Berlinale 2018: Day 10

By Sascha Krieger

The Berlinale is a strange festival. When it ends, it isn’t over yet. When the Bears are handed out, there is still a day of screenings to go. Perhaps that’s only right: Berlin hosts the world’s largest audience festival and so the audience should have the final say. Having said this, everyone looks at the awards and it’s a rather depressing sight this year. Where Cannes and Venice pride themselves in awarding feats of cinematic art, Berlin loves being different. They go for smaller films and overlooked geographies, unusual work, they like to surprise. Touch Me Not, this year’s winner is such a surprise: an international production with a Romanian director, it blurs the borders between fiction and doocumentary, ans is daring in its direct and taboo-chasing approach to human intimacy. TA controversial choice and a spectacularly bad one. The film is arguably one of the worst in the Competition, superficial, chasing shock effects and artistically close to a nightmare. „An invitation to dialogue“, director Adina Pintilie calls it at the winner’s press conference. That it might be. A women director’s film with a female protagonist radically exploring her physicality, is a statement. Politically but also – and not in a good way – artistically.

 

Drvo (Image: Berlinale)

This fits the rest of the awards which also somewhat betray the Berlinale’s reputation as the most political of the A festivals.  While the Polish social satire Twarz deservedly won the Special Jury Award, two omissions particularly stood out: Lav Diaz‘ Season of the Devil and Christian Petzold’s Transit (olus Alexey German, jr.’s Dovlatov which received an award for its production design of all things). All three strongly political films but also very pronounced artistic statements, seeking a daring esthetic language to tell their stories and express what they want to say. The jury this year had a unique chance to show that political cinema can be at the forefront of the artistic avantgarde, too. They missed it. Instead they went for consensual and somewhat uninspired awards in the acting and directorial categories, including an award Wes Anderson certainly doesn’t need, and even handed the Alfred-Bauer-Award that is meant to value artistic innovation to a rather conventional film, Las Herederas, a film that esthetically looks back rather than forward. Add the complete ignoring of all German films, despite their undeniable although in at least one case controversial value, and the awards ceremony can be put down as an unmitigated disaster that could hurt the Berlinale’s reputation for years. First-rate and German film makers will think even harder in the future whether they will send their films to Berlin.

Generally, it was one of the more difficult year’s for the festival. Qualitatively very uneven, the Competition was plagued by mediocrity, films not daring to come out of their comfort zone, and a lack of diversity, unique for this festival that wants to cover the whole world. No film from Africa and not a single one from south-east Asia (no China, no Japan) might well be a first. For a festival that provides itself to be global in scope, it’s a disaster. Despite some strong female characters, a lot of stories still had a male focus, with sexist clichés never far off. Queer stories hardly permeated the festival#s primary section either, issues of racism and discrimination were few as well, the refugee crisis was parked in an out of competition documentary. In a world growing more divided by the day, it’s biggest issues seemed strangely absent.

This year’s Berlinale was the second-last under Dieter Kosslick’s leadership and the accelerating discussion about its future course seemed to paralyse it far beyond the Competition. The Forum is increasingly becoming a place for hermetic, difficult fare while the Panorama’s standing as – among other things – the world’s premiere place for queer films suffered from a lacklustre year, too. While there were still plenty of excellent and memorable films and while audience interest remained high, at least in its Potsdamer Platz venues, it has begone to undergo a transition. This edition’s problem is that it doesn’t know yet where it’s going. For the 69th Berlinale in 2019, it can only be hoped that by then the direction has become clear.

Drvo (Forum / Portugal / Director: André Gil Mata)

Blurred outlines in the distance. Houses, a village, at night in the snow. Painfully slowly the camera moves back. We see a boy scratching eyes from a window pane. His mother joins him. A room open up, the camera then moves sideways along a rough wall, until it finds another room and moves close again. In it, an old man on a bad. The sequence ends with a glimpse through the broken shutters. The houses again in the distance. This is the first of three sequences of Drvo. After it, we see the old man getting water from a stream. For 45 minutes we follow him through the almost colourless darkness. We hear the steps in the snow, the sound of the boat on the river, the bottles clanking. Not another soul in sight. Until he gets to a barren tree. There is a fire and a figure running away when he approaches. This figure is a boy, protagonist of the third sequence. He moves through the woods, enters a house, collects firewood. At the end, the twain shall meet and reveal their sequence. War echos sound, there is cannon thunder in the distance, marching German troops in the distance, the boy’s mother in a dream (the only daylight sequence) and then disappearing. Boy and old man are one, the wars different and the same. Time stands still where violence reigns, where death pervades. Only at the very end, words are spoken, breaking the dark magic of the film a little. Apart from this too chatty ending, Drvo is a mesmerising although strenuous meditation on human suffering and survival. Shot in just a handful of long unbroken  takes it mostly wordlessly depicts human life as a journey that might seem aimless but just could reveal a purpose, a goal when no longer expected. And even a little warmth in the ghostly blue light of an almost empty world. Where there are humans, there is hope.

