Berlinale 2019: Day 2

By Sascha Krieger

Öndög  (Competition / Mongolia / Director: Wang Quan’an)

At night, a car drives through the wide Mongolian grasslands. The camera is pointed ahead through the windshield, focusing on the small patch of light the headlights make. A herd of wild horses appears and passes. Suddenly a naked body. This is how Wang Quan’an’s (who won the 2007 Golden Bear with Tuya’s Wedding) new film starts. An 18-year-old policeman is left to guard the body, a local herdswoman keeps him company. A fateful night ensues which will have consequences, small an large. The modern and the ancient meet in the middle of nowhere. For a moment, before they part again. Not much happens in these mesmerising widescreen images Wang paints. Or everything. The horizon is low, the sky oversized. Remnants of the modern world remain far away. People sit leaning on a sitting camel, streetlamps are parked in the middle of nowhere, headlamps move in darkness to the rhythm of sex, people move into the frame and out, small, meaningless, or they occupy the whole of it. Öndög is little more than a series of carefully composed images, tableaux of loneliness and independence. But what images they are, what is in them even when thy seem empty. As the woman takes her life into her hands, connects herself with her land and its myths, the wide nothing becomes a space of opportunity just as the plain drabness of the town appears like a cage to her stony-faced one-time lover. Life, death and everything in-between. A masterpiece.

Öndög (Image: © Wang Quan’an)

Grâce à dieu (Competition / France / Director: François Ozon)

François Ozon’s new film tells the real-life story of the fight by a group of survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest ion Lyon and the Church’s attempts to cover it up. As the film premieres at Berlinale, trial are continuing and a lawsuit is even attempting to stop the film’s French release. Ozon focuses on three individual survivors, hands the story from one to the other before bringing them together in the end. This serves to create the sense of a movement, a collective and individual waking-up process, which this case as so many others all around the world continue to be. The film relies heavily on real documents which are often read over the images. It also captures well the different milieu’s – from the first victim’s strictly Catholic world to the dreary poverty of the last one. Grâce à dieu conveys an impression of being artificially constructed and at times has the nature, charm and subtlety of a public service announcement and could certainly do without the sketched flashbacks. But it gains life through its story, its carefully depicted characters and the dense atmosphere of those dark interiors breathing the air of the Church as a stifling, repressive and all-encompassing authority that keeps its skeletons well inside. Only slowly, light and air are allowed in, the world opens up, if just a little. Much is a little simplistic and aimed at clarity, conflicts can be somewhat mechanical but overall, the film succeeds in conveying the sense of an important problem, one touching at the heart of western society, coming to the surface, even if it doesn’t even try to transport the pain the survivors endured. It serves more as a record, matter-of-fact-like, a little dry, yet haunting. Not a great film but one that needed making and needs watching.

Systemsprenger (Competition / Germany / Director: Nora Fingscheidt)

„You have a lot of photo albums“, the social worker says. „I get one every time I’m kicked out somewhere“, the girl replies. Benni is a „system crasher“, a child all established educational methods fail for. Moving from one group home to the next, everyone around her is overwhelmed by her bout of aggression, her hyperactivity, her unpredictability. In pale images filmed with a hand-held camera, Systemsprenger is reminiscent of the stark realism of the „Berlin school“. Yet even this frame-work is not enough to deal with Benni. When she get one of her fits, hard edits and distorted imagery attempts to convey the unconveyable. Hard breaks let moments of calmness follow after the most brutal of attacks. It’s all one, all the same, all Benni. as she begins to form attachments and chances evaporate, Benni, played by the incredible Helena Zengel, emerges in all her brokenness, her longing for a home, for closeness, for being unbroken. Yet, all attempts fail, the system that is to small for her, cannot fit her. In the end, a vision of breaking out. A dream? A chance? Another break-down? Systemsprenger  is an almost documentary-style tale of a desperate attempt to help where helplessness reigns. And to fit where nothing does. A devastating film with more warmth and love viewers can handle. But they have to. Without any answers. The film doesn’t have any, we don’t. Just this face, this soul, this life. Berlinale’s Competition has its first highlight.

Temblores (Panorama / Guatemala, France, Luxemburg / Director: Jayro Bustamante)

Jayro Bustamante’s new film starts with an intervention. When Pablo arrives home, he is confronted by his family, pleaded with, attacked. His crime: he’s fallen in love with another man, as the viewer slowly learns. The camera seems as insecure as Pablo: it moves into close-ups and repeatedly struggles to find its centre. When it does, the frame becomes narrow, enclosing, imprisoning, increasing the stifling atmosphere of the dark and airless rooms. This continues throughout the film as Pablo tries to live his love before being captured by a restrictive society, that is as misogynistic as it is homophobic, a patriarchal nightmare. Bustamante avoids any sensationalism, all characters ate products of their environment, mostly well-meaning, loving even, honest. In the grip of an evangelical faith that allows for no diversity, nothing beyond the normal, a philosophy of guilt and suffering, they all struggle to assert themselves, most having given up. When Pablo is with his love and in his „new world“ there is a little more light, a touch of colour, a breath of air. As he returns into the social mainstream, the imagery turns more immobile, restricted, dark, dreary, discoloured. The story moves slowly, meanders as Pablo gets lost again and again, looking for his way. Bustamante allows his characters time to grow, to search, to question, to surrender. The ending: an exchange of looks, seconds only that feel like a devastating eternity. Society ’s won, humanity loses. And still, it prevails, underneath the surface, in the hints at life, at emancipation, at change the film’s characters provide and the camera carefully captures. Temblores is a portrait of a repressive society, a study in social pressure and a personal tale of conflicting emotions. Quiet, subtle, honest and haunting.

