Berlinale 2016: Day 5

By Sascha Krieger

Nakom (Panorama / Ghana, United States / Directors: TW Pittman, Kelly Daniela Norris)

Nakom is a historical film: Even in a festival renowned for its focus on world cinema, it is the first-ever film from Ghana to make the Berlinale programme. Its plot is in line with rather popular Arica clichés: In its protagonist, a medical student with a rural background, it depicts the clash between old and new, tradition and modernity, archaic village culture and efficient 21st-century society. Iddrisu returns home when his father dies and finds himself as the head of his family within a highly patriarchal society. It is to the film’s credit that this polar structure is quickly relegated to the background. In calm images and lush colours it follows Iddrisu through the struggles of everyday life and depicts his own journey that brings him very close to staying in a world he had already discarded. Nakom shows the ancient and yet so contemporary world without judging it which it leaves up to the viewer. Yes, at times the fact that the film is directed by two Americans shows as it romanticizes the „traditional family values“ a little too much but it does not avoid its dark sides such as the lack of women’s right although it might have focused on it more. In all the film is well narrated, pleasantly unspectacular and perhaps a little too polished and clean.

Nakom (© Rasquaché Films)

Nakom (© Rasquaché Films)

Alone in Berlin (Competition / Germany, France, United Kingdom / Director: Vincent Perez)

In Hans Fallada’s novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein, a  working class couple during the Nazi era respond to the war death of their only son by starting to write anti-regime postcards and distributing them throughout Berlin. They are eventually caught and executed. Why French director Vincent Perez decided to adapt the book, remains his secret. The film fails to engage the viewer even for a second. Alone in Berlin is so conventional it hurts. The detailed set design is remarkable but that’s about it. Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson star but are not asked to deliver anything other than cursory performances. Their characters remain two-dimensional at best. They go through the motions, there is not even an attempt to show or even explain their development. The score is routine sentimentality, the rhythm slow and bloodless, the ending of the cheesiest kind. A great book served atrociously badly. Not for the first time during this festival the question why a film ended up in Competition doesn’t appear to have an answer.

Smrt u Sarajevu (Competition / France, Bosnia and Hercegovina / Director: Danis Tanović)

2014, Sarajevo. Europe commemorates the vent that triggered off the First World War. The Hotel Europa is a the center of the ritual remembering. While interviews are conducted on the hotel’s roof and a French celebrity guest rehearses a speech – in a clever twist, we later learn that it’s for Bertrand-Henri Lévy’s play Hotel Europa on which the film is based – the hotel director fears for the future of his broke hotel and the staff prepare for strike. Smrt u Sarajevu is an interior piece taking place in the miniature world of a hotel with its hidden corners, its underbelly, its secret places. The handheld camera follows its characters, going from one to the other and back, revealing a microcosm that has never shed the country’s and the continent’s troubled past. The private and the political intertwine as skeletons come out of the closet in sometimes virtuoso, occasionally even funny ways. There is an almost claustrophobic feel to the dark images that symbolize Europe not coming to terms with what it has become. Unfortunately, the private scenes engage more but lack the wider view while the political ones, such as the stilted quarrel between a Bosnian interviewer and a Serb nationalist, feel contrived and formulaic. Smrt u Sarajevu is an entertaining and a little too polished parable that never fulfills its potential as the larger perspective soon fades from view. A minor effort from the director of the 2013 double Silver Bear winner Epizoda u životu berača željeza.

Chang Jiang Tu (Competition / PR China / Director: Yang Chao)

Time is a river. With this bold statement opens China’s Competition entry Chang Jiang Tu (Crosscurrent). The river is question is the Yangtze and Yang Chao’s film indeed features magnificent images of the river whether it be the sheer vastness of its downstream part or the fantastic mountain scenery upstream. The images are grainy, there is an everlasting mist on the river giving it a ghost-like feel. Which is fitting. Gap Chun is a young cargo ship captain performing Buddhist rituals to put his late father’s soul at rest, continuing the latter’s life work and longing for a young woman who we later learn is separated from him by time. His crew disappears one by one, so does his cargo. Poems written by a long gone deck hand – or Gao Chun himself? – appear on the screen while Gao Chun’s search for the girl is told as if it was a fairy-tale or some long forgotten legend. Every hing breathes meaning but that meaning is never clear. The film has the sound of the later Terrence Malick’s work without any of his ingenuity. The uniformness of the imagery soon tires, the pseudo-philosophical and would-be poetical meanderings become pretentious so the viewer soon losses interest. By the time Gao Chun has reached the river’s source he might already be a ghost – the boat looked like a ghost ship from the start. The problem is: it hardly matters.

Maggie’s Plan (Panorama Special / United States / Director: Rebecca Miller)

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) wants a baby but no husband. So she arranges for a sperm donor but at exactly that point she meets John (Ethan Hawke) who she falls in love with and marries. When the relationship gets colder, she contacts her husband’s rather forbidding ex-wife (Julianne Moore) and they concoct a plan which seems to work out well until John discovers it and backs out. Rebecca Miller’s latest film in an urban romantic comedy in the style of Woody Allen. Witty repartees, multi-faceted and slightly quirky characters (especially Bill Hader as Maggie’s long-time friend is hilarious) and a heavy dose of New York City make this film an entirely enjoyable 100 minute ride about the strange directions life and love sometimes take, about in what strange ways we often pursue happiness. Maggie’s Plan shows a light tough, it flows along effortlessly with bright and crisp images that mostly seek out interiors which, however, focus on the multitude of possibilities rather than on any sense of entrapment. The ending is shamelessly cheesy, drenched in sugary music and at the same time hilariously light-handed and ironic. A film like cotton candy and that’s meant as a compliment.

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