Berlinale 2014: Day 5

By Sascha Krieger

Kraftidioten (Competition / Norway, Sweden, Denmark / Director: Hans Petter Moland)

The world of the Norwegian competition entry Kraftidioten is a cold world: everlasting snow, cold bluish light, quiet, tough people with indiscernible faces. Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) has such face. A quiet, loving, lovable man who turns into a ruthless avenger when his son is murdered by a drug cartel. Suddenly the plough becomes a weapon and a harbinger of doom. Kraftidioten – fitting English title: In Order of Disappearance – narrated as a litany of deaths (which are announced in brief death notices) is a Western in white, a classic revenge tale told in clean, stark images, carefully narrated in a linear, inescapable way. At the same time, Kraftidioten is also a brilliantly told comedy driven by a very dark sense of humor which never distracts but even intensifies the atmosphere. For once in this competition, the music is actually supportive of a film that moves and makes laugh, that tells about pain and love with a surprising amount of subtlety. Skarsgård turns in a serious as well as ironical performance that carries the film as much as Hans Petter Moland’s straightforward direction. Kraftidioten is a powerful, entertaining and surprisingly warm-hearted film and a rare highlight of this year’s Berlinale with one of the greatest endings in recent film history.

Kraftidioten (© Berlinale)

Kraftidioten (© Berlinale)

Aimer, boire et chanter (Competition / France / Director: Alain Resnais)

In Aimer, boire et chanter 91-zear-old Alain Resnais has adapted (for the third time in his career) a play by British author Alan Ayckbourn. Set in an artificial theater-style set, a prime cast including Sabine Azéma, Sandrine Kiberlain and André Dussollier act out a modern comedy of errors, vanities and occasionally manners. Resnais accentuates the artificiality with paper backdrops, drawings announcing changes of scene and dramatic lighting, the actors do their best to do a good impression of boulevard-style overacting. The ridiculousness of the plot involving mass female craving for a dying and absent male object of desire is emphasized but the joke is on us, the viewer. This is way to over the top to be a comment on human vanity, too serious to be a theater satire, too simplistic to be anything at all than a charming experiment which loses any appeal after just a few minutes. After this it’s up to the cast but they’re only human, too.

Tui Na (Competition / China, France / Director: Lou Ye)

Of the themes of this year’s Berlinale competition seems to be obtrusive film music. In Tui Na (Blind Massage), director Lou Ye puts it on particularly heavily. Strings and piano drown the film in the obvious, accentuating every dramatic turn or emotional highlight. This user of music is quite typical for how the film is made: everything is overly abundant: sentimentality, visual sophistication and effects, dramatic outbursts, plot elements and topics. It sets out telling the story of Xiao Ma, a young man blinded in childhood and working at a blind massage salon, who is trying to find his way in the world. And love of course, as do the other workers at the salon. The film intricately interweaves the various strands and stories and characters and is rather strong on conveying an atmosphere of separation: these people are not like the others outside their little world and are constantly reminded of it. Tui Na works where it upholds their dignity in strong, sometimes very drastic pictures and screams out their right to be normal and lead ordinary lives. Unfortunately, most of it is too much soap opera of unreciprocated affection, complete with jealousy and prostitutes and crime. Thus, the opulence overwhelms, the glossiness irritates, the complex surface conceals little and shows too much. Somewhere in here is a haunting, compelling tale of human experience. It remains well hidden.

The Better Angels (Panorama / United States / Director: A. J Edwards)

The Better Angels depicts a little known chapter in the life of Abraham Lincoln: his childhood in the backwoods of Indiana. In flowing black and white images, director A. J Edwards – a former editor for Terrence Malick, a recognizable influence – attempts to create a poetic history of a man who became an icon, his early days, the people who shaped him, the land that gave birth to him. The Better Angels is an atmospherically dense film essay, telling the story of a gifted, sensitive child, challenged by a disciplinarian father and supported by his two mothers, through haunting imagery, music, sounds suggesting a rough, archaic, yet somewhat innocent world, almost a fairy-tale land open to be shaped into being. The subdued, monotonous speaking, the Malick-like poetical camera work, the contrast-rich black and white do give the film a somewhat forced feel at times, to clear is it what Edwards is trying to do but nevertheless, the visual poeticism often mesmerizes and creates a very unique atmosphere as if we’re looking at a strange world from a great distance, it’s like watching our ancestors play. This surface is at times fascinating to look at – it just doesn’t conceal anything underneath.

Kumun tadi (Forum / Turkey / Director: Melisa Önel)

The sea: tumultuous, violent, unforgiving, deadly. The Turkish film Kumun tadi opens and closes with sequences in which we see the sea at work in its relentless attack on the shore. Amongst all this a body. Death may be the central theme of the film. Death is all-pervasive: in the darkness the images are drenched in, the pale barren landscape, the ever pervasive fog – and first and foremost the characters who move like zombies through his wasteland. Particularly Hamit: whether he engages in his day job as a human trafficker getting refugees to Europe or his nightly encounters with a foreign biologist – meetings of two ghosts – Hamit’s face is a dead one. In this world of despair, there is no hope and he – dealing in despair – knows this best of all. Kumun tadi depicts a world in which humaneness has disappeared long ago, in which being human is a handicap and a distraction. Hamit and his young partner have died inside, they had to in order to go on doing what they do, survive, as it were. In the end, Hamit makes a desperate attempt at breaking out, knowing full well that there is only one exit. Kumun tadi is a dense, subtly narrated and very dark film that will haunt the viewer for quite a while.

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