Night Train to Lisbon

Night Train to Lisbon

The Berlinale’s competition is changing for the better. The shifts toward more focused or edgier choices noted last year were no accident or stroke of world-sales-agent luck. Art-house White Elephants like Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Best Offer (as usual, simply unwatchable) or Yoji Yamada’s post-Fukushima Tokyo Story remake, Tokyo Family (actually quite lively) were safely parked in the “Berlinale Special” sidebar. Just a few years ago, films of their ilk would have clogged the Competition. The few members of this species that made the cut can all be explained away. They each represented strictly local interests, i.e., made in large part with German film-subsidy Euros, like Bille August’s painfully tasteful best-seller-adaptation Night Train to Lisbon and Guillaume Nicloux’s movie-of-the-week take on Denis Diderot, The Nun; or they featured some deutsch star, like music video maker Fredrik Bond’s catastrophic feature debut The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, which got some camp mileage out of Til Schweiger’s performance as a Balkan heavy. Yet three months after the festival wrapped, a staggering third of the Competition selection still holds up remarkably well. Not bad by Berlinale standards.

But it could have been so much better. Once again the selection committee programmed several fine works elsewhere, probably in an effort to raise the profiles of the sidebars. But all that they achieved was to make the rest of the films in those sections look even worse—and in the case of the Panorama, that’s very, very bad.

Two important films that should have been in competition were left to rot in that particular dungeon: Jacques Doillon’s Love Battles, which I’ll deal with later, and Nanouk Leopold’s outstanding It’s All So Quiet. This marks the third time that Berlin has relegated Leopold to some sidebar, but this film would have held its own in even the most demanding Competition. You have to wonder why it wasn’t in the main slate: it’s based on a best seller, received heavy German state financial support, and deals with the kinds of issues that are catnip to the middlebrow audience every A-list festival caters to—death, sexual repression, communication problems, etc. Perhaps it was the sexual aspect that disqualified the film. The main character, a quiet farmer, appears to be a repressed homosexual. But Leopold leaves things open­­: when her protagonist tries to lie down with his young farmhand, even this act seems puzzlingly innocent and nonsexual. All of which is beside the point in a film primarily concerned with the evocation of the loneliness of the bare Dutch flatlands in late winter, the dull pain in the protagonist’s heart (due to the physical abuse suffered when he was a child), and his relief and newfound liberation when the long-awaited death of his father finally comes. Leopold’s unconditional humanism may be out of fashion these days, but who knows? Perhaps the Competition selection committee really did prefer Malgorzata Szumowska’s depressingly glib In the Name of, which deals with the passions of a gay Catholic priest (more provocative than the one about a gay farmer). And since this year’s lineup looked like a showcase for Central and Eastern European cinema, presumably the Polish film was a better fit.

Shirley Visions of Reality

Shirley: Visions of Reality

Two more films that might have given the Competition more of an edge, Gustav Deutsch’s Shirley: Visions of Reality and Svetlana Baskova’s For Marx…, ended up in the Forum. At first glance, neither would seem like Competition material, the Deutsch film because of its studied artificiality and rather extremist approach to narrative fiction, and Baskova’s because of its way-offbeat aesthetic, equal parts indie naturalism, Socialist realism, and DallasDynasty soap-surrealism. For Marx… is the kind of work a daring and inventive programmer would include to mix things up, force viewers to rethink what they’ve seen so far, and convey the artistic vastness of cinema. Back in the day, crazier stuff than this made the Berlinale Competition.

A quietly disconcerting experience, Shirley: Visions of Reality recounts the life of an American woman from the Thirties to the Sixties in 13 scenes, each set in three-dimensional, plainly lit soundstage re-creations of Edward Hopper paintings. The effect is staggering, from beginning to end. The narrative consists of a series of voiceover monologues with radio broadcasts as historical coordinates taking us from the Great Depression through the civil rights movement. As played by avant-garde dancer Stephanie Cumming, Shirley is a silent body in motion and an embodiment of pure grace, eternally lost in a loop of middle-class life where it’s always August 28-29. The workers in For Marx…  are caught up in a different kind of historical vortex. Against the backdrop of the recent emergence of independent unions in Russia—to the great displeasure of the country’s oligarchs—Baskova’s film focuses on the conflict between steel-mill trade-union sits protesting against abysmal working conditions, wage cuts, and layoffs, and their bosses, who resort to brute force after their attempts to divide and conquer fail. Bloodshed ensues—but not just that of innocents. Baskova, whose 1999 The Green Elephant was a succès de scandale, sets out to restore the dignity of the working man. Her workers are free-spirited, socially responsible, intelligent, educated, and irascible. With its positive heroes, despicable villains, and clear-cut lines, For Marx… has a panache worthy of the Twenties Soviet cinema tendency known as FEKS (aka Factory of the Eccentric Actor), and the film’s ragged and rough-hewn look is a reflection of the meager resources available to today’s parallel cinema. Baskova’s mixture of satire and agitation left many speechless, and it is difficult to digest—but this movie means business.

