Berlinale 2019: Day 3

By Sascha Krieger

Der Goldene Handschuh (Competition / Germany, France / Director: Fatih Akin)

Fatih Akin’s new film is based on Heinz Strunk’s novel about Fritz Honka, a notorious serial killer in the Hamburg of the 1970s. Disfigured by an accident, Honka drifts along the lowest echelons of society, the drinkers and prostitutes, the drifters and the down-and-out, the cast-away and the forgotten. Akin dives into this hidden world, this underbelly of affluence, this sewer of flushed-out people with all he has. He recreates it, particularly the eponymous Hamburg pub and Honka’s apartment, with a love for detail that is only outweighed by an obsession with ugliness. Drearier, dirtier, grittier interiors have rarely been seen. And then, there’s Jonas Dassler, a 22-year-old rising star transformed into slouching, leering 35-year-old Honka. His sweaty, greasy-haired face in the film’s beacon, in it, all the lust, the cruelty, the misogyny, the insecurity, the despair of this collateral damage of German post-war reconstruction. The film opens with a long-drawn-out to get rid of a body, contains several acts of violence, including various very graphic murder. Doing so, it touches on the horrifying as well as on the absurd and the funny. The inhabitants of the pub are mostly caricatures and even Honka’s crimes contain an element of the blackest of humours. In its better moments, the film paints an impressive portrait of a stratum of society that pays the price for others‘ affluence as well as an intriguing profile of a man driven by uncontrollable impulses and fueled by a sense of entitlement not totally absent in today’s men either. Unfortunately, the film is also a little too much in love with its extremes, the ugliness, the violence, the show effects which blur the perspective and increasingly turn a brightly coloured study into more of a circus act, dragging out the spectacular far longer than necessary and at times coming close to betraying some of its characters, especially the women, in the process. The half-heartedly added side story about a teenage boy’s adolescent struggles and his attempts to charm a girl he fancies, in the book, a mirror of the main story, are wasted here. In the end, Der Goldene Handschuh does not quite live up to the high expectations, mostly because it wants to please, impress and entertain too much.

Der Goldene Handschuh (Image: © Gordon Timpen / 2018 bombero int./Warner Bros. Ent.)

Der Boden unter den Füßen (Competition / Austria / Director: Marie Kreutzer)

In Marie Kreutzer’s Austrian Competition entry, an ambitious young business consultant must deal with her paranoid schizophrenic sister. The worries, the feelings of guilt and work demands take their toll and soon she begins to doubt her own sanity. The film, however, doesn’t follow this strand, instead focussing on the brutal, ego-driven and patriarchal business world complete with a few clichéd alpha males. Kreutzer frames her story in mostly calm, pale, anti-septic imagery, throws in a bit of piano music for emotional foundation and largely leaves the work to Valerie Pachner who plays this Lola with nuance and subtlety, her face usually announcing any crisis with a slight shift in expression, a tiny falling out of order. For the struggle between order and chaos mostly happens within her. Increasingly, the viewer becomes less and less certain about what is going on, what happens outside, what within. Unfortunately, Kreutzer makes her way back to the safe track, to the portrait of a woman torn between job and family, struggling to be herself while giving up her identity in a male-dominated and efficiency-focused world that even extends to relationships. So, eventually, despite the constant close-ups, interest in her begins to fade as the story-line becomes more cliché and predictable, giving up on ambivalence and ambiguity. Also, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be: a comment on corporate culture disguising exploitation as success, a drama about the meaning of family or a study about losing one’s grip? All three? That, it doesn’t manage.

