By Sascha Krieger
In den Gängen (Competition / Germany / Director: Thomas Stuber)
What an opening: Still lie the aisles in this superstore somewhere in the eastern parts of Germany. A peaceful twilight lies in the air. The sweet sounds of Johann Strauss‘ famous waltz „An der schönen blauen Donau“ (of 2001 – A Space Odyssee fame) fill the room while forklifts glide elegantly through the aisles. Director Thomas Stuber explores the poetry and prose of a modern supermarket – a world in its own, self-sufficient, a miniature edition of the larger, scarier one outside, which is why In den Gängen hardly ever leaves it. Franz Rogowski plays his second leading role in this year’s competition, a quiet, soft man with a floating voice that doesn’t really seem present. It’s the story of his arrival, shedding a past discovered only late when he has already found his place. Complemented by the sad cheekiness of Sandra Hüller and the dry melancholia of Peter Kurth, two of Christian’s co-worker, chief among a group of characters finely moulded no matter how small they are and excellently played by a stellar cast. The loving glance Christian directs at the forklift long before he’s allowed to operate it, is longing and a promise. A new life in the beauty of faithful efficiency. The sunless world has its own soft glow in Stuber’s film, brightening just a little as it moves on. As this is life, there is love and death, too, and a few clichés which can be forgiven. At the end, as we’ve roamed through the aisles and observed their grid from above, the camera fleetingly moving from distance to closeness and finding its space in-between, where both meet, everything is open, the rough poetry of this safe space, pale, a little run-down, but a refuge of its own, has exhibited a glimpse of magic. Which brings this year’s Berlinale Competition to a strong and moving end.
Twarz (Competition / Poland / Director: Małgorzata Szumowska)
It’s one of the festival’s most memorable opening scenes: a motionless crowd in pale, bluish light, faces with no sign of life. Then, the camera has moved away, a light comes on, a storefront is revealed, announcing an „underwear stampede sale“. Suddenly , the crowd comes to life before engaging in an epic slow-motion underwear wrestling match inside. It may be the strongest but certainly not the only scene symbolising the current state of Polish society. There is the family argument about the morality of emigration, the Christmas dinner that disintegrates into a drinking orgy full of racist jokes, the gigantic Jesus statue facing the wrong way before being „rectified“ in the final scene. A society torn between materialism and religion, a country without a face and because of that, even more fear of anything that appears different. Both come together in Jacek, a long-haired, heavy metal listening non-conformist, who after falling off the statue building side gets a face transplant, leading, after an initial show of sensationalism, to increasing hostility even inside his own family. Małgorzata Szumowska tells this story in a rather episodic way. She observes instead of explaining. The camera comes close and moves away again – the initial confrontation, for example, is filmed from the next room. Perspectives shift as does the film’s character. A sharp satire, it features plenty of laughs. At the same time, it is an intimate portrait of a faceless man, an outcast who cannot fit. There is more expression in this immobile face than in so many others at this festival. There is a dark tone pervading everything, a forest-like gloom and a grayness in everything. Realism is married with impressionism, with slow motion and sound playing a major role in expressing both fleeting happiness and much more lasting despair. As Jacek is disconnected from society, there are many disconnects in the cinematic language, distances even in closeness that clear the view. The perspective is internal and at the same time looking on from outside. A schizophrenic look at a schizophrenic society and a bitter as well as darkly funny indictment of a country more immobile than the protagonist’s face. At the same time, Twarz is a moving call for empathy and tolerance. On of this Competition’s highlight.