Kislota (Panorama / Russian Federation / Director: Alexander Gorchilin)

Life as a state of emergency. Light flickers, reality is distorted, water floats the apartment as Vanya has a – drug-induced? – breakdown. At the end: a death, followed by a funeral, a techno party, an orgy. Life is a drug trip, always on the edge of distinctions. 26-year-old first-time director, an actor at Kirill Serebrennikov’s Gogol Center, Alexander Gorchilin opens his film as a hypnotic trip in carefully constructed images, moving, confusing and ultimately resulting in tableaux which might even have a hint of orthodox iconography. He depicts a generation of fatherless young men who drift along, full of pent-up rage, not lacking anything but warmth, closeness, interest in them. Loners like Sasha who slowly moves into the film’s centre, a good friend, angry son, reluctant lover. As he tries to keep things together he loses himself while his friend Petya seems to be going the opposite way. A meeting with an artist who disfigures his father’s Soviet scultpures with acid ups the symbolism and serves as a catalyst for hidden ruptures to come to the forefront. The symbolism can be heavy, the dialogue a little wooden and going for the obvious, the psychology a little rough. Nevertheless, the film which after its hypnotic beginning turns into a series of calmer, more realistic Images drenched in a pale, dirty, greyish light, maintains the viewer’s interest through the fragmented, opaque, question-ridden performances, most of all Filipp Andeev’s (another Gogol Center actor) as Sasha whose aimlessness, stony facade and helplessness add a level of nuance and uncertainty that the screenplay and direction occasionally lack. Even though the film tends to show its hand openly, it is a fitting portrait of a youth left by a selfish parental generation, of a society that has lost cohesion. In the end, a decision, open, frightening, playful.

Hellhole (Panorama / Belgium, Netherlands / Director: Bas Devos)

Brussels is a prison. Walls are everywhere: the camera scans them closely, follows them, circles them only to find new ones. Rooms, which we often see through windows and doors or from adjacent rooms, are dark, dreary and narrow. And so are people’s lives. Three of them the film follows: a teenage boy of Arab descent, a doctor with a son in the military, an Italian translator. All of them are lonely, gripped by hopelessness, desolation, fear. They’re trapped in themselves, miniature versions of a city paralysed by fear in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The characters‘ stories remain fragments, they themselves symbols. As everything else: the walls, the stifling darkness of the faceless interiors, the skies detached from human life, the separation of sound and image, the sounds of human voices and underground trains. Everything is disjointed, a world of claustrophobia inhabited by stony faces. Stories would just intervene, character development distract. Instead, the film expands what should be a still image of a city in despair to almost 90 minutes. Enamoured as it is with its stark imagery, its stifling atmosphere and its way too obvious symbolism, it just keeps repeating its damning assessment of a society that excludes, shuts itself in, worships fear. The result is a lifeless, bloodless exercise full of good craftsmanship but with no interest in those it presents to us. Not a story, not an essay, not a poem but a newspaper editorial that celebrates itself and seems to be content with this. For the viewer? That is quite impossible.

Querência (Forum / Brazil, Germany / Director: Helvécio Marins Jr.)

Marcélo is a cow-herder and rodeo announcer somewhere in the deep south of Brazil. In long calm sequences the film evokes more of an atmosphere than he tells a story. That of a community far away from the spotlight of civilisation in which, as Marcélo has just experienced when he became the victim of a cattle raid, the laws of violence reign. Yet, here, all his peaceful, everybody a friend. For long stretches, the camera remains on the cattle, living their lives in forgetful bliss, creating a fragile but powerful union between nature, humans and everything in-between. The film, shot with amateur actors playing themselves, often has an almost documentary film, as if we’re just visiting these people in their everyday lives, while at other times the camera looks on from afar, as if in wonder at this strange and hidden world. Querência does a good job of allowing the viewer to catch a glimpse of it, of getting an albeit sketchy impression of Marcélo as his comapnios, stubborn, strong, yet also funny, vulnerable people lusting for life and appreciating it. A gentle homage that, unfortunately, lacks any ambition beyond providing a short look at something we don’t know. This look remains distanced, cursory, without much insight. A fleeting glimpse caught passing by.

Fourteen (Forum / United States / Director: Dean Sallitt)

In Fourteen, Dean Sallitt puts the focus on a friendship: that between Mara, a young teaching aide, and her best friend Jo, a social worker struggling with her demons. In a serious of loosely connected scenes, the film episodically draws miniature paintings of what seem to be rather random stages in their friendship. Soon, a pattern emerges: as both go through various male acquaintances, Jo more and more relies on the naturally insecure Mara to try and save her, a task that, as Mara’s life herself changes, becomes too much. They drift apart, the gaps between meetings become wider until there is a final one after which there will not be any. Sallitt tells this story in dry, plain, mostly still images, most of the time focusing on the protagonists from close range, interrupted only by long shots from far away, symbolising the growing distance, the lack of things to be said, the fading away of what once was a close connection. Tallie Medel’s constantly self-conscious yet quietly persistant Mara and Norma Kuhling’s slowly disintegrating Jo have all the room to flesh out their characters, despite the fragmented narrative. They fill them with longing and brokenness and confusion. In it’s dry, broken-up way, Fourteen tells of the limits of friendship and the impossibility of growing up, especially the inability top understand what’s happening. A small film that touches through its matter-of-fact ordinary tone and its unassuming honesty.

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