This year's Berlinale was dominated by images of refugees and the disintegration of relationships, strangely offset by blockbuster American films. Felicitas Becker looks at what was on offer.
"This globalisation business really gets on my tits, you know", confesses one of the protagonists in Rezervni deli (Spare Parts, 2003), the Slovenian entry to the competition at this year's Berlin film festival. The organisers begged to differ, and explained their choice of "towards tolerance" as the festival's motto with the need for everybody to get along in our fluid, insecure, post-11 September world.
The focus on migrants, international connections and porous borders was clearly evident in the programme at large, with films such as Rezervni deli, which featured people-smugglers on the Slovenian-Italian border, Heirate mich (Marry Me, 2003) a story of a German-Cuban couple, or Power Trip (2003), about the efforts of a multinational energy company to introduce Western-style electricity supply (i.e. metering) in Tbilisi, Georgia. It was also reflected in the choice of the winning film, Michael Winterbottom's In This World (2002), a story of two Afghan refugees and their trek towards Europe.
The festival's global approach offered a rare opportunity to watch films from southeast Asia and China, which have been taken up more slowly by distributors in Germany than elsewhere. They included Zhang Yimou's Ying Xiong (Heroes, 2002), initially tipped as the favourite for the Golden Bear, but eventually reduced to a special mention for "opening up new perspectives in cinematography." Two days into the festival, its director declared that "we have chosen the right films." The organisers appeared pleased with the critical success enjoyed by several of the major American productions they showcased. By and large, the response in the German press to the choice offered here has been positive, but a Berlin radio station questioned whether it really was wise to include so many films dealing with refugees.
One could ask just as well whether it was wise to give pride of place to American films. The determination of the organisers to present the cosmopolitan, liberal face of Germany and its capital was equally reflected in the decision to showcase US features long since on general release in Anglophone countries. Both the opening film, Chicago (2002), and the closing offering, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002), given the marketing might behind them, certainly would not have needed this festival as a platform to make an impact.
In comparison, the role of European cinema was rather low-key. Most visible was the inevitable look back to better days with a retrospective or F W Murnau's surviving films and a hommage to Anouk Aimee, consisting of ten well-chosen films. But there also was also a choice of eleven recent German films, a showcase for Russian cinema (2003 is a year of Russian culture in Germany) and a smattering of films from everywhere between Portugal and Poland. From among these, a selection dictated partly by the forces of timetabling threw up both good films and interesting bad ones.
Remarkable films continue to come out of the successor states of former Yugoslavia. In Rezervni Deli , Damian Kozole does very well just to keep the spectator interested in his characters, in spite of their tiresome and utterly contemptible occupation of cramming illegal migrants into a transit van, relieving them of their last cash and dumping them near the border, within view of the city of Trieste and with a guide who may or may not get them there. He is helped by fine acting and his ability to distil a certain beauty out of images such as that of the leaking old nuclear power plant overlooking the town where the smugglers live. Which makes them prone to dying of cancer. It is a bleak film, but the director always maintains a lightness of touch; the most horrid scenes are not flung into the spectator's face but merely indicated. A brief, partly obscured view of the face of a man suffocated in a car trunk belonged to the most memorable moments of the festival. "I just wanted to show how miserable and fragile life can be", said the director, "but it is all we have. So that's how it is."
From Serbia, Ljubiša Samardžic's Ledina (Bare Ground, 2003) is a story of a mixed Croatian-Serbian couple who face the mistrust of their all-Serbian neighbours in a poor high-rise neighbourhood of Belgrade. As in Rezervni deli, the presentation of characters is even-handed and neutral. The film gives equal attention to all sides and manages a fair few comic moments. It is full of detail on the banal stuff which resentment is made of ("Serbs eat sausage, Croatians prefer fish" etc). Visually, too, it gives great attention to the details of its shoddy setting and the fine distinctions marking out different backgrounds and ways of life. Yet ultimately, as the director emphasised, it is concerned with a big issue: Forgiveness among the peoples, neighbours, polarised by the Yugoslav war.
The strongest contrast to these films and their focus on societal circumstances playing havoc with peoples' lives and relationships was offered by a series of features where, in turn, the dynamics of individual minds blow apparently stable living arrangements apart. Oskar Roehler's Der Alte Affe Angst (Angst, 2002), one of three German competition entries, belongs here. Roehle's actor-centred directing style and his interest in conflicts of the mind were well known at least since his previous film Die Unberuehrbare (No Place to Go, 2000) two years ago. Unfortunately, Der Alte Affe Angst , a drama about a couple who can neither live together nor leave each other, was not saved by this method. The main characters' characters' constant suffering from each other, expressed mainly in shouting into each others' faces, is so relentless and unchanging from scene one that it quickly becomes farcical.
Yet what really undercuts the director's intentions is not the limited range of expression or the lack of complexity of the characters' emotions, but its concern with a superficial notion of style. The flat that forms the backdrop to the fighting is an over-designed hyper-modernist affair; in the midst of domestic conflict, the flowers in the bathroom remain fresh. The female lead is always immaculately dressed and she merely goes a bit green in the face after splattering a bathroom with her blood. The exterior signs, the seediness which tends to accompany peoples' lives falling apart, has no place in this film. If this was a conscious choice, it only serves to make the actors look vain. On the other hand, the impatience of an Anglicised observer with the very Teutonic heaviness of this film may be a reminder that the crossing of borders involves loss as well as gain and that one may have to choose allegiances—in this case of taste—and may find bridging even well-understood cultural divides hard work.
