I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, 2019)

The 69th Berlinale was one of transition. At the close of this year’s edition, the festival’s director, Dieter Kosslick, officially retired following 19 years as head of one of the world’s biggest and most heavily scrutinized film events. His previously announced successor, Carlo Chatrian, formerly of Switzerland’s Locarno Festival, could be seen around the festival in a non-official capacity, and his presence alone seemed to have people preemptively looking forward. Over the past six years, Chatrian established Locarno as arguably the preeminent destination for international art cinema—cinema of the sort that in recent years Kosslick was accused of largely abandoning in favor of more commercial interests. In 2017, an open letter signed by dozens of prominent German filmmakers (including Christian Petzold, Maren Ade, Margarethe von Trotta, and others) called for a drastic overhaul of the festival’s priorities. Four days into this year’s Berlinale, in an article published by Variety, it was announced that Chatrian would be bringing over the majority of his Locarno programming team for the 2020 edition of the festival.

While it’s needless to speculate as to how next year’s festival might look (and it would be wise to keep in mind that the Berlinale, as one of the city’s most important economic and cultural events, serves many masters, few of whom concern themselves with anything remotely artistic), this loudly debated change in leadership did prove instructive for evaluating this year’s program, which in many ways was emblematic of Kosslick’s regime. Ironically, the film of the festival (and for me the best new film of the young year so far), Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…, is exactly the kind of film Kosslick’s critics have called for more of in the main competition. Maybe it simply checked the requisite boxes (female German filmmaker with serious art-house cred), but there’s no denying the boldness of the selection—fractured, elliptical, and highly mannered, the film hardly betrays Schanelec’s ideology. (Fun fact: the inclusion of Schanelec’s previous film, The Dreamed Path, in the 2016 Locarno lineup marked the German director’s first major competition berth, arguably clearing the way for her latest’s promotion to Berlin’s most prominent section.) Likewise, Synonyms, by Israel’s Nadav Lapid; winner of this year’s Golden Bear, the 44-year-old director’s enigmatic tale of an Israeli soldier who decamps to Paris to erase his identity is a work of such aesthetic and political precision that its inclusion in the competition alone is worthy of notice. (It must be said that this year’s Juliette Binoche–led jury, which also awarded Schanelec its Best Director prize, made some particularly inspired choices.)

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid, 2019)

But then, the annual olive branches to the critics and auteurist crowd have never been a point of contention—after all, Lav Diaz is now a regular in the Berlinale competition, while recent films by Hong Sangsoo, Gianfranco Rosi, and Aki Kaurismäki prove that somebody at the festival has a bead on international art-house culture. Rather, the griping arises around the films that routinely fill out the competition, a combination of bad movies by name directors (or at least recognizable ones) and bad films by little-known filmmakers whose festival life more or less begins and ends at the Berlinale. For example, it doesn’t baffle so much that Lone Scherfig’s roundly trounced The Kindness of Strangers would be chosen to open the festival, but that it would somehow be selected to compete for the top prize. (Say what you will about Cannes, but at least they have the good sense to keep their opening-night films out of competition.) For some titles, like François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, a well-meaning but exceedingly dull account of pedophilia in the Catholic church, or Teona Strugar Mitevska’s ham-fisted critique of patriarchal double standards, God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, it’s at least easy to see why they’d be invited to compete—topical subject matter reflects a socially engaged programming ethos, and it’s a source of good press to boot. The same certainly couldn’t be said of Fatih Akin’s exceedingly ugly, unforgivable serial killer drama The Golden Glove, seemingly selected for the exact opposite reason, on the grounds of pure provocation alone. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but think that Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, an eerie swerve into genre cinema for the prolific Québécois director, would have been better served in another section entirely, away from the scrutiny of the competition.

Amidst all this clamor the understated virtues of Schanelec’s masterpiece stood out even more. Starring Maren Eggert as Astrid, a forty-something single mother of two, the Ozu-referencing I Was at Home, But… offers a deceptively simple look at a family growing into new roles in the wake of unexpected loss. Offering what at times can seem like only piecemeal details, Schanelec’s typically discreet storytelling prizes gestures and actions over exposition; we gather that Astrid’s husband has died, for example, not through conversation but through the strange behavior of her teenage son Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), who returns in the film’s opening moments from an unexplained absence. Astrid appears unable to assuage Phillip’s pain, let alone her own (the devastating centerpiece sequence finds Astrid sprawled on her husband’s grave, accompanied by the sounds of M. Ward’s cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”), leaving her at a crossroads that’ll soon prompt a wholesale reevaluation of her personal, professional, and creative identities. Less slippery than the decades-spanning The Dreamed Path but just as splintered in its cubist construction, the film consolidates a small community’s worth of characters around the central family drama. In what’s become a hallmark of Schanelec’s cinema, it’s these seemingly tangential or incidental moments—a middle-school production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; episodes from a young couple’s reluctant breakup; or the highly symbolic image of a wild dog asleep at the foot of a donkey—that in fact hold the greatest truths. At once vivid and elusive, it’s a film that, however obliquely, articulates something profound about our shared existence and those small moments that shape one’s sense of self.

