BREAKING THE ICE: Queues, Premieres and Awards in the 65th Berlinale
There is something very special in attending for the first time one of the ‘Big Three’ film festivals. Together with Cannes and Venice, the Berlin International Film Festival is one of the three major gateways for non-studio produced films to gain critical attention and break into the market. Extensive and often real-time media coverage of the premieres, of the critics’ responses and of the awards contributes significantly to the make-or-break of films, but also to the festival’s own prestige status. By the time you read this report you will have heard about the winning films, you may have read a few reviews about them, and … you might have even have contributed to the box-office receipts of the widely anticipated studio-produced erotica Fifty Shades of Grey, which also had its European premiere at the Berlinale , out-of-competition, of course.
I arrived in Berlin in the evening of the second day of the festival, too late to secure tickets for any screenings, but just in time to catch some distant glimpses of a luminous Nicole Kidman on the red carpet and get a scribbly autograph from James Franco – both of whom were in town for the premiere of Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert. But as star-gazing was not my priority, I was very relieved the next morning when I found a way to actually see some films: rather than queuing outdoors in the freezing cold from 7am each morning for next-day tickets, my experienced journalist friend showed me how to queue for same-day press screenings indoors instead… Excitement notwithstanding, I soon realised that the Berlinale is a trying experience even for accredited participants like me. Hierarchies abound, privileges vary, queuing is de rigueur – and often in vain. During the five days of my stay – half the duration of the festival – I saw nine out of the nineteen competition films, as well as a few films in other strands. Two competition films stood out for me: Romanian Aferim! and Guatemalan Ixcanul/Ixcanul Volcano, while two other Latin American films, both from Chile – El Boton de Nacar/The Pearl Button and El Club/The Club – were also very powerful. Pleased to find that all these films won awards, I was nonetheless sad to have missed Jafar Panahi’s Golden Bear winner Taxi – although undoubtedly its award will help it reach my nearby art-house cinema.
A beautifully shot black-and-white Western of sorts, Radu Jude’s third feature Aferim! (meaning ‘Well done!’ in Ottoman Turkish) is set in Wallachia, now South-West Romania, in 1835. The story follows a local constabulary and his teenage son on horseback during their search for a gypsy slave who escaped from the local landlord’s enclave after having succumbed to his wife’s sexual advances. Dramatic culmination aside, the film is driven by almost constant dialogue, which wittily exposes hierarchies, prejudices and relationships. A lot of the dialogue is directly taken from Romanian literary and historical sources, which, despite apparently losing nuance in translation, offers a raw and effective evocation of the period. Without any hints of didacticism or attempts at political correctness, the film comments on the social injustices and exploitative relations among ethnicities, races, genders – and especially on the issue of gypsy slavery that was only abolished in 1856 in Romania. A scene in which a country priest lists the stereotypes of all his known ethnicities is very funny – albeit deeply problematic, if taken at face value – while also sharply suggesting how mentalities and perceived ideas about the ‘other’ endure often unchallenged. The evocative cinematography, lurid dialogue and suggestive mise-en-scene help create a textured reconstruction of this cinematically under-represented historical chapter – albeit not without a wink at audiences able to detect contemporary resonances. The film won the Silver Bear for Best Director – jointly with Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska’s Body.
The Silver Bear Alfred Bauer prize ‘for a feature film that opens new perspectives’ was awarded to Jayro Bustamante’s for his debut Ixcanul. Set among the Guatemalan Mayas, a Kaqchikel-speaking community living at the foothills of an active volcano, the film tells the story of a teenage peasant woman, who in advance of her arranged marriage, inadvertently gets pregnant by a young man who deceptively promises to take her to the US. The strength of the story is in the empathetic and subtle depiction of the characters in their social and natural environment, which, in being so cut-off from the modern world, appears to be set in the past. While the portrayal of traditions, superstitions, and the severe social deprivation of this community are key motivations for the filmmaker in making the film, its ethnographic pull does not distract from a strong engagement with the characters and their trajectory. The non-professional actors carry the story very powerfully, and the tender relationship between mother and daughter is subtly affecting. The exploitation of these people, and especially of the women, by the dominant culture becomes explicitly shown towards the end of the film where the central characters’ inability to speak Spanish adds another layer to their vulnerability. Beautifully photographed with attention to detail this sensitively told woman’s story (by a male director), speaks about longing, betrayal and survival.
Chile was well represented among the awards: Veteran filmmaker Patricio Guzmán won the Silver Bear for best script for El botón de nácar/The Pearl Button, a documentary that exposes social abuses in Chile’s colonial and more recent past; while Pablo Larrain’s highly provocative and disturbing attack on the Catholic Church’s hypocrisies El Club, won the Silver Bear Grand Jury prize.
