Berlinale 2014: Day 4

By Sascha Krieger

Nymphomaniac Volume I (long version) (Out of Competition / Denmark, Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden / Director: Lars von Trier)

Lars von Trier’s domain is the extreme: of human existence, experience, desires. He goes where no other filmmaker dares to venture. In the process, he continuously reinvents film making, finding new visual expressions, narrative techniques, often laying bare what he’s doing, questioning the virtue of illusion. After encompassing all of human experience in Melancholia he now goes down into the dirt. Nymphomaniac which he had split into two parts, begins with a series of stark bare images: snow falling, water running down a brick wall, a woman lying on the ground. The silence us brutally interrupted by the heavy riffs of Rammstein. Thus begins the story the woman tells her „rescuer“, a story of limitless sex, compulsive, mechanical, all-devouring. Nymphomaniac asks what happens when someone denies all that we regard as human – emotion, love, relationships – and reduces her experience to the mechanical aspects of life, mainly sex in all its varieties. Von Trier moves between past and present, adds chapter headings, works with writing, split screens, black and white. The story splinters into episodes, fragments dealing with sexual awakening, perfectly organized schedules of sex encounters, the fear of love, death. There are secondary narrative levels: in one episode, the woman’s behavior is compared to fly-fishing, in another to polyphonic music. Von Trier throws pieces to the audience: some humor, plenty of pornography, even a little melodrama meets farce – courtesy of a brilliant performance by Uma Thurman, who plays an abandoned wife in the only scene with anything close to true emotional power. As so often, the meaning is hidden somewhere in the rhythm of images, words, sound (music plays a major part), in the breaks, the stops and starts, the narrative twists and turns, the meta levels. Much of Volume I is undoubtedly meant to shock: the real (?) sex, the genitals, the multitude of coital exercises. But there is also a strange rough poetry in this jumbled portrait of a lost and self-mutilated soul that behaves so hostile – towards her environment, herself, us. The fascinating pull Lars von Trier’s films so often create, however, is largely missing in what remains a disjointed series of fragments, a deliberate mess whose parts don’t fit and aren’t supposed to. Also, the narrative frame irritates with its conventional linearity. Perhaps it will all fall into place in Volume II. PS: at the photo call (he no longer attends press conferences), Lars von Trier sported a T-shirt bearing the Cannes palm leaf and the inscription „Persona Non Grata“. He is, after all, not a rule breaker but a rule denier.

Nymphomanic (© Christian Geisnæs)

Nymphomaniac Volume I (© Christian Geisnæs)

Kreuzweg (Competition / Germany, France / Director: Dietrich Brüggemann)

Maria is fourteen years old, just about to receive her Confirmation and trying to figure out how to live her life. Her family belongs to the ultra-reactionary Catholic brotherhood and between the soft-spoken but highly fanatical priest, her hard and unrelenting fundamentalist mother and then blossoming affection of her schoolmate Christian, Maria slowly but inescapably begins to lose the ground under her feet. As told by her priest, her life is a constant war but it is one she is losing. Dietrich Brüggemann tells her life in 14 scenes, modeled and named after the Stations of the Cross, each filmed in a single shot and mostly in fixed frames. Then relentless unwavering eye of the camera forces the viewer to look, to engage with this life that is crushed under all this pressure, much of it coming from within. The calm dryness of these pale, still images creates a stifling, suffocating atmosphere, a sense of a confined space that narrows and narrows until it swallows everything. Religious fundamentalism is depicting as all-devouring but there is no dramatic rise of fall, just a calm suffering and self-denial, such as that of Jesus. Kreuzweg goes deep, deeper than we want it to, a haunting, crushing, deeply shocking film that cuts to the core of what it means to live.

Historia del miedo (Competition / Argentina, Uruguay, Germany, France / Director: Benjamin Naishtat)

Fear is a powerful thing: it can control you, paralyze you, take over your life. Historia del Miedo (English: „History of Fear“) attempts to depict a society taken over by fear. In the beginning, a helicopter hovers over a neighborhood, announcing pending evictions over its loudspeaker, passing stretches of burning land. The well-to-do, living in gated communities, are trying to shut out those who are outside the gates, living in a different world. Those inside feel as if under constant siege, a feeling that culminates when, during a family dinner already taking place in a tense atmosphere, there is a power outage leaving everything in complete darkness. All facades collapse, primal fear sets in, hysteria is the last release. It is this sequence in which the film finally finds its own: dark unsteady images, flashing faces full of fear, sounds full of dread and foreboding. It is a short moment of intensity in a film that is constructed from often wordless fragments, sketches of situations or characters, would-be grotesque miniatures, unconnected, failing to come together, to create a rhythm, making a whole out of its parts. The film has the ambition of painting a tableau of a society gripped by fear but fails to do so – what is meant to be evocative is empty, what should open a room for association shuts out the audience entirely. An irritating film and not in a good way.

Calvary (Panorama / Ireland, United Kingdom / Director: John Michael McDonagh)

Calvary wastes no time: The opening scene shows the face of Brendan Gleeson in close-up. Playing a rural priest in the west of Ireland, Gleeson is in a confession box, hearing a male voice announcing that a week from now he will kill the priest- as punishment for his sexual abuse as a child by another priest, long dead now. A strong, compelling start after which a drama of guilt and repentance, fresh wounds and betrayal, personal and collective responsibility might have ensued. Instead, however, director John Michael McDonagh lets his protagonist wander through his village, from forgivable sin to forgivable sin, from one stereotypical character to another, unfolding a panorama of village life with all those – mostly – forgivable sins, one might expect from it. The drastic loss of reputation the Catholic Church has suffered from in Ireland in recent years is checked, such is the banking crisis, suicide is a topic, so is the deterioration of family life and so on. Quirky Irish comedy meets modern topic piece. In all this, the central issue, the national trauma of child abuse by the most trusted and powerful institution in the country – and beyond – is lost, and only returns for the showdown, now serving as little more than just a trigger for the final confrontation. McDonagh tells a conventional story in a conventional way, whenever things seem to be slowing down he resorts to a close-up of Gleeson’s face or a long shot of the landscape of county Sligo. Calvary starts as a heavy tale about the human struggle between guilt and innocence, responsibility and cowardice, before it turns into a feature-film length and irritatingly harmless soap opera. A truly wasted opportunity.

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Ein Gedanke zu „Berlinale 2014: Day 4

  1. […] an interval of reflection for the viewer: after the assault of any sort of sexual variations of Volume I, the audience can digest, try and make sense of it and approach Volume 2 with a different point […]

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