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt, 2019)

Generally regarded as an oasis amid the bloat of the Berlinale, the festival’s Forum sidebar, a sort of catch-all program for more challenging and esoteric forms of cinema, was itself undergoing a transition this year. Following the departure of section head Christoph Terhechte, the 2019 program was overseen by the remaining team at Berlin’s Arsenal Cinema. What didn’t change is the section’s dedication to the artier corners of North American cinema. Following recent selections by Ted Fendt (Short Stay, Classical Period) and Ricky D’Ambrose (Notes on an Appearance), this year’s Forum featured no less than four films by new and notable North American filmmakers, which together proposed an alternative view of contemporary English-language cinema to that of your typical Sundance and SXSW slate. For example, the work of New York’s Dan Sallitt reaches screens so infrequently (his previous film, The Unspeakable Act, premiered in 2012) that, when it does, it only accentuates what so much American cinema lacks. His latest, Fourteen, a beautifully understated portrait of two lifelong friends (played by Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling) who slowly grow up and apart from one another, approaches female friendship and young adulthood with tenderness and a nuanced understanding of time and its passing. Again looking to the less fashionable ends of French cinema for inspiration (Maurice Pialat, mid-period Éric Rohmer), Sallitt paints an clear-eyed portrait of flawed, recognizable people, devoid of untoward drama but pitched at a level of such honesty as to unsettle with its emotional acuity. Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s second feature So Pretty is similarly all feeling, though its New York is one of a very different constitution. A shape-shifting interpolation of Ronald M. Schernikau’s novel So schönSo Pretty centers on a small LGBTQ+ community in Brooklyn. Between social gatherings, political demonstrations, and outdoor literature readings, the group commingle in various domestic spaces, their activities mapped less by a narrative than a sense of resistance and shared experience. And indeed, Rovinelli seems less interested in telling a traditional story than in capturing a moment, a community, an essence, one we may look to one day as a key document of a specific people in a specific place in an uncertain time.

One of this year’s strangest Forum films came from the mind of James N. Kienitz Wilkins, a writer and filmmaker most often grouped under the experimental cinema rubric but one whose self-effacing engagement with the pleasures and pretensions of high and low culture alike make him all but impossible to classify. His script for The Plagiarists, a new feature co-written with Robin Schavior and directed by Peter Parlow (whom IMDb credits with one previous feature… a little seen 2014 project from Kienitz Wilkins’ production company Automatic Moving…), is the closest he’s come to a conventional narrative—though, as with most things in the Kienitz Wilkins universe, these conventions are only acknowledged so they can be overturned. When their car breaks down on the way from upstate New York to Philadelphia, Anna and Tyler (Lucy Kaminsky and Eamon Monaghan) reluctantly decide to stay at the house of a passerby named Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne), a middle-aged African American man and apparent acquaintance of the young couple’s friend Alison (Emily Davis). So far, so good. But what initially seems like a harmless night of goodwill, with Clip waxing eloquent and gifting a vintage video camera to Tyler, in retrospect appears suspicious, as Anna traces the source of one of Clip’s moving anecdotes to a book by Karl Ove Knausgård, the first of many borrowings and potential plagiarisms invoked in this highly referential work. Vacationing with Alison the next summer, the three spend the remainder of the film debating and dissecting the ethical dimensions of this supposed crime, with Anna pondering it in relation to her own aspirations as a novelist, and Tyler not so much in relation to his as a filmmaker. Acting additionally as cameraman and editor (and shooting on absurdly low-grade video, furthering the meta-conceptual hijinks), Kienitz Wilkins brings an encyclopedic knowledge and wit to this story of authorship and the relative nature of truth. Summoning any number of texts, ideas, and traditions, The Plagiarists offers a hilarious and slyly withering appraisal of our contemporary creative economy.

The Plagiarists (Peter Parlow, 2019)

Toronto-based filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz has herself been building an intelligent and highly personal filmography over the last decade. MS Slavic 7, her latest feature and perhaps the strongest of this quartet of Forum premieres, finds her again exploring her family history through a fictionalized framework that draws equally from the archive as it does the well of first-hand experience. Co-directed by and starring Bohdanowicz’s frequent lead Deragh Campbell, the film follows Campbell’s Audrey (a character first introduced in Bohdanowicz’s 2016 feature Never Eat Alone) as she researches letters sent by her great-grandmother, a Polish poet, to author Józef Wittlin while the two lived in exile in North America. These letters, written by Bohdanowicz’s real-life great-grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, form the backbone of the story; seen variously on the page, translated on screen as subtitles, or projected on the wall of Harvard’s Houghton Library (the film’s title refers to the reference number of the correspondence), the words and their material record become a powerful conduit of memories and emotions. As she reflects each evening on the letters and their heartfelt declarations, Audrey appears impelled to reconcile the courage at the heart of the correspondence with her own unspoken melancholy. In flashback, she attends an anniversary celebration, where she and her aunt (Elizabeth Rucker) fight over her role as the literary executor of the estate, a role we see Audrey take to with curiosity and desire. With quiet resolve and empathy, so too do Bohdanowicz and Campbell investigate Audrey’s longing; together they’ve cultivated a character that at this point can’t simply be read as a surrogate (if it ever could), but as a complex and ever-evolving figure in her own right. At a Berlinale rife with speculation and distractions, MS Slavic 7 proved a welcome reprieve, opening a space for thought and introspection that precious few films afford.

Jordan Cronk is a critic and programmer based in Los Angeles. He runs Acropolis Cinema, a screening series for experimental and undistributed films, and is co-director of the Locarno in Los Angeles film festival.