For those already familiar with Guzmán’s work his latest film will seem familiar, both thematically and stylistically. Just as in his previously acclaimed Nostalgia de la luz/Nostalgia for the Light (2010) here too he combines sublime imagery from nature with revelations of crimes during the Pinochet regime – all enveloped in an extensive voice over and interlaced with interviews with witnesses and experts. In The Pearl Button it is water, rather than the desert, that Guzmán focuses on – from the extensive sea shore of Chile to the glaciers of Patagonia – while the troubling stories he explores are the genocide of the indigenous people of the south, and the revelation of as yet another means of disposing dissenters’ body under Pinochet. Two pearl buttons link the two stories: the ‘purchase’ of an indigenous youth for the price of a button by the European colonisers in the early 19 th C.; and the discovery of another button on a rail track under the sea, evidence of its use as an instrument of extinction. The contrast between the sublime beauty and balance of the cosmos versus the destructiveness of the humans may be somehow overstressed, but Guzmán’s passionate desire to make these stories known makes the film certainly worth watching.
Denouncing the Catholic Church and its suppression of scandals involving clergy is what drives Pablo Larrain’s El Club, a fiction film that focuses on the life of four forcibly retired priests in a remote sea-side town in Chile. Shot against the light with old film camera lenses combined with digital equipment, the film has a distinctively washed-out look suitable to its disturbing and morally murky subject matter. Enigmatic and slowly unfolding at the start, the film soon changes gear with extremely graphic verbal descriptions of child abuse and a nodal violent event that changes the direction of the action. Thereafter, the plot is led by a priest-investigator who in his arguably well-meaning attempts to get to the bottom of the events and create conditions of penitence and forgiveness, unwittingly causes more trouble and drives the narrative to a claustrophobic and deeply disturbing conclusion. This is not an easy film. Its occasional forays into dark humour do not soften the acerbity of its attack on a very resilient institution, while its perversely punitive ending is almost akin to horror.
Aside from Herzog’s mega-production, the multi-starrer English-language co-production Queen of the Desert, two more films by German directors also participated in the competition – and they both told stories of disaffected youth. Of the two, Sebastian Schipper’s 140-minute single-take Victoria was the most interesting, and deservedly won (jointly) the Silver Bear award for the camera by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. The film tells the story of a Spanish girl in Berlin, who after a late night at a club befriends a group of lads whose gangster connections lead them all into trouble. With the dialogues in broken English (to account for Victoria’s foreignness, but also, one may presume, in order to facilitate sales in non-German-speaking territories) behind its ultra-realist single-take conceit, Victoria has more than a hint of genre. Aside from references to Breathless and Run Lola Run, the film, halfway through, becomes a youth actioner that then concludes with an appropriately satisfying – if morally troubled – ending. Arguably more wide-reaching in its attempt to portray troubled youth in East Germany in the early nineties just after the fall of the Wall, Andreas Dresen’s adaptation of Clemens Meyer’s novel As We were Dreaming, relies on too many visual gimmicks and ultimately lacks emotional and narrative drive.
Of the other films I watched, Alexey German, Jr.’s highly ambitious episodic reflection about identity and its dissolution in a post-modern near-future, Pod Elektricheskimi Oblakami/Under Electric Clouds, was also awarded a Silver Bear for the majestic dystopian camera-work of Evgeniy Privin and Sergey Mikhalchuk. Adopting a poetic, at times verbose and narratively loose approach, this Russian, Ukrainian and Polish-funded film is at times reminiscent of Angelopoulos and Tarkovsky but – cinematography aside – its macroscopic approach does not, in my view, hold the film together. On the opposite end of the storytelling spectrum, lies Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, a film that relies on the superb and duly awarded acting skills of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay (each of whom left Berlin with a Silver Bear), to tell a very low key and intimate story of a British couple who, in the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary celebrations, are faced, quite literally, with a frozen ghost from the past. The discovery of the body of her husband’s ex-girlfriend from the 1960s in an icy glacier in the Alps undermines the couple’s long-lasting emotional trust, questions their past and throws a shadow to their future. Subtlety and understatement are at play here in a very effective Bergman-esque chamber piece.
Having arranged my Berlinale visit this year partly in the hope of catching some Greek film premieres, I was rather disappointed that there were none. Cinema aside, however, while I was in Berlin Greece featured extensively in the international media-scape, as less than two weeks after the elections that brought the new government into power, the new Greek finance minister was also visiting the German capital on crucial talks regarding the Greek bailout deal. The Berlinale has been a strong supporter and launching pad for Greek films recently: Last year, in 2014, two important Greek films premiered there - Yannis Economides’s To Mikro Psari/Stratos and Athanasios Karanikolas’s At Home. It is promising that this year two Greek directors, Syllas Tzoumerkas and Michalis Konstantatos, participated in the Berlinale Co-Production Market in search of European partnerships for their forthcoming projects: it would be great, indeed, to see their new films shown in the festival soon. Established in West Berlin in 1951, famously as a showcase of culture from the West for its surrounding Eastern Europe, until 1989 the Berlinale was strongly defined by Cold War concerns (see Marijke de Valck 2007: 45-84). In the new post-financial-crisis geopolitical landscape, politics and culture have interacted through the festival in different, and often very progressive, ways. Let’s hope that the transnational and cross-European cinematic collaborations and interactions fostered so far in Berlin will continue to support – among others – Greek cinema and that its path to international recognition will not be halted by the lingering financial crisis and/or resurging nationalisms. Let’s hope then, that the February ice in Berlin will metaphorically, at least, be allowed to melt.
Marijke de Valck (2007), Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 45-84.