Berlinale 2017: Day 6

By Sascha Krieger

Toivon tuolla puolen (Competition / Finland, Germany / Director: Aki Kaurismäki)

A man leaves his wife and opens a restaurant. A Syrian refugee arrives on a coal ship. Two stories Aki Kaurismäki lets run parallel for the first half of this film. Which is a problem. The first of those stories is pure Kaurismäki: Stony, stoic faces, lightly darkish drab interiors, images as rigid and dry as his characters. The least spectacular leaving scene in film history starts a melancholy and drily funny story about people who don’t dare give up and who have hearts of gold beneath those faces of stone. Among Kaurismäki’s stories about the (sometimes not so) little man plodding on stoically to find a tiny little bit of happiness, this is an exemplary one. But there is a second one, that of Khaled from Aleppo. His narrative strand feels generic like an essay slash pamphlet about refugees caught in the mills of bureaucracy, more of a newspaper article than a film. When both strands are combined as the two men meet in a memorable scene, the film picks up speed. The driest of humour accompanies what is melancholic existential comedy meets adventure tale. it would have done the film much good to focus on these strangely easily meeting world s and leave out the bland social drama complete with a murderous Nazi gang. As it is, the film is a solid addition to Kaurismäki’s oeuvre but not more than that.

 (Image: Malla Hukkanen © Sputnik Oy)

Toivon tuolla puolen (Image: Malla Hukkanen © Sputnik Oy)

Beuys (Competition / Germany / Director: Andreas Veiel)

Beuys perfoms, Beuys speaks, Beuys creates, Beuys argues, Beuys plants trees, Beuys boxes. In his documentary portrait of Germany’s probably best-known and likely most controversial 20th-century artist, Andreas Veiel moves away from his core story-telling tool of the talking head and relies heavily on original archival material. only a handful of witnesses appear and when they do they often appear only by voice. On the text side they share the story-telling with Beuys himself, recordings from TV interviews, panel discussions,speeches, performances and many other occasions. Veiel aims at a mosaic-style, multi-perspective narrative, often separating sound and visuals, splitting the screen into developed film, photographs, good old-fashioned slides. This also gives the film an analogue feel as Beuys was an artist of the analogue, the touchable, the real. We see and hear Beuys explaining and defending his open, democratic understanding of art and his belief in the inseparability of art and what we call – though he wanted to overcome this – politics. As restless as the man and artist, as forever searching and exploring, is what the film aims to be. Unfortunately, it shows, so the narration often reaches the obvious, tells the viewer what it’s trying to do. Form cannot quite beat substance but it sometimes threatens to take over. What makes this film an interesting insight into the human being that is inseparable from the artist is, apart from Veiel’s obvious love for Beuys‘ art, the power and energy of the man himself and his art. Maybe not a film fit for Berlinale’s Competition but certainly a must-watch whenever it screens on TV.

Bing Lang Xue (Panorama / Hong Kong, PR China / Director: Hu Jia)

It takes a long time until the first word is spoken. By this time, a murder has been committed and another one might be on its way. Introduced by a grainy image of legs threading water, the camera documentary-style focuses on the mundane, pale, joyless. A young man goes about his day, wordless, before, still silent, he embarks on a pursuit that leads to the afore-mentioned murder, artificial, in slow motion, somewhat inspired by the Hong Kong thriller genre. After this, a second solitary figure appears, another young man, decidedly good-looking and determinedly cocky. Then a third, a girl, shy, yet curious. Time is fluid, so when the three meet they do so in the twilight world between the past and the imagined. The colours become warmer, the narration and photography more lively, the characters, too. They share a short, careless summer, not void of drama but fuller of hope and joy and the forgetfulness of youthful happiness. Disaster strikes and the bare loneliness returns, the barren walls, the joyless silence. The film comes full circle and then turns one last corner. A glimpse of hope or a sunken dream? Ambivalence is its final word, the openness, the uncertainty of life. Might all turn out to be good after all? Who knows?

