Berlinale 2015: Day 11 and Wrap-up

By Sascha Krieger

Eleven days have a rather annoying quality: they pass by rather quickly. Just now, it seems, you discussed the prospects of this year’s Berlinale, what kind of festival it would be, how high its quality – and already, it is time again to glance back at it as you enter the long, 12-month wait for its next edition. So, let’s do this in the fast, short, fleeting way the festival deserves. To put it shortly: it turned out to be a good one feature the strongest Competition in years and a fine and extremely diverse slate of entries in the other section. Strong women were supposed to be a major feature of the festival and they were – though their more impressive appearances were in the smaller, ordinary ones rather than the large heroine’s tales such as Isabel Coixet’s opening film or Werner Herzog’s artistic disaster Queen of the Desert, easily the Berlinale’s worst film this year. Oh yes, the big names: they tended to disappoint, such as Herzog, Terrence Malick, Wim Wenders (though this reviewer can only gather from hear-say). The Berlinale, however, is a festival of discoveries and this edition was no exception. A large number of first-time directors even in Competition impressed, some of the greatest and most insightful films came from countries such as Guatemala, Chile, Vietnam or Romania. The German film had a mixed year but at least Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria proved that German filmmakers occasionally dare experiment.

Winner of the Golden Bear: Taxi (© Berlinale)

Winner of the Golden Bear: Taxi (© Berlinale)

What then, apart from the strong women, were the festivals main themes? There was an abundance of small everyday stories, told in light, unspectacular, unsentimental ways that hardly ever felt too impress. The Berlinale remains a leading platform for LGBT films and it is still the most political of the worlds three A festivals. It is also the most global with even the Competition open to work that spans all continents and includes almost every year a first-time country of origin, this time Guatemala. But there was a change this year: the artistically ambitious film that tries to marry art to content, that is experimental and sometimes extreme and which traditionally is to be found more in Cannes than in Berlin, made a strong return. Admittedly, some efforts such as Peter Greenaway’s, Sabu’s or Guy Maddin’s were more successful than others, for example films by Terrence Malick or Jiang Wen, but the risk-taking increased this year.

So what about the bears? Jafar Panahi’s Taxi’s winning the main award is well-deserved. Not only does it reaffirm the festivals standing as one never afraid to take a political stance, it also awards a film that explores the possibilities of film-making under the most hostile of conditions, a film-maker looking for new ways of expression that preserve the autonomy of this art form that is film pushing its frontiers – in a different way than Malick or Schipper or Greenaway, of course, but widening the space for film (as, by the way, did all three Iranian films at this year’s Berlinale). The awards for the brilliantly composed dark El Club, the formal masterpiece that is Aferim!, the quietness of Ixcanul and the chamber theatre performance of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 Years as well as the nods to Schipper and Alexey German acknowledge the breadth of this year’ film landscape. So in the end, a strange thing happened: there was very little complain about. The Berlinale, often questioned, occasionally described as a has-been, has impressively reaffirmed its place alongside Cannes and Venice. It will be a long and hard wait for 2016 to arrive.

Paridan az Ertefa Kam (Panorama / Iran, France / Director: Hamed Rajabi)

Nahal is pregnant or rather she was. Hamed Rajabi’s film opens with her exiting a room. There she has just been told that the fetus in her has died. Stone-faced she sits on a bench, only outside will she allow herself to cry for a short moment. It is the last emotion that registers in her face until near the end. She tells nobody about what happened but embarks on a crusade of little, stubborn acts of resistance: destroying the television, quitting her job, buying the most expensive dress in a shop, sabotaging her husband’s plans to sell the car, hosting one of the most absurd parties in film history (viewers will probably never drink orange juice again without thinking twice). The camera hardly ever leaves her face which is statue-like, immovable, a ghostly dead Madonna. Her “I’m fine is as devastating” as her calm challenges to everyone whether they are, too, and if so why. The others’ worries, accusations and simple solutions are reflected back at them as her environment’s mixture of irritation and helplessness concerning her behavior increases. Quietly, she keeps resisting: her considerate husband who, however, represents Iran’s patriarchal and misogynist society; her family who expect her to conform to society’s rules; her doctor who wants her to take medication in order to be “happy”. But happy she doesn’t want to be in a world in which – a key topic in all three Iranian films at this year’s Berlinale – the narrow space of a car is the largest room of freedom that is allowed, a world that tells her how to live and who to obey. Events unfold with the inevitability of a parable in this quiet, claustrophobic and intense condemnation of a restrictive society – and the bitter celebration of the indidivual. In an oppressive society where even the most basic things we in the west take for granted must be fought for, artists face the challenge to deal with existential matters everyday. If the three Iranian entries at the 2015 Berlinale are any indication of the state of Iranian film today, it shows at least that this challenge can lead to artistic expressions of a power and skill not often met.

Chrieg (Guest of Perspective German Cinema – Winner of the Max Ophüls Preis / Switzerland / Director: Simon Jaquemet)

Matteo is 16 and not extremely popular. He seems to have no friends and is frowned upon by his family, particularly his father. With a new baby in the house, he appears superfluous. Chrieg opens with a series of laconic snapshots, almost entirely wordless, severe, almost sterile images of complete coldness. Whatever Matteo does – and he engages in a few acts of quiet desperation – will not be heeded, his only attempt at any kind of conversation is immediately blocked. The opening minutes are a disturbing portrayal of the power of silence. Instead of working on a relationship, the problem boy is taken away rather violently to a mountain farm which is meant to better troubled kids. However, Matteo immediately discovered that the three youths already there have taken control. After being tortured and humiliated, he is allowed to join their club, embarking on a life of anarchy and increasing violence. The camera becomes more and more unsteady as it mirrors the frantic attempts at rebelling against everything and everyone. The imagery is nocturnal, even the days have a certain darkness to them. So far so good. What works against the film, however, is its heavy reliance on clichés and stereotypes. There is the brutal and slightly insane leader, the tough-acting and ultimately scared immigrant, the girl depressed up as a boy and caring for a baby goat who Matteo, the sensitive one, falls for. When they attack Matteo’s father they need an extra reason which is duly provided by a script that does not trust the power of pure teenage anger, it provides a neat explanatory framework which more and more causes the film to go through the motions. Added to this is a the  increasing superficiality of the images which aim more at effect than at substance. Whereas the early violence against Matteo and the unexplained yet very thorough wrecking of a house that apparently belongs to the girls‘ parents have a strong and disturbing effect, Chrieg later disintegrates into routine set pieces and a very dissatisfying ending. First-time actor Benjamin Lutzke, however, is memorable as the face of pent-up and only half-understood anger. Director Simon Jaquemet might have wanted to rely on him a little more.

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