Berlinale 2015: Day 10

By Sascha Krieger

Pod electricheskimi oblakami (Competition / Russia, Ukraine, Poland / Director: Alexey German Jr.)

A frozen world. Wind sweeps across a stagnant ices cape. Statues seem to grow from the dead ground, Lenin pointing at nothing. The blurred skeleton of a high-rise in the distance. The Russia of Pod electricheskimi oblakami, set only two years from now, is a dystopian wilderness, populated by lonely characters who occasionally say things to each other, usually something ultimate, philosophical, principled, but have stopped talking a long time ago, condemned to wander the world, as slowly as the stoic camera is following them. There is no aim, nothing to be done in a world that alternates between grayish dirty white (day) and cold desaturated blue (night). Everything is ruined and decaying, outsider an inside. In its strongest moments this episodic film revolving around, among others, an oligarch’s heiress, a disillusioned architect, a former fighter against the 1991 coup stuck in a superfluous life, a Kyrgyz immigrant, develops an elegiac rhythm, a melancholic poetry that provides a fitting metaphor for a country that has lost – or never found – its meaning, a common vision, values. Although state-financed, Pod electricheskimi oblakami can – and probably must – be read as a parable on today’s Russia, a country without a foundation, lacking any social coherence. However, those moments alternate with too much repetition, the same images and dialogue fragments, the same statements, the same message over and over again. For too long, the film lacks structure, does not flow but stagnate, still-born poetry. It is mainly its beginning and ending – with few in-between – that suggest the power Pod electricheskimi oblakami could have developed.

Härte (© Berlinale))

Härte (© Berlinale))

Härte (Panorama / Germany / Director: Rosa von Praunheim)

Andreas Marquardt isn’t a man you’d like to meet at night. At least, he wasn’t. A brutal pimp, a hardened criminal, a violent misogynist. He has, so he says, left that life behind, runs several gyms and teaches karate – he once was a world champion in the sport – to children. Rosa von Praunheim tells his story in an intriguing mix of documentary passages and enacted sequences. The documentary provides the narrative framework, the feature film scenes illustrate them. For them, von Praunheim has chosen a unique look: a highly theatrical setting – real furniture mixed with painted interior in an enclosed studio space, highly polished black and white that heightens the artificial aesthetic of the scenes filmed by an unmoving camera that contrast strongly with the plain colored documentary footage shot mostly with hand-held camera. The distance could not be greater between the now and then that is enriched, not always to the film’s advantage, with clichéd musical score and occasional intentional overacting. The past is not intended to look real but von Praunheim goes over the top every now and then. However, it is especially, those chamber piece depictions of abuse and violence along with the scenes of childhood abuse exclusively filmed from the victim’s perspective, weaving a straight line from the child abuse Marquardt had to endure to his own history of violence that is extremely intense and highly impressive. It allows a dark glimpse into what can make someone so hard and cold and how there is a self-propelling logic to this. The film unfortunately loses consistency and narrative drive when the protagonist’s transformation is talked about, these scenes appearing rather bland. But what might disturb most are the statements by Marquardt’s long-time partner who he forced into prostitution and often abused, showing no regret about anything she did and allowed. There is plenty of food for reflection in this rather unusual film.

H. (Forum / Argentina, United States / Director: Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia)

The story of Helen of Troy, as depicted in Homer’s Iliad, is something like the founding myth of Western culture, long before the book that would lead to the foundation of the world’s three largest religions. Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia take it as a departure point for a film exploring human desire, longing and solitude in a very idiosyncratic way. It explores the stories of two women named Helen living in an American town named Troy: the older, long married, is devoted to her baby doll who she treats like a real baby, the younger one is cherishing a pregnancy which is revealed to be fake. Strange, apparently supernatural things happen, changing the course of both women’s story. The film’s aesthetic is that of realism, steady shots, darkish images, only at the very end some horror film elements enter. This is juxtaposed with a highly elaborate composition: all four chapters open with the same music and are separated by a depiction of an antique statue’s head floating on a river, later to be hauled in. A black horse – not a wooden one – appears repeatedly in what is meant to be a poetic reflection on life, both women being failing life providers and emerged in their inner inner solitude. The mysterious events can be read as a manifestation of a society having lost its footing, a search for meaning that has nowhere to turn to. H. works best in its stylistically astute tension between plain realism and the fantastical elements growing stronger, its composition, however, feels strained and artificially construed. It’s a film that wants more than it can deliver.

14+ (Generation 14plus / Russia / Director: Andrey Zaytsev)

When Alex first sees Vika, he’s stricken. Inconsolably in love. For the very first time. The problem: she goes to a different school which is enemies with his. But love cannot be held back by petty things like this. So Alex turns up at Vika’s school disco, gets beaten up and slowly, step by step, melts Vika’s initially rather cool heart. An age-old story, Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. Nothing special, right? Far from it. The way director Andrey Zaytsev tells the story, the way remarkable puppy-faced young actor Gleb Kalyuzhny plays it, makes it completely fresh and credible to boot. Just as Alex experiences a first time millions have gone through before, the audience seems to see it unfold for the very first time, too. The dreamy looks, the awkwardness, the fumbling and stumbling, the shyness, but also the humor and ridiculousness of it all: it’s so wonderfully observed and captured in a realistic and always tender way, with plenty of situational comedy – Olga Ozollapinya as the mother turns in a brilliant comedic performance – that this little story becomes as big as it is for those involved and turns 14+ into such a touching as well as hilarious foilm that tears easily flow. Tears of joy, that is.

Short Skin (Generation 14plus / Italy / Director: Duccio Chiarini)

Growing up isn’t easy, particularly not when you’re skinny, shy and everyone around you is talking about sex. Edo, a tall, sensitive boy with a long-time crush on the neighbor’s granddaughter, does not lack opportunities for losing his virginity but tends to stand in his own way. And indeed, there is something of a problem: his foreskin is too tight. Short Skin  is your usual coming of age film with a twist. Matteo Creatini gives a sure-handed, beautifully understated and gently ironic performance as Edo, taking the viewer by the hand and leading them along through his insecurity about himself, his conflicting feelings for two girls, his sex-obsessed best friend, a younger sister whose chief interest is to find a female dog for her own to copulate with and, on top of this, his parents‘ marital problems. In the end, the „issue“, as it’s referred to by a doctor, helps him come to grips with who he is and wants to be. An octopus plays a rather special role in this wonderfully light-hearted, heart-warningly touching and funny, ultimately ver ordinary tale about a boy at a stage in life at which nothing is, well, ordinary. Calm, unobtrusive images, a careful direction that gives every scene the time to develop and images in gentle warm colors create a film that is entirely unspectacular. Its intelligent narration, precise dialogue, careful characterization and – last but not least – fine performances throughout make Short Skin a gem that deserves to be discovered.

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