Berlinale 2021: Reviews Part 1

By Sascha Krieger

Ich bin dein Mensch (Competition / Germany / Director: Maria Schrader)

Alma is a successful anthropologist who has given up on love and adopted a cynical facade following a traumatic event. She participates as an expert in an experiment to evaluate the ethical aspects of humanoid robots created to become a human’s perfect partner. Maria Schrader’s film is a quite entertaining back and forth as Alma struggles to stay aloof from Tom and not be enticed by his well-programmed affection which, of course, ultimately fails. It is to the film’s credit that it tries to address the wider-reaching ethical and philosophical issues of artificial intelligence and its drive towards becoming ever more human less in a preaching, dictactic way but as a natural part of the plot, of dialogue and interaction, by embedding the theoretical in the situational. It dows so by adopting feature of the romantic comedy, in a very Germany, a little rougher way. The taming of the shrew kind of stereotype isn’t too heavy-handed and the conventional storytelling has a light enough touch. In the end, however, the film opts for the easy way out, the lighter-hearted self-development slash romance angle. The friendly lighting conceals little but hides too much, the softening of the hardened woman cannot quite escape its sexist roots. Thus, the film falls short of the exploration of what it means to be human that it clearly tries to be but provides enough moments of hinting at it in a playful way to make it entertaining and reflective enough to send the viewer on their own train of thoughts – if they choose to embark on the journey.

Ich bin dein Mensch (Image: © Christine Fenzl)

Memory Box (Competition / France, Lebanon, Canada, Qatar / Directors: Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige)

When a package arrives at the Montreal home of Maia and her daughter Alex, Maia’s mother wants to refuse it. Alex‘ curiosity triggers a painful journey into the family’s past that is also their country of origin’s past: Lebanon’s bitter civil war in the 1980. The package contains a box of notebooks, pictures and tapes Maia sent her friend to Paris at the time. Memory Box, based on the film makers‘ own memories, pictures and recordings, is an exercise in how remembering makes the past come alive. Starting with Alex‘ own social media esthetics, her imagination opens the box, makes the pictures come to life in quite ingenious ways until present and past merge without ever becoming one. The visuals stay apart, yet enter a dialogue, get entangled with each other, in a web that has no beginning and no end, a knot that ties them together, that makes the one depend on the other. As secrets are revealed and the unspoken finds a voice, the story passes through times, through generations, not in flashbacks but in a transformation of time into something fluid. Past and present become co-present as do the older and younger selves. They communicate with each other, they ask each other questions and answer them, the wander along from image to image, the old entering the new frames and vice versa. Unfortunately, at one point the urge to spill the secrets, to tell the story as clearly as possible leads to cheaper plot twist, a more conventional narration and a rather kitschy happy ending. For most of it, however, Memory Box is a convincing exercise in the healing and transformational power of remembering.

Vị (Encounters / Vietnam, Singapore, France, Thailand, Germany, Taiwan / Director: Lê Bảo)

A dark, faceless world, shabby, empty wooms, hardly any outside world. Inhabited by naked bodies, first the functioning machines of footballers, later the more individual shapes of four seamstresses soon joined by a black man, a discarded member of the football team. Few wordfs are spoken, a dismissal here, a couple of rather universal sounding stories. Increasingly surreal tableaux, still, somewhere between Caravaggio, rembrandt and the starkness of documentaries, show everyday scenes, stills of tghem, precise groupings, elaborate dialogues between surface and background. Nothing much is happening, life is happening, an eternal waiting, an endless series of routines and repetitions in abstract, almost absurd, at the same time artificial and phiysically real images. The world is confined to these blackish walls, these sparse remnants of light. The women ride a motorbike inside, a pig runs around. Life is a ritual, rehearsed movements, repetitive, choreographed. Humans, an unrooted species, left in limbo, nourished by a touch. The left-behind, wordlessly clinging to one another. Sounds are sparse, too, singular, unconnected. – the ping’s grunts, breaths, the humming of nature. Later, the film awkwardly steps into the open, cautiously, testing the world beyond. The hot air balloons the women sew, remain inside though. An atmospherically dense, somewhat bloodless and rather stern meditation on life, loneliness, exile. And what a final image.

Moon, 66 Questions (Encounters / Greece, France / Director: Jacqueline Lentzou)

A young woman returns home to her native Greece when her estranged father fall seriously ill. She starts caring for him,, almost as reluctantly as he accepts her help. There is a gulf between them, exemplified by the erratic narration, the irritatingly eclectic imagery, the collage-like storytelling that reminds the viwer of as jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces don’t fit together. Wild angles, off camera action, hectic movement, surreal lighting create disjointed images, a sense of distance and bwilderment. They are joint by voiceover diary excerpts and old VHS footage to create a puzzling mess of fragmented language and imagery symbolizing the lack of communication, understanding and warmth. As Artemis draws nearer, Paris recedes, whe he seems open to a rapprochement she becomes defensive. Almost absurd family discounters paint both as outsiders, yet the bond is fragile, too fleeting to be preserved. Yet, as secrets are piece by piece first guessed at and then revealed, the camera becomes calmer, the narration steadier, the imagery clearer. There is now time for long glances, subtle, yet unequivocal gestures of trust, the body language of acceptance. In an excruciatingly long scene in which we mostly just see artemis‘ face, the ice breaks. No words, just a long-awaited gesture, closeness, a touch. The jigsaw comes together, not for a perfect picture – too strenuous is the imagery at times, too constructed some of the storytelling – but for a clearly visible portrait of a love, an understanding that is fragile but hard fought for – and aware of how much of an effort it takes to get there.

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