For ten days every February, Berlin becomes the capital of film, as the Berlinale showcases more than four hundred films and an international jury--this year headed by American actress Frances McDormand--selects the winner of the coveted Golden Bear. In its third year under new director Dieter Kosslick (pictured), and in its fifth year at glitzy Potsdamer Platz, this year's installment was even more international, more professional, more prestigious, and more popular with Berliners, slowly narrowing the gap to its great rival in Southern France. While winter in Berlin certainly cannot match May on the Cote d'Azur, many feel that as far as films are concerned, the Berlinale has closed in on Cannes.
Both in the Competition and its others series--the Panorama and the Forum, which showcase international productions as well as smaller, independent films--the festival traditionally focuses on films with a certain political relevance. Among the 23 films in the competition, 19 of which were world premieres, there were several that in one way or another took issue with a variety of political concerns, both past and present. To be sure, there was not the same sense of urgency as last year, when only days before the war in Iraq more than a hundred thousand demonstrated in the streets of Berlin and elsewhere in Europe, and a passionate Dustin Hoffman spoke out against the war during the festival. But this year's films articulated political concerns and issues stronger than in the past.
In Country of My Skull, English director John Boorman looks at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Set in 1995, the film revolves around the encounter between a reporter for the Washington Post (Samuel L. Jackson) and the South African novelist Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) who both attend the hearings where perpetrators are confronted with their victims. The film combines a haunting account of the Commission with a classic love story but in the end squanders the chance to probe the difficulties of post-Apartheid South Africa. More impressive was the Croatian film Svjedoci/ The Witnesses by 40-year old director Vinko Bresan from Zagreb. Posing as a thriller, the film depicts the murder of a Serb loan shark in a Croatian village in 1992 at the hands of three young soldiers on vacation from the front. Told from three different perspectives, the film delves deeper and deeper into the quagmire of mystery, allegations, and ideology, portraying the civil war in Yugoslavia as a battlefield without victors. The unusual narrative perspective, the strong performances by Leon Lucev and Alma Prica, and an opening shot that rivals that of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil made this small film one of the gems of the Berlinale.
A special focus this year was on films from Latin America. From Brazil, Marcos Bernstein's O Outro Lada Da Rua/ The Other Side of the Road stood out as an ironic revisiting of Hitchcock's Rear Window. In this film it is 65-year old Regina who works as informant for the local police to escape the boredom of retirement, and, like Hitchcock's hero, she too is witness--through her binoculars--to what seems like a murder. The suspect, however, is a respected judge who claims to have administered medication to his fatally ill wife. What ensues is a murder mystery rolled into a romance story between two older but still very alive human beings.
Argentine director Fernando Solanas was presented with the Bear for lifetime achievement. He was also in Berlin to introduce his film Memoria del saqueo, a documentary made up of interviews and archival footage that comments on the Argentinean crisis of recent years and the consequences of globalization and neo-liberal politics. As he stated, "I wish to contribute to the urgent debate taking place in Argentina, Latin America, and the world at large about the dehumanizing effects of globalization. At the same time, the film attempts to show that another world is possible." Solanas proudly told the audience that he had already spoken to the ministry of education in Argentina to have his film shown to all high schools there free of charge.
My favorite film of the festival was also from Argentina--El Abrazo Partido/Lost Embrace by 31-year old Daniel Burman from Buenos Aires. A story about a son rediscovering the father who abandoned him as a young boy, it is at once a most funny and touching film. Set in a run-down shopping center in downtown Buenos Aires, it follows the frantic efforts of young Ariel (played by Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler, who won a Silver Bear for his performance) to become "Polish," so that he can escape misery-ridden Argentina for Europe. Offering funnier Jewish humor than Seinfeld, El Abrazo Partido is a testimony to the vitality and chaos of contemporary Buenos Aires.
