Then Is It the End? The Film Critic Michael Althen
For many, the world premiere of Dominik Graf’s essay documentary Then Is It the End? The Film Critic Michael Althen was the 65th Berlinale’s true closing-night celebration. Sure, there was another day of screenings ahead, capped by the awards ceremony, and, yes, it was presented in the International Forum of Young Cinema and not as part of the Official Selection. But that didn’t really matter to German cinephiles—and it was strictly for them that the film was shown, sans subtitles or headphone translation. The screening was standing-room-only for this act of collective commemoration for Althen, one of the few German critics revered by readers and colleagues alike, for he actually had something to say, and did so stylishly. His death in 2011, at only 48, left a gaping hole in the FRG’s cultural life.
The Berlinale itself is mentioned twice in the film. The first comes in a clip from a Romuald Karmakar TV short featuring Althen on his way home from the 41st edition declaring that the only films worth watching were the U.S. competition entries: Dances with Wolves, Green Card, The Russia House, and The Silence of the Lambs. Althen belonged to a circle of cinephiles that broke with the cult of auteur cinema in all its guises to fete the pleasures of mainstream Hollywood. In this sense Althen et al. were true children of the Bonn Republic: for them, love of mainstream cinema also meant a sense of belonging and security––West Germany was never so at ease with itself as it was in the Eighties. Many in the audience may have been reminded of those days with a sense of loss: that kind of cinema no longer has a place in the Berlinale, and whenever it makes an appearance, it seems like an irritant or a weird fluke.
Knight of Cups
This year, the U.S. fielded two of the competition’s most outstanding yet widely dismissed entries, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert––films that had zilch in common with the cinema of moderate ambitions and modest means that the Berlinale promotes. Knight of Cups, Malick’s tale of a screenwriter’s interior journey toward a new sense of self, is tauter, more compact, more finely trimmed, more controlled and coherent than the director’s other recent work. When he returned to cinema with the Golden Bear winner The Thin Red Line in 1999, the festival audience venerated the fragmented, sprawling, polyphonic Pacific War epic––the zeitgeist was not as grossly skeptical of things spiritual as it seems to be today, and these dimensions of Malick’s cinema were maybe not as pronounced as they are now.
Queen of the Desert
Queen of the Desert certainly takes liberties with its subject—historian/spy/writer Gertrude Bell, who traveled through the Middle East during the demise of the Ottoman and British Empires and its aftermath—but it’s classical Hollywood cinema done the Werner way, telling its story with brisk efficiency while finding time for romance, humor, a generous dose of macho swagger, and occasional moments of ebullience. Herzog’s Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a fiery rebel against her social class’s conventions and a woman of immense curiosity and knowledge, yet as one of the people who redrew the region’s map and rearranged the balance of power, she’s partly responsible for today’s Middle Eastern woes. The film conveys the vast knowledge that was obtained as a byproduct of the imperialist project and shows that those who used this learning to investigate previously unstudied cultures were willing collaborators in the enterprise of empire. Curiosity kills.
As We Were Dreaming
The Berlinale appears again in the final act of Graf’s documentary. Over images of an inhospitable Potsdamer Platz and other equally unwelcoming sites in the capital, the director quotes extensively from a fantastic 2002 Althen essay, written after Dieter Kosslick’s first Berlinale as festival director. Back then, hopes ran high that the festival would change for the better and the 52nd edition’s four-film bonanza of German competition entries was taken as a promising sign. Althen makes a joke about Andreas Dresen—something about him making a jealous remark about another director, which is unlikely as Dresen’s among the most warmhearted of his peers, sometimes to a fault. But middlebrow darling Dresen has fallen on hard times: his latest, As We Were Dreaming, received a frosty reception, although it’s actually his best film in years. A bleak story about a group of Leipzig youngsters in the immediate post–Berlin Wall years who fail miserably in their attempts at making a decent life for themselves, it has a grimness and violence rarely found in Dresen’s cinema, as well as an equally unusual sense of splendor and spectacle. Profoundly disconsolate, it’s a portrait of a lost generation, who discovered that their new nation doesn’t give a flying fuck about them if they don’t fit into the neoliberal workforce.
Althen’s text also quotes with amusement an acerbic comment from the website newfilmkritik.de that compares the local critics’ favorable coverage of the 2002 German competition entries to the domestic press reports about the Wilhelmian-era naval maneuvers. From today’s vantage point, this reads like a tacit endorsement of the role of the critic as an unquestioning and well-behaved supporter of the national project—a stance that the German Film Critics Association tried to challenge this year with its Critics’ Week section.
