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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Gold of genre, silver of childhood

The Berlin Film Festival this year surprises with results and shows a clash of totally incompatible things in the main competition
26 February, 2014 - 17:37
GEORGE CLOONEY IS THE PRODUCER, DIRECTOR, SCRIPTWRITER, AND STAR OF THE FILM THE MONUMENTS MEN. PICTURED: THE FILM CREW AND HE AT BERLINALE 2014 / REUTERS photo
A SCENE FROM THE FILM BLACK COAL, THIN ICE: IN THE LEADING ROLES – LIAO FAN AND GWEI LUN MEI (THIS FILM ALSO WON A GOLDEN BEAR – DIRECTOR DIAO YINAN, AS WELL AS A SILVER BEAR FOR BEST ACTOR – LIAO FAN) / Photo from the website DW.DE

It is an axiom that the Berlinale Festival is politicized; yet its glamour and number of celebrities on the red carpet are no less than in Cannes or at Academy Awards Ceremony. The main events develop in the competition, and this year it was an interesting, although contradictory show.

However, it is worth beginning with films, which for some reasons did not get to the competition, but absolutely meet the status of high auteur filmmaking.

Of course, most of media noise referred to the first part of Nymphomaniac by Lars Von Trier, which was shown in Ukrainian movie theaters. The Day will for sure publish a separate review, but it is worth noting now that although the film does not reach some other achievements of the director, such as The Idiots or Dogville, it is not the worst work in his filmography: it is entertaining, at times naughty, at times – frightening. It possesses much of apt, specifically Trier’s, humor – when far from happy events take place on the screen, and the audience burst into laughter. Stellan Skarsgard and Charlotte Gainsbourg are the leading actors; and the scandalousness of Nymphomaniac, which is much-discussed, is a promotion trick rather than a distinguishing feature of the film. Yes, there are erotic scenes; but the most important thing is human drama – deep and moving – rather than sex is.

Apart from the main competition, in Berlinale there are broad parallel programs like Panorama or Forum. Sometimes real discoveries are made namely in these sections.

So, non-fiction film Finding Vivian Maier (Panorama, co-directors are John Maloof, Charlie Siskel, the US) is dedicated to one of the most talented and mysterious American photo artists, Vivian Maier. She became known after her death, in 2009, after Maloof bought boxes with her films.

Sometimes the content eliminates the need to work on the form. One can and should write a book about Maier. A genius photographer, she for whole life worked as a nanny, never publishing her photos. Hiding was her hobby. She even signed someone else’s names. Having perfectly mastered the art of photographer, which is estranging, she was loved both by children she nannied and their parents. Maloof follows the canvas of her life which included many mysteries, and holds a simple research, moving from one commentary to another, and that is suffice to make the film interesting.

The Forum showed a real festival gem – The Second Game (Al Doifea Joc), director: Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania).

Porumboiu is one of the best, if not the best representative of Romanian “new wave.” For his first feature film 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) he won the Camera D’Or Prize in Cannes, and his second feature film – Police, Adjective (2009) – won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section.

 The Second Game is made in a captivatingly simple way. Corneliu takes an archive video recording of the1988 football game between the main Romanian clubs, Steaua and Dinamo Bucuresti (both from Bucharest), where his father was a referee – runs it without the audio and discusses it with his father off screen. Only a bad recording of a game is shown on the screen for 1.5 hours, and the dialog of a son and his father serves as an audio.

Although the game starts to captivate, the most important thing takes place off screen, like in any good film. That is why the film is called The Second Game, because this time the game is going on between the father and the son. They are actually the main heroes and victims of the bout. The proud phrase of the father: “Look how close I was” falls into a fearful emptiness, because it looks as if nobody except for him looks at the referee. There are other measurements: word after word, angle after angle, the portrait of the time can be seen: the snow covering the field, the stands like a dark immovable wall – an intimate story gives way to a general one, and later – on unspoken level the thing, which may be called metaphysics, reveals: people, even the closest ones, play games with one another, and visual images play with people. And when the final credits with the results of games appear to the strange, as if all cut, version of Paganini’s Winter, you have a piercing feeling, which is called catharsis in theater.

The choice of films for the main competition this year may be well called paradoxical: the organizers admitted for competing for Golden Bears, on the one hand, genre cinema made with direct commercial perspective and, on the other hand, films which according to literary analogue can be called pedagogic novels.

Both groups of films had leaders: unfortunately, mediocre secondary films prevailed.

For example, Greek Stratos looked like a bad version of Leon: The Professional. Norwegian In Order of Disappearance had a long list of sponsors, foundations, and grant-givers at the beginning, so long that it made the audience laugh. Hans Petter Moland spent all this money to express his love to Tarantino by making an ironic gangster film. The characters, situations, and dialogs here seem to be taken from the late 1990s, only in the entourage of snowy Norway and with Stellan Skarsgard in the leading role. Skarsgard is able to save any film, but not a museum of artistic methods which were used 20 years ago.

The debut of French-British Yann Demange, the criminal-political thriller is dedicated to what North Irishmen call “Troubles” – civic war of the 1960s-1970s, in which the British forces actually fought on the side of the Protestant loyalists against Catholics and the Irish Republican Army.