Danis Tanovic’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker

For Marx… couldn’t be further from the deluded-to-death Zavattini-esque neorealism of Danis Tanović’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, which makes even the depths of misery readily consumable. Which brings us to the awards. Tanović was the Competition’s big winner even if he didn’t get the Big One. The Golden Bear went to Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose, another slice of Romanian Art-House Realism—yawn. One detail will suffice to sum up the film’s petty soul: the protagonist, a bourgeois woman, buys the novels of Herta Müller, which detail the brutal repression of the Ceausescu era—and files them away on her bookshelves unread. Things didn’t improve with the Jury Grand Prize, which went to Tanović’s film, and to make it perfectly clear why they liked it so much, the jury also gave Nazif Mujić the Best Actor Award— for essentially playing himself. A fraudulent exercise in miserabilism, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is ostensibly based on Mujić’s own story, and Tanović milks this setup for all it’s worth: real people portraying their really shitty lives. Best Actress went to Paulina García for playing the title character in Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, which was everyone’s darling and therefore had to win something but was an agreeable compromise. Much the same could be said about the Best Director Prize: David Gordon Green got lucky for a job efficiently done with Prince Avalanche.

On the plus side, Best Screenplay went to Jafar Panahi and Kamboziya Partovi’s Closed Curtain. Panahi circumvented his ban from filmmaking this time by playing himself in a broadly allegorical scenario that deals with the director’s current situation as a silenced artist, and by having his lead actor serve as co-director—all of which makes the work discussable as a creative documentary that pushes the limits of its own form. Closed Curtain is overloaded with ideas and twists and narrative levels that don’t always add up, and when they do, they feel forced. But this excess—born of a life in turmoil, for years now—is preferable to Tanović’s false modesty or Netzer’s moral correctness. And it came as a nice surprise when the Outstanding Artistic Contribution Silver Bear went to director of photography Aziz Žambakijev for his meticulous, ultra-controlled work on Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons, the Competition’s most unexpected discovery. And finally, the Alfred Bauer Prize for a “feature that opens new perspectives” went to an in-crowd favorite, Denis Côté’s pleasantly dreamy/naughty comedy Vic + Flo Saw a Bear.

Judging from the awards, the jury favored films with agendas if not outright messages; also the preference for realistic narrative models was difficult to miss. As a result three of the Competition’s outstanding—if heatedly discussed and far from universally embraced—works went home empty-handed: Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915, a meditation on the nature of grace; the closing chapter of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Hope; and Thomas Arslan’s existentialist Western Gold. The last two, along with Wong Kar Wai’s grossly underrated festival opener, The Grandmaster, and Doillon’s Love Battles, all rework classical genre patterns, prefer to meander or zigzag around, and have zero to offer as hot topics for a kaffeeklatsch.

Camille Claudel 1915

Camille Claudel 1915

A perfect example of French Catholic modernism—think Bernanos, Messiaen, Bresson—in its angry and aloof austerity, Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 re-imagines scenes from the daily life of the sculptor, who was confined to a psychiatric institution by her family due to her “erratic behavior” and persecution complex. Juliette Binoche plays Claudel with an at times horrifying self-abandon—she doesn’t climb down into the abyss, she leaps—while several supporting roles are played by mentally handicapped nonprofessionals, adding to the film’s overwhelming sense of unease. The viewer is faced, literally, with everything we prefer to banish from our thoughts. Our compassion is solicited, but do we really have it in us? In the final third of the film the perspective switches: now Camille’s brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), who comes to visit his sister, is at the center of the action. Dumont depicts him as a Catholic die-hard who talks about salvation but leaves his sister to wither away in the institution, his faith betrayed by his vanity.

Paradise: Hope came as something of a surprise: Seidl has never made anything this lively or, in many respects, so positively crazy. Overweight teenager Melanie has to spend her summer in a diet camp and falls in love with the facility’s doctor, who seems to reciprocate. The whole thing plays like a revamped Sixties Czech fairy-tale adaptation in which Melanie is the princess, the phys-ed teacher the ogre, the diet consultant the evil witch, and the doctor a Prince Charming who, in the film’s most stunning scene, transforms into a werewolf (metaphorically speaking). The adults indulge in stunning feats of over-acting while the kids just let rip, and the film draws its energy from the scenes of the youngsters alone, shooting the shit, playing Truth or Dare, and making contact with the pleasures and vices of the grown-up world. Paradise: Hope is true to the dizzying yet disturbing feeling of being in your early teens, heavy with contradictions—one foot still in a childhood world of wonder, the other in adulthood.