Unlike the same-named sidebars at Cannes and Venice, which are effectively dumping grounds for debuts the main sections have rejected, Berlin’s Critics’ Week consisted of a series of discussions preceded by screenings. The Berlinale, of course, showed no interest in this. It regards critics as good for one thing only: writing about the Berlinale, preferably in a laudatory tone, and certainly not raising questions about the festival––at least none Kosslick and his lieutenants might feel the need to address officially. As long as the festival achieves the expected attendance figures, voices the appropriate political sentiments, and seems to do right by Germany’s film production structures, everything is fine.
But who defines these aims and directives? That’s a question some asked when the extension of Kosslick’s contract was announced last year. The general feeling was one of tired resignation, and those who voiced dissent were met in time-honored fashion with smears––someone who criticizes Kosslick must simply want his job, right? Wrong. He or she might just want to see someone else in his place who hopefully can do a better job. But what exactly would doing a better job mean? The response offered by the Critics’ Week in terms of aesthetics and vision had little to offer by way of an alternative: quite a few of their choices could just as well have been part of the festival proper (Christoph Hochhäusler and Johnnie To are Berlinale alumni). And so the Critics’ Week was more about civic behavior than films: a reminder of the importance of public discourse. So when did that discourse cease to matter?
The Pearl Button
How did we fail, what did we let happen, however unwittingly and probably in good faith? That’s another thing that Then Is It the End? ponders. My own participation in Graf’s film was to articulate these doubts as one of many interviewees, as an outside element introduced to rock the boat. Some wondered: why mess with the pleasant feeling of sadness and loss by bringing up subjects deemed too complex to discuss in a few minutes of screen time?
After the screening, some of the younger critics were muttering about the freak show they’d just seen. And while that’s an unkind way of putting it, they’re not completely wrong. Graf paints a disquieting picture of German film criticism as bourgeois to the core—and shows Althen as part of the problem. It’s tempting to read Althen’s growing interest in theater and his passion for watching DVDs and Blu-rays in his home theater as a symbol for a more general withdrawal from a mainstream cinema that’s become increasingly closed-minded and a communal life (and a nation) that has never felt less like home.
Graf posed hard questions—the competition jury dealt mainly in easy answers. The Golden Bear went to Jafar Panahi for his widely liked Taxi, a film that certainly knows how to please an art-house crowd hell-bent on feeling good and politically savvy. Panahi plays himself once again, this time posing as a Tehran cab driver who turns his fares into the film’s unwitting protagonists—until he’s recognized and the game turns. Or does it? What does it matter if these encounters are staged or accidental when the resulting dialogues offer little more than political commonplaces? Isn’t it all a bit coy and vain? Compared to the rigor and richness of his previous film Closed Curtain, Taxi is flat and trite; compared to the final taxi vignette in Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Tales, it’s embarrassing.
Another no-brainer was the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize for Pablo Larraín’s The Club: child abuse in the Catholic Church given something like a thriller treatment with artfully misty pictures—duh. Fellow Chilean Patricio Guzmán took Best Screenplay for The Pearl Button—an indeed overly scripted essay documentary that once again mixes natural science with history. Like Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, it tries to touch on too many subjects, constructing a narrative arc that’s too wide and ultimately too concerned with neatly tying up every loose end to be convincing––at least in the slow, careful way Guzmán goes about it. But then again The Pearl Button was one of the competition’s more dignified entries. Another unsurprising but worthy winner was Ixcanul Volcano, which landed Jayro Bustamante the Alfred Bauer Prize for “a feature that opens new perspectives”: unusual country of origin (Guatemala) + story developed from the everyday life of a cast of mainly indigenous amateurs (the Kaqchikel Maya people) + an emphasis on ancient rituals = Berlinale prize for a film art-house patrons might find challenging; that’s the way things work around the Potsdamer Platz. Cynicism aside, Ixcanul Volcano is actually quite remarkable, unpretentious in its direction and measured in its bearing. Likewise commendable was Andrew Haigh’s couple-in-crisis study 45 Years, a typical example of Brit Quality that won Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay Silver Bears for Best Actress and Best Actor, which was quite all right. Małgorzata Szumowska (Body) and Radu Jude (Aferim!) shared the Best Director prize, and directed both of their films within an inch of their life. Finally, the Outstanding Artistic Contribution prize was shared by three cinematographers: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen for Sebastian Schipper’s 140-minute Victoria, shot in one plan-séquence, and Evgenij Privin and Sergej Mikhalchuk for making Aleksei German Jr.’s Under Electric Clouds shine. Victoria fails to demonstrate the necessity of using a single take to tell its story of some nightclubbers who become small-time gangsters, however fascinating it is to watch the actors go over the top and then grow weary from the strain of the shoot.
