Berlinale 2015: Day 3

By Sascha Krieger

Victoria (Competition / Germany / Director: Sebastian Schipper)

A throbbing techno heath, pulsating blurred silhouettes in an equally rhythmically changing blue light. Slowly, the camera moves into focus, finding its object in the face of a young, happily dancing girl. It will end over two hours later with the comers slowly losing her. In between, well there’s little less than the whole of life and death in a nutshell. Victoria is an exceptional film: shot in real-time and in a single day (total filming took three days with the entire film being shot three separate times), it depicts the chance meeting of a young Spanish woman with a young Berlin men and his group of friends and their subsequent journey through the Berlin night. Its first half is a stunning impressionistic look at a city that never sleeps, young people on a hectic quest for life before its too late. The camera moves nervously through the city, taking in and beating in its pulse. Later, suddenly, the stakes change and Victoria turns into a full-blown thriller that leaves out little. This, too, is the Berlin light, is the dark side of this life-seeking, breathless, intoxicated tumble, that even leaves room for a moment of love, playful, fresh and raw.  This, too, is true for Victoria, a breathless, panicky, crazy tour de force which might be a little too long, take a turn too many but none of this really matters. Victoria is the pure force of life brought to the screen. And this sure is quite a lot.

Love & Mercy (© Francois Duhamel)

Love & Mercy (© Francois Duhamel)

Ixcanul (Competition / Guatemala, France / Director: Jayro Bustamante)

A girl’s face in close-up. A beautiful headdress as fitted on her, valuable earrings. Dead beauty. The face is expressionless, resigned, drained of life. This is how the Guatemaltecan film Ixcanul begins and how it will end, having come full circle. Maria is a young Mayan girl living under the shadow of an active volcano. Torn between ancient traditions and a modernity not quite having arrived but its present being felt, she is trying to escape an arranged marriage and ending up in a quagmire of tradition, modernity, ancient rites and new ones. There are many close-ups, calm, immobile frames as director Jayro Bustamante unfolds a world much different from ours but by no means more pure. Or less for that matter. An ancient, often told tale of a young woman trying to carve out a life of her own and failing. Stubbornness and resignation are never far away, love, of which there is plenty can be as much of an enemy as moral superiority, an inability – and unwillingness – to understand one another, Western arrogance. When the film briefly moves into the city, the camera becomes unstable, certainties disappear. But the calmness cannot guarantee life either. Far from it, In the end, all that might be left, ist resignation. Ixcanul is an unpretentious, precisely observed and atmospherically strong film embedded in a landscape both nourishing and hostile, a beautiful and dark universe full of ancient love and threat. And new ones in abundance.

Love & Mercy (Berlinale Special / United States / Director: Bill Pohlad)

No, this is not what they call a biopic, at least not in the usual sense. Yes, it tells the story of Brian Wilson, one of pop music’s most influential song writers and the brain and soul of one of the greatest bands ever, the Beach Boys. It isn’t a story easily told in a linear way and director Bill Pohlad doesn’t even try. Instead, Love & Mercy focuses on zwo key periods in Wilson’s life: the mid-sixties when he created the Beach Boys’ seminal „Pet Sounds“ album and began sliding into his soul’s darkness and sccumbing to his demons, a journey he would only begin to slowly come back from in the late 1980s, the second period of focus in the film. The film changes back and forth between the somewhat grainy, yellow-tinged images of the earlier, the cool crisp photography of the later time. Paul Dano plays the younger Wilson as a child-like dreamer, a scarred enthusiast traumatized by his overbearing father and the demands of success. John Cusack is the older one, a diminished, frightened, yet stubbornly life-seeking man under the control of the manipulative therapist Eugene Landy (a slightly too simple though impressive villain: Paul Giamatti). Pohlad creates a mesmerizing associative flow of images, sketched scenes, vignette-like glimpses that move along with the rhythm of a pop song but have the underlying depth, complexity of darkness of Wilson’s best work, most notably that on „Pet Sounds“. It does not simply narrate the tale of a troubled soul, it shows it at work. The result is poetic, often funny and always moving.

Der Bunker (Perspective German Cinema / Germany / Director: Nikias Chryssos)

A closely knit family unit with no perceptible contact to the outside world, high-flying ambitions for the only child, an outsider shaking up the critical equilibrium. Not an entirely new subject for the film, yet director Nikias Chryssos attempts to tell it in a highly original way: in Der Bunker explicitly trashy B movie meets horror film meets farcical comedy. If Chryssos‘ intention was – as he writes in the film’s media guide – to explore the abysses hidden in the family unit, the effect of high-flying ambitions on the child, the selfishness of those ambitions, Der Bunker  fails. Its absurdity is quite radical, its humor over the top, its claustrophobic set complete with a sophisticated color scheme too symbolic, its characters too prototypical (depute the 8-year-old being played by a 30-year-old actor). Any higher or deeper meaning gets lost in the wild play with genres and stereotypes. A more modest goal, however, is being achieved: Der Bunker  is a carefully constructed, detail-rich genre parody which works exactly because it, at the same time, takes the conventions it quotes seriously as well as ridiculing them at the same time. Chryssos has obvious problems finding an appropriate ending but overall, Der Bunker is, in its quirky weirdness und unashamed absurdity, quite a pleasant departure from the fare usually served at this festival.

Bizarre (Panorama / France, United States / Director: Étienne Faure)

„I don’t really exist“, a hesitant and somewhat defiant voice that only speaks and speaks in English because the director told him to, says at the films beginning and will again at its very end. It belongs to Maurice, a beautiful, tight-lipped, enigmatic young Frenchman who after living on the streets of Brooklyn is taken in by a female couple running an underground burlesque club called „Bizarre“. The film bdepicts several budding and unstable relationships between friendship and love and something in between that Maurice has – with a gay colleague, a swaggering bisexual boxing buddy, his often at odds bosses. Where some sort of realism reigns in these scenes, fairly stable and occasionally longer shots, the interlacing snapshots of the club’s strange and limitless performances, an underground art scenes that never shuns the obscene or vulgar, are presented in an expressionistic mode that, as the film advances, begins to infect even the other scenes before it gets all entangled. For mist of it, Bizarre is an atmospherically dense portrayal of the ephemeral nature of human relationships, the basic distrust most of us harbor, the inability to lower our defenses and therefore the barriers we put up that prevent people from loving. Emotion is never reciprocal and hardly lasting here, though a desire for closeness is. Unfortunately director Étienne Faure decides to bring in some ghosts of the pasts and a decidedly „artsy“ murder scene that shake the balance if a film that could have been even stronger than it ends up being.

K (Forum / China, United Kingdom / Directors: Emyr ap Richard, Darhad Erdenibulag)

K is a land surveyor summoned by a mysterious government organisation called the Castle. Sound familiar? K is, indeed, based on Franz Kafka’s novel Das Schloss – with a twist: the story has been moved to a village in the Mongolian desert. Other then that, the elements are all there: the strong-willed K failing in his pursuit to deal with unknown rules, inscrutable power structures and a logic solely determined by those who can. K tells the story in a largely straightforward way, throws in some rather forced dream sequences, adds a few obscenities and puts all of this into shabby interiors. K doesn’t add anything to Kafka’s story, is somewhat clumsily constructed and lacks any sense of unsettling uncertainty, the threatening mystery of power. The film doesn’t emanate any sense of existential fear, just a slight bewilderment at what is going on. K looks and feels like a copy of a copy of a copy which slightly resembles the original but has carried over none of its meaning.


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