Berlinale 2019: Day 11

By Sascha Krieger

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Berlinale Special / United Kingdom / Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor)

In his directorial debut, Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor tells the real story of William Kamkwamba, a teenage boy from Malawi who saved his family and village by building a windmill to irrigate the fields during a famine. Ejiofor himself plays the boy’s father but it is Maxwell Simba as William whose quiet persistence and optimism carry the film. Drenched in yellow and brownish colours and a somewhat gentler sunlight, the film accentuates the hostility of the land, zooms in on the flooding and later the cracked earth of dry season, features corrupt politicians and bookends the story with rituals of rebirth. It is full of tableau-style compositions taken from the textbook of Hollywood drama, with picturesque confrontations and embraces and moments of unity. Everything is nicely spelt out and explained, every look, every word, every gesture meaningful. A rather pervasive score makes sure that emotional attachment never breaks. Ejiofor proves to be a skillful catalyst of emotions and does a good job in helping bring the characters to life. He makes the human roots of the issues portrayed quite clear and while not mentioning climate change, the film can serve as a reminder of what’s to come if humanity doesn’t change course. This is its greatest strength: bringing a part of the world close where hunger means an existential threat and can wipe out whole communities. As a film, it’s too conventional, too much relying on clichéd set pieces, piling one disaster on the other in all obviousness, too routinely executed to be completely convincing. Its timing, too, is somewhat off, feeling artificially rushed near the ending after taking a lot of time early on to establish the height from which these characters fall, making the first 30 minutes or so feel quite slow to move off the ground. A decent first effort that needs to be watched if only for its story.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Image: © Ilze Kitshoff / Netflix)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 10

By Sascha Krieger

The most common feeling to be encountered at the end of the 69th Berlinale is relief. The last festival of longtime director Dieter Kosslick  remindes everyone why it was time for a change. While the motto „The private is political“ was well enough executed, the Competition was even more lacklustre that in previous years. artistically, the festival has long been far removed from Cannes and Venice – this year, even the relevance and an insight into global cinema, long the festival’s strong points, took a plunge. While the winners, the Golden Bear for Synonymes, Silver Bears for Di jiu tian changIch war zuhause, aber or Systemsprenger (two major awards for German films were a good send-off for a director who made the festival a platform for local cinema again) were well-deserved and the one for Grâce à dieu re-inforced Berlinale’s understanding of having a role in current social discourse, a feeling of fatigue and helplessness was inescapable. While declared as a female festival one year on from #MeToo, the Berlinale also hosted Casey Affleck’s new film despite several serious allegations against him. The champion of queer cinema had an awful year in this field, with hardly any queer film standing out positively. And the indecision with which the festival tackled the issue of how to deal with the threat (or promise) of Netflix & Co. was symptomatic: Where Cannes and Venice took strong (and Contrary) stands, the Berlinale wavered.

Skin (Image: © Berlinale)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 9

By Sascha Krieger

Amazing Grace (Out of Competition / United States)

In 1972, famed singer Aretha Franklin decided to record an album of the music of her youth as a preacher’s daughter: gospel. She did so at a Los Angeles baptist church over two nights in a live setting. Director Sydney Pollack was brought in to film the recordings but the film was never finished. Now, after 47 years, it finally sees the light of day. The released version focuses on the two concert sessions with just a very short intro and little interest in the process. There is just one abrupted take, everything else are complete versions. This is basically a concert film but with a twist: for this is not just a concert, the church setting not a coincidence, the religious roots and nature of these songs always obvious. The fervour of the musicians and the choir infects the audience who turn this into a communal experience, a service, a celebration. Franklin is at the height of her skills, she might never have performed in a more passionate, no-holds-barred way. The footage well captures the raw energy on the room as it’s far removed from the slick perfection concert films have since required. The cameras‘ wild zooms and movements combined with rhythmic, fast-paced editing, transports the atmosphere well into the present-day cinema, with an immediacy that astonishes and makes this feel incredibly fresh. In the beginning, band leader James Cleveland directly addressed the audience – and it seems he’s talking to us. Franklin doesn’t talk, she thinks, humbly, powerfully, with a hint of the little girl who sang in her father’s church. The power of this music and its deep connection with things way beyond it is palpable at all moments. The sweat, the laughter, the rapture, the ecstasy, the joy: the cameras capture it all, with a sense of wonder the viewer shares.

