By Sascha Krieger
It’s done. We made it, survived it again, got out of it with square eyes and loads of memories. 400 films, 11 days – lucky those who could see a tenth of what was offered. The Bears are traveling to their new homes: a golden one to Romania, for Child’s Pose, two silver ones to Bosnia, and, thankfully, Jafar Panahi, the Iranian filmmaker who is banned from film making and faces six years in prison, wasn’t forgotten though he missed out on the Golden Bear which he would so have deserved. No controversy, everybody like the jury’s decisions – which fits well with a Berlinale that was a little boring, some might even say it marked a further step on the road to this festivals increasing irrelevance. The competition was particularly disappointing and was only saved by gems or at least challenging offerings from minor film regions, particularly eastern Europe. The great film nations: Germany was largely absent, the time when the major German directors rushed to get their films t Berlin seems to be over again – even this year’s juror Andreas Dresen appears to prefer Cannes these days. France brought three films, none of which would have been likely to even make it to the Cannes competition. China, Japan, the UK: absent. And the U.S.? They brought films that offered stars, the highlights of which was a well-made thriller (Side Effects) and a charming but totally harmless comedy (Prince Avalanche).
So is the Berlinale in crisis? There are signs: the worrying absence of world premieres in all sections is one of them. Too often does even the Competition feature films that were shown even at other festivals before. Berlin was always different from Cannes in Venice in hat it emphasized contemporary issues, has been a political festival, a place for regions often forgotten by others (Eastern Europe!) and given room to independent cinema. The latter is in doubt: Coming straight after Sundance, the Berlinale threatens to become a festival that takes what’s been left. The eastern European element on the other side remains strong: it were those films that seemed to have most to say about the world we’re living in and to find the most interesting ways to say it. Which takes us to another difficult issue: the world’s foremost filmmakers do not com to Berlin anymore, the esthetically groundbreaking films are shown elsewhere. The Berlinale is at a point when it needs to question itself where it is heading. The regional focus on „forgotten“ places, the ambition to be relevant, contemporary, even political may be the way to go. What the festival needs, however, is a stronger focus. Filling up the Competition (the same goes for the Panorama section, by the way) with star vehicles will only speed the festivals decline. Why not miss out on the Hollywood A list for once if what is shown is at the forefront of todays film making.
So what were the themes, the main characteristics of this year’s edition? The relationship between film and reality was probably the most interesting topic, as exemplified by two very different films: The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling essay on humans killing humans, and Danis Tanovic’s Epizoda u zivotu beraca zeljeza, a re-enactment of a real story, played by the real people themselves. Filmmakers increasingly reflect their art’s ability to mirror, reflect on or comment reality and they wonder how film can do it in this digitalized world full of information overkill. The Act of Killing shows that there might be a dark side, too. Otherwise this was the festival of strong women: Paulina García’s Gloria in the eponymous Chilean entry (she won the Silver ear for her performance), Luminita Gheorghiu in the Golden Bear winner, Rayna Campbell as Layla Fourie, Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve, even the German Gold featured one in Nina Hoss. Women were the strong gender here, while men appeared mostly helpless, absent even. The strongest male performances in the Competition came from minors (Uroki Garmonii and Layla Fourie), non-actors (Nazif Mujic, playing himself, even won the Silver Bear for the best actor) and people long dead (River Phoenix in Dark Blood) And apart from that: The cigarette was the real star in many films this year, there never has been this much smoking and drinking. A sign of film’s non-conformism?
At the end of the day, this was not a strong Berlinale in which many statements on today’s world, particularly in the Panorama and Forum sections seemed rather helpless, as it filmmakers struggle with ways to reflect on the world, on life, on human behavior. This is a struggle that needs to continue. That it is worth it was shown by many films at this year’s Berlinale which tell stories that need to be told – political, universal, individual, human stories. There is no doubt the Berlinale is at a crossroads, is beginning to lose focus. Let us hope it will find it again in 2014. Which leaves only one thing to be done: the last reviews – all award winners! See you in 2014.
