points for complex, politically challenging essays on the founding of the German nation-state, while pushing heritage cinema in new, aesthetically bold directions. Here the main characters are Friedrich Schiller and the Lengefeld sisters, Charlotte and Caroline, who formed an amorous triangle that withstood the tests of time and bourgeois culture for some 14 years until Schiller’s premature death. But The Beloved Sisters is also a close look at a turning point in German thought and mores, as the culturally dominant aristocratic way of life was dying and the ideas and hopes of bourgeois society were being conceived in Weimar. Schiller considered himself at the forefront of these cataclysmic shifts of thought, and his relationship with the Lengefelds serves as a microcosm of the era’s sociopolitical changes: their passions are all Sturm und Drang, while the day-to-day management of these feelings shows their noble upbringing. For Graf, the ability to deal with the whims and needs of the heart in a rational way represents a kind of utopia—an ideal of communal life he remembers from the Seventies, when West Germany was rife with dreams of social change, now lost along with many of the Bonn Republic’s other achievements.

Much more needs to be said about the many layers and unusual aesthetics of Graf’s film (and will be, in an upcoming Film Comment piece devoted to Graf). For now, let’s content ourselves with saying that The Beloved Sisters is the modern film about the German enlightenment; and that Graf has created nothing less than a romantic national epic—something nobody has attempted in many years.

Non-Fiction Diary

Non-fiction Diary

Despite the films by Graf, Resnais, Linklater, and a few others, fiction wasn’t this Berlinale’s forte—and hasn’t been for some time now. On the other hand, the festival is strong on documentary, partly due to the weakness if not outright indifference of Cannes et al with respect to this area of cinema. The Panorama had a few noteworthy offerings, each of them, curiously enough portrait films: Vanessa Lapa’s The Decent One (on the private life of Heinrich Himmler) and Tamara Trampe and Johann Feindt’s My Mother, a War and Me (about Trampe’s mother, a Red Army nurse). Still, it was the International Forum of Young Cinema that proved truly outstanding in terms of formally remarkable work.

The biggest find, Korean filmmaker Jung Yoon-suk’s Non-fiction Diary, might handily be described as a political-historical essay in the guise of a true-crime film. In the mid-Nineties, a number of young men were executed for committing a series of random murders whose victims were usually middle-class. In footage shot immediately after their arrests, these haggard men are wild-eyed, exhausted, and above all pitiful, and Jung became fascinated by their seemingly paradoxical motive: rage against a world in which money rules, compounded by a desire to get rich. In his interpretation, they were dispossessed, wanted to belong, came from a region known for its rebellious past, and considered their crimes as something of an insurrection. Jung understands all this within the context of the troubled years during which Korea’s dictatorship was essentially at an end but a free democracy was not yet in place—instead of politics, the country had an economy, which, as Jung shows, was built on corruption. Intelligently mixing media coverage of the day and interviews with people involved in the case—investigators, politicians, etc.—Jung connects these unrelated cases. But Non-fiction Diary isn’t an investigative work. Jung’s interested in the tension between the way this era looked and sounded in the media, and how people remember it.

Another look back came courtesy of The Second Game by Romania’s Corneliu Porumboiu. The filmmaker and his father, Adrian, a soccer referee during the Ceausescu era, watch a silent recording of a match played on December 3, 1988—in real time (minus the half-time break). On the soundtrack the Porumboius comment on the game. This is prefaced by an opening text in which Corneliu remembers a phone call from his childhood: an anonymous voice threatened to murder his father if he didn’t stop refereeing.

