mon 11/11/2019

theartsdesk in Berlin: The 61st Berlinale | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Berlin: The 61st Berlinale

theartsdesk in Berlin: The 61st Berlinale

Cold winds and warm stories from all corners in the German capital

'El premio': Paula Markowitch has directed something extraordinary, certainly in little Ms Hertzog’s performance

Another 400 films, another rush for seats, another biting wind from Vladivostock: the 61st Berlin Film Festival - the Berlinale - has packed ’em in in the centre of town at Potsdamer Platz (mainly) over the last 10 days and hoped to light up the inevitably gloomy middle of February, and almost succeeded. But boy were there some tedious competition films this year.

2011's Golden Bear Jodaieye Nader az Simin ("Nader and Simin: A Separation", the lead actors Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi pictured below) was a hot contender from the moment the Iranian film hit Berlin. Director Jafar Panahi, nominated for this year's Jury, has just been imprisoned, so understandably a wave of sympathy for this abused country and its beleaguered artists has run through this ever-politically alert festival. Asghar Farhadi's story of family dysfunction, not among the tedious ones, in a society few outsiders have private access to is a natural Berlin winner.

Nader_and_Simin_Actors_TADThe Berlinale keeps all doors open, is always fabulously busy and is getting busier. With accreditation one can’t complain (except when, at press conferences, deeply annoying people ask deeply irrelevant questions: one woman this year kept on preluding with embarrassing facts about her therapised life - “My father abused my mother for 45 years” - before baffling the stars and the rest of us with posers dredged up from cultural studies: liebe Berlinale press office, more quality control).

So, films from everywhere can be navigated through a rich complex of cinemas, many in fact away from Potsdamer Platz. South America, Russia, Korea and, of course, Iran can be visited with this still self-renovating city, in spite (maybe because) of Siberian cold, remaining almost as stimulating as anything on screen.

Topological themes always congregate, I don’t know why - simply the accident of the earth shining through 400 flicks? - but this year for me it was Argentina. Let’s kick off with one of the worst. Un mundo misterioso (“A Mysterious World”), by Rodrigo Moreno, is an idiotic experiment in formlessness, aimlessness, vacuity. An absent-minded youngish man in Buenos Aires gets shoved out of bed, post-coitally, by his girlfriend, moves to a hotel, tries to pick up, or get picked up by, a couple of other feckless females, fails to arrive at a New Year’s party in Montevideo, has his choking Renault 6 repaired, then takes a drink and eats with the mechanic.

That’s it. I didn’t survive to the end (gave up when a solo flautist on the hotel’s TV produced the sound of an oboe). The film seemed to have ended before it’d begun. Moreno asks us to admire art when all that can be truly admired are, occasionally, dusty cameos of downtown Buenos Aires and interiors of its colectivos (BA’s marvellous antique buses). It’s hard to know why such drippiness ends up in the competition. One needs vastly more from a movie than geography and public transport, even one with a strong spirit of place. Cut to early in the festival and another Argentina-based (Mexican-made) film, El premio (“The Prize”).

One of my favourites, this film’s first hour managed to remove perhaps a quarter, maybe more, of the huge Berlinale Palast. In truth, only being wedged into the middle of a row stopped me fleeing too. The start is an agonisingly amorphous, nerve-testing portrait of a tense mother-daughter relationship in a collapsed seaside cabin, set in the late 1970s. The little girl Ceci (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) is maybe six or seven, the mother Lucía (Laura Agorreca) in her thirties.

I’m glad I stuck with it. Lucía is in hiding from the military in Buenos Aires, who are holding her husband. No concrete story is offered but slowly, very slowly, it becomes clear that Lucía is in mortal danger - Argentina’s Dirty War junta (1976-83) was expert, lest we forget, in the genital torture and ejecting from helicopters into the sea of thousands of young leftwingers - and, taking part in a school-essay competition organised by the army, Ceci’s description of soldiers as killers threatens to expose Lucía’s whereabouts. When Lucía, frogmarching Ceci to her teacher’s house at night to correct the truth, says to her daughter, who asks if she should write the same again, “No! The opposite!”, we realise that this grainy, unglamorous film is about much, much more than a little girl mucking around with a schoolfriend, an irritated mother and the sea (lots of sea).

El premio is about fear, innocence, mortal disclosure and fascism. It's unlikely to grace your local Vue, and even if it does you’re not going to suffer it on a popcorn Friday night out. But Paula Markowitch, the much-praised writer of Lake Tahoe, has directed something, in the end, of bewitching watchability, certainly in the extraordinary little Ms Hertzog’s performance, and also of haunting urgency.

