Berlinale 2020: Day 11

By Sascha Krieger

Nackte Tiere (Encounters / Germany / Director: Melanie Waelde)

When Benni and Katja finally embrace, after many fights, misunderstandings, accusation, we hear, faintly at first, then more pronounced, a heartbeat. Hers, his, theirs? We don’t know. But the entire film lies in this brief moment. The two are part of a group of teenagers in their final yer of school who form the core of Nackte Tiere, all of them with – mostly unexplained – parent issues, drifting, struggling through life on their own. Katja is a fighter, aggressive, unforgiving, a loner not easily compatible with others. Her on-off boyfriend Sascha is similar which is why they fit so well – and so badly. Schöller is the only one with what seems to be a more or less working family life, one who seeks warmth and closeness wherever it can be found. Laila, his girlfriend, has an abusive mother, and is still protective of her, while Benni is the one they all try to take care of, a lost soul sometimes wandering off on his own, one to be rescued but just might not want to be. The camera is close, moving with them, in an almost documentary-like naturalist fashion, it intrudes, doesn’t let go, stays too close for comfort as they fight, stick together, fall apart, go away on their own but always return to each other – until one of them doesn’t. The film does anything but romanticise friendship as it shows selfishness and the need for one another being constantly at war. And balancing each other out eventually as the desire to be independent and the care for the other remain both strong. Especially as grown-ups are hostile, ineffectual or simply absent. So they cling to each other because they’re all they have. Mentally, emotionally, physically. This fight to stay human, empathetic, committed can be found in every fibre of this energetic, often funny, at other times harrowing and always moving feverishly alive film.

Nackte Tiere (Image: © Czar Film)

Shirley (Encounters / United States / Director: Josephine Decker)

„I hope it’s a boy“, famous writer Shirley Jackson says to Rose, the wife of his professor husband’s assistant, who is expecting her first child, adding: „This world is too cruel to girls.“ Both women are in their ways subjected to their husbands‘ dominance, the older one’s work controlled, her life constantly judged by the eminent critic she’s married, the younger one giving up her studies to start a family and becoming a glorified servant to the older couple. Josephine Decker tells this tale from the 1950s as a nightmarish horror tale in which power structures and games become ever more entangled until it it entirely unclear who is playing whom and to what purpose. Painted in earthy brownish colours and filmed mostly in darkly glowing interiors, the camera is intruder and co-conspirator at the same time, enveloping the characters as is the world that prescribes their roles. Elisabeth Moss is spectacular as the enigmatic, fragile, manipulative Shirley while Odessa Young holds her own as Rose, starting out as distinctly naive yet developing a quiet fury matching her older friend’s more erratic one. Shirley has a way out through her writing, Rose has to find one for her self. Their increasingly complicated relationships become entangled in the story of a disappeared young woman Shirley is writing about. Giving her a voice emphasises their own need to do so. As they threaten to fall apart, the narration becomes more open and unsettled, too. There are no happy endings here, just the slight chance all might not be lost. And a film so mesmerizing, so captivating, so wrapping the viewer up in its unique story-telling which takes you straight into the protagonists‘ perspectives while not robbing them of their enigma, looking in and from the outside at the same time, so assured and consistent in its artistic vision, Shirley is one of very few true masterpieces st this festival.

Laila aur satt geet (Encounters / India / Director: Pushpendra Singh)

Based on a Rajisthani folk tale from the 14th century, the film tells the story of a young shepherdess who is „abducted“ to be married according to old local traditions but nonetheless desired by other men. Discovering her own independence, she asserts it subtly, wittily and against all rules. Narrated in seven chapters (according to the seven songs of the English title), director Pushpendra Singh manages masterfully to keep up the folk tale sound and feel, including some tableaux breaking up the more realistic visually, while grounding it clearly in the here and now of the Kashmir conflict. Traditions and the reality of an all-controlling military regimes are entangled with the lightest of touches while the true star in the foresty mountain landscape, dominated by earthy browns and greens, colours of life as well as entrapment. The pace is light, the sound balancing the serious and the funny, the rhythm accentuated by the many traditional songs spread throughout the film, making the film some sort of folk ballad as well – dream-like and real, relatable and a fairy tale. The final act of emancipation is heavy in symbolism – as befits a folk tale. Singh floats above and back and fort between different modes of perception, the allegoric and the realistic, placing the story both in a nowhere and a here, an always and a now.  In the end, the darkness gives way to the sun, a quiet last act of poetic defiance that exceeds the personal and the political.

Služobníci (Encounters / Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, Ireland / Director: Ivan Ostrochovský)

Servants (the film’s English title) takes the viewer into a Catholic seminary in early 1980s Czechoslovakia. Shot in darkish, forbidding black and white the film – centering around two young seminarists who have to make a choice whether they support or oppose the church’s official collaboration policy – and if the latter, how to face the consequences. It is a stifling world, a prison of the mind and body that director Ivan Ostrochovský conjures up. He remains on faces and bodies, emphasises repetitious routines, irritates with unusual camera angles shifting between the close and the distance, occasionally slows down the action to a standstill, shoots through windows, separates image and sound. Thus he creates an eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere, depicts a paralysed society gripped by fear and silence. Faces are stony, words sparse, voice low and dry. He depicts scenes naturalistically only to break them up in abstract, exemplary tableaux at the next instance. Time stand still and runs circular. Rigid images of defiance and betrayal repeat themselves, one as hopeless as the other. They observe as the people dry up, close themselves to the view, become the undead the system demands. Even the drastic and tragic conclusion to the two men’s friendship doesn’t shock. It is another incident that the system will deal with. In the end, all that remains is cold, the chill of death, physical and spiritual, which this film incorporates and visualises in an uncompromising way.

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