Berlinale 2018: Day 6

By Sascha Krieger

Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (Competition / Philippines / Director: Lav Diaz)

It will haunt you, this monotonous „la la la“ that sounds like a threat, a weapon, a death sentence. It is introduced by the leader of a paramilitary militia somewhere in the Southern Philippines during Martial Law in the late 1970s. This is where Lav Diaz, decorated with a Silver Bear and a Golden Lion just in the past two years, takes us in his new film (though he is not interested in visual historical accuracy). They rule a village with violence and intimidation, hold their subjects in check with a made up religion of fear and persecute dissenters. Violence is an everyday act. It happens in the distance or is at least partially blocked from view. The camera is a detached observer, distant cold, most of the time freezing its world in still frames. A small world it is – country lanes, the interior of shacks and huts, a field, the militia’s headquarters. The perspective never widens, the outside world though not absent doesn’t matter, it stays out or gets sucked in. The characters do not talk, they sing. This may be film history’s first a capella musical. The militia’s songs are monotonous, restrictive, ritual, when imagination takes flight as in the case of the unexplained muse singer accompanying poet Hugo coming to town when his doctor wife is abducted, who expresses a universal hope and sorry that the people living her cannot and must not convey themselves. The singing creates distance, it forces the viewer to listen, to shed expectations and allows him to see things in a fresh way. It makes the unheard heard and lifts the banal up to the universal. For what is happening here is not restricted to this time and place, the struggle between oppression and resistance a never-ending cycle. Diaz‘ slow clean black and white images, drenched in a magic light, bright and twilight-like at the same time, real and as from a dream, convey a cold world, pale, gripped with fear but also poetic, imaginative, bursting rules just by defying logic, staying on a scene for way too long or depicting the seemingly irrelevant. For life happens outside the framework of rules, freedom is stubborn and finds its niches. Ang Panahon ng Halimaw creates its own wold, space, time, a fascinating, mesmerising song of life, with its own rules that free and don’t restrict. May the river of life, meandering but ploughing on, sweep away the dark. As in this memorable, dream-like, gentle and mind-shattering film.

Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (© Giovanni D. Onofrio)

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (Competition / United States / Director: Gus Van Sant)

In his new film, Gus Van Sant tells the story of Oregon-born John Callahan, alcoholic, paraplegic, celebrated and controversial cartoonist. He takes him through the stages, those of the AA programme, and more generally, those of rebuilding, no, building a life. Not necessarily in the right order, there isn’t one, it first has to found, worked for, constructed. The film jumps back and fort, before the accident, after but still drinking, during the sobering up process. The film sets parallel scenes against each other, speeches, before an AA group and a paying audience, it occasionally rolls through different times like a credit roll. Joaquin Phoenix is a scruffy, stubborn, trouble-making John, as he moves through infinite stations of repentance. Cartoons appear, they come to life, adding another level, a new perspective to look at reality from. As moving, unstable (even though in a tightly controlled way) as the structure is the visual level. There is a lot of movement in the camera work, juxtaposing edits, giving the film a searching atmosphere, mirroring that of the its protagonist. While the story-telling is generous and emotional enough to appeal to a mass audience, the way it parallels John’s development and redemption process, the way the bits and pieces only slowly come together, not completely but enough so one can make do, equals the way John’s life does. Both hilariously funny and infinitely sad, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot finds Van Sant back at the top of his game.

Das schweigende Klassenzimmer (Berlinale Special / Germany / Directors: Lars Kraume)

Based on true events, Das schweigende Klassenzimmer tells the story of an East German high school class in 1956. As a protest against the violent Soviet response to the Hungarian uprising, the class engages in two minutes of silence, a small action with huge consequences. Director Lars Kraume spends a lot of time focusing on the students‘ individual struggles and their families‘ reactions. The former works better as he has a young cast at his disposal – many trained at Berlin’s prestigious Ernst Busch acting school – entirely capable of displaying their internal conflicts as they struggle with questions and decisions way too heavy on the shoulders of 18-year-olds. They do this with more subtlety than the screenplay allows at times. Their inner turmoil is entirely believable despite some plump line of dialogue and entirely moving. The same cannot be said about the adults which remain stereotypes. the usual set pieces are there, among the old and the young: Truthful rebels and convinced communists, honest but weak parents only out for their children’s futures, an idealistic but equally weak principal, opportunists – the whole spectrum. Secrets are revealed, suspense stirred by a rather heavy crust of dramatic music, as Kraume’s highly conventional film unfolds in a rather predictable way not devoid of chaos. A little less of the old black and white worldview favouring unspoilt youth would have done the film some good, while its cast led by Leonard Scheicher, Tom Gramenz, Lena Klenke and Jonas Dassler keeps this slightly to roughly hewn film from being a failure.