Under Electric Clouds
Arguably the only great film among the prizewinners, Under Electric Clouds is a work of epic ambition that delivers. It consists of seven vignettes centered on an unfinished building whose architect reportedly went mad; in some the building is actually seen, in others merely mentioned. Many voices are heard, ranging from Kyrgyz migrant workers to the children of a deceased oligarch; some sections are only loosely connected to the story of the ruin, one turns out to be a flashback, and others recapitulate events seen earlier from slightly different angles. Of course Under Electric Clouds is a meditation on today’s Russia: a country torn to shreds by delusions of grandeur, corruption, an unquestioning belief in authority, and a fatal passion for the past that goes hand in hand with an outrageous obsession with the future––making for an empty present. But at its core, it’s the story of the director himself, who, after the death of his overbearing father, a revered pantheon filmmaker, finally has the chance to find his own path. Like his father, German Jr. favors wildly meandering plans-séquences, expansive choreographies of actors milling in and out of scenes, blasted landscapes, and dialogue delivered with fierce panache, but in place of German Sr.’s fury, there’s a playful, lighthearted, dreamy, and almost earnest quality here that’s a joy to behold.
Under Electric Clouds was the only competition entry that fruitfully dared to be adventurous, eclectic, iconoclastic––the other attempts ranged from the muddled (Jiang Wen’s Gone with the Bullets) to the obnoxious (Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato). Works of comparable inventiveness were otherwise only to be found in the Forum, which screened two of the festival’s true treasures: Marcelo Pedroso’s Brasil S/A and Kidlat Tahimik’s Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III.
With its decidedly bizarre narrative, Brasil S/A is a rather particular creation––a mix of Diego Rísquez or Paul Leduc in their more allegorical, theatrical periods, with a Matthew Barney–esque sense of the epic, iconic, and ironic. Facing unemployment due to the introduction of new harvesting techniques, a group of sugarcane cutters decide to turn excavators into spaceships. Staging the action in a series of tableaux in which the performers at times move as if in a ballet, at others in a more naturalistic fashion, Pedroso depicts the launch of the excavators skyward with the same straight face as he does the slow labor of sugarcane cutting, regardless of the plainly visible trickery. Dispensing with dialogue, the film lets its rich selection of sounds and the opulent orchestral score do the talking. One of the film’s repeating motifs is a gigantic Brazilian flag lazily flapping in the wind, with a hole in the center where an image of the Southern hemisphere and the motto “Order and Progress” should be. It’s this ideal that the cutters are striving for, honoring the national project. But what has it amounted to over the centuries? Brasil S/A ends with an image of the sun shining brightly through that hole in the flag––a final bit of irony in a monstrous comedy about a nation cheerfully spun out of control.
Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III
Phantoms of progress and development also haunt the Philippines, a country that has known little in the last 500 years beside colonial oppression. Kidlat Tahimik, the godfather of underground and avant-garde Pinoy cinema first celebrated his nation’s contribution to the cause of world progress in 1979 with Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?—tongue-in-cheek, of course. In his latest, Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, an Indio given the name Enrique by the Spanish colonizers (and played by the director) becomes the first man to circumnavigate the world, albeit accidentally—his master, Magellan, is unable to complete the journey they set out on (he died). Decades in the making, the film began shooting in 1980 on 16mm and continued on and off for about a decade, furnishing a rough cut—hence the numbers in a title that pays tribute to Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 exemplar of Third World cinemodernism, Memories of Underdevelopment.
Tahimik returned to the project in 2013, transferring it to a digital format. Originally intended as a mock-historical epic made with minimal means—a subversion of heritage cinema and its essentially restorative ideology—over the years, the film has changed shape considerably. Because Tahimik plays Enrique, finishing the work 33 years after he began shooting posed certain continuity problems. And so the material shot in the Eighties now functions something like a message from an earlier age—a magic artifact unearthed at the beginning, with Enrique/Kidlat now settled in the backwater of Ifugao, carving his story into wood and otherwise enjoying life. Toying with the distinction between reality and fantasy, Tahimik ends up with a Pinoy Indio eternal present and an attitude toward life that’s about knowing how to have the last laugh.
A final round of bows to: Atsushi Funahashi’s Nuclear Nation II and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Over the Years, grand examples of socially committed long-term documentary, Geyrhalter’s monument the sum of some dozen years of shooting, Funahashi’s film only an installment in what may become a continuing series; Ion de Sosa’s Android Dreams and Juan Rodrigáñez’s The Money Complex, unorthodox but surprisingly congenial takes on literary classics, the former on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the latter on Franziska von Reventlow’s eponymous novel; Jan Soldat’s Prison System 4614 and Lina Mannheimer’s The Ceremony, two nonfiction poems about sadomasochistic desire, the former done as an austere comédie humaine, the latter as a visually luscious paean to legendary dominatrix Catherine Robbe-Grillet; Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, an essay on the past and future of peasant-worker/soldier popular culture in the form of a mind-blowing, martial-arts-packed, 3-D spectacle; and a digital restoration of Marcel Ophüls’s 1975 The Memory of Justice, which considers the Nuremberg Trials in the light of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam—a work of seemingly unchanging relevance.