Cheng, Scarlet, The World and I
Although this year's Berlin International Film Festival was rather lackluster, it showed European filmmakers reexamining World War II, Chinese cinema departing from Fifth Generation aesthetics, and spectacular Japanese animation finally gaining cachet.
When the Japanese film Princess Mononoke was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival (or Berlinale) four years ago, it was part of the main selection but "out of competition"--after all, it was just a cartoon, wasn't it? What did it matter that the ambitious fable about environmentalism and greed set in a long-ago Japan turned out to be a worldwide hit?
This time around, Japan's master animator Hayao Miyazaki and his latest epic, Spirited Away, made the Competition section in the Berlinale (becoming the first animated film ever to do so). Indeed, it made off with the top prize, the Golden Bear, sharing that honor with Paul Greengrass' docudrama about the violent roots of the troubles in Northern Ireland in 1972, Bloody Sunday.
As usual, the films in Competition--twenty-six this year--ran the gamut of genres and geographical sources. There was more of an emphasis on Europe (the fest kicked off with Tom Tykwer's Heaven, shot in Italy with an international cast) and less on Asia this year, with about the usual dose of American films. The latter provided some of the most high-profile screenings, bringing stars such as Halle Berry (Monster's Ball) and Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind) to the German city. Included also were Robert Altman's amusing upstairs-downstairs comedy Gosford Park, Lasse Hallstrom's disappointing adaptation The Shipping News, and Wes Anderson's hilariously eccentric The Royal Tenenbaums.
In fact, Anderson's film was something of a surprise to Europeans, who seem generally to be under the impression that the vise of Hollywood has choked all American creativity to death. The film is a loopy review of the history of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), a manipulative megalomaniac, his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and their three remarkable children (Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson), who were all gifted when young yet failed to live up to their promise. Having disappeared for twenty years, Royal comes back to the old household, hoping to win back wife and children, but they are resisting.
On the European side, there was a renewed interest in reexamining World War II--the role of the Germans in that tragedy and also those who collaborated with them. Istvan Szab-'s Taking Sides looks at the complicated issue of collaboration. The film shows how after the war an American officer (Harvey Keitel) is sent to interrogate a German orchestral conductor (Stellan Skarsgerd) to determine whether he was just another Nazi sympathizer or perhaps actually aided in the resistance. The American wants to see things in black and white, whereas the film suggests a more nuanced reality.
Addressing the same question from the point of view of an occupied territory is Bertrand Tavernier's Safe Conduct. It contrasts two Frenchmen working in the film business in 1942. Under the German occupation, one deliberately chooses to work for a German-run production company, the better to cover up his efforts for the Resistance, while the other refuses to have anything to do with the detested Germans. Tavernier also shows that while ideals have their place, it was a time of deprivation, cold, and hunger, and sometimes mere physical survival was the name of the game.
Costa-Gavras' Amen, based on a nonfiction book, is set during the unfolding of Hitler's "final solution" to exterminate the Jews by sending all those captured to the gas chambers. In Berlin an SS officer, Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), feels increasingly queasy about providing technical support to this barbaric scheme, and he enlists the aid of a young Italian priest (Mathieu Kassovitz) to attempt to get the pope to denounce what is going on. …