Other films in the competition included first features as well as works by accomplished veterans. Among them were 20 : 30 : 40 (Sylvia Chang, Taiwan); 25 degres en hirer/25 Degrees in Winter (Stephane Vuillet, Belgium); A Fond Kiss (Ken Loach, Great Britain); Beautiful Country (Hans Petter Moland, Norway); Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, USA); Confidences Trop Intimes/ Intimate Strangers (Patrice Leconte, France); Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder/Nightsongs (Romuald Karmakar, Germany); Feux Rouges/Red Lights (Cedric Kahn, France); Forbrydelser/In Your Hands (Annette K. Olesen, Denmark); La Vida Que Te Espera/ Your Next Life (Manuel Gutierrez Aragon, Spain); Maria, llena eres de gracia/ Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, Columbia); Om Jag Vander Mig Om/ Daybreak (Bjorn Runge, Sweden); Primo Amore/First Love (Matteo Garrone, Italy); Samaria/ Samaritan Girl (Kim Ki-Duk, Korea); The Final Cut (Omar Naim, USA); The Missing (Ron Howard, USA); Trilogia: To livadi pou dakrisi/ Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (Theo Angelopoulos, Greece); Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, France); and Monster (Patty Jenkins, USA), which had its European premiere at the Berlinale. For the last film, Charlize Theron won the Silver Bear for best actress, preceding her Oscar by two weeks.
The surprise winner of the Golden Bear was Gegen die Wand/ Head-On by German-Turkish director Fatih Akin, the first German film to win after an eighteen-year drought. The fourth feature film of this 30-year old director from Hamburg tells the story of the young German-Turkish woman Sibel, who, after yet another unsuccessful suicide attempt, meets the alcoholic Cahit and persuades him to marry her so as to escape her traditional Muslim family. Things start to go wrong when Cahit actually falls in love with Sibel and kills one of her suitors in a jealous rage. He goes to jail and she escapes to Istanbul from her avenging parents trying to save their honor. When the lovers are reunited in Turkey, both are changed people. Akin's violent and often abrasive film denies a facile happy ending, drawing its strength from the humanism of its director and his Fassbinder-like obsession with the cinema, his characters, and his actors. Asked about how he felt winning the festival, he said, "it's surreal, like being on drugs." There was a scandal of sorts after the festival, when news emerged that young actress Sibel Kekilli had had a prior career in porn movies and was not quite as inexperienced in front of the camera as Akin had claimed.
Akin cites Scorsese and Coppola as his role models and paid homage to them in his debut film Kurz und schmerzlos/A Short Sharp Shock, a Scarface-inspired drama about boys in the hood of Hamburg-Altona. The films of the two famed American directors were in fact a central part of this year's retrospective, which was devoted to "The New Hollywood 1967-76: Trouble in Wonderland," an enormously important and influential era of American filmmaking. The 66 films of the retro ranged from Arthur Penn's gangster ballad Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and Robert Kramer's study of a generation Milestones (1976); from D. A. Pennebaker's Dylan portrait Don't Look Back (1967) to Emile de Antonio's and Haskell Wexler's Underground (1976), a film "the FBI didn't want you to see." It also included road movies like Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969) and Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) as well as films that depicted outsiders, as in Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) and Bill Norton's Cisco Pike (1971), or hippies, drifters, and loners, as in Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970). Last but not least, there were the classics of "New Hollywood"--Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather I and II (1971/1974), and Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974).
The Berlinale has always been a good festival to see German films, increasingly so since Kosslick took over as director. Apart from Akin's German-Turkish melodrama, Romuald Karmakar presented his Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder/ Nightsongs in the competition. Known for his uncompromising chamber plays such as the award-winning Der Totmacher/The Deathmaker (1995) and the Himmler-Projekt (2000), a performance piece about one of the most infamous examples of Nazi rhetoric, his latest feature is equally constricted in time and space. Based on a play by Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, Nightsongs tells of the stale relationship of a young couple as it follows them through one long evening and morning. Theirs is a war of words and empty phrases that point to a deeper crisis of identity and existence. As Karmakar explained, "This film is about a love that is no longer fulfilled; it is also about the absence of hope." A demanding film that instills in the audience the same unease its characters experience, it was attacked in the German press for failing to translate theater into film, and many a spectator left the screening early. It would have certainly been better programmed in the Forum or Panorama rather than the highly visible Competition.
