By Sascha Krieger
Transit (Competition / Germany / Director: Christian Petzold)
In Anna Seghers‘ novel Transit, people trying to flee France just as the German occupation sets in during World War II wait for their passage, their visas, the way out. One of them is Georg played by Franz Rogowski, one of this festival’s „European Shooting Stars“, who through a number of coincidences assumes the identity of a German writer granted a visa to Mexico. Director Christian Petzold adds a special twist: while the story remains intact, the scenery in present day Marseille. This achieves several things: for one, it opens paths into today, to the refugees of our time, languishing in other port cities, waiting to flee in different directions but with the same urgency and despair. And of course, also to a present in which fascist ideologies snd „us versus them“ are becoming more mainstream every day. It also creates a distance adding to the layered approach of the film. For as the story unfolds in front of our eyes, a second narrative layer appears, the report of a bar tender, telling Franz‘ story in the pest tense. Fort the present is just remembered, the past present. It repeats itself in a never-ending cycle of waiting. The fate of the refugees is far away, viewed through the distance of Petzold’s cold, still, immaculately clean frames, the bar tender’s reading, the chiseled and always just a little abstract, formalised lines, attributed to those characters, those ghost of unseen humans from outside. A film seemingly old-fashioned and straightforward, yet layered, complex, not telling a story but the telling of it, its invention, the need for it, for giving names to the nameless. Transit is a highly intelligent and well-structured film that is also a reflection about film’s own power and limits to tell stories. However, its strength is also its weakness: the distance it creates hold the viewer at bay, makes them appreciate it intellectually but emotionally, leving them as cold as those images.
Dovlatov (Competition / Russian Federation, Poland, Serbia / Director: Alexey German jr.)
It’s 1971. The period of political and cultural thawing in the Soviet Union is over, the country paralysed in stagnation. Young writer Sergey Dovlatov drifts through a gray and icy city, Leningrad, between odd writing jobs and a novel long stalled. Trying to remain truthful he looks for a way to compromise without giving up his ideals – and fails. Alexey Germ, jr.’s film follows his through the few days before the national holiday in November 1971. He meets fellow artists, his soon-to-be ex-wife, editors, possible mentors, an endless cycles of parties, office visits, walks, a never-ending litany of waiting. Everybody has advice, non of it leads anywhere. Long slowly moving shots create an atmosphere of icy paralysis as dreams are as depressing as reality and it, literature, nightmares merge into one as a panoramic view that finds and losing focus on the indivials swept away by the winds of history. Literature and art are no longer a refuge, mediocrity reigned, the classics get dwarfed as supporters of the current system before its time. It becomes part of the grinding bureaucracy swallowing everything. At the same time, there is an invisible art, the upublished and unexhibited, ploughing on, undefeated, hopeful, subversive. While Dovlotov, based on a real writer becoming famous only after his early death in exile in 1990, might have spelt out a little less of its message in soundbites than it does, it is very effective as an atmospherically dense portrait of a society in stagnation, one that suffocates all creativity for easy compromise, that praises bureaucracy above everything else. A gray, slow flow, circular, without any progress that paints everything gray but cannot deny that which what it portrays needed to kill above all things, which it finds in the hard-fought smiles and relentless optimism of the artists‘ scene depicted: life. Rebellious, stubborn, basic life. Dovlotov is an elegy, a poem in its own right, a song that won’t stop.
Eva (Competition / France, Belgium / Director: Benoit Jacquot)
Recently, French entries in the Berlinale Competition have not exactly been a success story. But at least they’ve tended ro aim a little higher than Eva. In it, Isabelle Huppert plays a high-class prostitute whom Bertrand, a successful playwright whose fraudulent roots are spelled out at the filn’s beginning, becomes obsessed with. Gaspard Ulliel plays him as a single-minded douche bag while Huppert wears her characters pseudo-emancipated aloofness like a crown. Or rather a mask. If you were to play „What happens next?“ while watching this film, you have a chance to score 100 percent. The plot is reduced to a simplistic obsession tale with absolutely no subtlety and not even a hint of a redemptive feature. It continually goes for the most obvious and predictable option. Visually it is uninteresting with a suggestion if kitsch, narratively bland and not even deserving of a beginner’s course in screen writing, acting virtually non-existant – no wonder as there are no characters to speak of. There us no suspense, no intensity – a rather grave sin in a thriller – nothing to keep the viewer interested. Just one question: what possessed the Berlinale team to invite this slightest of mass-industry efforts?
