Berlin Calling: Robert Koehler on the awards
The announcements of the prizes at the 62nd Berlinale, which wrapped up on Sunday, were greeted with a noisy reception. Going into the awards, the critical consensus (such as it is) seemed to be leaning toward (in alphabetical order): Barbara, Christian Petzold’s drama about an East German doctor trying to defect to the West; Tabu, Miguel Gomes’s rapturously received third feature spanning two time periods and multiple cinematic and storytelling styles; and War Witch, Kim Nguyen’s drama about a young female soldier in an unidentified (but Congo-like) African nation’s civil war, which screened late in the festival. Support was also audible for Bence Fliegauf’s Just the Wind, about violent bigotry felt by a Romany family in a Hungarian village, and Ursula Meier’s Sister, which observes the actions of a poor brother and sister at a Swiss ski resort.
But that support didn’t much extend to the film to which jury president Mike Leigh and the jurors awarded the Golden Bear: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die, the Italian veterans’ staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with prison inmates. Fliegauf, whose previous film, Womb, marked a distinct slide from his inventive early work, came away with the Silver Bear, while Petzold scored best director for Barbara. In one of those festival award oddities, this marks the second consecutive year that a Silver Bear goes to a Hungarian filmmaker (last year’s winner being Béla Tarr for The Turin Horse) and the second consecutive year the directing prize has gone to a German (in 2011, it went to Petzold’s fellow “Berlin School” filmmaker, Ulrich Köhler, for Sleeping Sickness).
For War Witch, the best it came away with from Berlin was a best actress prize for unknown, non-pro Rachel Mwanza. And as for Tabu, it won the festival’s Alfred Bauer Prize for innovation (a kind of runner-up to a runner-up to a runner-up award), although Gomes characteristically observed with droll understatement: “I thought I was making an old-fashioned film…My mistake.” And Meier? A special jury mention.
The Tavianis’ film didn’t exactly set the critics on fire when it premiered last week, early in the screening schedule. On the kinder side, Eric Kohn in IndieWire noted: “With no talking heads or a single shaky cam, ‘Caesar Must Die’ neither looks like a documentary nor behaves like one, so the gimmick of following a truncated version of the play within the prison confines often feels quite thin. However, because the movie begins with the performance, it has no need to build toward a typical performative climax, freeing the directors to explore the malleability of Shakespearean drama as it reflects the prisoners’ grim outlook…At an absurdly trim 76 minutes, [the film] never fully reaches the potential displayed in such sequences. Still, there's no doubting the gloomy clarity the Tavianis bring to their subject.” On the other hand, Variety critic Jay Weissberg demurred: “Venerable helmers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have taken the well-worn idea of prison theatricals and fashioned it into an attractive yet only superficially thought-provoking semi-docu…‘Semi’ because every line appears carefully rehearsed, including personal asides, though the prisoners and their incarceration are very real. Staging Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ with criminals adds a significant amount of extra-textual food for thought, but it’s uncertain whether the Taviani brothers are clear on what it all should mean.”
The Twitterverse reaction to the Berlin awards came loudly and swiftly, with comments ranging from “surprise” to “shock” to a notable one from @bettylg: “Let’s redefine the Alfred Bauer Prize. Tonight it became the best and most important prize of the Berlinale.”