Ut og stjæle hester (Competition / Norway, Sweden, Denmark / Director: Hans Petter Moland)

Following hos wife’s death, an old man moves into a small village where he encounters his past: literally, in the shape of a neighbour and spiritually, through the act of remembering. Director Hans Petter Moland wants to demonstrate how we are shaped by our past, by our decisions about what to remember and what to forget and by small choices that can change a life. The film moves back and forth between 1999 and 1948 when the man was 15 years old. He experiences both as moments of change which he goes on about extensively in his voiceover monologue that tells his story. The ghosts of the past are manifold and range from World War II to an absent father, a dead boy , an abandoned daughter. Everything is symbolic, everything is significant: every word, every shot, every sound, every word and every event. The power of the past is everywhere – and more than anything in Stellan Stellan Skarsgård’s stony and lost face (he is only allowed one expression). His young alter ego Jon Ranes is allowed to alternate between child-like enthusiasm and adolescent rage but is denied any depth – which goes for the entire film. Preoccupied with its rather unoriginal topic of lives in the grip of the past, the possibility and difficulty to change and the decisions we make, it is just a two-hour series of heavy-handed symbolism, a growing-up tale doubling, supposedly, as a social parable almost worthy of day-time television.

To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón (Panorama / Greece, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden / Director: Syllas Tzoumerkas)

The film starts like a thriller. A carefree orgy celebrated by a few young people set against a police SWAT unit setting off. The youthful joy of the moment juxtaposed with its imminent destruction. When it happens, it’s brutal, presented in a matter-of-fact way. A day at the office. A female police officer‘ last one as she is forced to move to the province. Here we meet her again, a bitter woman, misanthropic, violently pragmatic, randomly abusive. The miniature world she’s arrived in is full of secrets, dirty ones, all, abuse, oppression, negligence. If anything unites its inhabitants, it’s an unapologetic lack of empathy. A dinner among friends is carnage from the get-go and it only gets worse after this. Director Syllas Tzoumerkas adds s second protagonist, Rita, even more broken than her counterpart – if that’s possible. But then, everyone is, dreaming of deliverance – some dream sequences half-satirically revoke Christ’s miracles and there is also some symbolism involving, well, eels. But there is no hope here, not in the drab and soulless, mostly darkish interiors, not in the pale, cold, lifeless landscapes the director loves juxtaposing. Occasionally, he goes for the drastic, whenever he feels he needs to rekindle the audience’s attention- which becomes increasingly frequent. The initial interest in the rough character(s) soon wanes, as it becomes clear there is no substance, no depth. Instead, these are cardboard cutouts of selfish, instinct-driven men and embittered, broken women, with only the cop’s teenage sone not quite fitting in the established patterns. The final acts of emancipation are as stale, as contrived, as superficial and effect-driven as everything in this film that knows no subtlety and finds no life blood. An indictment of a heartless society that ultimately turns against itself.

Die Kinder der Toten (Forum / Austria, Directors: Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska)

Loosely based on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel of the same name, Die Kinder der Toten attempts what Pavol Liska calls an alien’s perspective on Austria, or the region of Styria, to be precise. Liska and his partner in life and art, Kelly Copper, are the heads of the famed theatre collective Nature Theater of Oklahoma, known for their work with oral narratives and their playing and with and subverting of established genres. In the case of Jelinek’s opus magnum, which deals with the Shoah and Austria’s Nazi entanglements in the form of a dystopian zombie-laced horror story. Copper and Liska only too happily jump at the opportunity to make a zombie film – not based directly on the book, which, not being proficient in German, they haven’t read, but on people’s accounts of it and stories of those they worked with. Thus, the Nazi topic is subdued and woven into a wider tale of intolerance, ignorance and looking away including a group of Syrian refugee poets rejected at every turn. They return, with the undead spectres of murdered Jews and long dead Nazis, dancing a dance of the dead in a traditional restaurant while a brass band plays. The film has pronouncedly low-fi look and is executed like a silent film, the dialogue confined to titles, some of the sounds artificially produced and exaggerrated, mixed-in with an ominous and brass-heavy soundtrack. Absurd events abound, often injected with a grotesque humour, sometimes harking back at the ridiculousness of the film itself. For ridiculous it is, this collection of family dramas, car crashes, rejected help, collective fear and a fully-grown zombie apocalypse. „Death is home“, it says at one point. Showing a world in which death reigns supreme, the film translates the spirit of Jelinek’s novel into the present, connects it with the past and is as much a biting satire on a society occupied with itself, an absurdist celebration of life in all its facets and a wild dance laughing in the face of death. When the dead party, death loses his power.