The Second Game;

The Second Game

The date is important: little more than a year later, the Ceausescus would be executed by firing squad. Are there already traces of this future in the grainy video footage of this average first-division match between Romania’s two top teams, one affiliated with the army, the other with the police, all ending in a goalless draw? A match that’s hard to follow due to increasingly heavy snowfall plus a bad choice of ball color (yellow), not to mention the image quality of a tape that’s a quarter-century old? Of course not. The match is what it is, but this tape is an opportunity for father and son to bond, remember, and talk. Their banter is full of digressions, sudden returns to earlier topics, contradictions, not-so-accidental meta-levels, pregnant pauses, dead air. Adrian repeatedly declares that soccer is only about the moment, and that there’s no use in watching an old match—no excitement, no surprises. For Corneliu, the absence of any obvious entertainment value in the material creates an opportunity to imagine something that might be hidden or nascent in the images. The past may be unchangeable, but its traces invite interpretation.

This brings us to René Frölke’s Le Beau danger, which centers on Norman Manea, one of the most internationally celebrated voices in Romanian letters and a strong opponent of the Ceausescu regime who emigrated in 1986 and now lives in the U.S. The film is not a portrait of Manea—you certainly don’t learn much about him from the film—but you get to read him, literally. Roughly half of Frölke’s film consists of Manea’s writings, including the text of a complete short story that takes up some 15 to 20 minutes, more or less uninterrupted. The remainder of the film consists of 16mm footage of Manea at several public appearances where he’s invariably feted as a victim and as a writer—in that order. On one hand Frölke gives us his art, and on the other, the celebrity literato he’s become, the man who makes a living from serving up ever new words to convey what happened to him in the past to a culture keen on commiserating. Manea plays along, his face giving nothing away, his statements little more than phrases befitting the occasion. He probably knows that none of this has anything to do with his art, while perhaps wondering what good his writing does in a world such as this.

As is traditional, a final round of bows is due—this time a quite extensive one. (1) A.J. Edwards’s The Better Angels—imagine a Terrence Malick version of Young Mr. Lincoln set in the Indiana woods, directed in a manner that honors the master. Who knows why this was hidden away in the Panorama. (2) Four fine and unusual Forum features: Parasite, Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal’s intense, very physical meditation on life, decay, and death in a rusty-moldy, piss-poor Poland; Top Girl or La Déformation professionelle, Tatjana Turanskyj’s sober, somber, and—toward the end—ever more bizarre essay-fiction on prostitution and its broader sociopolitical meanings; Free Range, Veiko Öunpuu’s brooding yet carefree look at the life of a hapless film critic who gets fired for panning The Tree of Life; and Guillaume Nicloux’s lighthearted noir romp The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, starring Houellebecq himself. (3) Two restorations (albeit digital) of great films from the outer edges of mainstream film culture: Michael Oppitz’s 1980 Shamans of the Blind Country, a key work of visual anthropology that details the religious practices of the Magar with a rare sense of rhythm, pictorial beauty, and tact; and Burmese auteur exceptionnelle Maung Wunna’s 1972 Tender are the Feet, which mixes backstage melodrama and a quasi-vérité look at the daily life of a traditional itinerant dance theater company with commendable aplomb. (4) Two mind- blowing avant-garde works: Margaret Honda’s eye-opening Spectrum Reverse Spectrum, made by exposing 70mm stock to colored light in an optical printer, resulting in an experience of film at its purest and most rarefied; and Ken Jacobs’s stereoscopic The Guests, in which a few frames of Lumière footage are investigated in 3-D, down to the last grain. (5) The British Ministry of Information’s 1945 unfinished, provisionally titled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, assembled to the best of its ability by the Imperial War Museum, creating both an especially moving memorial to the victims of Nazi Germany and a touching monument to the liberators, shown here doing nothing other than the decent thing. (6) And finally, a fabulously wonky Market find, Robert Bramkamp’s Art Girls, a Kluge-esque science-fiction comedy in which three female artists with newly acquired superpowers (don’t ask) stick it to their stuck-up art-world milieu—from dealers to curators and collectors, nobody gets spared from their flights of media-philosophical fancy.

And there would have been even more nods, especially to work in the Forum Expanded section. Must have been a reasonably good year then after all.