PilarMedianeras, in the festival’s Panorama section, is a tale of two porteño misfits (played by Javier Drolas and the deliciously compelling Pilar López de Ayala, pictured above) who live close by but fail to meet and fall in love. We want them to fall in love, yet hope not for the obvious. He’s a hypochondriac and looks after a silly white dog; she makes auto-erotic love to her shop-window maquette. Lost urban souls. This really is about Buenos Aires, its lineaments depicted as lovingly as the two characters who flail about in it are irritating and sympathetic. Cliché is somehow avoided, dénouement cleverly postponed until the last 30 seconds and the whole thing is relentlessly charming. It also won a deserved second place in the public’s Panorama vote…

Going further off-piste into a small corner of German Perspectives, a section renamed Lola (after Fassbinder’s 1981 classic) rolls out a programme of new German films. One included Das Lied in mir (stupidly translated as “The Day I Was Not Born”: what's wrong with “The Song Within/Inside Me”?) by first-timer Florian Cossen. A German girl (Jessica Schwarz, pictured below right), a budding professional swimmer, is stranded in Buenos Aires and in the airport hears a song in Spanish which breaks her up. A nurse, we later learn, once sang it to her and she doesn’t, in this odd scene, know why.

Schwarz_LIED_TADIt transpires she’s been adopted by Germans working in BA during the dictatorship - her real parents "disappeared" (torture, helicopters) - and she heard the song in her infancy. The film turns on the duplicity in the adoption process of her father, who, because she loses her passport and suddenly seems to be in all sorts of trouble, flies down to be with her. Cossen pursues a sensitively forensic study of displacement and rediscovery, and this, way better than the over-praised The Lives of Others, is my most warmly recommended German film of the last five years.

So how do other German films fare in this indubitably prestigious, most lavishly funded jamboree in the Federal Republic’s arts calendar? Middling. Three more in competition can be mentioned and one entirely dismissed. That’s a thing called Schlafkrankheit (“Sleeping Sickness”), a Franco-German-Dutch farrago about a German in Africa who’s gone native and a gay Brussels-born African doctor who visits and is, of course, unable to cope. Mogadon.

Wim Wenders’s Pina, a homage to the late Wuppertal director-choreographer Pina Bausch, is more a homage by Wim Wenders to himself than to a complex artist. Bausch surely cries out for an exploration of critical perspicacity and perspective, not just a series of pretentious montages - in groovy 3D, too (adding nothing, whether or not you’ve seen the works, to bits of The Rite of Spring, Café Müller, Vollmond, all featured here) - or frustratingly mute encounters, faces only, with some her finest performers. If you’ve got Wuppertal stalwarts of the calibre of Lutz Förster, Julie Shanahan and Dominique Mercy, why not let them speak directly and intelligently to camera? No, too obvious. Short-changing, self-regarding, self-appointed Kino-guru Wim Wenders...

Watch the trailer for Pina


Infinitely better is Andres Veiel’s Wer wenn nicht wir (“If Not Us, Who”). This is a tough, narratively taut and quite depressing story, brilliantly acted by August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis (pictured below) in the lead roles, about an idealistic young 1960s publisher, Bernward Vesper, who fell in love, sort of, with an even more idealistic militant, Gudrun Ensslin. Ensslin was of course one third of the tripartite creators of the Rote Armee Fraktion, better known as the Baader-Meinhof gang.

if_not_us_who1Prominent and less prominent West Germans in the early 1970s were murdered at their behest, something the recently deceased producer Bernd Eichinger reminded us of, with uncomfortable sexiness, in the 2008 The Baader Meinhof Complex. Veiel’s treatment is much soberer, exploring the strange, distorted trajectories these post-Nazi, highly gifted Germans were victims of in a culture which, then, still hadn’t quite understood what had hit it 25 years or so before. The wretched Vesper became an acid head and committed suicide in 1971 (as did Ensslin and Baader, in prison, six years later); what Veiel evokes so well - the earlier film didn’t - is the trauma contemporary Germany still feels about these troubling, wasted dreamers.

In the English-language corner, there was the première of Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, which again - rather like El premio - will have no one hopping out of his seat reassured about the world. The first half-hour is a computer war game of eye-bludgeoning intensity. Fiennes stalks through the rest of it like an iambic Indiana Jones. Vanessa Redgrave puts in a predictably driven performance (almost stealing the movie) as the vacillating warrior's mother Volumnia. Its main problem is that it can't decide whether it's classical drama, violently filleted as it is, or mainstream TV; but recognisably a Shakespeare play it certainly hasn't remained.

Two US offerings, meanwhile, Margin Call (director JC Chandor: starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons), based on the Lehman Bros' collapse, and Miranda July's kooky half-rom-com, The Future, are precisely entertaining but feel untransmuted up against the Iranian winner, El premio and the impressively uncompromising - no happy ending - German terrorist movie. Look around, and across all sections: the Berlinale never fails to test.

We realise that El premio is about much more than a little girl mucking around with a schoolfriend, an irritated mother and the sea

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Another English language film - Thomas Brasch - made by Christoph Ruter. Insightful study into life of important German post war actor/director.

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