Woo Sang (Image: © VILL LEE FILM)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 8

By Sascha Krieger

Di jiu tian chang (Competition / China / Director: Wang Xiaoshuai)

Wang Xiaoshuai’s film spans the last 30 or so decades in Chinese history, telling the story of a family and their friends. This year’s Berlinale motto is „The private is political“. This film is its embodiment: on a very personal level it tells about private tragedy, personal guilt, forgiveness but also the consequences of China’s long-time one-child policy, the effects of a society in which even your private lifestyle can become a crime and the price individuals pay for the market-economy reforms. When the political enters the private, the price might be unbearable. Wang floats through the times with ease. Time is not linear, the past remains present and the present often seems past. Events repeat, scenes mirror each other, there are tunnels and passages, symbolising the connections that haunt these lives and make them possible. Wang’s narration emphasises this. His images are calm, gently flowing, often standing still, just as time does and at the same time cannot. The pale warm light of that moment when spring first announces itself lingers on, it connects life and death, births and funerals. There are second chances and repeated failures. The second time repeats the first if lessons aren’t learned. Forgetting is hard, secrets can save but also allow the hurt to continue. The present-day China has nothing in common with that of the past and yet they are hardly distinguishable at a deeper level. Often the camera remains in mid-distance, sometimes, as in the case of the central tragic event, it looks on from far away, from the present into a past never quite understood. Distances are hard to overcome – for the camera, the viewer, the characters. But it’s not impossible. „So long, my son“ reads the English title and hints at the core of love that prevails through all the mistakes, the social pressure, the betrayals. Love proves strongest through all the turmoil, it is what gives hold and hope. The love is passed on from one generation to the next, and  it must be hard fought for but will not permanently be rejected. The final scenes: a gathering by a graveside, a smile during a phone call: peace with the past opens up a future. Will it be different? No-one knows. Until then, the world has this deeply moving masterpiece.

Image: (© Li Tienan / Dongchun Films)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 7

By Sascha Krieger

Synonymes (Competition / France, Israel, Germany / Director: Nadav Lapid)

A young Israeli man turns up in Paris, leaving everything behind: his family, his country, his language, himself. Ar the start, he literally loses everything, stands there naked, ready to start a new life. Tom Mercier plays this nervous man as if continually haunted, daring himself to never look up, repeating French words obsessively, particularly negative adjectives for his native Israel, a kind of exorcism through language. He is repeatedly lashing out, freaking out, turning himself into  a god of vengeance. Repeatedly he revolts at perceived falsehoods. A madman or a saviour? Both? Noav is a man without a home, without an identity, looking for his own synonym. He meets a young French couple, begins a fragile, fluid relationship with them, calms down only to get lost again among his stories he tries to give up but cannot. Stories of heroism, violence, death, running away. Which he is, the hand-held camera always close. A personified state of emergency, a man constantly on the edge in a world constantly on the edge. Colours are pale, washed-out, the images always on the brink of exploding. Because he denies where he came from he has nowhere to. Sitting on the wire, he can smell a new home but never reach it. He arrives from a place about to be extinguished at all times at one that’s slowly reaching this point, too. The normal is always on the edge of turning into the bizarre, absurd, surreal. Director Nadav Lapid’s film is like a nervous breakdown permanently about to happen and happening. He puts things on too thickly at times but that, too, is part of the disease. Welcome to this world. It’s about to end. A demanding film, an annoying film. And one that haunts you.

