Berlinale 2020: Day 4

By Sascha Krieger

Undine (Competition / Germany, France / Director: Christian Petzold)

„If you leave now, I’ll have to kill you“, she says. Johannes has just broken up with her but Undine won’t accept it. Paula Beer is looking at him in the half-absent, half-defiant way she’ll only lose shortly when accepting her love with Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver she meets just after being abandoned by his predecessor. Undine will make good on her promise, becoming her namesake, a mythical water nymph, popularised during Romanticism. Water plays a pivotal part in Christian Petzold’s new film. It explodes, saves, kills, shelters. It has a hazy, darkly greenish colour to which the film succumbs at its very end. It contrasts with the crisp, cold clean colour scheme of reality, a reality – shot as always with Petzold in rigid, calm, uncompromisingly formal frames, a cold, antiseptic reality unlike the murky waters of love to which Undine belongs. Beer always looks a little out of place in this modern world here, only acquiring that look of quiet confidence when she’s in her element. The realism gives way to, squabbles with, gets mixed up in surrealist moments, an exploding aquarium, a giant catfish, Undine becoming the nymph. Driven by a Bach piano piece giving it a more fairy-tale atmosphere, Undine is a stark, poetic, rough-edged, yet – even though just in short, precious moments – surprisingly warm and tender tale on the traps of love, the impossibility and necessity to let go, the choices we make for love and for life. Undine’s relentlessness, her absolute loving isn’t for this world, Christoph’s gentle warmth is, or just might be. While the film at times tends to tilt a little towards the obvious, it delivers the somewhat surreal, fantastic and frightening extension of reality so typical of Petzold’s work. It offers chances and risks. None can be had without the other.

Undine (Image: © Christian Schulz/Schramm Film)

Todos os mortos (Competition / Brazil, France / Directors: Caetano Gotardo, Marco Dutra)

The Brazilian Competition entry tales place around the transition from the 19th to the 20th century in São Paulo. It confronts a former slaveholder family with its former slaves on a real and a symbolic level. daughter Ana is, what they’d call troubled, believing to be visited nightly by the ghosts of the dead, mainly, dead slaves. While trying to confront them, she reasserts white control, even violently in the end. Catholicism clashes with ancient rites. The whites are feeble, dying (literally, like Ana’s mother, in appearance as in Ana’s case), the black defiant, resilient, angry, yet even somewhat optimist. Shot in the eternal sunset of opulent history cinema with a touch of the gothic and told in a rather slow, very conservative way, the elegant images reveal nothing and hide even less. The ghosts are in plain sight and they have white skin. Everything is spelt out so the viewer doesn’t miss any part of the rather obvious message. The characters are little more than cliché, the African religious rituals looked at with an almost voyeuristic curiosity that cannot quite belie its colonialist perspective even if mixed with guilt. A symbolic connection with the present ends the film and all hope that this well-meaning but badly executed mixture of gothic novel, soap opera and history lesson might lead anywhere worthwhile.

Gunda (Encounters / Norway, United States / Director: Victor Kossakovsky)

Shot in black and white, Gunda follows a pig family though the short life cycle humankind permits the species. The film opens and closes with shots of a barn opening. In the beginning we see in it the head of a mother pig in labour, at the end, there is just an empty hole. One by one, newborn piglets appear and fight for their mother’s milk. This will be repeated again and again as the piglets get bigger. Life takes its course, the little ones venture out into the world, sometimes pushed, encouraged by their mother. The camera is almost close, at times producing breathtaking pictures of animal family life. Sequences featuring chickens and cattle are added, providing a wider context of animals bread to provide food for humans. While the close-ups bring them into focus as living, even somewhat individual beings, the additions do feel a little didactic and disrupt the narrative flow provided by life. Which gets brutally interrupted by man in the shape of a tractor-powered iron transport box landing like a hostile spaceship in front of the barn door. The viewer only hears the squeals and steps of the smaller pigs, the inevitable happens out of sight. Only the mother pig remains, restless, searching, confused. This is hard to watch, developing the force almost of a Greek tragedy. The relentless close-ups, the camera eye not allowing us to look away, the distancing black and white aesthetic translate the specific into the universal, a wordless – though in the grunts and squeals not speechless – parable about the worth of life – and the price we demand to get our fill. Fascinating, moving and, at the end, devastating.