Winner of the Panorama Audience Award: The Broken Circle Breakdown (Panorama / Belgium / Director: Felix van Groeningen)
„You cannot share grief“, says actor Johan Heldenbergh, from whose play of the same name The Broken Circle Breakdown was adapted.It may be this sentence that sums up this deeply touching film that cuts as deep as it gets as it explores movingly what makes up survive as humans – and what breaks us. It tells the story of Elise and Didier: their meeting, their falling in love, birth, growth, illness and death of her daughter, the ensuing breakdown – of their relationship, their lives. Director Felix van Groeningen moves back and forth in time, through flashbacks and flash forwards. Love and happiness and grief and loss have their own time in which all belongs together. And so fascinating correspondences ensue, but also sharp contrasts, jumping from one time level to another. Love and hate, happiness and grief stand next to each other, flow into one another, are sometimes hard to tell apart. There is always a moment in which the viewer needs to adjust, to find out when and where it is, which leads to an unsettling of certainties, to an understanding of similarities and relations where one wouldn’t expect them. But there is another element that keeps everything related: music. When they meet, Didier plays and sings in a bluegrass band and soon Elise will join him as a singer. This mixture of the celebratory and the sad, life-affirmation and sense of loss provides a magnificent backdrop as well as mirror to the story, which van Groeningen and his actors tell in a very gentle, loving, often humorous but almost honest way, so honest that it can become hard to bear.The child’s death, the inability to grieve together: rarely have these been shown in such a direct, immediate, intimate, non-judgmental way. Van Groeningen creates wonderfully suggestive images that are always realistic as well, he focuses on faces, on movements, on moods, in the subtle light and color choreography as in the way the camera moves or remains still. In this way the film develops a rhythm that corresponds with the one of the music, the rhythm of life which is not linear as is the film’s time, where the past and the present are one, especially near the end, when Elise cannot find her way back into te present. There is a haunting scene in which Elise and Didier sing Townes van Zandt’s „If I Needed Yo“: „If I needed you, / Would you come to me? Would you come to me / And ease my pain?“ Didier keeps looking at her, he stretches out his hand towards her, but she looks ahead. Tears come, but she cannot take his hand. The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of the most honest and at the same time deeply moving films about love and grief and life in a very long time.
Winner of the dialogue en perspective Award: Zwei Mütter (Perspective German Cinema / Germany / Director: Anne Zohra Berrached)
Isa and Katja are a lesbian couple who want to have a child. They call sperm banks, are refused, finally find a doctor, it doesn’t work, then they go and do it themselves, audition potential donors, find one, and ultimately succeed. Anne Zohra Berrached’s film follow their journey, in quiet, laconical images that slowly begin to develop a pull on the viewer, suck them into atmosphere that borders on the claustrophobic, as the long process full of failures takes its toll. While Isa begins to become obsessed with getting pregnant, Katja grows distant. Berrached captures this suggestively and very subtly: it is in the faces that close increasingly and assume very different expressions from the initial unison, in the looks that start avoiding the other, The gestures that shut the individuals off from each other. The camera creates distance, too, often there is one face in close-up, while the other is blurry in the distance. Conversations become shorter, moments of loneliness and silence more frequent. Through all of this, direction and photography remain matter-of-fact-like, yet there is a clear downward pull that moves, touches, shocks at times. What starts out as a warm picture of two people in love, gets visibly and noticeably colder, the film creates a chill the audience can clearly feel. The ending is abrupt, open yet decisive, chilling. Zwei Mütter tells the story of an alienation that has many sources: society’s double standards, an environment in which no-one cares – we see no family, no friends, just the people they need for business, so to speak – but also two people with different perspectives on life who have forgotten to communicate. The rest, as it says in Hamlet, is silence. And a deafening silence it sure is.
Special mention, dialogue en perspective Award: Chiralia (Perspective German Cinema / Germany / Director: Santiago Gil)
A boy and his father go swimming in a lake. The boy dives and disappears from side. This sets off a movements which goes from one character to another until it comes full circle, in a fascinating, suggestive, poetic, puzzling way. Santiago Gil’s short works with many long unedited shots that hand the story over from one character to the next but often wanders off going on circles into the surrounding landscape before returning to its human objects. The film has a slow but compelling rhythm, as it goes from one glimpse of outwardly intact human surfaces that however, seem to be hiding something underneath, just as the smoothness of the lake does. Gil offers no explanations and perhaps his film needs to be read like a poem whose truth might not be accessed fully rationally. A quite fascinating and in its best moment mesmerizing film.