Berlinale 2020: Day 8

By Sascha Krieger

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Competition / Germany, Netherlands / Director: Burhan Qurbani)

Burhan Qurbani’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s classic takes the story from Depression era Germany to contemporary Berlin. Instead of Döblin’s struggling worker Franz Biberkopf, the film follows Francis, a refugee from West Africa. This makes sense: the social fault lines have shifted, the downtrodden, the exploited, the cast-away, the new proletariat, these are the fleeing, the refugees, the migrant workers, the „illegals“ that end up as drug dealers, fodder for the capitalist underbelly, ammunition for the ideologues. The latter is absent in Qurbani’s film (he dealt with Neonazi violence in other works), the former all to present. Narrated by Jella Haase’s Mieze, it has the sound of a morality play, a dark tale in five acts. It starts in blood red, the sea Francis is released from and his wife perishes in, upside down, just like this world. Red remains a dominant colour, red light shines in the night, the nightmare that is this story of a dienfall. The camera dances around the characters, it floats with them, rises and falls with them. Albrecht Schuch is a demonic Reinhold, a symbol of everything that enslaves, abuses, exploits. He us the white man, wearing white in a pivotal scene, the colonialist partner that becomes the killer he’s always been. The pale lights flicker on Welket Bungué’s proud face, on his bewildered, defiant, hopeful, naive features. True, the learning resistance he’s inherited from Franz, the refusal to see the Reinhold principle for what it is, feels irritating as do the ritual daughter flashbacks adding a way too obvious symbolism where none is needed. As it stands, the film is a nightmarish dance of death, a dark poem in cold nocturnal colours, a universal, superpersonal morality piece, an allegory of our times. Refugees welcome? Sure, but where and as what?

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Image: © Stephanie Kulbach/2019 Sommerhaus/eOne Germany)

Rizi (Competition / Taiwan / Director: Tsai Ming-Liang)

Tsai Ming-Liang’s two-hour long film gets along without any words. If a few are spoken, they’re irrelevant and intentionally without subtitles. Rizi is essentially a series of fixed frames, observing a scene in long takes. The „scenes“ are taken from the lives of two men, one younger one older. They sit – as in the slowly intensifying opening take – staring unmovingly through a window at the rain, lie in bathtubs, prepare food, walk through the city, receive acupuncture and heat therapy treatment, lie in bed, sit on benches, walk along a road, the camera always a neutral observer. With time, the rigidity loosens up, various angles are used, there is even an occasional tracking show which, however, always keeps the object of interest at its center. This dry elegy of (post)modern loneliness is highlighted when the two men meet in a sexual encounter feeling more like a wellness treatment. Even there, they seem to remain separate, only gaining some sort of togetherness when afterwards, the older gifts a musical box to the younger man which he plays, the other man turned towards and, for the first time, looking at him. A moment of the quietest of poetry, soon giving way to aloneness again. But, something has shifted, the older man goes after his „guest“, we later see the two sitting at a restaurant together, observed from across the street and towards the very end, the young man playing the music box again. Some remnant of human intercourse has stuck, some sort of connection formed, piercing through the sounds of nature and the city, the film’s foremost story-tellers, the noise, the antiseptic quietness, the memories of life. An opaque, challenging, way too long wordless, (almost) tuneless urban song.

Orphea (Encounters / Germany / Directors: Alexander Kluge, Khavn)

In Orphea, German veteran film maker Alexander Kluge and Filippino artist Kavn revert the roles in the ancient myth about singer Orpheus trying – and failing – to bring his wife Eurydike back from the dead. This tome, it’s a woman’s, Orphea’s, turn. Starring Lilith Stangenberg, a mixture of bar brawler and paper thin ghost, the film is a wild collage going though the ages – from ancient mythology through Russian and American research to defeat or at least delay death to collective sources of death such as refugee movements and war. Stangenberg sings Russian revolution songs and wades through the slums of Manila, recites ancient texts wearing bizarre masks, moves in front of badly disguised bluescreens (a Kluge trademark), slides along in a boat along the „Lethe“ river, celebrates wild underworld parties, talks about mammoths and snakes, both animal with some connection to death. Her weapon in music which she uses quite violently and at times rather brutally to the ear. Association abound, text titles act like word clouds, the lo-fi trash aesthetics emphasise the made an experimental nature if the effort. Some fine visual distortions lead nowhere, the haphazard editing annoys, the would-be cheap look tires. Soon, among all the ideas, the basic premise is lost, the female perspective replaceable as Stangenberg occasionally moves her lips to Kluge’s voice. Paraphrasing Ingmar Bergman, Stangenberg once talks about art being dead, comparing it to a snake skin infested by ants. It looks alive but isn’t. Which is a rather apt description of this film.

The Trouble with Being Born (Encounters / Germany, Austria / Directors: Sandra Wollner)

The soft summer light the early part of this film is drenched in sets the tone. It hints at ease, as light-hearted, love filled father daughter relationship among the slightly palish green of the trees, the dancing soft blue of the pool, the tenderly blinding sun glimpsing through the forest. Yet, there is also an eerie feel to it, the light is not clear, the colours a little hazy, as if we see the world through a veil, there is unease in the lightness. Sandra Wollner’s film is a master class in creating and sustaining atmosphere, in in creating the sense that beyond the surface of reality there is something darker, something disturbing. She throws in subtle irritations, in the looks, the behaviours, the reactions of the characters, something not immediately to be grasped, easy to be missed but, in its entirety, ultimately inescapable. The girl, it turns out, is an android, replacing a daughter lost long ago. And suddenly the relationship looks different, feels different, appears inappropriate. Wollner doesn’t discuss the depths, the dark sides of family relationships, it shows them in action through the most subtle of shifts – between the normal and the abyss lie inches. She does so in two instances as another family trauma is re-enacted, this time in greyer, more desolate colours. The android, in the second part a boy, remembers, it is her and him who carry the narration, they process their „masters'“ memories, making them their own, re-tell, re-imagine stories, keeping the circle alive, of grief, denial, abuse, violence. An unsparing, scary look at human relationships, at their pretenses, at their selfish natures, unsettling and unsettled as is the open narrative structure of this film that couples the circular with open ends. Uncompromising, mesmerising, haunting.

Anne at 13,000 ft (Forum / Canada, United States / Director: Kazik Radwanski)

Anne does a tandem skydive, Ann plays sith children at the daycare she works at. The camera as unsettled as her face, as her state. Erratic, uncontrollably giggling, between nervous breakdown and exhilaration, depressed nausea and quiet playfulness. Edited so that the two sets of scenes clash violently, this opening sequence sets the tone. No, Anne is not well. She is erratic, moody, constantly challenging those around her, she questions and breaks rules, dates as violently as she fights, drinks, parties and plays. The hand-held camera is always close, always seeking her face, as restless as its object, finding and losing focus, often ending up in extreme close-ups, the face dissolving into fragments, into unsettled features. Anne at 13,000 ft is a portrait of a woman on the edge, not conforming to what society demands, moving as seemingly randomly as its protagonist, bumping into limits – frames, focus, clarity – as she does. An inside view that doesn’t really get inside, that depicts but can’t explain. Deragh Campbell plays her as a constant explosion waiting to happen, ranging from paralyzed to violentlY agitated. The middle ground is the only place she cannot reach – and neither dies this remarkable, highly empathetic, clueless yet never depressive film.

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