By Sascha Krieger
Promised Land (Competition / United States / Director: Gus van Zant)
„We were going to make a movie about American identity“, says Matt Damon at the press conference for Promised Land. „We found the issue later in the process.“ The issue is fracking, the controversial method of accessing oil and natural gas resources, America’s ticket to energy independence. Or so many hope. Matt Damon is Steve, working for a natural gas company, who has come to convince the inhabitants of a downtrodden community that gas is their path to a prosperous future. Soon he encounters two serious opponents who make his life considerably harder. For a while, Promised Land is a compelling study in people their priorities and the hard choices they have to make. Yes, fracking might poison their land forever but isn’t that an appropriate price to pay for getting one’s kids through college. It is one of the strengths of this film that it refuses to take sides. All have good reasons, even Steve’s colleague Sue (Frances McDormand) for whom this is just a job to support her family. Gus van Zant, as always, is a careful and subtle observer, noticing every little doubt behind the self-confidence. His direction and the witty and complex screenplay full of great dialogue, which was written by Damon and co-star John Krasinski, allow the film to remain and interesting study on collective and inner dynamics for quite some time. Where it fails is in its intention. This is supposed to be about American identity after all, causing the film to constantly return to praises of the land that once was, reminiscences of a happier past, down to Steve’s boots which he inherited from his grandfather. This is all a little much and instills a conservatism that doesn’t do Promised Land much good. In the end, Damon, Krasinski and van Zant seem so uninterested in their topic that they give their film the easiest and worst of ending. When all is said and done, Promised Land is strangely harmless, almost a feel-good movie. And that sure isn’t good news.
W imie… (Competition/ Poland / Director: Malgoska Szumowska)
No doubt, Adam is a good priest. He cares for his flock and has committed himself to working with young offenders, trying to help them get back on the tracks of their young lives, as they say. A modern priest one might say. And a gay one as we learn. In the course of the film, Adam will fight his sexuality, have to reject the advances of an attractive woman and, of course, falls in love with a troubled but somewhat beautiful young man. There is tragedy and rumor and inner turmoil. Malgoska Szumowska employs a mixture of realism and highly emotionally charged scenes, often drenched in blue light, to illustrate the growing gap between the seeming normality of everyday life and the inner struggles of the protagonist. The problem is just that all of this leaves the viewer strangely cold, too calculated does the way the story unfolds appear, too predictable its twists and turns, too cheesy the use of music, too unsatisfactory its ending. It moves along from one routinely executed set piece to the next, losing its audience along the way. The film is at its best when he leaves scenes unfinished, when he allows room for the viewer’s imagination, which, unfortunately, it does too rarely. It starts with a scene in which some kids hassle a mentally disabled young men, it ends with the camera moving through groups of future priests outside a seminary. A different way of mental crippling perhaps. But then a turn of a head reveals a familiar face. So perhaps this was a wrong thought, too.
PARADIES: Hoffnung (Competition / Germany / Director: Ulrich Seidl)
Hoffnung is the last part of Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy about lost, despairing, lonely women – or in this case girls. It portrays an overweight teenage girl sent to a diet camp in the dreariest of hostel or school buildings. Everything is cheap, yesterday, second-hand: The building, the camp’s authoritarian methods, the coach, the aging doctor she falls in love with. Seidl gives his film an esthetic that mixes the consciously amateurish naturalism of the Berlin School with highly composed tableaus the film is built around. Again and again the kids move in lines, walking, running, nordic walking. Unwillingly, aimlessly, pointlessly. Opposed to this are the little enclaves of their own space which they fight to gain, the everyday conversations of girls just getting into puberty, the innocent attempts at trying things out. Almost caricature-like adults contrast kids beginning to embark on that dangerous journey some call life. Seidl gives his largely improvised scenes a lot of breathing room and accomplishes the feat of making the everyday seem worth watching. The film hast its flaws, especially the love story that doesn’t happen between girl and doctor is much too drawn out and lacks the directness and credibility the rest of the film is so full of. At times it almost brings it to a standstill but then there is this wonderfully laconic, entirely uneventful ending. PARADIES: Hoffnung is too inconsistent and too undecided about what it wants to be to bring it anywhere near greatness but it is certainly worth watching and has its strongest moment when it doesn’t seem to be trying.
Les Misérables (Berlinale Special / United Kingdom / Director: Tom Hooper)
Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, is undoubtedly one of the world’s most successful musicals ever. It has been running in London’s West End continuously since 1985, received several Broadway revivals and has been a huge success all over the world. Now Tom Hooper, following his Best Picture winning The King’s Speech has surrounded himself with a stellar cast to bring the show on the big screen. The result is an opulent, visually rich, beautifully choreographed human kaleidoscope that goes – just like the stage show for the big emotions yet delivers them with an emotional immediacy that professional stage productions lack. One of the reasons lies with the singing. Whether it’s Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway or Russell Crowe – all stars sing themselves, some better, some worse, but this is exactly what provide the songs with an honesty that comes from each being assimilated by their respective character’s actor. So in a film without a spoken word each character assumes their own voice, turning the songs into a powerful speech full of emotion, conflict, depth. The sometimes strained but almost powerful singing of Jackman’s Jean Valjean contrasts impressively with the hard and dry delivery of Crowe’s Inspector Javert. Close your eyes and the drama is all there. Although this isn’t what one should do for this is a visual feast. Somewhere between brutal naturalism and bright circus, gothic horror and imaginative fairytale Tom Hooper paints a world that reaches far beyond 19th-century Paris, catapulting this tale of despair, cruelty, mercilessness, but ultimately, love, hope and the belief in humankind’s ability to advance straight into the here and now. No doubt: Les Misérables is sentimental, full of pathos and colorful far above Hugo’s prose straight from society’s basement, yet it strangely rings true – in the broken voices as in its unashamed optimism born from hopelessness.