When good ideas go wrong
Fifty-five years ago, an American officer, Oscar Martay, came up with the idea of an international film festival for Berlin. The costs were partially covered by the postwar American military administration for the first few years. There’s a glitzy, hooray-for-Hollywood aspect to the Berlinale that’s much explained by this. In a city that misses no opportunity to invoke its kino past (postcards of the former wall and the Brandenburg Gate share racks with Metropolis stills and Marlene Dietrich’s bedroom-ready gaze), the festival has the same sense of scrambling for an identity that plagues Berlin: too eager by half to embrace the red-carpetry of the Academy Awards and to position itself as a kind of East Village on the Spree.
At the same time, there’s a surprisingly rinky-dink quality to the proceedings that puts the lie to the German efficiency stereotype. Though more than 3,000 industry and press had access, the screening schedule and venues seemed geared for 300. The bulk of the entries screen at woefully inadequate multiplexes, resulting in a crush to get in or out between films. Though there’s obviously no cash to build new cinemas, the staff rarely took advantage of the separate exits to the cinemas. It sounds a small thing, but embittered is not the way you want to watch a movie.
With nearly 400 films from 100 countries and screening schedules more often in conflict than in tandem, I tried to sample as many options as possible. Overall, this Berlinale felt transitional, with Asia the source of the most provocative and original work. The highlights are first, with shorter takes on the less interesting offerings.
Among the German films not having to do with the Third Reich, two were particularly striking. Willenbrock, Andreas Dresen’s send-up of the eponymous womanizing, gluttonous, go-getter second-hand car dealer (Axel Prahl) had the sprawl and messiness of a comic novel (in fact it’s based on Christoph Hein’s story of the same name). Willenbrock is the kind of guy who gives all his women the same perfume, completely baffled when they get upset; who sings along to Katrina and the Waves doing “Walkin’ on Sunshine” as if it were his anthem; and who asks no questions when one of his Russian customers buys several cars at once. For all its caper qualities — a series of burglaries leads Willenbrock to a belated maturity — the film addresses East-West tensions (Willenbrock stayed behind when his brother escaped the GDR) wryly and without hectoring.
The Beat My Heart Skipped, directed by Jacques Audiard, also deals with a son protective of his father’s failings. A remake of James Toback’s Fingers, The Beat My Heart Skipped benefited greatly from its star Romain Duris, physically a cross between Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis, his performance full of their same full-throttle intensity. The son of a concert pianist, he began following in his mother’s career but opted instead to help his father (Niels Arrestrup) manage his small-time real estate holdings, often bullying delinquent tenants or plaguing them with an infestation of rats. The mother’s death has left him both partner and protector to his father. When the former pianist runs into his mother’s agent one night, he surprises himself by asking for an audition. He enlists the help of a non-French-speaking Chinese virtuoso, which leads him to unexpected changes in his life. Filmed in a hallucinatory style, with a delectable soundtrack, The Beat My Heart Skipped keeps great pace until its last few scenes, the complexity of the son’s motives unfortunately chalked up to simple revenge.
The father is also seminal in Jacob Thuesen’s Accused (right), though in quite a different way. Judging by recent films, things may not be quite rotten in Denmark, but Scandinavians seem no more immune to family horrors than we do. Accused presents a small, modern, apparently ideal family: swimming teacher Henrik (Troels Lyby), his wife Nina (Sofie Gråbøl), and their 14-year-old daughter Stine (Kristine Rosenkrands). Their neat and tidy life virtually collapses when Stine tells her school therapist that Henrik has molested her. Thuesen incorporates many lessons from Hitchcock, whom he credits as his greatest influence, especially the ability to construct an apparently objective situation from an utterly skewed perspective. Stine, whom we don’t see until nearly halfway into the film and initially mediated by a video monitor, gradually emerges as a force nearly equal to her father’s. Though not as overtly brutal as Celebration, Accused has a similarly fearless approach to middle-class assumptions and their often devastating consequences.
Family is also key to Kari Paljakka’s For the Living and the Dead, which details the harrowing adjustments of a young clan as they adjust to the death of the youngest son. As the mother (Katja Kukkola) succumbs to acute, personality-altering grief, the father (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), still seriously wounded from his efforts to rescue his child, grudgingly assumes more family responsibilities. The remaining son (Johannes Paljakka) initially thrills to the idea that all the toys are his and seemingly callously invokes his absent sibling to rile his parents. But months after the death he also insists on setting four places for dinner every night and makes furtive calls from school to be sure his parents are still among the living. In the style of Ingmar Bergman, Paljakka gives each character clinical attention, allowing for the seemingly crazy forms grief can take, such as when the father holds a mirror over his son’s sleeping face to be sure he hasn’t died. Grief is something we’re often told we’ll get through or get over; Paljakka gives a sense of the untidy, unpredictable process in coming to terms with what our brains never really accept.
