Berlinale 2018: Day 7

By Sascha Krieger

Mein Bruder heißt Robert und ist ein Idiot  (Competition / Germany, France, Switzerland / Director: Philip Gröning)

Elena and Robert are twins. Elena is about to graduate, Robert had to repeat a year. Together they spend a sun-soaked weekend around a rural petrol station learning fer Elena’s philosophy exam.  Truth and time are at the centre of their conversations. Mostly Robert speaks, reading and paraphrasing from St. Augustine and Heidegger. Thinking is waiting, time is hope. The hope wanes as the film progresses. An infinite three hours later, blood floods the petrol stations floor, a body sits on the toilet and Elena has her exam. In-between? Endless talking in a melancholy drone, close-ups of body parts, water surfaces, insects, shots from above. Every now and then the footage turns grainy, like a half-preserved memory. Waiting for life to begin. Distance and closeness, action and inaction. Time is non-linear, circular, coming to a pause. Or at least, thats what it says. In reality, it does move on, slowly, unbearably so. Elena and Robert follow their rituals, live their symbiotic relationship. even a daring bet – about her getting laid before her exam – doesn’t seem to change much. They engage in banter with the station clerks and play around with a child. Not much happens though everything is supposed to change. They throw fits, reconcile. Out of nowhere an escalation. Unexplained, with not much of an effect, it seems. Philip Gröning’s film is trying to be an elegy, two people, almost one, at the edge of becoming separate entities forever. The camera ebbs and flows gently, the narrative hangs in the balance between episodic fragments and rivers of time. Time stands still, even when it hits hard. After all, the present doesn’t exist. According to Robert. But what does? Them? Julia Zange and Josef Mattes are at times captivating as this couple that tries to assert their own identities but cannot escape their collective one yet. They cannot save the film which meanders rather aimlessly for two hours before losing grip entirely in its final third. A meditation about time and growing up? No, just a collection of admittedly rather pretty pictures.


Mein Bruder heißt Robert und ist ein Idiot (Image: © 2017 Philip Gröning)

Khook (Competition / Iran / Directors: Mani Haghighi)

When the Berlinale is over, Hasan Majuni’s will be one of the faces to remember. The bearded choleric, jealous, distrustful, self-centred, frustrated, is the chief story-telling device of this wild ride of a film. He plays a famous film director also named Hasan blacklisted for undisclosed reasons. When he sees a rival lure away his old team including his mistress, he starts to unravel. Which is made even worse by the fact that a serial killer is beheading film directors. Soon Hasan is in the line of fire – first by the police, then by social media. Which calls for desperate measures. Khook („pig“) is a brightly coloured and almost excessively dark satire aimed at whatever it can get hold of: the vanity of the film industry, the abusive power of social media and a society that decides who can work and who mustn’t and that acts rather creatively when it comes to law enforcement. In Hasan all these angles come together and are increased in strength by a rather explosive personality. The film, shot in bright colours, fast paced, with editing similar to a music video, changes track frequently, is dark comedy, slapstick, horror tale all in one. Like Hasan, the viewer doesn’t know what comes next, the lightness and laughter always at the edge of an abyss. In a world in which the individual is constantly threatened by arbitrary forces (this could be read as a political statement), certainty is impossible attain, the threat of complete catastrophe and even annihilation always present. Any assumption one is in control is delusional and won’t last long.

Unsane (Out of Competition / United States / Directors: Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh is a prolific film maker. His filmography has rarely less than at least two major entries for every year. Unlike many of his colleagues who need several years for a film, Soderbergh has long been taking more of an assembly line approach. This has included quite a few thrillers in recent years, a genre which lends itself quite well to a relatively quick execution as they follow established and fairly clear-cut rules. Unsane is a prime example. Here, another aspect comes in: the film was entirely shot on a smart phone. This gives it a special immediacy but also simplifies logistics. It tells the story of Sawyer, a successful young woman ending up in a mental institution against her will where she meets her former – and very present – stalker. Claire Foy is convincing as a self-confident to arrogant woman trying to come to terms with a situation in which she has absolutely no control over her life. She plays her bewilderment well, her struggles to adapt, her attempts to manipulate the situation. The hospital is frightening in its gloomy ugliness, the banality of its 1970s institutional interior design. There is a layer of darkness even in the bright spots of this claustrophobic place. The film plays routinely with glimmers of hope, not even pretending they’re not  a ploy to make the situation even worse for the protagonist. After stalling a little in its middle section, in its later stages, the film moves at an accelerating pace, providing enough twists and turn to keep the viewer interested. Unfortunately, it makes too little of small hints that Sawyer’s view of things might be unreliable, that perception might be treacherous and truth not as clearly intelligible as we think. Also, the social commentary aspect, greed in a health industry built around profits, leading to abuse, is little more than a plot ploy. In the end, Unsane choses the path of certainty which makes it efficient but a little simplistic as well. An enjoyable but not entirely memorable film that avoids the more substantial questions lurking in the background.