At the center of the plot there is a terrible night experienced by a British soldier, who found himself directly on the frontline between the Protestant and Catholic blocks. You cannot take your eyes off the screen. There is not a single second of idling, nothing unnecessary, extreme tension, always justified violent scenes, and masterful work of the cameraman. One scene when the hero is followed in the half-ruined blocks of Ulster, shot by shaky hand-held camera, is worth of the highest praise; an additional advantage is ambivalence of heroes, lack of unequivocal characters. Unfortunately, the director lacked the energy for a convincing final which looks regrettably blurred and dull; however, it is quite good for a debut work.

And Chinese films take lead in the “entertainment sector.”

No Man’s Land by Ning Hao is an enthusiastic auteur commemoration to spaghetti Western. Severe Chinese men, to music which is openly stylized to Ennio Morricone, ride cars, which are crushed to some or other extent, along a dusty desert, exchange ambiguous laconic phrases, and shoot. Anyway, it looks like a genre trifle, but the Chinese facture makes it somewhat funny.

In Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo, director: Diao Yinan) there are dissected bodies, a maniac killer, dens of iniquity, dragon ladies, and strange characters; closer to the end this thriller turns out to be a real noire, a “black film” of the golden era of Hollywood, only based on Chinese Hong-Kong material. Probably, namely this transformation was what jury liked so much that it gave to Black Coal Golden Bear Award for Best Film, as well as Silver Bear for Best Actor to Liao Fan.

Whereas there was at least an element of entertainment in genre films, in pedagogical films no director’s methods were enough to make the narration less monotonous.

The greatest disappointment was the new film by Peruvian Claudia Llosa Aloft. Llosa is a niece of writer Vargas Llosa, a recipient of the Noble Prize in Literature. Her debut Madeinusa won an award in Rotterdam, and The Milk of Sorrow in 2009 received Golden Bear without questions.

To understand the reasons of the failure, the botanic metaphor will do: there are flowers which can flourish only in certain spots of the globe, and if planted elsewhere, in this case in Canadian soil, they die. With annoying demonstrativeness, Llosa proved to be such an endemic with her new film.

This story is about relationships of a son and a mother, written simultaneously in two periods. The childhood of the hero named Ivan interchanges with episodes from his adult life, where he has a family and a farm of falcons. His mother is a healer, she helps gravely ill people, whereas her younger son is doomed, and the elder son is torn between jealousy and lack of attention. The role of adult Ivan is performed by Cillian Murphy, and mother – Jennifer Connelly. They play well, but they are not actors of Llosa at all. The problem is, however, not about the actors, or the quality of picture – it meets the level of the laureate of Milk of Sorrow, but about the screenplay. The story is spoiled with numerous soap opera cliches interchanged with emotional dialogs. There is none of the music rhythm typical of Llosa’s Peruvian works.

Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg, directed by Dietrich Brueggemann, Germany) was doomed to earn a prize (below I’ll explain why), which does not call off the fact that be it not for the genius Austro-German misanthropes Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, who have many times prepared in a masterful way both the bourgeois minds and religious extremes, nobody would have noticed this cradling opus.

Brueggemann in a laborious manner (in the manner of Haneke) thickens shades on screen, splits the plot into 14 scenes, according to the number of Christ’s stops on his way to Golgotha, found an actress with a face of a real saint for the leading role, but all of this does not exclude the fact that director’s work was mediocre, secondary, and lacks inspiration.

However, from the very beginning in the ranking of international film magazine Screen, which was made based on the survey of critics, Kreuzweg was leading with the high average mark – 3 out of 4. The reasons of this attention refer purely to the content. Every time the priest on the screen pronounces an open diatribe, condemning modern vices, the audience roars with laughter. The director underlines in all ways the anticlerical intentions, and the festival audience extremely likes it. Except for the two-hour attack on Catholic traditionalists, there are no conflicts in Kreuzweg. What is this story about? That religious fanaticism is bad? It is common knowledge. In Seidl’s sensational Faith, apart from anti-religious moods, there is a powerful human drama, whereas in Brueggemann’s work there is nothing more than a gloomy pamphlet. But the prize for the screenplay went to Anna and Dietrich Brueggemann, maybe to annoy churchmen once again.

The situation was quite unexpectedly saved by the new work by American independent filmmaker Richard Linklater, Boyhood. The film is a result of a unique experiment: in 2002 the director found a seven-year-old boy and shot live-action (not documentary) scenes with him, as well as Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who played the roles of the parents of the leading hero for nearly 12 years. It was a success. In spite of the fact that the film lasts for almost three hours, it is extremely easy to watch it. It seems to be an ascertaining of facts, there is no piercing conflict; the most captivating is the process of growing up, boyhood, it is the path the audience wants to cover with the hero. Linklater in a masterful way shows the transition between Mason’s ages. He manages to achieve in the film the effect of unnoticed flow of time, typical of life with children. Boyhood ends like it should, the hero reaches 18 years’ age and finally leaves for the adult life: this is namely the way the threshold of childhood is overcome. In the end, Linklater, who overcame himself with this film, won a Silver Bear for director’s work.

One can criticize the 64th Berlinale for the decisions of the jury, weak competition, which happens on a regular basis, but this year there have been piercing plots and discoveries – this is not so little for festival industry, always suffering from the lack of ideas.

By Dmytro DESIATERYK, The Day, Berlin – Kyiv
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