By Sascha Krieger
This Ain’t California (Perspective Germany Cinema/ Germany / Director: Marten Persiel)
Denis is dead. Aged 41, he died in 2011 while serving with the German army in Afghanistan. Since 1999, he had been a soldier but before that he was the leader, the centerpiece, the inspiration or just the chief jerk of something that should never have existed in the first place: the East German skateboarding scene before the fall of the wall. This Ain’t California is a testament to that forgotten episode of the other German state, a tiny, unimportant one, but the core and backbone of those who were part of it. The film starts out with Denis‘ death, bringing together former friends long scattered in many places. They reminisce about their youth and go out in search of Denis, who everyone remembers under his pseudonym: Panik. Building on this reunion and using loads of privately footage, the film, piece by piece, brings this impossible movement to life before our very eyes. Mixing original footage, the reunion, narration from several of those involved and beautifully drawn animations it recreates a little of this strange miniature universe these kids created for themselves – totally unpolitical but, in its aimless pursuit of fun, its focus on individuality set against everything the East German state was about. The freedom they sought was not ideological – but it was an alternative to the utilitarist doctrine which was at the heart of all of East German life. Everything needed to have a purpose, the collective was everything, the individual nothing. This Ain’t California is funny, entertaining, but also deeply moving. Its distinctive rhythm wonderfully symbolizes the lifestyle these kids made up from scratch. The film allows us to dive into a lost world – and a lost soul: Denis who went further than anyone, Denis who got lost somewhere along the way, Denis who is brought back to life for a moment because what he represented, what he was looking for, what he was living never died. A miracle of a film that makes you laugh and cry and everything in between.
L’enfant d’en haut (Competition / Switzerland / Director: Ursula Meier)
Simon is another one of this Berlinale’s parentless children. And a professional thief: Everyday he makes his way up the ski slopes in the Swiss Alps and steals everything he can later sell: skis, masks, gloves, glasses. And food which he then takes home. An industrious kid, a successful miniature entrepreneur. And the adult in his home: The young woman who lives with who is allegedly his sister but turns out not to be, is the child: Drifting through her days as if in a daze, more interested in meeting a man who will „rescue“ her than to earn her family’s living, she is supported – practically, emotionally, financially – by Simon. Ursula Meier’s second feature is a small film – in the best possible way. It completely eschews sentimentality, there is nothing big about this. The camera plays a wonderful game of closing in and moving away again from Simon, from his small dismal world to the bigger more glamorous one, in both of which he is alone but fighting. It is an actor’s film: Kacey Mottet Klein’s stubborn determination to live is as haunting as Léa Seydoux’s almost childlike longing and sulking. There is nothing heroic about Simon though, he remains a child, as overwhelmed by his situation as he should be. There are haunting scenes in which he craves closeness, affection, even pays for it, and those in which his facade breaks. The film refuses any kind of resolution. The fleeting glimpses Simon and his „sister“ through at each other as they pass in gondolas going in different directions, may well the greatest ending of this year’s Berlinale.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car (Competition / USA / Director: Billy Bob Thornton)
1969: The protests against the Vietnam war are at their height, US society more divided than ever since the Civil War. This is the background to Jayne Mansfield’s Car in which the body of an Alabama patriarch’s ex-wife is returned to be buried in her childhood home – accompanied by her new English family: her widower and his two adult children from a previous marriage. for twenty years Jim Caldwell has hated this man he has never met – now they must face each other. It is the difficult and slowly, gently growing relationship between these two men – a veritable giants‘ match between Robert Duvall and John Hurt – that provides the center of the story and the heart of the film which features all the stalwarts of a Tennessee Williams drama: the clash of generations, an oppressive and repressed patriarch, apparently totally incapable of feelings and affection, shattered hopes, damaged souls, destroyed lives. It is all there and well mixed with the social turmoil of the late 1960s. Of course, long hidden tensions and conflicts surface, skeletons leave their closets and walk around freely. Often such revelations feel a little forces, the dialogues stale and at times this is a pure cliché fest. What keeps the film afloat is director Billy Bob Thornton’s (who also plays Jim’s strange, traumatized son Skip) light touch. throughout, the tragic is balanced by the comical, family drama is turned into satire and back, it is all a bit over the top – just as old Caldwell whose main hobby is looking at car wrecks. This is as comical as it is serious, as is the entire film which keeps walking this edge creating an ambivalence in which one is less and less sure whether one should laugh or cry. Maybe both is the answer in this film which digs deep into the lies behind a family’s face, the difficulty of the old and young to see eye to eye and which also exposes the absurdity of many of those conflicts. Life, it says, is serious, but never just that.
Highway (Panorama / Nepal, USA / Director: Deepak Rauniyar)
A bus is on its way to Kathmandu. On board a wide mixture of passengers: a gay man at odds with his family, a husband trying to get his wife pregnant, a woman with a secret boyfriend who is going to get engaged to the man of her parents‘ choice. The bus is stopped at a wild strike on the road when one of the passenger has an idea: as the only vehicles allowed through on such occasions are wedding buses they should pretend to be a wedding party. So they select and dress a „bride“ and „groom“, decorate the bus and as they have a festive band on board they walk ahead of the bus playing the instruments. It works and it will two more times even though resistance gets stronger at each strike. This story, however, is little more than a vehicle which enables the real narrative level of the film which is more concerned with the individual fates of the travellers and those they are travelling to who they can only communicate with via phone which keeps breaking down and who we meet in sequences that keep interrupting the bus journey. They,too, have their secrets and their load to carry. However, it is this that leads the film to fragment and lose its drive. In the end, it unravels into little more than more or less interesting episode connected by a forced narrative ploy. What is left is an interesting but rather superficial glimpse at Nepalese society and its conflicts between tradition and modernity.