By Sascha Krieger
Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Competition / Netherlands, Mexico, Finland, Belgium / Director: Peter Greenaway)
In 1931, the famed Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein arrived in Mexico to make a film that never saw the light of day. Peter Greenaway has taken Eisenstein’s adventure as the foundation for a visually stunning reflection of art, death, sex and life, a cinematographic whirlwind with a lost and troubled soul beset from all sides at its centre. Greenaway opens in black and white, has it battle with lush and bright colors which eventually win the day. He uses split screens, distorted imagery, surreal visuals, montages of various kinds, long often circular tracking shots in a river of endless creativity that never escapes fear. His Eisenstein (brilliantly played by Elmer Bäck) is chased by his own fears and insecurities as well as by the expectations of the world and a repressive system. In the midst pof all of this, outrageousness is his only weapon. We never see him at work but don’t have to: all his life is art, an outlet for things he – Jew, homosexual, communist – isn’t allowed to say or do, a form, perhaps the most effective form of protest. But even Eisenstein cannot escape the fearful pull of reality: his most life-changing event in the film is therefore depicted in strong, almost vulgar realism. Peter Greenaway celebrates this artist of life by quoting him extensively, elevating his subject to painting and humbling it to caricature. Eisenstein in Guajanuato is an astonishing visual poem with sharp humor, playful creativity and imagination and more warmth than one could ever expect from a director who so often takes delight in making opaque, hardly accessible films. This one is accessible on so many levels without sacrificing complexity and a filmic language far above words. Maybe, in this no-biopic (one of several at this year’s Berlinale) of a familiar soul, Peter Greenaway has finally found his subject and a fitting complement to his conjuror-artist Prospero. We might be seeing his opus magnum here.
Aferim! (Competition / Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic / Director: Radu Jude)
An old constable and his son are riding through Romani in the 1850s, hunting down a runaway gipsy slave and bringing him back to the rich Boyar who calls himself his master. Along the way they encounter hatefully ranting priests (a meeting that accounts for the film’s funniest scene, although it is a bitter laugh it produces), poor and downtrodden peasant and even more miserable slaves, traveling Turks, rival „law keepers“. Radu Jude who impressed Berlinale audiences in 2012 with his very contemporary domestic drama Toata lumea din familia noastra, now goes back far into his country’s history, a chaotic and lawless time when the what is now Romania was besieged by Russians and Turks and had to find its identity of kicking those even weaker. Aferim! is a road movie that feels strangely staid. This is due mainly to the stationary, gently moving camera creating long shots which figures moving in, out or through. The wide landscape, captured in bright black and white remains immobile as the status quo remains the same, the strong prevail, the weaker must serve. Whether you’re Turk, Romanian or Russian only matters in so far as the constantly reproduced hatred helps to preserve the existing order. In this, the film points well ahead, showing how the ghosts are created that haunt the region to this very day and where the current ostracism of the gypsy population in Romania and elsewhere has its roots. Radu Jude’s film is not didactic but highly observant, very talkative though words lead nowhere. The picturesque barely conceals a coldness that, in order to survive, one must deny. So Costandin and Ionita will move on repeating the cycle, going back on a road that always returns to its start. A fascinating, understated and highly addictive film.
Yi bu zhi yao (Competition / China, Hong Kong / Director: Jiang Wen)
A con man, a dead pageant winner, the anarchy of 1920s China and the history of film: these are the ingredients of Jian Wen’s Yi bu zhi yao (Gone with the bullets), a film loosely based on the case that served as the subject for China’s first ever feature film, a violently overwrought version of which is re-enacted as a film in the film here. Ostensibly, the film is about what happens when all values become worthless, when a society is born from chaos. It’s a time for make-belief, in which lies have power though for those who end up paying the price it’s quite high. A fine example is the glamorous over the top and, of course, manipulated, beauty pageant near the beginning which isn’t too different from the modern drug we call „Reality TV“. From here it isn’t too far to the home of make-belief, where it is found in all its glory and purity: film. So Jiang Wen embarks on an outrageously colorful journey through film history, from Trip to the Moon to The Godfather, getting more and more absurd in the process. It ends in one of the craziest showdown in film history, complete with fantasy uniforms, brides on horseback and a bright red windmill. Whatever its deeper meaning might intended to be – if indeed it is supposed to have one – is quickly buried in what is essentially a child’s dream – a child’s that happens to be a director. Absurd fun knows no limit in this big bright playground which if one is in the right, meaning a willingly infantile state of mind can be a totally enjoyable trip. It’s like a child overdosing on sweets – you might feel sick afterwards but while it lasts, it’s heaven.
Ned Rifle (Panorama / United States / Director: Hal Hartley)
Ned Rifle is the final instalment of what turned out to be a trilogy of films by American director Hal Hartley about a rather dysfunctional family whose earlier heroes are now either on the run (father) or serving a life sentence for terrorism (mother). We meet Ned, the son, on his 18th birthday after which he sets out to find his father whom he blames for his mother’s fate, intending to kill him. Ned, who has turned religious, meets his poet turned comedian uncle and is followed by a woman who has her own, initially unrevealed reasons to find the father. A chase begins in which the roles of chasers and chased vary leading to several choices the young protagonist, played with vulnerable understatement by Liam Aiken has to make right through the end. Hartley’s business isn’t plain realism, his script defined by slight overstated characterization and dialogue that often veers off into the philosophical. The screw of believability is always turned just a tiny little bit further, with character development, cinematography and dialogue having the formulaic feel of a TV show mixed with thriller set pieces. The images speak realism, the characters and dialogue don’t. However, it is exactly this ironic distancing, the sometimes even satirical tone, the extreme circumstance and characters that achieve a precise analysis of the complexity and dynamics of family life as well as demonstrating how our lives are the results mainly of our own decisions. While the film could be a little less harmless at times, this clever exemplary approach so typical of Hartley works as well as ever in what is a surprisingly funny as well as touching film that provides a rather original twist to the well-worn genre of the coming of age film.
Onthakan (Panorama / Thailand / Director: Anucha Boonyawatana)
All is obviously not well: We meet Tam as he is lying on the ground, apparently just beaten up, the camera shooting from above. Tam is gay, bullied at school disapproved of and blamed for everything at home by father, brother and even his mother. When he meets Phum, his longing gets an outlet but the conflicts are not exactly eased. Desaturated colors, often vertical camera angles, extreme close-ups and coming of age and well as coming out film routines such as music-laced driving in the night, slow motion or underwater shots structure the film especially in its first half as Tam is supposedly struggling to assert who he is. However, it is a struggle we don’t see much of. There is the odd tear and an occasional quiet confrontation with the mother, but mostly there is little sign that this is a character in turmoil. That changes as the film, subtly first, then forcefully turns into a mystery thriller and horror film, complete with obnoxiously threatening sound, dark confined spaces and hard edits. The inner struggles that couldn’t show before, the demons Tam wasn’t able to face, are externalized. Or this might have been the intention. The result, however, is that the horror elements take over, the increasingly fragmented story-telling cannot connect to the identity drama the film set up, the complete change in tone and genre lacks any foundation. Onthakan (The Blue Hour) is little more than an interesting experiment that falls apart, remains at the surface and conveys nothing to the viewer.