First-time director Gu Changwei (the cinematographer on Red Sorghum and Farewell, My Concubine) offers sensitive and revelatory insights into Chinese family life with Peacock (right). Detailing the travails of a small-town, working-class Chinese family from 1977 to 1984, Gu shows the culture from the inside out, the atmosphere and plot more aligned with Chinese folklore than with Maoist revolution. Parents Huang Meying and Zhao Yiwei ineptly guide their three children: the favored eldest, Feng Li, whose bout of cerebral fever has left him slightly retarded; younger brother Lu Yulai; and middle sister and instigator Zhang Jingchu. Each of the siblings’ travails with work and love is punctuated by a family meal on the communal balcony of their modest dwelling; the repetition t gives each episode a literary feel. The film has the dulled colors of “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” postcards from the ’70s and along-the-way details of the limits of ordinary Chinese life, but its greatest strength lies in its anarchic streak. Nothing is over-explained, with some of what occurs left very vague, and the effect is both revealing and quite private. Gu’s small focus results in a film as epic and varied as a good novel.
Another Everyman version of China is the documentary Before the Flood. Directed by Yan Lu and Li Yifan, it chronicles in sometimes far too great detail the travails of the local residents in one of the towns in the Three Gorges area, where China has begun construction of what will be the largest dam in the world. Completion is slated for 2009, at which time towns and territories will be flooded out. The filmmakers focuses on Fengjie, which is included in the evacuation despite its fame as the hometown of poet Li Bai. In scene after scene, it looks like a war zone, as piece by piece the residents dismantle it and move on. The film offers a rare window on how Chinese society works at the local official level, with the same sorts of personal disputes that beset people the world over but in the “comradely” context of Communism. While various parties argue over who will move where, teams of scavengers scoop up any scrap wood or metal not nailed down, their formic intensity strangely mesmerizing. It’s hard as an American not to be aware of how much use other places make of every nut, bolt, and splinter compared to our generally wasteful ways. Clearly, the resettlement plans were hatched on paper with no thought to the actual inhabitants — not that the Maoists have cornered any market on bad planning. The long takes and obsessive details in Before the Flood give an intense idea of day-to-day small-town Chinese life — which still includes consulting with soothsayers about auspicious days and blindingly quick calculations on the abacus. Prosaic, reporterly filmmaking makes Before the Flood sometimes feel waterlogged, but the end result is an intense, informative look at a commercial decision with untold human consequences.
Another little-exposed part of the world surfaces in Mark Dornford-May’s U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (right), which transfers Georges Bizet’s opera to the township of Seville, South Africa. Sung in Xhosa and by singers both appealing and vocally gifted — especially Pauline Malefane in the title role — this is a wide-ranging and unstuffy version of the opera that leaves out none of the high drama of the original. The setting mostly works, though there are times when its noble intentions are more in evidence than really interesting filmmaking, the result a kind of cultural travelogue. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha resonates primarily as a document of the vast changes in recent South African history.
Isolated characters figure in two of the most interesting of the several Asian films. Food and eating are at the center of the uneven but consistently interesting Shin Sung-Il Is Lost, directed by Shin Jane. Shin Sung-Il (Cho Hyun-sik) lives at an orphanage whose zealot Christian director economizes by convincing her charges that eating is disgusting and appetite sinful. The surreal premise is backed up by striking images of the isolated orphanage reminiscent of neorealist Italian films and even Andrei Tarkovsky. As the only plump child, Sung-Il is endlessly teased by his peers, free only when he finally escapes and discovers, among other things, the acceptable and often pleasant social event that eating usually is. Shin Jane cleverly leaves the particular aim of her satire vague, constructing instead a singular coming-of-age story that seems inspired as much by the peculiar tales of Henry Darger as by Korean political and social realities.
In Mongolian Ping Pong (right), Ning Hao examines the effect an ordinary ping pong ball has on a tiny Mongolian community. The only contact with the outside world is the travellers who come through and get the family to pose as local color. A little boy (Hurzbileg) finds the ball floating in the river, and when he shows it to his grandmother, she says it’s a glowing pearl. A traveling projectionist tells them that it’s a ping pong ball and a few weeks later, the boy and his friends see television for the first time. When the commentator says that it’s the “national ball,” the three boys resolve to go to Beijing to return the treasure to where it belongs. Stunning to look at, Mongolian Ping Pong shows some of the few people still not fully in the media loop without condescension or judgment without sweetening them into stereotyped “simple folk.” The last scene, which relies on sound rather than sight, recaptures the wonder of first finding the magical ball in the river.
