Berlinale 2016: Day 6

By Sascha Krieger

Little Men  (Generation Kplus, Panorama / United States / Director: Ira Sachs)

Jake is thirteen, into painting and not particularly good at making friends. When his grandfather died, he moves into old house, the ground floor of it is occupied by a dress shop. The shopkeeper’s son is the same age as the introverted Jake but brash, extroverted, outgoing. The two strike a friendship that is challenged by a developing argument between their parents. Ira Sachs’ latest film explores that tender phase of early puberty when childhood is hardly over but adolescence kicks in, when you start trying to find out what you want to do with your life. Little Men is a light-handed and light-footed glimpse into that crucial time, carried by two outstanding newcomers in Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz. The film smartly doesn’t overdramatize so the pain when it comes hits as immediate as it would in real life. Underlined by a dreamy score and painted in bright colors, the calm photography allows the characters – especially the boys – a lot of room to blossom. Coming on the heals of his intense gay relationship drama Keep the Lights On and the more melancholy gay marriage tale Love Is Strange, Little Men is a somewhat lighter effort though nothing seems easy or light at the age highlighted in it. Sachs also provides a subtle backdrop of a changing world with issues such as gentrification looming large in the background. A gentle and entirely lovable film.

Little Men (© Berlinale)

Little Men (© Berlinale)

Genius (Competition / United Kingdom, United States / Director: Michael Grandage)

In 1929, an aspiring writer from North Carolina stood in the office of famed editor Maxwell Perkins. After having his book rejected by all major publishers, he expected the same from the man who had made Fitzgerald and Hemingway great. But Perkins wanted the book and a new literary star was born: Thomas Wolfe. In Genius, the scene in which they first meet, is exemplary: on the one side Colin Firth as the distinguished, soft-spoken, humble Perkins, on the other Jude Law’s wild and word-spitting Wolfe. Michael Grandage’s film about their relationship focuses on the opposites of the two men who against odds develop a strong bond. Genius charts the strenuous work it took to create novels from Wolfe’s oceans of work but also on the difficult personality of the extremely selfish and tormented Wolfe. Law is always near the line to overdoing it but his wildly energetic Wolfe is the film’s storm while Firth is its eye. Accomplished theatre director Grandage almost directs this like a play as spaces are narrow, scenes well worked out and there’s a fine sense of humour. Grandage proves a master of atmosphere as in that wonderful painting-like shot with Firth and Law on a roof top looking down at life. while the screenplay does not always avoid the obvious, Grandage’s light and subtle touch gives his film a rhythm that flows along so natural like the river Wolfe pairs with time in the title of his second book. Jazz is interspersed at crucial times as a character description for Wolfe. The film is carried by the brilliant performances by Firth and Law as well as a strong offering from Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s love interest. As it stands, Genius is a well-told exploration of human ambition and the torment that is art. An unassuming film in the word’s best sense.

Soy Nero (Competition / Germany, Mexico, France / Director: Rafi Pitts)

A young man, a teenager probably is running. The handheld camera is close on him, mirroring his frantic run. He doesn’t make it. After this, the film adopt a calm demeanour and a very slow pace as we follow Nero. His second attempt to make it back to the U.S. where he grew up but was deported from as a child, is successful. He has come to joint the Army because he had heard that he’ll get citizenship once he has served. He should have known better having just attended a funeral of a „greencard soldier“ who was only made a citizen upon his death. Johnny Ortiz plays the baby-faced Nero with a mixture of innocence and strong-willed stubbornness. Two episodes are told: his escape and short stay with his brother and two days and one night of army life in Afghanistan, Iraq or some such place. His group is ambushed and in the end. he walks across the desert on his own. When an Army car arrives, it isn’t the rescue he’s hoped for. At the end, we see him walk again, in a distance. a forlorn figure while we read that the film is dedicated to the „greencard soldiers“ who were deported after serving. Rafi Pitt’s film takes its time, telling its story with an almost documentary like attention to detain. It shares its protagonist’s calmness, his almost stubborn perseverance. It just observes, allows us an immediate glimpse on someone who cannot even reveal his name who is never allowed a true identity. A quiet film that cuts deep because it’s not even trying.

Shepherds and Butchers (Panorama / South Africa, United States, Germany / Director: Oliver Schmitz)

South Africa in 1987. A 19-year-old prison guard kills 7 members of a football team. a clear case, there’s no chance he avoids the death penalty. A human rights lawyer defends him by claiming that two years of execution duty at the prison led the young man who was 17 at his first hanging to his action. Oliver Schmitz’s film is a classic courtroom drama that starts slowly and never picks up pace. Everything is spelled out, the script lacks subtlety and ambivalence, the shock flashback scenes go for the spectacular but lessen the effect of the defendant’s inner struggle. Garion Dowds impressively plays him as a timid boy just slowly finding a voice of his own, trying to emerge from the secretive world in which he learned that killing is ok and where it became an almost everyday event. It is when he speaks or tries to that the otherwise languid and cinematographically uninteresting film gains some intensity which is easily destroyed by Steve Coogan’s cardboard lawyer. The film also strangely leaves out the racial segregation and discrimination of the Apartheid system. As a historical document it is worth seeing this, as film it offers very little.

Havarie (Forum / Germany / Philip Scheffner)

Grainy smartphone pictures, photographed from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. Somewhere a black speck, movement. A tiny boat with 13 refugees in it. For 90 minutes we see nothing but this. What we here is the radio conversation between the ship and the Spanish coast guard, wehear from crew members of this ship as well as cargo ships who’ve had similar encounters, from the Northern Irish tourist who shot the footage. They all have their stories to tell, stories of violence, terrorism, refugee story. The Belfast man remembers the killing of a boy he witnessed by the British Army, the Ukrainians mention the situation in their country. More voices: a French-Algerian woman talks about her encounter with terrorism, so do some Algerians. They speak of the necessity to leave which contrasts with the homesickness of the Filipino sailors. And all the time we’re just looking at the see and that tiny nutshell of desperate people. Havarie is a daring film that puts the current refugee crisis in a wider context in a mosaic-style way in which many stones are missing. Among very personal stories and professional explanations, the plight of those who are forced to flee resonates strongly. Not an easy film to watch but an interesting take on what is one of the most important issues in the world today.

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