Last Child (Forum / Korea / Director: Shin Dong-seok)

Suncheol hammers a hole into a ceiling. He rips off wallpaper. Forcefully, almost violently, filmed by a camera taking in almost the tactile nature of these activities. There are, it seems, more than a job. They are his way of dealing with a loss he cannot find words for. His wife Misook, throws toys and books into a box, obsessively with as much force as her husband has shown. He tries to wrench the box away from her, forcefully pushes her out the room. Their son’s room. Their dead son’s room. Director Shin Dong-seok shows grieving as a physical process, one in which those who grief are utterly alone. Only slowly, words return, in a a gradual, fragile rapprochement. The dead son’s memory is the only bond they share. It will be a start for more. When 17-year-old Kihyun enters the picture, the boy who their son allegedly died saving from a river, things change, decisions have to be made, positions to be taken. He, too, is suffering, from guilt in a much bigger way than everyone assumes at first. Lee Zi-hoon’s camera carefully observes every movement in the three protagonist’s faces, registers even the smallest sign of change, as those faces slowly begin to open – before being transformed again. It is a seismograph of the small shifts in the dynamics of their relationships as the three islands start building volatile bridges. Bridges that can be destroyed again – and rebuilt maybe. Last Child is a quiet film about grieving, guilt, forgiveness and the need to live on. Intense in its subtlety, its attention to even the smallest of signs that something is changing, happening in a human being. At the end, the screen turn black, breathing is heard. Three individual breaths that might become a collective one. In the greatest darkness, there might be hope. Perhaps.

Accidence & The Green Fog (Forum / United States, Canada  / Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson)

Guy Madden is a frequent guest in Berlinale’s forum. One of the unique voices in avantgarde film-making, he is an explorer of images, of their mechanics, their effects, the rooms they can open beyond the expected and into imagination. His 10-minute short film Accidence is an exercise in guiding the eye and unsettling narrative expectations. The camera is on a balcony where a gap in the railing and a yellow police tape indicate someone might have fallen down. The camera widens on more and more balconies where nothing happens, the everyday or the surrealist bizarre. Figures move from one to the next and so does the viewer’s eye, forced to make decisions at every turn. At the end, the camera back on the initial balcony, the fall happens. Again? Or is time non-linear as the final sequence indicates? Accidence questions the expectation that a story has a beginning, a middle an end, provides certainty. Here, nothing is certain and anything possible. As in film.

The Green Fog is a 60-minute homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. A green fog sets on San Francisco causing a rush to find a solution. This is Maddin’s (assisted as usual in recent years by his co-directors Evan and Galen Johnson) chief own ingredient. The rest is found footage. Using clips from old films and TV shows, he construct a roughshot plot featuring roof chases, car rides, confrontations, falls, kisses, embraces in a breathless multi-perspective mystery hunt. Apart from a few dialogue segments, Maddin cuts out words, leaving only the spaces between them. Characters are seeing other film scenes or even themselves on smaller or bigger screens. The answer to the mystery is where the mystery itself lies: in film, its mechanics of illusion, of making up and (re-)telling stories. which is what the film does, stripping its newly constructed tale bare, showing its parts, still and moving. It exposes expectations – for consistency, answers, solutions. Instead it only offers the tools used to provide them and constructs them in a way that has no conventional meaning. Except for paying homage to the power of film to fascinate, to captivate, to trigger one’s imagination even when all expectations are shed. just as in Vertigo, one must fall. Into ones dream, bit willingness to open one’s eyes. when one does, one will see.

Tuzdan kaide (Forum / Turkey / Director: Burak Çevik)

A woman is pregnant and looking for her sister. That’s all at least if you care about a plot. Although „plot“ is a concept this film rather frowns upon. Linear story-telling is obviously not what director Burak Çevik is interested in. But what then? The film starts with two women in a strange surrealist interior, somewhere between cave and womb. They talk gravely about life, death, the inability to know one another. The two women constellation remains but the characters as well as the actors change. The woman searching her sister shares various incarnations as she moves through botanical gardens, dark rooms (the photographic kind), ping pong cellars, TV repair shops or crosses a river in a boat. Sound and image go separate ways, atmospheric soundscapes re-emphasise the visual level’s surrealism. A new life is about to enter the world, another – the sister’s who seems to have moved through time – is about to end. The film moves circular and ends in a very different place than where it started – but with the inital dialogue repeating. A hermetic film, a highly estheticised essay on life and death, a surrealist painting with stone-voiced kitchen philosophy thrown it, Tuzdan kaide indulges in its impenetrability – so much so that it doesn’t notice the thin line between complexity and arbitrariness, between that which cannot be understood and absence of meaning. It is a line it crosses never to return.

Les Faux Tatouages (Generation 14plus / Canada / Director: Pascal Plante)

It’s the eternal boy meets girl. Reluctantly clumsily, Mag chats up Theo in a bar. Loners, misfits both. Driven by the just a little too superficially confident girl and half-heartedly resisted by the sullen boy a tender, fragile relationship begins. As both keep wondering what is happening, they begin to rotate towards each other, a miraculous love that cannot last. There are dark undercurrents, a secret only hinted at. And the certainty that they must part very soon. Pascal Plante’s film creates a gentle flow, the mostly hand-held camera giving the protagonists, played by the subtly intense Anthony Therrien and the sadly optimistic Rose-Marie Perreault, room to breathe, carrying them along on a tender wave of subtly warm realistic images. There are no spectacular swings or twists or turns, just the naturalness of an unassuming love against the odds. Music plays a major role, first as a valve of aggression, later as a catalyst and symbol, of closeness that cannot last, of inevitable good-byes. The parting, preceded by the fleeting ecstasy of the fragile poetry that is love, is as unspectacular as everything else and even more heart-breaking for it. The wave of life carries them along, soon throwing them different ways. The film end with one of the most touching and unusual duets in film history. A quiet, unassuming poem of an everyday love that shatters the earth.


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