By Sascha Krieger
Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn (Competition / Russia / Director: Boris Khlebnikov)
A wild river, thick forests, rundown farms. A pale cold veil lies over this Russian landscape. Colors are rare and never rich. Yet things don’t seem too bad: Yes, Sasha has to give up his farm for a development project, but it hadn’t turned out the way he had planned anyway. It isn’t profitable and he will get compensated so he can pay out his employees and move back to the city. Unfortunately, the workers want to fight and Sasha gives in. In other directors‘ hands, this would have turned into a thriller, full of action and suspense. Not with Boris Khlebnikov (who had impressed the Berlinale audience a few years ago with Koktebel). Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn is the drama of a face. Sasha’s face, seemingly immovable. Hardly ever does he manage a smile or some other sign of emotion. The film’s story is in what the face doesn’t, refuses to or cannot show, How it turns into a death masks as things turn downward, as Sasha is thrown, piece by piece, into loneliness, as he turns silent, practically lifeless. Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn is so intense and chilling exactly because there is nothing spectacular about it. When Sasha sits in his car, driving faster and faster, we see nothing but his face, slightly quivering, mask-like. A chilling, gripping, almost unbearable scene. The narration is laconic, quiet, matter-of-fact, the direction takes its time, staying on seemingly uneventful scenes for long times, just showing people – or nature for that matter – going through the motions, the photography moves back and forth between long still shots and a similarly unagitated hand-held camera. After all is said and done, we see a scene of absolute normality, human robots mechanically moving along, dead people going through their motions. It will remain one of this year’s Berlinale’s chilliest endings. Who is to blame? The greedy developers? The corrupt authorities? Sasha’s own indecisiveness? The film does not play the blame game. This we’ll have to figure out ourselves. At the end of it all the river just keeps flowing, unaware of and not interested at all in what is going on around it.
Freier Fall (Perspective German Cinema / Germany / Director: Stephan Lacant)
Marc is a young and promising policeman, the last in a family of cops, he has a beautiful girlfriend who is pregnant, they just got a house of her own. This is the stuff tragedies are made of and so it is here. In this modern version it strikes in the form of Kay, a good-looking, athletic, fun-loving colleague Marc meets at an advanced training weekend. What starts at friendly, late pubescent horseplay soon turns into an affair at least Marc never saw coming. Rather than him doing anything this is something that happens to this clean-cut boy. How denial turns into aggression, against others and himself, how the inner struggle distorts hin face, his movements, his posture, but also how everything relaxes, unclasps when he finally, although only for a short time, allows things to happen, is a t times breathtaking. This is Hanno Koffler’s film, which is not to say that the rest of the cast isn’t superb either: Max Riemelt plays Kay as an extroverted, teasing, good-humored young man who has known pain, has known hurt and has hardened himself behind his handsome mask. Katharina Schüttler is Marc’s girlfriend Bettina, confused, resolute, desperate but yet another one without answers. They try to move along, to rescue their lives or rather their illusions, painfully, ever more desperately as they begin to see that there is no returning. This is an actors‘ film which mitigates many f its shortcomings: the very conventional narration, the endless scenes in which Marc and Bettina end up sitting next to each other, immobile, stone-faced, silent, not looking at each other, the many clichéd set-pieces and phrases (like „Have you ever thought about getting out?“ or „I don’t think we can do this anymore. No , we can’t“). Too often does the film take the easiest, the most proven path and is saved by the believable play of the actors which make this very conventional coming out drama a little less conventional. And it does somewhat pay off: in an unsentimental, matter-of-fact open ending.
The Look of Love (Berlinale Special / United Kingdom / Director: Michael Winterbottom)
The Look of Love tells the story of Paul Raymond, theatre and erotica impresario, „King of Soho“ and at one time the richest man in Britain. It starts and end with the most traumatic event in his life, his daughter Debbie dying of an overdose. We see a broken man, one about to be forced to rethink his life, but we’re not staying there long. Being serious isn’t this film’s strong suit, being shiny and glossy is. Where The Look of Love excels is in its evocation of times past, all the periods in which Raymond was active. The 50s come along in black and white, the 60 get colorful, the 70s deliver all the bad visual taste they had to offer. Director Michael Winterbottom paints every period with a strong love for details, employing fake documentary and magazine looks, recreating each period’s look and feel and tastes. Styles of erotica change, so do collective agreement as to what is acceptable and what is not, yet Raymond remains the same.: Steve Coogan is a great Raymond: a slightly sleazy, yet witty and charming womanizer whose daughter might be the only person besides himself he loves, and he doesn’t exactly do a great job at that either. He’s always on the edge of caricature but somehow always keeping the balance. He does a great job at portraying Raymond as the fascinating figure he must have been – enganging, charming, a winning personality as they say. Coogan and the stylish imagery do carry the film for a while but they’re far from doing so for the entire 99 minutes. About halfway through it becomes clear that The Look of Love has little more to offer that a beautiful surface and an intriguing star. The narration seems aimless, the storylines become repetitive, the characters remain flat. There is no development, no real drama or conflict, just a pretty facade which is nothing but hollow scenery, like buildings imitated in cheap papier mâché. It doesn’t really tell a story, it exhibits looks. And that isn’t nearly enough to make the film worthwhile. It’s been exactly ten years since Winterbottom won the Golden Bear with its gripping, fake documentary refugee drama In This World. It feels much longer than that.
Kujira no machi (Forum / Japan / Director: Keiko Tsuruoka)
Three teenagers, two girls and a boy travel to Tokyo to find one of the girls‘ brothers who disappeared years ago. Kujira no machi is probably one of the most static road movies ever. The three spend most of their time caught in their early puberty love triangle, misunderstanding each other, being jealous. Someone is always running away, facial expressions vary between angry and sad, the arguments have the intellectual depth and emotional complexity of five-year-olds quarreling in a sandbox. It always ends in someone reappearing, in two or all of them standing facing each other, staring in silence. And the worst thing: the film takes all of this seriously. There also is the key metaphor of the whale which might be to do with the fact that one of the girls is constantly jumping or running into water. What it all means? Quite frankly: does it actually matter. Every now and then, there are films that make one wonder how they ended up in a festival like this. Kujira no machi is one of them.