It is precisely the strength of the Berlinale to take the gamble of inviting such smaller films, often by first-time directors. Michael Schorr's feature Schultze Gets the Blues chronicles life in a small town south of Berlin whose only distinctive feature is a potash slag from a neighboring mine. Schultze's life, divided between work below ground and above--be it at the pub, in his allotment garden, playing folk music in his club, or fishing--is rudely interrupted when he is hit with early retirement. As entropy sets in and maintaining the daily routine deteriorates into a farce, Schultze discovers a life on the other side of the hill when he catches Zydeco music on his antiquated radio. Soon after, the sudden opportunity to represent his music club in the Southern US provides him with a chance to change his life. With the sensibility of an anthropologist, Schorr minutely captures both the restricting and liberating dimensions of traditions and folk culture as he follows Schultze's encounter with the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. The film has a documentary quality that pairs lay actors with seasoned performers and contrasts real events like the "ten day salute to sausage" in New Braunfels, Texas with carefully composed shots of Sachsen-Anhalt and Louisiana that serve as larger metaphors for life at the periphery.
Another favorite of mine was Andreas Veiel's Die Spielwutigen/ Addicted to Acting, a long-term documentary about four aspiring actors and their way through acting school. Closely following the demanding training and personal development of four very different persons, the film reveals how their passion for their chosen vocation is constantly put to test. As in his award-winning documentary Black Box BRD (2001) that contrasted the life and death of an alleged terrorist with that of a successful banker killed by the Red Army Fraction, Veiel's strength is to portray his characters with all their complexities and contradictions, making his documentaries both subtle and non-formulaic.
If Veiel has a clear sense of what he is after in his films, a lack of direction marks the most recent documentary by veteran Volker Koepp. Dieses Jahr in Czernowitz/ This Year in Czernovitz explores the life and legacy of what was once a vibrant city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which at certain points in its tumultuous history belonged to Romania, Russia, and now Ukraine. At one point, more than half of the 150,000 people who lived there were Jewish. Koepp's film follows the lives of several Jews who were driven into exile, asking how their lives abroad resonate with the memory of Czernovitz and how they feel about the city today. The people we meet are truly remarkable individuals with harrowing and yet beautiful stories to tell, but Koepp's film never captures the many layers of their memories, nor do we understand how and why they are contested. The perspective of the film is that of a tourist who knows he is witnessing something extraordinary but does not quite understand why it is extraordinary. Most annoying is the presence of actor Harvey Keitel, who strolls along Brighton Beach and Czernovitz, lecturing about emigration and exile with obviously little more than second-hand knowledge. When he sits down in a park in Czernovitz to recite Paul Celan, the city's most favorite poet, things get truly embarrassing. One never really understands what is at stake for Koepp personally in this film; as a result, I left the theater with the discomforting feeling that this city's story has yet to find the right documentarist.
The Berlin Film Festival is not only about films but also about film stars. As in every year, Hollywood stars were aplenty in Berlin. In attendance as guests of honor were Peter Fonda, Hopper's companion in Easy Rider, and the camera-shy Terrence Malick of Badlands and Days of Heaven-fame. Malick also wrote Beautiful Country, a film competing for the Golden Bear by Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland, about a young Vietnamese man who sets off on an adventurous odyssey in search of his American father. One of the most visible guests was Jack Nicholson, who only a few days prior to the Berlinale was awarded Germany's version of the Emmy, the "Goldene Kamera." He stayed on to promote his most recent film, Something's Got To Give, and was seen in no less than seven films of the retrospective. Also there were Juilette Binoche, Nick Nolte, Jude Law, Diane Keaton, Renee Zellweger, Robin Williams, and many, many others, often to promote films that were so negligible I wondered if they had been admitted into the festival only to guarantee the presence of its star.
All in all, the Berlin Film Festival attested once again to the vibrancy of current international film, and one can only hope that the smaller films will find not only a distributor but will also be able to break into this country's competitive market.…