Berlinale 2015: Day 2

By Sascha Krieger

Queen of the Desert (Competition / United States / Director: Werner Herzog)

No doubt, Werner Herzog has an eye for the picturesque: A caravan in a desert sandstorm, steam rising from a lake in a wintery English country estate, a brightly burning lamp framed by two glowing faces. Queen of the Desert is full of such image: elegant, warmly lit, polished, perfectly composed, immaculate. And lifeless. The film’s beauty is that of postcards, glamour magazine photographs, cheaper by the dozen paperback romances. The story told is that of Gertrude Bell, an English traveler exploring the Arab desert and its inhabitants in the early 20th century who would go on to play a political role in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Herzog turns her tale into an embarassingly sentimental story of a woman searching for love (a man’s, of course), spoken throughout in monotonous soft-voiced tone that drips from pretending to be meaningful, yet utters only the most worn out of clichés. Even the likes of Rosamunde Pilcher would hardly dare to write a love story so bland, so frightfully cheesy as this. Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Damien Lewis are among the considerable talent employed and wasted in scenes lay actors with no experience could perform. The embarassingly simplistic music (a bad turn of events is announced by a dark brooding piano in a minor key) is the least of this film’s problems which, at the end of the day, does not possess a single redeeming feature. That Werner Herzog wrote and directed it is the most puzzling thing about it.

Queen of the Desert (© 2013 QOTD Film Investment Ltd. All Rights Reserved)

Queen of the Desert (© 2013 QOTD Film Investment Ltd. All Rights Reserved)

Taxi (Competition / Iran / Director: Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi is an international renowned film maker who won three major awards at A festivals (a Golden Lion in Venice and two Silver Bears in Berlin). In his native Iran, most of his films have been banned and since 2010, he is no longer allowed to work. Taxi is his third film since the ban. The premise is simple: Panahi rides around the city of Tehran as a taxi driver, picking up passengers and talking to them, all filmed through a camera on the dashboard and, later, through his niece’s pocket camera. There is a series of chance meetings, conversations, little and not so little drama that reveal a second layer of reality beneath a surface that, apart from the ever-present headscarves doesn’t look that different from ours. Underneath lies a highly restrictive society that executes people for robbery and wants film makers to show reality by distorting it. A society in which a film maker must resort to such means and where the product of this endeavour is a criminal act. Taxi is funny, poignantly melodramatic, matter-of-factly realistic, documentary all rolled into one. And just as the more complex Pardé is a philosophical essay on life, Taxi is a more journalistic essay on normally in totalitarianism and on the various levels of reality that film can, should and sometimes is forced to depict. Untimately, as were This is not a film and PardéTaxi is both a reflection and a demonstration of film making right down to its wonderfully ironic ending.

45 Years (Competition / United Kingdom / Director: Andrew Haigh)

Geoff and Kate are days away from their 45th wedding anniversary when the past enters their present in the shape of Geoff’s former love whose body has been discovered over 50 years after falling to her death in the Swiss Alps. Slowly, Geoff begins to bury himself in an inner tangle of memory, regret, longing and guilt while Kate starts to question certainties and wonder how much of what she held as undoubtedly true really was. Quietly they’re beginning to slip away from each other, first Geoff, then Kate. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play a couple that can say so much with a frozen smile, a questioning look, a distorted feature, a tightening around the shoulder, a hardly perceptible turning away. Director Andrew Haigh does little more than build calm steady frames around them, occasionally shining a subtle spotlight, but mostly he observes. It is a story largely being told between the lines, in what cannot be explained, the irrational realm of emotion. At times, Haigh reaches for the obvious, even symbolic, mirrors the other’s actions. It doesn’t need any of this because here are two faces and two bodies that say everything.