Synonymes (Image: © Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 6

By Sascha Krieger

Ich war zuhause, aber (Competition / Germany, Serbia / Director: Angela Schanelec)

What an opening: a dog chases a rabbit across a meadow. Casually. Later it eats the rabbit inside, a donkey walks in and looks out of the window. A dream? A vision? A nightmare. Nightmarish is the world in Angela Schanelec’s radical new film. A family coping with the loss of the father as we later find out. A mother, a run-away son, a daughter. everyone is as if sleepwalking. Images antiseptic and rigid, movements painfully slow, shots unbearably long. Every word – and they come in pretty late in the film – seems fought for. A class is playing scenes from Hamlet, motionless, emotionless. A boy wearing a prince’s crown, seeks a home in supermarket depot, a couple debates about the meaning of love and life and children. Sleepwalkers all, zombies. Ich war zuhause, aber is relentless in its formal rigidness. When the mother (Maren Eggert) freaks out at her kids, breaks the pauses and monotony for a moment, it’s almost a relief. It’s a film like a trauma, a collective one or are we on the inside of the woman who once argues with a film director about truth and lies? Good, bad, true, false, words whose meaning eludes these sleepwalkers. But still they chase them, want to grasp them, each other, themselves. This world is in shock, suspended between life and death, removed from the natural cycle, in shock, in grief, at a standstill. The donkey can look out into the world, they can’t. At the end, a slow walk in a river, the boy carrying his sister. Where? No-one knows. But the idea that there might be a where for them, that the rest is not all silence as Hamlet claims, that there might be an order to all those loose ends, perhaps suggests something like, well, hope?

Ich war zuhause, aber (Image: © Nachmittagfilm)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 5

By Sascha Krieger

Vice (Out of Competition  / United States / Director: Adam McKay)

Dick Cheney, in office between 2001 and 2009 was the most powerful vice-president in history. His re-definition of the power of the executive changed over 200 years of democratic tradition and heavily influences the way the White House is conducting business today. In Vice, comedy specialist Adam McKay tells his story as the wild tale of a man who re-invented himself from a drunk loser and turned the power of silence into an art form. The film opens with two ends of the spectrum: his second DUI arrest in the 1960s and his calling the shots on September 11, 2001, the day he seized his full power. McKay tells his story like a bitter and bitingly satirical fairy-tale including some surrealist elements: he employs an unlikely narrator (no spoilers!), has the emergency powers Cheney drew up after 9/11 read out as restaurant menu items, lets Cheney and his wife fall into a Richard III dialogue at one point. Fishing and predator metaphors are added as is footage of the consequences of what Cheney did. Hard editing, poignant juxtaposition, a lively camera and the pounding rhythm of history being created and manipulated drive the film that can be fairy-tale, quiet chamber drama, satire and brightly coloured collage at different times. Christian Bale plays Cheney as a quiet brute, a stubborn schemer, a serious family man who learns to abandon all scruples. The chance from the bumbling young Congressional aide to the calm authoritarian is masterfully portrayed. His wife Lynne, played with icy warmth and fuzzy sharpness by Amy Adams, is his only equal, Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush and Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld somewhat caricaturesque, hitting the film’s tone perfectly. One can argue whether a comedy is the right way to deal with this rule-breaking and game-changing administration, but the film works as both a lethal satire and a serious indictment. It captures some of Cheney’s complexity but excuses nothing, presenting his choice to become what he became. Adam Mc Kay reveals himself to be a master of timing, rhythm and stylistic diversity, full of surprising. Only the ending is a bit of a failure. Other than that, the film helps understand how America got to where it is today. In the most entertaining fashion possible.

Vice (Image: © Annapurna Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 4

By Sascha Krieger

Mr. Jones (Competition / Poland, United Kingdom, Ukraine / Director: Agnieszka Holland)

Agnieszka Holland’s new film tells the real-life story of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who made the famine in the Ukraine in then early 1930s public. Set first in sepia-tinted timber browns and later in the forbidding whiteness of the Ukrainian winter, the 140 minutes rush through the events like the train Jones travels to Ukraine in. The initially slow pace of the set-up transforms into a hectic rush with the final chapters added on as if time was running out and the script wasn’t finished. The viewer learns little of the man Jones, he remains as flat as all other characters, from the plain Asa Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) whose role Holland minimises to the boring villain that is Peter Sarsgaard’s Pulitzer Award winning Walter Duranty. While Jones appears as the hero persecuted and ridiculed by all sides, James Norton has little to do other than either to look shocked or passionately arguing his case. The film’s rhythm is off at all times, the plot patched together like an amateurish quilt. Holland makes up for it with fast-paced and hectic images shot with an hand-held camera, breathing down Norton’s neck when he encounters the deadly crisis and throws in double exposures and parallel images for dramatic effect. Adding an additional story frame of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, a work Jones‘ reports are said to have inspired, doesn’t help either. The result is a thriller that doesn’t thrill and a statement film that doesn’t make statements. In the end, this is a good old her story that forgot about adding a hero or a story.