Discreet (Panorama / United States / Director: Travis Mathews)

Bacon frying in a pan, a YouTuber teaching about life’s rhythms, a wrapped bundle floating on a river, a more or less young man driving around, setting up his camera to film highways. Discreet starts with an unconnected flow of images, disjointed sound, sometimes it’s breathing, sometimes it’s the threatening soundscape of a horror film, sometimes both. Pieces of a jigsaw the viewer will largely have to put together as the film goes on even though there will be bits that remain missing. The man visits his alcoholic mother and a man he says is his grandfather, strikes up a strange relationship with a teenage boy, has casual sex with an older man and engages in four-way sex games all while listening to right-wing talk radio as he drives through rural Texas, Trump country, becoming more obsessive and unhinged in the process. Discreet eschews narrative linearity, constantly breaking up any story flow, breaking up a sense of chronology. Though the mosaic remains incomplete, a story of childhood trauma and of a man still battling his demons as he’ll remain an outcast in this world emerges. A somewhat disjointed film that occasionally feels pretentious in the symbolic obviousness of its layers and that will not find its middle. But that may be because it doesn’t exist – as it sure doesn’t for its protagonist.

Menashe (Forum / United States, Israel / Director: Joshua Z Weinstein)

Menashe takes the viewer to a little known side of the most famous city in the world: th Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York City. Menashe is a man going on middle age who we first see emerge from a street crown, in shirt, vest and kippa, but without the customary coat and hat. At the end he walks away from the camera, now wearing the full Hasidic „uniform“, setting off to do what he must to get his son back. The problem is: his wife died and the Hasidic interpretation of the Torah demand children being brought up in a two-parent home. So Rieven had to move in with his aunt and uncle, the latter of which has little respect for Menashe who is always late, always owes money and tends to be rather clumsy. The film remains with him throughout its 85 minutes, his face never close from the tender close-up heavy handheld-camera. It shows the tender blossoming of a relationship with his son,a blossoming which keeps hitting roadblocks. So at the end Menashe gives in, capitulates – and shows an act of love. A beautifully gently flowing story, Menashe is a father son love story. The first ever Berlinale film in Yiddish is also a pretty good one.

Mittsu no hikari (Forum / Japan / Director: Kohki Yoshida)

Four young people somewhere in Tokyo: a kindergarten teacher left by her fiancé and bullied by the children’s parents, her friend who works in a call center and has long stopped talking to her husband; a musical explorer who earns his money teaching tennis; his collaborator who thinks he’s a genius a tries to kill his loneliness by acting the tyrant. They come together to create music, fleeting, trance-like, the sound of what the opposite of the (post)modern urban noise might sound like. There is a sequence in this film when the four drive around, hook up their equipment to public speaker systems and blast the sound of pausing for a moment into the world. When they finally reach the Tokyo city centre, their musical antidote is quickly drowned out by the noise of the 21st century. It is these few minutes that suggests what potential this film might have, had it the courage to follow the music, build itself and its storylines around it. But no, most of it taken up by introducing the characters as different stereotypical and entirely one-dimensional versions of the lonely human lost in the modern world. Immobile, rigid images frame the faces and bodies imprisoned in their everyday boredom, their refusal or inability to find meaningful connection. Were they real, believable human beings, music might serve as a cathartic experience. This way, however, they’re just assumptions, statements not quite made flesh, ridiculous stereotypes talking and moving and behaving in stale, stilted ways. The film is so carefully constructed it quickly implodes. What remains is boredom and the occasion moment of disbelief when the film once again does the most obvious. If tabloid rants about the emptiness of today’s existence and the lack of direction of the current youth were films, this is what they’d look like.

Motza el hayam (Forum / Israel, France / Director: Daniel Mann)

A history teacher who broke down crying in class and disappeared. A reservist soldier who’s defected. A man left by his wife and now stalking her new partner. All this is Yoel, protagonist of Motza el hayam. It follows Yoel through days of drifting during which he means other lost souls: a salesman who’s just been fired, a foreign reporter stuck in Tel Aviv seeking out soldiers to tape video farewell messages the reason for which is never explained. Pale and greyish in the Israel director Daniel Mann shows, a country under constant siege, confused, without direction. Cell phone videos show war scenes and memories from a beach vacation by Yoel and his wife. Scenes stand isolated,  there seems no real connection, no aim, no beginning, no end. That’s intended, of course, being  a metaphor for a paralysed country. Conversations are often about existential issues and can be pretty stale. The dry matter-of-fact images don’t tell a story, they present a status. The film feels quite distanced – from Yoel, whose stoicism become a little stale after a while, and from the country it clearly tries to portray. It keeps the viewer at bay, its message feels generic and is not really played out by this rather sketchy work

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