Al-Hob wa Al-Sariqa wa Mashakel Ukhra (Panorama / Palestinian Territories / Director: Muayad Alayan)

The small-time crook who gets involved in something way too big for him and is suddenly besieged by powerful forces on all sides is a well-known and often tried film subject. When director Muayad Alayan transports it into the Palestinian Territories, the stakes become even higher. Mousa is a car thief who loves money and hats work who one day steals the wrong car from the wrong people with the wrong cargo. Add a love triangle and you get a deadly mix in which Mousa is threatened by Israeli police and Palestinian terrorists alike, forced to make tough choices which in turn carry consequences. Al-Hob wa Al-Sariqa wa Mashakel Ukhra places a film noir plot in a highly volatile situation, merging genre film and political issues in a highly original way that infuses plenty of humor and choses a narration that is somewhere between Nouvelle Vague (the jazz-laced soundtrack as well as some editing techniques at the beginning of the film are obvious quotes) and Novorealismo, choosing both movement’s preferred black and white imagery. The film uses film history as a backdrop to tell its very serious story in an unhindered and fresh way, not carrying any weight of melodrama or social drama. The genre elements free the film, allow it to breathe and flow, to entertain and move. A rare gem.

Beira-Mar (Forum / Brazil / Directors: Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon)

Martin and Tomaz are best friends. When Martin is sent by his father on some undisclosed errand to the house of his late grandfather, Tomaz travels with him. Alone in a house by the seashore, the two engage in various rituals ranging from pre-adolescent playfulness to the excesses of alcohol and sex often associated with puberty. In the end, both discover hidden feelings and unexpected strengths. Beira-Mar takes its time to tell the story, to introduce the characters piece by piece without ever revealing everything. The camera gets extremely close or recedes and slides out of focus, as we zoom in on the characters but remain at a distance. The film is not free of clichés, from the usual wild party with new acquaintances to sexual explorations between the friends and of course, family problems intrude as well. Beira-Mar quite effectively mixes long, observant scenes with short sketches, not explaining much what goes on in-between or what happened before. Where the cinematography and the young men’s fresh faces tell a story that leaves much unsaid and unknown, even to themselves, the dialogue tries to spell too much out, the plot aims for the obvious. So the film goes in and out of focus, holding the viewer’s interest at times while losing it at others. And there have been stronger endings.

Histoire de Judas (Forum / France / Director: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)

French director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche tells, no, re-invents the story of Judas Ischariot, Jesus‘ disciple who betrayed him leading to Christ’s crucifixion. Or did he? Histoire de Judas suggests an alternative version in which Judas is just another victim. In long, calm sequences and warm, yellowish colors Ameur-Zaïmeche unfolds a story that, even when it is about life and death, lacks any dramatic gesture, an everyday tragedy that could happen every day. It even features a second possible Messiah, a caricaturesque version or the „real“ one. Histoire de Judas tells about loyalty and betrayal, about the human soul looking for ground that can hold its anchor. Again, the calm cinematography, the full-bodied colors, the calm pace of the film develop a certain magic that the dialogue and narration often pull down into the clichéd. Where the film succeeds, however, is in its unpretentious demonstration how easily truth can be not only distorted but fully replaced by fiction which in turn becomes the truth, as the original one is forgotten. Who can tell which of the truths is legitimate?

Flotel Europa (Forum / Denmark, Serbia / Director: Vladimir Tomic)

In 1992, the war in the former Yougoslavia was at its first peak, a boy named Vladimir arrived with his mother and brother in Copenhagen, applying for asylum and living in the Flotel Europa, a giant swimming refugee home operated by the danish Red Cross. Now, more then 20 years later, Vladimir Tomic tells his story and that of his temporary home in an ingenious way: he combines old, often worse for wear video footage shot by himself and others on and around the Flotel with a narrative that tells of a young boy’s first steps into an adulthood still far away. What strikes the viewer most about the film is how little it conforms to the clichés: Vladimir’s growing up is comparable to any other pubescent boy’s, except that it is not. The tension between the everyday coming of age and the exceptional circumstances occasionally clash, but most of the time they entangle is confusing, surprising, even funny ways. Expectations are never met as Flotel Europa tells of people living full and somewhat happy lives that never deny the sometimes paralyzing sadness that cannot be kept outside. Flotel Europa is a touching and entertaining portrait of very ordinary lives which are not allowed to be quite that ordinary – and about the stubbornness of human nature.

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Ein Gedanke zu „Berlinale 2015: Day 2

  1. […] The car is a protective place as it is in another Iranian film at this year’s Berlinale, Taxi. In Iran’s repressive regime, it is the only place in which one can be in public, as it were, […]

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