Berlinale 2019: Day 1

By Sascha Krieger

The Kindness of Strangers (Competition / Denmark, Canada, Sweden, Germany, France / Director: Lone Scherfig)

At 2001’s Berlinale, Italian for Beginners brought a lightness to Denmark’s purist Dogma 95 movement that it had hitherto lacked. The film’s festival success kicked off director Lone Scherfig’s international career, so it seems fitting that she was allowed to open this year’s edition. One year on from the start of the #MeToo movement, the festival is aiming for a strongly female point of view. This Scherfig’s new film provides. It centres around a young mother of two who leaves her abusive husband to hide in New York City. After a few rejections, they begin to meet the title’s kind strangers, mostly people having had some low movements themselves, some of them being in dire need of help. Stylistically, the film could hardly be removed any further from Dogma 95: heavily edited, full of (mostly string) music, carefully composed images lit, of course, artificially. The story is heavy, filled with homelessness, loneliness and two near-deaths from freezing. At the same time, Scherfig’s fine sense of humour is present – as things get more hopeful, the tone gets lighter. The story has its issues, some of its turns are close to cringe-worthy, bordering on kitsch. However, Scherfig is clearly aiming at a fairy-tale like feel, turning a drab naturalistic tale into a vision of hope, centering more and more on an out-of-time Russian restaurant that, seemingly removed from the outside world, ist this film’s version of a fairy-tale castle. The way, she intertwines the various strands reveals a masterful lightness, finely balancing out the film’s heavy subject. The price is that it can feel a little lightweight at times and can be a bit of a tear-jerker at others as well a being somewhat flat on character depth and development. The pronouncedly female message of hope it delivers does feel honest though and has its effect. A brilliant cast led by Zoe Kazan and Andrea Riseborough does the rest.

The Kindness of Strangers (Image: © Per Arnesen)

Flatland (Panorama / South Africa, Luxemburg, Germany / Director: Jenna Bass)

One year on from #MeToo, this year’s Berlinale is decidedly branding itself as a women’s festival. This includes the fact that both main sections‘ opening films are made by female directors. In panorama’s opener, South African director Jenna Bass tells a story of female emancipation and self-empowerment before the backdrop of a still very much divided country. In a Thelma and Louise kind of story two young women, one black, on white, both raised together, flee from a desperate act of violence one of them committed on her wedding night after being raped by her – white policeman – husband. They are chased by a female black cop trying to right wrongs of her own. The tangle of loyalties and prejudices and very real power mechanics is complicated and could result in a fascinating tale of the barriers facing women of colour in a world that is built for white man – even a long time after the end of Apartheid. Instead, Bass opts for a stylish thriller full of nice visual gimmicks and a strong focus on narrative speed, rhythm, and action. All streamlined for effect, the characters remain flat, the storylines are quickly abandoned for more sensational ones resulting in a maze of confusing and shifting conflicts revealing the characters‘ true allegiances before abandoning that, too, in an ending as helpless as much of the film. So, what had the potential of being a Tarantino-style brightly coloured and over the top ending, exploding the mess of a patriarchal and still very racist system swept under the carpet of the „Rainbow Nation“ into a biting satire, takes itself way too seriously while at the same time, not abandoning its taste for effect. A wasted chance.

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