An Elephant Sitting Still (Forum / PR China / Director: Hu Bo)

It is a sad world premiere, Chinese director Hu Bo’s first film has in Berlin. For An Elephant Sitting Still will remain his only film – the 28-year-old committed suicide shortly after completing his film. That this is the work of someone with a rather bleak view of the world in general and humanity in particular, is apparent throughout its almost four hours. The film connects the stories of four protagonist’s: a boy responsible for the school bully’s death, a girl whose affair with the school’s vice-dean becomes public, an old man who is to be sent to a nursing home by his children, a young man whose affair with his best friend’s wife causes the latter to commit suicide. Dysfunctional families are everywhere, cruelty and hatred abound, everybody blames the others for whatever is going wrong. Everyone fights for their own, solidarity is nowhere to found. There are no friendly words, no smiles in this gray universe. Chinese society is depicted as cold, based on selfishness and greed. The protagonists become outsiders exactly because they try to forge connections, be there for others. They’re the useles, the young, the old, those who have no economic value. People are distant, isolated which Hu often symbolises by his characteristic play with focus. While one person, often in close-up and often fragmented, is clear to be scene, others are out of sight, in the shadows or blurred in the distance. This emphasises the loneliness these people experience, their isolation from the world. Gray spaces are all they can inhabit, even outside a sense of claustrophobia remains. Only very gradually and grudgingly the possibility of a bond between humans arises, after various such bonds have become severed. Long sequences slow the pace down, creating a long, quiet flow that seems to be heading in one direction only: death. Pessimism is en vogue throughout the film, the view of the world and humanity very bleak indeed. This can be a little much at times as the hopelessness game is played to exhaustion. But then there is a silver lining, four people finally departing, going somewhere else, even though they think things will be the same there, too. The final scene sees their bus stopping in the night. One by one, they get out, observed from a distance. Then the boy starts kicking something around, others join, something like a community is created. A moment of lightless, of carefree life. Suddenly an elephant sounds, the target of longing towards which they’re heading. A trumpet of hope. An illusion? Perhaps. But it’s all they have.

Los débiles (Forum / Mexico / Directors: Raúl Rico, Eduardo Giralt Brun)

A man gets into an unexplained confrontation with a juvenile gang member who threatens him. Soon, the man finds his dogs killed and sets out to find the boy. A strange road trip follows in which the man encounters stony faces and somewhat strange and quirky characters before a showdown concludes the film – one of the rather unusual kind in which baseball plays a role, a leitmotif throughout the film – from repeated radio broadcasts to a gang guard to the uniforms of the gang members. What seems at first to be a realistic though somewhat fragmented revenge tale, told in episodes on the various stations of the protagonist’s journey, turns into a more parable, even metaphorical story. Quiet, cold images centred on the stoical hero who never changes his expression, take the viewer on a slow, unspectacular ride that is increasing just a little left of reality. As the revenge story turns into a search for nothing, the protagonist ends up at the end of the world, a place in a permanent state of waiting. Of Stagnation where confrontation kills time and violence is so pervasive that it becomes meaningless. And, in a darkly humoured twist, ridiculous. A rather bitter but darkly subversive look at today’s Mexico. With maybe just a hint of hope in its final absurdist utopia.

Danmark (Generation 14plus / Denmark / Director: Kasper Rune Larsen)

Gone, but not forgotten. Maybe it’s time for a Dogma 85 renaissance. At least, Danish director Kasper Rune Larsen seems to think so. Danmark is pure Dogma: Handheld camera, bnnatural light, no music, no sound effects. In pale, greying frames, the film tells a more or less familiar story: girl fucks boy, girl becomes pregnant (not necessarily in that order), girl moves in with boy, the part and meet again. The film’s strength lies is ints laconic tone and documentary-style narration. There are no dramatic plot twists, the banal and the life-changing are presented on pretty much the same level. Much of the film feels improvised as young adult and professional slacker Norge and teenager Josefine plod their way through a confusing new world. All is shown, nothing explained. The film is a little too chatty and not free from rather clichéd dialogue. But its light pace, intimate camera and authentic characters – Frederikke Dahl Hansen’s stubborn and confused Josefine and Jonas Lindegaard Jacobsen’s Norge between machoism and soft-spoken vulnerability – carry the film a long way. And find an unusual story in a more than tested genre. As unique as its characters.

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