Kissing Candice (Generation 14plus / Republic of Ireland / Director: Aoife McArdle)

Somewhere near the border of the two Irelands. Candice is a 17-year-old girl suffering from epilepsy, an overprotective cop father and a rather bleak environment, a nocturnal universe in gloomy pale lights at night and a joyless gray in the day time. A ruthless gang of cartoonish gangsters terrorise the place. One of them is Jacob who Candice first meets in a dream. For Candice, she has visions she chases and is haunted by in real life. Of course, Jacob is the good apple, scrupulous and soon haunted by his fellow would-be gangsters. Kissing Candice is a rather bland coming of age tale meet gangster film meet social drama with a bit of the dark past of this area thrown in. Filmed in an openly expressive style with plenty of visual and acoustic distortions, delirious music-video-style passages and genre elements from gangster to horror fare. Everything is painted in bright colours and aimed at maximum effect: the obtrusive music and soundtrack, the „wild“ camera-work, the stereotypical characters the cartoonish acting. What gets lost in all the furore is Candice, her desires, her dreams, her search for who she is. What remains is more of a pastiche of the gangster fare that has become popular on Irish big and small screens in recent years – generic, contrived and maddeningly lifeless.

Retablo (Generation 14plus / Peru, Germany, Norway / Director: Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio L.)

The first look is in the imagination. The screen is black, a male voice recites what he sees. It’s a teenage boy from an indigenous community in Peru, his face covered by his father’s hand. He describes a family group he has just memorised. His father will turn them into a retablo, „bring them to life“ as he says in a box that opens into a three-dimensional triptych, an art his father is a master of. Segundo is assisting his father with his work, the art of looking and turning the scene into reality, preserving the fleeting moment. Retablo is a film about seeing. It’s in the changes of perspective when the viewer sees what Segundo sees, in the imaginative glance at the start, the admiring loving looks Segundo directs at his father, the bewildered ones he is forced to grow into later as in the spur of a moment in a half-seen image that shatters his world changes the way he sees the world, unsettles his perspective, makes it restless, shatters certainties. His face hardens, anger replaces the wondrous look of the child as he grows up before our very eyes. The face is still soft, a teenager’s that still hints at the child’s it has replaces. But the man’s that’s to come is already lurking around the edges as Segundo is forced to make tough decisions. His world crumbles as real violence replaces the playful one of a youth already practicing the social rituals of the adult world. Intolerance strikes and changes Segundo’s world for the good. In the soft spring-like light of a world coming to life in the eyes on one who is becoming himself, we watch him do so, in the gentle glance of a loving as well as neutrally observing camera eye that shares its subjects emancipation process. It, too, will have to let go and does so as finally a door closes though not before Segundo has given what is gone lasting reality. Now he is ready for other doors to open but these Segundo will have to face on his own.

Adam (Generation 14plus / Germany, Island, Mexico, United States / Director: Maria Solrun)

Teenager Adam is deaf and lives alone, his mother being in a nursing home with irreversible alcohol-induced brain damage. His father is absent, his school degree basic and not very promising for his future. He watches porn, goes swimming and dates girls through Tinder. Magnus Mariuson plays him with an innocent openness that astonishes. His main means of communicating is his almost childlike smile. As depressing as his circumstances are, he doesn’t seem to be affected. Unfortunately, that’s not director Maria Solrun’s plan for him. Her film opens with a short images of trying out suicide methods, painkillers, plastic bags. They’re not for himself as we later find out but for his mother who made him promise to kill her if she ever lost her sanity. In the end, he’ll make his own decision, after meeting his father and falling in love. A gentle story of an embattled young man’s emancipation. Or at least that’s what it might have been. Solrun’s approach, however, is impressionistic. Short scenic sketches, separated and often disrupted by hard and fast edits, create a fragmented narrative which sucks the air and most of life out of this story. A distancing narrative in which the young man, not speaking in „real life“, talks normally, repeating bland phrases about not being allowed to live a normal life and the like. The disjointed narration complete with frequent perspective shifts, an aggressively impressionist camera, symbolic footage of swimming and aquarium scenes hinting at the carefree freedom Adam ist granted and some visual and acoustic distortion along with a piling up of clichés and coming of age stereotypes allow this willful collection of sketches to be hardly more than a blueprint of the film this should have been and which this protagonist and its actor would have deserved. And the cliched happy ending isn’t really much of a help.

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