Berlinale 2014: Day 3

By Sascha Krieger

The Monuments Men (Out of Competition / United States, UK, Germany / Director: George Clooney)

George Clooney’s  latest film tells a long-forgotten story: In the last phase 0of World War II, a group of art experts set up by the U.S. Army went on search for stolen and hidden art in order to rescue them from destruction or being transported to the Soviet Union. Clooney himself plays Frank Stokes, leader of these „Monuments Men“, the cast includes the likes of Matt Damon, Caste Blanchett as well as, for the comic relief, Bill Murray and John Goodman. The film is strong when it comes to capturing the look of the times, whether it be occupied Paris or the battle fields of France, Belgium and Germany. This is where its strengths end. Driven by an unbearably obtrusive score, The Monuments Men is pure Hollywood at its very worst. The dialogue is bland and clichéd, the screenplay as if from a construction kit with all the dramatic turns, humorous interludes and romantic anecdotes a blockbuster needs, the photography completely unimaginative, the acting reduced to the purely routine. While the story is one that needs to be told, Clooney chooses the most unsatisfying way of telling it that could be imagined, making the film so slick and uninteresting it should not even do well at the box office. After all the excitement about having Clooney in Berlin, this is an incredible letdown.

The Monuments Men (© 2013 Twentieth Century Fox)

The Monuments Men (© 2013 Twentieth Century Fox)

Die geliebten Schwestern (Competition / Germany, Austria / Director: Dominik Graf)

Germany’s second competition entry tells the story of the intimate and tumultuous relationship between legendary poet Friedrich Schiller, his wife to be and her sister, a triangle built on love, mutual dependency and the desire for a better, more meaningful life. Dominik Graf is known primarily as a thriller expert and his sense of the dramatic can be felt throughout the film as does his skillfulness in the craftsmanship aspect of film making. The plot is told in a highly skilled way, Graf’s story-telling always on display. Carefully sculpted is the play of light and shadow and  color, delicate the use of music, impressive the multitude if narrative techniques displayed. The mixture of melodrama, chamber piece, straightforward realism, an objective, even at times ironic, voice-over, hints at the letter novel and occasional frozen portraits are all aimed at developing a poetical feel that, however, the film never achieves. The highly polished surface remains largely empty, the inner dramas of love and pain are pure facade, the portrait of an era nothing but craftsmanship. Die geliebten Schwestern is a well-made exercise in the mechanics of story-telling but little more.

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (Panorama / France / Director: Michel Gondry)

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a documentary but a rather unusual one. Based on conversations innovative filmmaker Michel Gondry had with revolutionary linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, Gondry has created an animated film with a drawing-based look we have seen in previous films that are set on top of the recordings of the interviews. This, as he explains in the opening, highlights the fictional character even of documentary film the meaning of which is always controlled by the filmmaker. In their talks, they cover a wide range of topics: the history of science, Chomsky‘ theories on innate principles, genetically influencing many parts of human behavior, particularly language acquisition and the stricture of languages, personal topics, a little bit of politics. The meandering, drifting conversational style fits well with the associative illustrations which, however, remain just that: illustrations. Often quite inventive, sometimes funny, increasingly repetitive, they add nothing to the conversations, occasionally diverting the viewer’s attention which contributes to the difficulty of paying attention to the fast moving sketches of thought. Little remains of Chomsky’s fascinating universe of thinking, too sketchy are the discussions, too gripping the skillful animations. In the end, the viewer is left more with an impression if Gondry’s playful creativity than with more than a glimpse of Chomsky’s thinking. Which is quite a pity.

Viharsarok (Panorama / Hungary, Germany / Director: Ádám Császi)

A symphony of male bodies. On the football pitch, in the shower, swimming, clenched in the act of love. Bodies, sweating, fighting, loving. They cling to each other in hate and love, revulsion and desire, the difference between the two becoming harder and harder to tell. Viharsarok tells the story of Szabi, a promising Hungarian football player playing in Germany who flees his predetermined career to live in the Hungarian countryside where he starts an uneasy relationship with a young man from the village before the two are joined by Szabi’s former German team mate. There are two major strands in this film: one is the awakening of one, actually two men’s sexuality, the struggle with who they’re beginning to understand they are, a struggle they respond to very differently. The other is the rural society and their reaction to Szabi and Aron’s relationship: an aggressively homophobic and deeply reactionary world ruled by Catholicism and a violent fear of anything different. Director Ádám Császi chooses a calm, undramatic pace, unfolds the story in quiet images changing between close-ups and long shots, creating a growing tension of calmness and foreboding. There is a subtle threat in the air which contrasts with the rather matter-of-fact violence that cannot mitigate the sense of dread which explodes in a shocking finale that picks up on all the religious symbolism in a violent implosion. A dense, compelling and haunting film.

Seolguk-yeolcha (Forum / Korea / Director: Bong Joon-ho)

After an attempt to stop global warming has created a new ice age, the only survivors live on a train that travels around the entire world. The train’s population is divided into rulers and ruled, a cruel class system against which rebellion is brewing. Based on the French graphic novel TransperceneigeSnowpiercer (the film’s English title) is a dark and compelling dystopian tale about humanity’s ability to devour itself, mixing a chilling vision of a future caused by man’s destruction of their own planet with a parable about how society functions and discourses about overpopulation and sustainability. For the clear black and white division between good and evil the film presents in bright comic book style characterizations implodes as the film continues. The lines blur and some of the train leader’s arguments make a good amount of sense while humanity’s self-destruction is repeated as if under a magnifying glass in what starts out as a rebellion. Seolguk-yeolcha is a dark poem, a nightmarish vision with a unique rhythm, distinctive dark imager and a distinctive imagery composed of darkness and brightness, stark black and piercing white, a world of death. The film is action-packed and beautifully choreographed; the various parts of the train represent different social strata and the gulf that lies between them, the story the ever turning cycle of violence and power in a nutshel – the train is an entire world en miniature. The sets are astonishing, the film’s look unforgettable and haunting, the plot complex and full of food for thought. Snowpiervcer poses questions about how we want to live and can survive. It offers no answers, just a glimmer of hope that one day the ice might melt.

Los Ángeles (Forum / Mexico, Germany / Director: Ádám Császi)

At the beginning, while the opening credits roll, there are only noises: feet running, punches, a rough male voice counting, another one groaning. The first thing we see is a teenage boy’s face, on the ground, beaten up, bleeding. Mateo has just been initiated into the local gang, a preparatory move for emigrating to the United States. In Mateo’s Mexican village, every family has someone in the States, wiring money to keep those at home alive. A ghost village, only existing to be escaped. Marcos, a middle-aged man, has returned and now his family regard him as useless. Lino is in jail there, his mother trying to rescue her family’s sole source of income. Los Ángeles interweaves these strands into a tale of a lost place which can only be escaped into a world of violence, there or some other place. The hand-held camera remains close, but to the viewer, those it shows often remain in the distance. Not much is happening – not in the way of the story, not in those stony faces. There are moments of density, long looks in which something is brewing inside, some anger or inside, the opening, Marcos‘ desperate attempts at keeping some sort of civility. For too much of the film, however, the intensity drops, the story won’t connect and just flows on largely unnoticed. The film does, however, end on a strong note, as Mateo and Lino’s mother sit side by side on the bus north, acknowledging each other and the uncertain future they’re heading into. Everything is open and doomed and hopeful. All at once.

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