Inkan, gongkan, sikan grigo inkan (Panorama / Korea / Director: Kim Ki-duk)
„I hope that you feel that this id what humans are: with these words director Kim Ki-duk introduces his film before its first screening. Humans, Space, Time and Humans, so its English title, was the festival’s most controversial film even before anyone ever saw it. Its director just was in court in Korea, charged with sexually harassing a female actor. In times of the #MeToo movement the decision to invite the film raised more than a few eyebrows. And it does little alleviate the criticism as its female role patterns (victim or whore) and depictions of the female body are hard to describe as anything other than misogynistic. Which takes us to „what humans are“ according to Kim. The short answer (and the only one the film provides) is: animals driven by two basic instincts – those for food and sex with the only question remaining which comes first and which is stronger. The film rakes place on an old battle ship hosting a motley and unexplained holiday audiences. Quickly, power struggles ensue, violence rules and there’s hardly a man on board not a rapist. When the ship is lost in a surreal twist, even the best are corrupted by hunger and their sex drive. For two hours, the film indulges in detail-rich and often voyeuristic shows of cruelty and slaughter. With some consistency as the final utopia is disrupted by echoes of what went on before. As simplistic as the film’s primitively dark view on humanity are its repetitive story-telling and its lazy characterisation. Instead it celebrates its bloodthirsty gore fest in a way that can hardly be called anything other than pornographic. Yes, visually the film offers quite a lot, from claustrophobic horror and brightly coloured slasher comedy to gangster fare and even a touch of fantasy. Beyond them, however, there is nothing.
Yocho (Panorama / Japan / Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Doesn’t the sky look a little strange? Why is her boss dropping things? Is her husband behaving normally? And what’s with that young doctor he’s assisting now? Small things seem off in the beginning of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new film, and they might only do so in the eyes of the beholder, a young woman named Etsuko. But when her young colleague Miyuki starts seeing ghosts, she realises she might on to something. In clean, very quiet, often immobile frames, complemented with a few genre-typical tracking shots, picking up speed at the right times but mostly the camera is remaining a cold observer, Kurosawa depicts a pre-apocalyptic world that seems normal but is about to implode. The film takes its time, reveals its dark underbelly slowly but relatively soon, which doesn’t kill the suspense. On the contrary, in full knowledge of what’s going on but unable to really respond, the viewer joins Etsuko on a desperate yet always low-key self-rescue mission, infused with a few drops of humour as the film plays with its own genre clichés. It quotes from horror, sci-fi and dystopian traditions but is a very tightly structured, not at all eclectic piece of narration that ultimately arrives at the question of what it means to be human and what that may be worth. A debate to be continued.
La Omisión (Panorama / Argentina / Director: Sebastián Schjaer)
A young woman running away on a snowy road. The camera only catches her from behind, hardly holding up. A winter jacket, a hoodie. Paula is a young woman who has moved from Buenos Aires to the deep south of Argentina. A frozen world, a world in waiting. As is Paula. Brushing off demands and expectations, she keeps to herself, always distrustful even when opening up almost against her will. The camera remains on her face once it has found it, even when the scene is long over. As its protagonist, the images seem to be waiting for something to happen, repeatedly grinding to a halt. The narration is fragmented, scenes hardly connected. Paula might think she’s running to or from something but in fact she’s not moving. There is a constant series of interiors of vehicles: cars, vans, buses, Paula’s face inside them. Moving and stuck in her place. An uncertain relationship with a half-absent boyfriend, advances from a colleague, her trusting child: there are glimpses of happiness, moments of letting go bit the outside world keeps asking for decisions which she is not ready to make. The warmth of love and friendship isn’t able to melt the snow. Not yet.
