"Time for Outrage!" the 62nd Berlin Film Festival Returns to Its Political Roots

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"Time for outrage!"--thus reads the English title of Stephane Hessel's short 2010 essay "Indignez-Vous!" that became the battle cry for the Occupy Movement in both Europe and the United States. It was only fitting that its author, now age 94 and a member of the French Resistance during World War II, would be present for the screening of Tony Gatlif's Indignados, a docu-fiction that seeks to illustrate Hessel's key theses by following the pursuits of a young illegal African migrant as she travels through Greece, France, and Spain during the 2011 summer of widespread protest and political unrest. Relying more on symbolic association than talking heads and their he-says/she-says argumentations, Indignados assumes the perspective of its protagonist as she registers surrounding events with a mixture of incomprehension and excitement. Gatlif uses phrases from Hessel's manifesto to illustrate the journey of Betty (Isabel Vendrell Cortes) to the heart of today's zeitgeist, forcefully linking the financial crisis of the Euro-zone countries to the problem of illegal migration.

A different form of outrage is on view in Benoit Jacques' Competition entry, Les adieux a la reine/Farewell My Queen, a lavish costume drama set during the first days of the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of Sidonie (Lea Sedoux), one of the ladies-in-waiting of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Best known to U.S. audiences from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris" (2011), where she plays a Parisian bookseller who shares Owen Wilson's passion for modern literature and prolonged walks in the rain, Sedoux here excels as a confidante of the monarch who becomes privy to the bits and pieces of information that arrive at Versailles about political turmoil in the French capital. Sidonie's worm's-eye view and state of anguished confusion is brought across vividly by a hand-held camera that shadows her closely from behind as she weaves her way through the extensive servants' quarters of the castle, only to snatch rumors about beheadings and street fights. Kruger and Virginie Ledoyen, as Marie Antoinette's lover Gabrielle de Polignac, give fine contrasting portraits of the arrogance and the ignorance of the top one percent that illustrate without caricature why they became the prime target of the hatred of Revolutionaries, yet a surprising role reversal at the end of the film shows that the demise of the monarchy hurts not only aristocrats.

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There have been numerous other periods in modem history when the happy few have come under attack from the hapless multitude, be it by deeds or words only. Piel Jutzi's Um's tagliche Brot/For Our Daily Bread is a so-called "film reportage" from the late 1920s that chronicles the plight of Silesian weavers and miners at the beginning of the 20th century, when a harsh working environment, unsanitary living conditions, and widespread famine plagued the area. Screened as part of this year's retrospective, "The Red Dream Factory," which showcased the artistic and popular successes of the Russian-German production company Mezhrabprom, Um's tagliche Brot contrasts images of misery and exploitation with those of the opulent residencies of the landed gentry. The film thus foregoes any claim to objectivity suggested by its subtitle and instead points an accusatory finger that leaves viewers no doubt about with whom they ought to empathize--even if in this case no dramatic change would occur for a long time to come.

These three films were among the first ten that I watched during the opening two days of the Berlinale. Displaying an impressive diversity in audience address, visual style, and narrative conventions, they nevertheless promised a coherence in subject matter rarely found in recent years, as the festival, with its close to 400 entries and numerous sections, has become increasingly difficult to maneuver, even for seasoned attendees. While this kind of programming is perhaps more fortuitous than intentional, the focus on the Arab Spring, yet another large-scale display of political indignation, was carefully planned. …