Berlinale 2020: Day 5

By Sascha Krieger

Schwesterlein (Competition / Switzerland / Directors: Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond)

Sven is a successful theatre actor suffering from leucaemia, his sister Lisa a theatre author on hiatus devoted to her twin brother. Filmed with many of Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre’s actors including their artistic director, partly on the theatre’s premises, the film’s glimpses into the mechanics of the theatre industry ate among its better moments. The style is the usual German realism, softly lit clear images drenched in a pale light, the camera calm yet without much distance. As Sven’s condition worsens conflicts emerge, especially in Lisa’s marriage, enacted in a more theatre style obviousness. Everything is theatre: from Lars Eidinger’s vain suffering to Nina Hoss‘ stubborn outbursts of despair. The fine cast always overacts a little, as does the screenplay which embraces relationship stereotypes while shying away from really following the siblings‘ relationship towards the more symbiotic and dangerous. While the surface is all drama, underneath it is relatively little substance. Emotions and conflicts are derived and acted out, true existential fear remains largely absent, most notably in Eidinger’s self-indulgent performance. Only near the end, Hoss slightly lets down her guard, revealing a hint at what the film otherwise just describes. But the face soon returns to its controlled expressiveness. All the world’s a stage as Shakespeare wrote, unfortunately, here it isn’t anything else.

Schwesterlein (Image: © Vega Film)

Siberia (Competition / Italy, Mexico, Germany / Director: Abel Ferrara)

A man lives in the wilderness, somewhere in the snow-bedecked north. He runs a bar where he’s visited by lonely other, real or not is hard to decide.For the stark, dark present soon gives way to nightmarish vision, first fragmentary, then all-pervasive. Childhood memories hardly rising to the level of trauma are mixed with never explained horror images of mutilated bodies or brutal massacres. The man (stony-faced with a mask of horror: Willem Dafoe) ends up in shabby haunts, prison ruin snd even a desert. Meaningful words are mumbled and quickly forgotten. The symbols remain opaque, the meaning hidden. What all of this signifies? No idea. A history of violence maybe, targeted against minorities snd women perhaps. All those naked bodies, the sex? An allegory of life? Lust? Power? Or ist it just one giant mess of a midlife crisis? What hits the viewer is a battery of images, paintings almost, the lights lowand focused, like Caravaggios or Renbrandts. Symbols without references, beautiful, grotesque, horrible. Dafoe walks through them like a ghost, without purpose or meaning. The pace is slow, the tone full of pathos. Yet, the substance below the surface remains undetectable, the foundation hidden. Is there one, is there a key to the puzzle beyond the manifestations of an aging man’s obsessive regretful musings? The film doesn’t provide it and the walk-outs and unintended hilarity suggest that few if any of the press screening’s audience have found it.

Effacer l’historique (Competition / France / Directors: Benoît Delépine, Gustave Kervern)

Marie, Betrand and Christine have problems: a bullying video, a sex tape and low reviews on a driving service’s site seriously threaten their lives, social and otherwise. So they set off on a mission to take back control. Through it they stumble just as Marie (award-worthy: Blanche Gardin) does at the film’s start – and as all three middle-aged small town dwellers do in their lives. They’re heavily in debt, constantly struggling with everything digital. Shot in a gentle spring light and full of the vibrant fresh colours of northern France, Effacer l’historique – the title referring to the voluntary apparent deletion of one’s online activities – is a highly entertaining trip through our digital entanglements, the ways data and AI and the internet have taken over our lives, told from the perspective of three misfits which shift between the ridiculous, the touching and the desperate. A fairy tale with a somewhat happy ending, hilariously funny, heart-felt, with tons of grain of salt so that even the simplistic message that simpler is better cannot be taken seriously, the film is a welcome infusion of life and light to an often dark festival. The characterisation is on point and while somewhat over the top, the characters are believable, at least as essences of human existence in the digital age. Full of often absurd ideas, a good amount of slapstick and witty dialogue of the naive and clueless, Effacer l’historique is a fitting portrait of the absurdity of our time – and its own.

Palazzo di Giustizia (Generation 14plus / Italy, Switzerland / Director: Chiara Bellosi)

An Italian courtroom. A man is accused of murder after killing a robber as he was fleeing. The latter’s accomplice is also being prosecuted. Their daughter have to wait out side. Hostile at first, they come close to bonding over a sparrow the younger of them has rescued. The film goes back and forth between the courtroom and the corridor, the serious battle of males, of right and wrong, the black and the white and the grey – and the children supposed to inherit grudges but seeing them slip away over a laugh, a look and a sparrow. The film expertly contrasts the adult world with those of the children and adolescents, not in a didactic way but with a quiet realism that highlights the contrast even more. The kids are not better than their parents but they carry less baggage and are more open to discard it. While everything is strict and rigid inside, the corridor is milled with moving legs, running, even dancing. The camera, fixed in the courtroom scenes, moves along, dances with its objects, smiles with them, runs and laughs. The contrasts are subtle, a focus on a sly smile, the soundtrack registering feet beating a rhythm, yet there are worlds between the inside and the outside. The parents are all loving and flawed, cursed with a rigidity they never quite lose. In the end, the courtroom door is closed and we never hear the verdict. By now, it has stopped mattering.

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