Berlinale 2020: Day 9

By Sascha Krieger

Sheytan vojud nadarad (Competition / Germany, Czech Republic, Iran / Director: Mohammad Rasoulouf)

A man drives down a winding ramp in a parking garage. Dreary, badly lit, like a maze he will not get out of. Near the end, he will drive it up again, no beginning, no end. At least not for him. In the first of the film’s four episodes, a man goes through his everyday life, stoically, without much emotion, not even when quarreling with his wife when she complaints about the many small instances of discrimination in today’s Iran. Small hints at a country in which all is not okay, but nothing (except maybe the moment when the man stays put at a green light on his way to work) to prepare the viewer for the brutal, abrupt, frighteningly matter-of-fact ending. Narrated in a naturalistic style, this unspectacular story suddenly opens up a universe of moral questions – and completely changes the look at the character and everything else we’ve seen. This first of four stories about the death penalty and the moral decisions to be made when having – presumably – no choice is the strongest as the film suffers somewhat from the problem of episode films. Having introduce the issue, it widens the conversation: episodes 2 and 3 deal with different choices when faced with the order to kill, the third opening the perspective on the consequences this has on a person’s life and those around them, with episode 4 looking at the long-term effects. This all makes sense, is well-observed and without simple answers. The quality of the episodes vary, however. Especially the second is rather heavy-handed with a way to easy outcome, episode 3 could do with a little less of the dramatics while episode 4 comes closest to resume the opening story’s serious tone, showing what the decision to kill or not to kill really does to those confronted with it. Overall, this is a film that gets under the audience’s skin, asking the right questions and mostly in the right ways. Not a lesson but a maze in which simple answers and clear ways out are impossible to come by. It ends with a standstill, a tiny car in the distance among a hostile wide landscape. Where to go? Nobody knows.

Sheytan vojud nadarad (Image: © Cosmopol Film)

Irradiès (Competition / France, Cambodia / Director: Rithy Panh)

The highest point in heaven, the film says near its beginning, is pain, the lowest, it will comment later, is man. This is the territory marked this documentary tries to map. The screen split into three squares most of the time it tells about (hu)man’s penchant for killing their fellow (hu)man – in war, in totalitarian regimes, personal, impersonal, efficient. Focusing mostly on the Shoa and the second (and to a lesser extent the first) World war as well as the Vietnam war and the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia, it shows images of killing and suffering, of the consequences of war – from the wounded to refugee trains, accompanied by a constant drone of heavy-handed music and soundscape accentuating the dreadful nature of what is shown and discussed as well as a narrative track narrated by two sombre voices going on and on about the vicious circle of war and violence without much additional insight. The images are supposed to speak for themselves burt are often drowned in the multiplication, the didactic narration and the soppy, effect-happy soundtrack. In specifically filmed footage waif-like creatures of pain add yet another level of illustration. The film’s idea seems to be to make the pain, the suffering visible, inescapable by its visualisation (hence the triple screen) but it has the opposite effect. Over-explained as they are, driven close to abstraction by the film’s form, they are weakened, reduced to vehicles to drive home a point that hardly needs to be driven home, they become instruments and cease to be story-tellers. Instead of giving suffering a voice, it drowns it out. And with it disappears all anger, all indignation, all call to action.

Minyan (Panorama / United States / Director: Eric Steel)

David is a teenager growing up in Brooklyn’s Russian Jewish community in the mid-1980s. Struggling with family and tradition, he makes his first steps into life as a gay man while reconnecting with his religion when he is needed as the tenth man to complete the minyan, a group of men needed to perform religious ceremonies at a housing community his freshly widowed grandfather wants to live at. Painted in the dying light of a long gone New York City autumn and narrated in calm, yet mildly lively frames the camera remains close yet at a bit of a distance which it only abandons briefly when David finally takes the risk and has sex which seems like some sort if initiation rite. The homosexuality is never discussed, it’s revealed matter-factly as is everything else, the Shoa which most of the older generation have escaped, the AIDS epidemic slowly gripping the gay community, the history of social humiliation snd the pressure to integrate the parents have internalised, David’s intellectual emancipation which is that of the second generation of immigrants, the understanding that reconciling with tradition and learning from those who came before is a key part of growing up. While some of the dialogue, especially the grandfather’s never ceasing stream of advice, at times has a tendency to be textbook, we watch life happening to David as it tends to do, most of the time in small doses, only occasionally in bigger jumps. Samuel H. Levine plays him as an open and, at the beginning relatively empty book that gaining in experience fills up with direction, personality, a more assured sense of self. Not all that mich happens but everything changes. Chances open up, disappointments ensue, risks present themselves. Among the closed and stifling rooms entrenched in the past a future opens up, full of hope and fear. While capturing the essence of Jewish life between two worlds in rich atmosphere and plenty of often funny detail, the camera catches David’s moment of self-discovery and the viewer is allowed to be a witness.

El TANGO DEL VIUDO y su espejo deformante (Forum / Chile / Directors: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento)

When Chilean president Salvador Allende was ousted and murdered in 1973, many artists and intellectuals fled the country. Among them was young film maker Raúl Ruiz who, at the time, was just working on his first feature film. Decades later, his widow Valeria Sarmiento, started to gather the uncompleted footage, employed lip readers to decipher the dialogue and put together the film Ruiz couldn’t complete. The story of the recently widowed professor Iriarte – if you can call it that – is a surrealist tale in which the protagonist is haunted by his late wife who appears to him, sometimes as a whole person, sometimes just as a wig in all kinds of bizarre situations. The film’s black and white imagery does indeed remind a little of the early Buñuel, a rather expressionist collage ful of hard edits, violent shifts in perspective and zoom, an unsettled caleidoscope of grotesque dream iagery which rewinds when it ends, moving backwards to the beginning which is the real (?) end. Quite aptly considering its genesis, the film mixes present and past, unsettles their relationship, allows them to crumble into one another, the latter becoming the former and vice versa. What is gone returns or stays, depending on perspective, what is current and real might turn out to be an illusion. The new soundtrack and dubbing adds to the film’s surreally detached atmosphere making it even even more of a fever dream coming to visit from a past that might never have existed in the first place. But it’s there, here, now.

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