Ex Pajé (Panorama Dokumente / Brazil / Director: Luiz Bolognesi)
Ex Pajé opens with footage from 1969, images from the first encounter between the Paiter Suruí, an indigenous tribe from Brazil’s Amazonas region, with white people. Then it cuts to almost four decades later. Things have changed. A church is now at the centre of the community, the villagers have cars and motorbikes, wear T-shirts, harvest coffee. Loggers destroy the rain forest and the indigenous people respond by forming vigilante outfits and exposing the illegal activities on Facebook. Yet, traditions are stubborn. As with Perpera. The former Shaman is now serving the church, yet hasn’t given up on his traditions. When threats arise, he looks at his forbears‘ remedies, and so do more and more of his villagers. As if by instinct they start resisting the approaching ethnocide, a battle they’re likely to lose. Luiz Bolognese’s camera, therefore, seems to have an archiving function. In still frames he is creating images that might well end up alongside the old photographs shown at the beginning. He shows the everyday dealings and crises with the same matter-of-factness, always keeping at a distance even when the camera gets close. Perpera appears in all his stubborn quietness as both a relic and a contemporary, exhibiting the ambivalence of his and his community’s position. The film ends with a series of empty stills, with people absent or in the background. The world will move on, whether with cultures such as this remains to be seen.
Fotbal infinit (Forum / Romania / Director: Corneliu Poremboiu)
Fotbal Infinit is Romanian director’s Corneliu Poremboiu’s second documentary – and his second about football. After Al doilea joc in which he and his father commented a tape of a game in the 1980 in which the older Poremboiu was the referee, this one now portrays an Laurentiu Ghingina, a provincial authority employee who has spent the last few decades trying to reinvent the rules of football to make the game safer (triggered by a serious injury Ghinghin suffered in his youth) as well as more attractive. Freedom is his goal, freedom for the ball, not the player, as Poremboiu, ever the at times naively questioning devil’s advocate, points out repeatedly with some astonishment. For in order to create safety, Ghinghin wants to multiply the game’s rules, in order to free the ball he restrains the player. The price of freedom is its opposite, a paradoxical thought the film follow far beyond the game which in Ghingin’s versions (there are several of them) would no longer be one. They talk about Ghingin’s life, September 11, Romania’s entry into the EU, religion. Change, the ability to adapt is a key issue for Ghinghin, the freedom to think differently, to try again. His football revolution is like his life a series of starts, stops and re-starts. The bureaucrat, petty, insisting and at the same time, thoughtful philosophical and capable of taking himself not too seriously, as an agent of freedom, a freedom from restriction. Football, someone once said, wasn’t about life and death. It was more important than that. Chistian Poremboiu’s caring and smart film, subversive in its subject’s and narration‘ seeming simplicity, tends to agree.
Cobain (Generation 14plus / Canada / Director: Nanouk Leopold)
Cobain is 15 and about to move to a foster family from the home he had been living in. Not a great idea, he feels as his mother is an addict – and pregnant. So he runs away, embarking on a mission to rescue his mother, which ends in a drastic though not entirely hopeless way. Newcomer Bas Keizer plays the boy who has to grow up way too fast with laconic stubbornness, his determined face hardened and open at the same time as he moves through an odyssey of missed chances, as he goes through the routines he thinks make you an adult. Gently the camera remains on his face, his hands, his body. The days are clear and cold, the nights warm and treacherous. Director Nanouk Leopold adds a tender poetic flow to the cold realism of her images, merging it with dry documentary-style naturalism, gently allowing her rhythm to take off in moments of fleeting happiness mirrored by an open ending. Among the hopelessness of reality, hope and dreams keep popping up, glimpses only, moments of calm. A smile, a touch, an embrace. All is not good and nothing is lost as new lives are emerging. In more than one way.