Mid90s (Image: © 2018 Jayhawker Holdings)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 3

By Sascha Krieger

Der Goldene Handschuh (Competition / Germany, France / Director: Fatih Akin)

Fatih Akin’s new film is based on Heinz Strunk’s novel about Fritz Honka, a notorious serial killer in the Hamburg of the 1970s. Disfigured by an accident, Honka drifts along the lowest echelons of society, the drinkers and prostitutes, the drifters and the down-and-out, the cast-away and the forgotten. Akin dives into this hidden world, this underbelly of affluence, this sewer of flushed-out people with all he has. He recreates it, particularly the eponymous Hamburg pub and Honka’s apartment, with a love for detail that is only outweighed by an obsession with ugliness. Drearier, dirtier, grittier interiors have rarely been seen. And then, there’s Jonas Dassler, a 22-year-old rising star transformed into slouching, leering 35-year-old Honka. His sweaty, greasy-haired face in the film’s beacon, in it, all the lust, the cruelty, the misogyny, the insecurity, the despair of this collateral damage of German post-war reconstruction. The film opens with a long-drawn-out to get rid of a body, contains several acts of violence, including various very graphic murder. Doing so, it touches on the horrifying as well as on the absurd and the funny. The inhabitants of the pub are mostly caricatures and even Honka’s crimes contain an element of the blackest of humours. In its better moments, the film paints an impressive portrait of a stratum of society that pays the price for others‘ affluence as well as an intriguing profile of a man driven by uncontrollable impulses and fueled by a sense of entitlement not totally absent in today’s men either. Unfortunately, the film is also a little too much in love with its extremes, the ugliness, the violence, the show effects which blur the perspective and increasingly turn a brightly coloured study into more of a circus act, dragging out the spectacular far longer than necessary and at times coming close to betraying some of its characters, especially the women, in the process. The half-heartedly added side story about a teenage boy’s adolescent struggles and his attempts to charm a girl he fancies, in the book, a mirror of the main story, are wasted here. In the end, Der Goldene Handschuh does not quite live up to the high expectations, mostly because it wants to please, impress and entertain too much.

Der Goldene Handschuh (Image: © Gordon Timpen / 2018 bombero int./Warner Bros. Ent.)

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Berlinale 2019: Day 2

By Sascha Krieger

Öndög  (Competition / Mongolia / Director: Wang Quan’an)

At night, a car drives through the wide Mongolian grasslands. The camera is pointed ahead through the windshield, focusing on the small patch of light the headlights make. A herd of wild horses appears and passes. Suddenly a naked body. This is how Wang Quan’an’s (who won the 2007 Golden Bear with Tuya’s Wedding) new film starts. An 18-year-old policeman is left to guard the body, a local herdswoman keeps him company. A fateful night ensues which will have consequences, small an large. The modern and the ancient meet in the middle of nowhere. For a moment, before they part again. Not much happens in these mesmerising widescreen images Wang paints. Or everything. The horizon is low, the sky oversized. Remnants of the modern world remain far away. People sit leaning on a sitting camel, streetlamps are parked in the middle of nowhere, headlamps move in darkness to the rhythm of sex, people move into the frame and out, small, meaningless, or they occupy the whole of it. Öndög is little more than a series of carefully composed images, tableaux of loneliness and independence. But what images they are, what is in them even when thy seem empty. As the woman takes her life into her hands, connects herself with her land and its myths, the wide nothing becomes a space of opportunity just as the plain drabness of the town appears like a cage to her stony-faced one-time lover. Life, death and everything in-between. A masterpiece.

Öndög (Image: © Wang Quan’an)

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