People often forget the etymological roots of the word “festival.” A film festival signifies a technically convivial, joyous occasion, where you may watch, discuss, and (if you’re a distributor) buy movies. The sheer size and machine-like organization of the Berlinale puts it miles away from any idea of, let alone the actual possibility of, festivity. It’s hard to procure press tickets, hard to get to the different venues, and a single minute of delay will earn you a prolonged, excessive wait for what’s called a “late entrance”—just late enough to miss the beginning of a film. Add to that the breathtaking ugliness of the city and the bone-chilling warmth of the locals, and you have a painful and slightly sadistic gymkhana through the German capital occasionally interrupted by mildly pleasurable movies.
With southern Europe charged with Mediterranean laziness and punished with cruel austerity measures, Germany is once again at the helm of Old Europe, a state of affairs that directly benefits the Berlinale. Talks of cuts and other financial hardships, common at almost any other festival these days, were conspicuously absent in Berlin. Yet not even the festival’s evidently generous budget, a bounty that ultimately derives from the brutal austerity measures the German-dominated EU is imposing on southern European countries, averted a shapeless and watered-down selection. The engine propelling the festival seems to be its market, the biggest in Europe after Cannes, even though trade magazines lamented its diminishing returns and every front page followed China and its financial might in the industry. Good films in Berlin were few and far between, and the program felt less like a coherent whole and more of a chaotic constellation of more or less random films. Word of mouth was a more helpful guide than the bible-sized brick of a festival catalog, a testament to the seemingly ineluctable festival tendency to choose saturation over selection.
Besides the already known entries that provided the festival with buzz, the official competition featured an under-hyped title from veteran German TV and film director Dominik Graf. Beloved Sisters chronicles the tormented love triangle between the German literary polymath Friedrich Schiller and two sisters Caroline and Charlotte. With the Enlightenment giving way to the exuberant impetus of the French Revolution, the young Schiller emerges from the shadow of national giant and older colleague Goethe to blaze a trail with his own literary exploits. The provincial town of Rudolstadt proves too small for his boundless lust for life and love; societal pressures are nothing but a nuisance, and the prospect of a polyamorous existence is as realistic as the beheading of a king. The bold irresponsibility of youth soon clashes with the less utopian aspects of adult life, and the triangle that Schiller and the two sisters had promised never to break—one of them will marry him, the other will eventually become his biographer—starts to creak under the strain.
Period dramas usually have a choreographed rigidity, but there’s no stifling the carnal impertinence that energizes every frame of this film. The contemporary resonance of the story lies not so much in its universal and timeless essence but in the way the director brings these historical characters to modern life. While carefully respecting the aesthetic and dramaturgic precepts that the genre requires, Graf, one of the very few directors who successfully avoids mono-dimensional depictions of sexual intercourse, sculpts truly flesh-and-blood characters. Schiller’s literary and romantic entanglements form a magmatic and passionate whole, and the printed word, which is portrayed in the film with ritualistic deference, serves to convey rather than merely mediate the intoxication of love. A work of unimposing power, Beloved Sisters renders its minimal story on the grand scale of a three-hour epic with quaint elegance.
The Midnight After
Hong Kong remains as firmly removed from the draining clichés of the European art house and its tired epigones as it is committed to one of cinema’s founding pillars: entertainment. In Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After, the deserted streets of Hong Kong still exude that sweaty cinematic richness which countless flicks have stamped upon this anomalous and muscular film island. Based on a Web novel by the writer known as “Pizza,” Chan’s latest film follows the cross-section of humanity caught on a bus that a deadly epidemic has somehow spared and isolated, killing everyone else in the city. Though burdened by a limping plot that keeps reinventing itself but failing to add up, the film still sparkles with the pulpy devices of genre filmmaking. Chan handles different narrative and aesthetic registers with unsteady prowess, eventually pulling off a palatable if messy show. The film explores the sociological implications of postapocalyptic individualism by showing the inability of these unlikely survivors to stick together, while offering a happy ending of sorts. Those looking for coherent philosophical conclusions should search elsewhere as the film’s many leads never coalesce into a whole and the very strength of The Midnight After lies in its own disjointed hovering. Characters’ deaths provide for colorful and inventive variations within a story that often doesn’t live up to its wacky aspirations, leaving a disappointing aftertaste.
The Second Game
By contrast, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game is a film that harbors a multilayered complexity beneath a seemingly linear and uneventful surface. The man behind one of the most inspiring films about history and its arbitrary disputes—2006’s comical 12:08 East of Bucharest—treats the same themes in his newest work. Here the hand of the director is, in at least one key way, effectively absent: what we are watching is archival footage of a historic 1988 match between Bucharest’s two main soccer teams, Steaua and Dinamo. The entire game as broadcast on TV at the time is accompanied by the commentary of the director and his father, who actually refereed that very same match. Heavy snow is falling on the pitch but the match goes on, as the two sides—the Army and Police teams, as it turns out—stoically play a game doomed to surreal stagnation.
Porumboiu’s father reminisces about the vicissitudes that landed him there as a referee, and recalls details triggered by re-watching the match. The son meanwhile deadpans with his subtle but biting humor on the absurdities of the game and its uneventful trajectory, which reminds him of his own movies. At some point the pair hilariously comment on the directing choices of State television, which, in compliance with Communist “spirit,” could not show bad sportsmanship and so systematically cut to the spectators every time a scuffle broke out among the players. A film without direction, acting, or editing in the traditional senses, The Second Game somehow manages to expose the grotesque and surreal aspects of Romanian Communism on the eve of its demise (the match took place a year before the fall of Ceausescu’s regime). Porumboiu questions his role as a filmmaker in a movie where all the action has already taken place and there is no re-writing to change its course. He proves himself once again to be a most refined explorer of that semi-fictional realm we call history.