For most of the world, Palestine is framed by our television sets, our view generally of the bombed-out remnants of buildings, stony landscapes, and the ubiquitous checkpoints. The most important film at the Berlinale was Paradise Now, an unsentimental chronicle of two would-be suicide bombers. Director Hany Abu-Assad opens his unsettling and thoughtful film with a scene composed nearly entirely of gestures as Suha (Lubna Azabal) negotiates a checkpoint. The daughter of a revered Palestinian martyr, her link to the bombers is coincidental: Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Said (Kais Nashef) have just fixed her car. There’s a mild flirtation between her and Said. The friends must maintain total secrecy about their mission, with the film centered on their last 24 hours as they try to bid farewell to loved ones without betraying their secret. The minimal explanations stress how boring and blank existence is for these young men, bled dry of any sense of purpose or glory other than this fatal step. The most crucial scenes are almost free of dialogue; the emphasis is on gestures and especially on the characters’ eyes. It’s as though there’s nothing more to say, it’s all been talked out, and now the only way to deal with this is action. Abu-Assad takes the most generalized conflict and the most unsympathetic of crimes and makes them personal — for the men who make these decisions and for the rest of us.
A different kind of desperation drives André Téchiné’s Changing Times. Set in Tangiers, one of the key global north-south borders, it deals effectively if obliquely with Europe’s shift to multiculturalism. Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve play one-time lovers, separated for some 30 years. She has a settled married life with a boyishly sportive Moroccan doctor (Gilbert Meiki) and works as a radio presenter. Dépardieu arranges for business to take him to Tangier, still hung up on Deneuve (“You love like a woman,” she chides him when he confesses that no one has ever taken her place; “I’m the faithful type” is his reply). Paralleling their story is that of her grown son (Malik Zidi), whose domestic arrangements include a platonic household with a single mother and freewheeling sex with men. Dépardieu and Deneuve exploit the traditional reversal of clinging female and chill male with alacrity. Though they never cross-dress, their body language, especially in their first scene together, is a marvel of subtle gender reversals. It’s Téchiné’s gift to use their various misunderstandings and blunderings to also comment on how blind we are to lives around us. This is especially true of the pivotal scene in the film, in which Deneuve and Dépardieu have car trouble and go in search of help along the coast. Only as they bicker about their romance do we become aware of the would-be illegal immigrants tucked behind trees and crouching in the bushes, prepared to risk anything for the very life these two people take for granted.
Some well-known names turned in less than stunning work. Claire Denis’s Towards Mathilde, a leaden documentary on choreographer Mathilde Monnier, seemed endless at a mere 84 minutes. The problem lay mostly in Monnier’s repetitive and unengaging choreography. Denis’s quiet, investigative style works well for a project looking at the process of making a piece of work, but when, about half an hour into the film, Monnier says, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” it was less a revealing moment than a sentiment with which I wearily agreed.
Similar disappointment lurked in Tickets, a triptych by Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Ken Loach, set on a train traveling from Central Europe to Rome. This format, such a magnet for filmmakers and nearly always two-thirds bad for viewers, rarely if ever works and sadly, despite its first-rate contributors, Tickets only proves the rule. The characters span various modern types — a reverie-besotted academic whose cancelled flight puts him on a train for the first time in many years, sparking memories of his youth; an irksome older woman who bullies her young helper, a conscientious objector fulfilling his national service by serving her; three boisterous Scottish soccer fans en route to a game. Uniting all of these is an Albanian family who are short one ticket. Though like many of the films at the Berlinale, Tickets touches on the rapid changes in Europe as immigrants flood previously static populations, it added up not to a cohesive whole but merely lovely moments.
Giuseppe Piccioni’s The Life I Want is a movie-within-a-movie about acting. Luigi Lo Cascio and Sandra Ceccarelli play lovers in a 19th-century period film and soon life imitates art. More stormy than steamy, The Life I Want teeters on melodrama far too often. However, it does show a possibly new direction for Italian cinema, with family no longer the overriding theme. Part of things, naturally, but in The Life I Want, work and professional fulfillment take precedence over much else. For a lot of cultures, this is just the way things are: for an Italian film to suggest that life might not begin and end with la famiglia is revolutionary.
In Alain Corneau’s Words in Blue, an illiterate-by-choice mother (Sylvie Testud) and her mute-by-choice daughter (Camille Gauthier) live in relative isolation in a small town in France. Removed to a school for special needs children, the daughter falls under the spell of its director (the always watchable and wasted here Sergi Lopez) and begins to change, unleashing her mother’s wrath, her world threatened by any move forward or backward. As earnest as it is winsome, Words in Blue milks its poignant theme for every last cloying drop — and is the only French film I’ve seen to embrace product placement with the enthusiasm of Hollywood.
, directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, is based on the novel by hugely popular Miyuki Miyabe. When the bodies of four people are discovered during a violent storm in Tokyo, they’re assumed to be members of the same family. Using no main character and instead myriad testimonies (naturally conflicting and sometimes frustratingly vague), Obayashi unravels the surprising events that led to a brutal murder. The alienation of modern life and the tiny bits we know of each other are perfectly shown with this kaleidoscopic method. You do feel, though, every one of the 160 minutes of Motive, and the end was especially disappointing, influenced exclusively by the sweet side of Japanese anime and consequently a weakening of the whole film.
A fitting place to end since, in many ways, Motive summed up the Berlinale itself: often interesting, full of good ideas, but ultimately a bit of a letdown.