Doillon came up with an even more staggering genre remix with Love Battles, a Let’s Talk About Love film in the form of a martial-arts movie! Girl is confused and insulted by the fact that guy doesn’t want to bed her. So they talk, and every discussion ends in a physical confrontation—wrestling, slapping, kicking, clawing and biting, for minutes on end, through the house where most of the film is set, in the garden and the surrounding woods, in a pond, on a meadow, wherever. After a while, they realize that they are indeed attracted to each other, and the fights turn into sex sessions featuring some amazing feats (don’t try these at home unless you’re a famous circus artist like Doillon’s lead actor James Thiérrée and your partner weighs as little as Sara Forestier). And in between, they keep talking. Yes, it’s as outrageous as it sounds—the way words seem to turn into jabs and throw-downs into ideas, how the fury of an argument can develop into a fuck-frenzy and an orgasm can produce new words and meanings. 

The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster

Vaguely similar things could be said about The Grandmaster. In this case, the martial-arts genre is given new meaning by way of the spaghetti Western, replete with Ennio Morricone variations on the soundtrack. Wong, like dozens of directors before him, tells the story of Ip Man, a martial-arts master who lived through the last days of monarchy, the republic, civil war, and the Japanese occupation, before finally finding tranquility as an exile in Hong Kong. What’s remarkable about Wong’s version is his vision of Ip as a bourgeois. At times his fighting prowess seems almost secondary to his social skills; in his casual, often ironic manners, Ip feels less like a character from the past than a strikingly modern one. Initially, The Grandmaster looks like an exercise in pure style, occasionally verging on decorative—one bravura scene after another connected by Wong-style reflections and reminiscences. But during the second hour things fall into place—The Grandmaster may be Wong’s most complex, expansive essay on memory and loss yet. Ip Man’s country and family crumble into ruins, and he spends his life picking up the pieces and putting them back together. Maybe more than ever, everything here is lost in time, remembered but fragmentary. The martial-arts moves often can’t be seen clearly, as if someone were unsuccessfully trying to recall them through a haze, yet the parts that are still remembered might become the inspiration for a future school of fighting. And by paying such extensive homage to Leone, Wong seems to suggest that these and other citations may come from and be used again all over the world. The Grandmaster is crushing. For a few of us, it’s Wong’s finest in decades.

The act of maintaining a tradition against all odds is also at the heart of Arslan’s Gold. The setup is simple: during the summer of 1898, a group of Germans attempt to reach the gold fields of Dawson, in the Yukon. One by one they either abandon the trek or die. It’s Monte Hellman’s The Shooting re-imagined by way of Kafka—Hellman would surely approve—and events grow ever more insane and grotesque along the way, and end in absurdity. All that remains for the last searcher standing is to go on with the quest for a better life.

And now a final round of bows—first and foremost to George Sluizer’s noir Western Dark Blood, a production maudit left unfinished for almost two decades after the untimely death of its star, River Phoenix, in 1993, but completed in 2012. Sluizer closes this strange chapter in his career with unshot scenes narrated by an off-screen voice, as if some troubled mind or restless spirit had returned to haunt the film. This makes for an eerie work of whispers and echoes from the past and one of the festival’s most entrancing entries. Then there’s Bobo Jelcic’s A Stranger, a paranoid thriller that turns ever more Kafkaesque as the wartime divisions in the Bosnian town of Mostar live on in the minds of those who fought and can’t accept that the conflict is now over. Late-teen despair meets adulthood in deep crisis in Matt Porterfield’s fine watercolor-toned, Baltimore-set I Used to Be Darker, a study in serenity that sometimes feels like sleepwalking at noon. Hard to like and easily dismissed as a nerdy piece of Berlin School filmmaking devoid of idiosyncrasy, Nicolas Wackerbarth’s Everyday Objects deserves a second look—its visuals and the mesmerizing presence of Anne Ratte-Polle stay obstinately in the memory. As the English title suggests, it’s a film about objects, self-objectification, one woman’s battle against her objectification by an absent man, and an actress’s struggle to bring some depth to a role written to make her look expendable. And last but not least, all power to Reha Erdem whose latest, Jin, was wasted on Generation, the festival’s youth film section. A tough, at times unrelentingly brutal story about a girl trying to cross the front lines in a civil war between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish army, Jin resembles such great but little-remembered humanist war films as France Štiglic’s 1956 Valley of Peace and Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1959 Fate of a Man—high praise indeed for a film in this genre.