Funny Face (Encounters / United States / Director: Tim Sutton)

The lit up city below them, two dark silhouettes hover around each other, shy, uncertain, loners half desiring, half afraid to seek some sort of togetherness. The night sky enwraps them as other skies, blue and cloud-infested, yellow, red will throughout the film. The width of the sky contrasts with dreary alleys, empty parking lots, closed-up houses and run-down rooms. Or the sterility of an upscale restaurant’s backroom. One of the hovering two is a young man about to lose his home, a bundle of nervousness and pet-up anger which explode in his face, his limbs his body. As does that of a building tycoon, another anger-ridden male, full of father issues. The parallel is a bit much, especially as it involves the title’s mask, a grotesquely grinning face the young man keeps wearing, an ineffective hero without super powers, and which will be passed on in the end. The other half of the pair is a Muslim teenage girl, running away from her aunt and uncle and drifting into the circle of that other lost soul. Together they float through the New York days and nights, mostly in the outskirts, close to the calming sea, away from the glamour and the money and the power. Drifting between the beautiful and ugly, the light and the dark, the calm and the agitated, Tim Sutton creates a portrait of a city having lost its unity, the bonds that it once pretended holding it together, a city as torn as its inhabitants. Those – at least those on the lower echelons of society, the upper class exhibit is a leering mess of distorted facial expressions – he depicts with tenderness even if they can be a little over the top at times, while creating ambivalent tableaux in stark colours, leading – along with a throbbing, ominously pulsating soundtrack – to an atmospheric density that convinces. And excuses for a few rather broad brushes in storytelling and characterisation. Overall, Funny Face is a successful miniature portrait of a world out of joint whose final image is a devastating as it it hopeful. Homes might have given way to parking lots but as long as one and one can make, too, all is not lost.

The Assistant (Panorama / Unted States / Director: Kitty Green)

A young woman is working at a media company as an assistant to the almighty CEO. His power is exemplified by the fact that he is always present, yet never one appears on screen. who does appear is Jane, played with a slow crescendo of partly suppressed despair by Julia Garner. She is centre stage, center screen, often right in the middle of Kitty Green’s rigid images. The office grey is the all-pervasive colour as the film never leaves the building. Garner’s face is the main story teller as it registers and tries to conceal the many humiliations, as she tidies up his boss‘ office and hides the traces of nightly visits or receives the wife’s anger over the phone. As a new girl arrives she tries to register a complaint but finds out quickly how all controlling the system is she is caught in. The film is harsh in its hopelessness, the antiseptic rigidity of the cage the system keeps those inside it in, is everywhere: in the grey, stark rooms, the immovable frames, the stony faces and curt voices, everything is part of it, a prison you endanger or escape at your own peril. A highly sexist one at that as down to the lowest echelons men assert what little powers they have, not acknowledging their own inferior place. A take on the #MeToo movement – the boss, though never seen but heard, is clearly modeled on Harvey Weinstein – The Assistant is an unforgiving portrait of how patriarchal power in the business world works, carried and told by a face not easily forgotten.

Kids Run (Perspective German Cinema / Germany / Director: Barbara Ott)

When the new Berlinale leadership of Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek took over, there were a lot of questions about the festival sections they might possibly cut. One apparently alway off limits was the Perspective German Cinema, a showcase for young German film makers in theory, but in practice too often in the last few years a collection of leftovers not sufficient for the other sections. If one goes by Perspective’s 2020 opening film, this seems to remain the problem. Kids Run is not only a film begging the question how it could end up at an A festival but also how it got made in the first place. The film revolves around Andi, a young father of three working – and getting fired from – odd jobs and left alone by the kids‘ selfish and self-destructive mothers. Everything is squalid, anything that can go wrong predictably does. Friendliness is absent, the only hit at some sort of bonding is, of course, male (yes, the film is highly sexist, surprisingly so, given its female director). It goes through every poverty cliché in the book – from the mother eloping with a sleazy criminal type to boxing as a presumed way out, from mean employers and landlords to the flawed father figure, from a mix of fatherly love and end-of-his tether cruelty to the threat of having a child taken away from him. Shot with a handheld camera, everything is unsettled and greying in the most obvious of ways, while boxing scenes, shot with plenty of slow motion and backlighting, are almost pornographically aestheticised, playing of course on the usual hero tales which obviously won’t work here. Everything is contrived, predictable, mechanic. In German criticism, the term misery porn is sometimes thrown around for films wallowing in their characters squalid circumstances. It has never been more fitting.

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