The Plagiarists (Forum / United States / Director: Peter Parlow)

On the surface, The Plagiarists is a rather annoying piece of no-budget indie cinema, revolving around a youngish couple – Anna is a writer, Tyler an aspiring film maker. Shot on old-style video, the film’s visuals are gritty and pseudo-amateurish. When their car breaks down, they spend the night at, Clip’s house, an African-American man they happen to meet, later they spend a day at a friend’s place near-by. The „story“, involving several bouts of self-doubt and identity crisis, however, is the film’s least important aspects. As the title suggests, it deals with authenticity, uniqueness, originality. Right to its medium: video is touted as more honest, immediate, real than modern digital recording techniques. They discuss film and literature and the need to be unique. Clip gifts Tyler an old VHS TV camera he has in his position. Film’s pretence of being „real“ and „true“ is at the heart of The Plagiarists which undercuts it by plagiarising itself. When Anna finds out that a heartfelt monologue Clip held that night is taken straight from the book she is reading, she freaks out, holding up the demand for everyone and everything to be authentic. The film’s ironic twist is that most of its texts have external sources, are plagiarised as the final credits reveal. Thus the emptiness and pretentiousness of the authenticity cult so prevalent in western culture is not only revealed by the repetitive, circular and nauseating discussions but by the narrative structure, medium and textual basis of the film – which effectually employs soap-opera-style music to underline emotional, „dramatic“ or „deep“ sequences, thus creating another reference level. A smart, playful and cheekily creative satire on society, art and, particularly, film.

Aidiyet (Forum / Turkey, Canada, France / Director: Burak Çevik)

Aidiyet is an experimental thriller revolving around a murder. A thriller that takes the element of suspense completely out and it radically refuses to meet any expectations one could have of the genre. In its first part, a male voice confesses to a murder ordered at the request of his girlfriend. It relates the relationship’s history right to hiring a killer for her parents. While he talks, still-life like images visit places connected to the story. This goes against all narrative conventions and allows the viewer to create their own story and images on top of the two independent ones already seen. Unfortunately, after fake closing credit, director Burak Çevik provides his own, having two actors act out the beginning of the relationship in slow and pointedly boring banality, throwing in some divergence between image and sound and more still lives as the camera begins to move away again from the protagonists. What started out as an interesting and at least partially captivating experiment challenging genre conventions and audience expectations fizzles out into a confused and increasingly aimless narrative mess.

Knives and Skin (Generation 14plus / United States / Director: Jennifer Reeder)

When a teenage girl disappears, things get out of hand in an unnamed U.S. small town. Facades crumble, secrets are revealed, families fall apart. In the midst of this, her classmates struggle not only with what may have happened but also with their own pangs of growing up. What might have been a naturalistic tale of a community dealing with its existential lies, director Jennifer Reeder turns into an artificial and slightly surrealist parable of youthful (and female!) emancipation aa well as failed and possible salvation. Infused with a very dark humour and a touch of caricature, girls find themselves in a world in which roles have been contributed, male privilege is upheld and grown-ups are either living lies, resigning to realities or breaking apart over them. What prevents the film, shot in quiet, often suppressive-looking imagery, drenched in somewhat surreal shades of blue and purple and red, from becoming a depressing story of hopelessness is the quiet stubbornness of its young female protagonists who begin to assert themselves through first rejecting what is presented to them, then using it to their advantage as a means to overcome it. The film often has a symbolic, artificial feel to it, is underlines by choral versions of 1980s pop music which remove it to a quasi historical level that is closer to the world of dreams. Dreams that can be nightmares but also transcend the apparent restrictions of reality. A bitter, gentle, subversive film.


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