Ága (Out of Competition / Bulgaria, Germany, France / Director: Milko Lazarov)
Another great opening on this last day of this year’s Berlinale Competition. An elderly woman in some traditional outfit look at the camera. Then she takes out some strange mouth instrument and begins to play. a deep rhythmic sound, foreign, hard to access, fascinating. Ága transports the viewer into the Arctic ice, presumably somewhere in Russia’s north-east, according to the language spoken (Sacha). An old hunter and his wife live here, go about their business, exchange stories, dreams, mythic tales. Repeatedly she mentions their daughter. He immediately changes the subject. She, Ága, has left them to work in a diamond mine, a serious betrayal in his eyes. For with them dies their culture, their way of life. Vast and white is this world they live in, hostile but also of a sublime beauty. He lies down in the snow, drills holes into the ice. They lie next to each other, smile at each other, laugh together. An intimacy can be seen in the clean, quiet, gently glowing images, even when the camera is not on them. They’ve shared their life, they’re sharing its final stages with their deaths being more than individual. Strange shapes cover their vanishing world, bizarre rocks that remind her of a family, the hole he’s drilled that seems like a watery vulcano and a miniature version of the giant crater we see at the end. Man-made both, but the latter is a harbinger of civilisation. The camera eye hovering above moves, widens the picture, houses appear, a town, the modern world. Just before this, Nanook, the old man, has come to see his daughter, his wife having died. They stand at a distance, looking at each other, tears begin to roll down her face while Gustav Mahler’s famous Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony (yes, the one Visconti used in Death in Venice) plays. While in its later stages, sentimentality is laid on a little thickly at times, Ága is a wonderfully quiet declaration of love – to the last keepers of an ancient treasure and to love that lasts. Unspectacularly, ordinarily, magically.
Hojoom (Panorama / Iran / Director: Shahram Mokri)
Hojoom is one of the more difficult films to follow in this year’s Panorama section. It begins relatively straightforward: a young man who apparently has confessed to a murder is led by police to a restaging of his deed, This takes place in the confined world of a sports arena, in a team of a sport never explained or shown, whom perpetrator and victim belonged to. The camera follows the young man, Ali, though the strange miniature world of this. A world of darkness, separated from a more promising land by a barrier never shown. In this „darkness“ diseases spread, blood is exchanged. There is a pervasive fog in this arena which might well be a stage, a set, an artificial parallel universe, Ghostly green or red lights create a sense of being trapped. At some time, roles change, another young man becomes the perpetrator, identities split in a haunting bathroom mirror scene as the whole party is undergoing the same scenes over and over again, caught in a loop, in circular time, with no hope of escaping. doppelgangers appear, the dead rise, murders are committed or imitated again and again and again. The lines between reality and its imitation blur, the complex relationships and personal issues become more and more unclear, the confusion in the viewer grows. This is intentional as the film quickly becomes a parable of a society whose youth is trapped in a constant state of waiting, with no control and little future, ruled by forces invisible and unexplained. A challenging, abstract and rather devastating film that develops a strange and mesmerising fascination.
La cama (Forum / Argentina, Germany, Netherlands, Brazil / Director: Mónica Lairana)
What a devastating opening: a man and a woman, both not young anymore, naked on a bed, trying to have sex. Sometimes he takes the lead, at others she does. It ends in resignation and deep despair. Those first few minutes are devastating to watch as the camera films through an open door, taking up the position of a voyeur, an intruder. It often does in this film, shooting through doors or windows. This increases the uncomfortable atmosphere La cama has as it follows these two characters during the last days in their house – never leaving it – and, it turns out, their lives together. They will separate, for reasons unexplained. „I love you“, he tells her, „I will miss you“, she responds. The indirect shots are a taboo perspective on a taboo topic, love and sex at old age. relationships at that stage are usually tacked away safely in an asexual realm, where in reality they do not exist. This film brutally exposes this comfortable lie, shows all the despair but also moments of tenderness, touching closeness, in a fading yellowish light that has no warmth. All of that needs to come from inside. Often they’re apart, on different sides of doors, in adjacent rooms. But he puts his face to the door, she her ear. When she wakes up and he is not next to her, she runs through the house in panic. The complexity, the irritating contradiction in human relationships is all there, in the looks, the listening postures, the body language. They try for sex once more, technically more successfully, emotionally less so. At the end, the camera shows empty rooms, lives vanished, a life together disappeared. Devastating, unbearable, deeply touch, as is this demanding film, one of the most uncompromisingly truthful ones at this festival.