While in Der Alte Affe Angst , the man's desires persistently go astray, in Marie et le loup (Mary and the Wolf, 2002) by Eve Heinrich it is the woman who refuses to settle for nuclear family life. Instead, she befriends a man who may just have murdered a girl in the neighbourhood and whose behaviour is undoubtedly threatening. There is no shouting here, and a we see a very clever use of the film's setting (when did a maize field last look this threatening?). Still, this film, too, provokes impatience. Sacrificing plot to momentary effect, the director presents the dangerous man as so obviously dangerous that the woman who actively seeks him becomes unconvincing as a character.
In Fedor Popov's Kavkaznaia ruletka (Caucasian Roulette, 2002), on the other hand, the female lead is far too smart. Two women who are on opposite sides in the Chechen war meet travelling on a freight train; both are trying to save their children. Their gradual rapprochement is well plotted and the exertions of the train conductor to smooth-talk first one and then the other are funny. Mostly, though, the camera rests on the leggy, blonde, blue-eyed, feisty, ass-kicking, tough-talking and deep down very lonely young woman who just happens to be a Chechen sniper (of Russian origin). She might have been more of a tragic figure if she had had less of a grumpy Bond girl air about her. The plot's possibilities for putting across a pacifist message ("there are mothers and sons on both sides in this war") are evident and the director didn't miss them. A bit like Der Alte Affe Angst , it is an ambitious film marred by its love of appearances.
Mikhail Brashinsky's Gololed (Black Ice, 2003) is another Russian film which at first also invites the comment that a good-looking woman doesn't always make a good-to-watch film. The director has said that he wanted to create a female character who is always energetic and never ever stops. That she is blonde and smart goes without saying. Yet this film becomes something very different. The focus shifts away from the woman to rest on an awkward gay man. What he is trying to do and why he finds it so difficult we are never quite sure. One doesn't spend too much time thinking about it, however; the film's look is too absorbing. It was shot with digital video cameras and transferred to 35 mm in what the director calls a "low-tech" procedure. The shaky, out-of-focus, but, above all, very luminous appearance that results has something of a cross between faux documentary and television advertising. Surprisingly, the director claims not to watch TV. Yet "I'm aware that it exists", he says, nevertheless. The film has not yet been released in Russia and the public response to its matter-of-fact portrayal of gay life and love remains to be seen.
Even much more form-conscious, though rather duller in colour, was Benedek Fliegauf's Rengeteg (The Forest, 2003), which won the Wolfgang-Staudte prize for young film-makers. Depicting a loose chain of encounters and conversations around the town of Budapest, it was a real pleasure to watch. That the director billed his feature as a "dogme" film was largely coincidental to this fact; the film's joy lay in good casting, good camerawork, weird and wonderful dialogue and a vivid sense of the absurd in everyday life. The most striking formal decision taken by Fliegauf was the consistent separation of silent action and inactive talking. In the utter absence of events on screen, this film could be billed as anti-Hollywood. Instead, very quiet images became glimpses of the characters' rich and turbulent inner life. It may turn out to be a film that critics like better than the public. Fliegauf himself, though, answered a viewer's slightly irked question enquiring who he had made this film for by stating that it was meant for his generation; for young Budapesters leading ordinary lives.
A similarity in spirit connects Regneteg with Narren (Fools, 2003), a story of an awkward man getting embroiled in the Cologne carnival. This film, too, centres on a town and coincidental little encounters within it. Moreover, both films rely on gentle, low-key weirdness for their impact and use it to address very serious matters. The anti-hero's love interest is a migrant living hand to mouth, vulnerable and unable to get police protection. Its love of absurdity, visual gags and "magic realist" improbable events connect Narren with other German films of recent years such as Hausmann's Sonnenallee (Sun Alley, 1999). The only German entry to win a prize, Wolfgang Becker's Goodbye Lenin (2003), could also be grouped here. This film is easy to criticise for elaborating one gag—the attempt to perpetuate the East German republic within the confines of one flat—to the length of a feature film. But when this comic line falters, the underlying story of the family relationships that prompted this attempt keeps interest up. In contrast to Sonnenallee and other post-Wende comedies, Goodbye Lenin actually puts on the screen the fear and the hard choices which East Germany subjected its citizens to, and the bitter disappointmnets that followed the fall of the wall. It merits an award if only for doing so without being morose.
One thing that connects many of these films across borders is their interest in tracing the way great events and secular changes surface small lives—the end of the cold war, Europe falling apart at the seams, the trek of migrants and refugees. This interest, some years old by now, is producing what is beginning to look like a consistent and varied body of works. The radical subjectivity of Angst and Marie et le loup, on the other hand, forms a separate development, one that could be connected to an older tradition of European cinema, to names such as Fassbinder and Antonioni. Yet Rengeteg and Gololed, the two films that were most interesting in form and visual style, lay somewhere in the middle between the most issue-centred and the most subjectivist films. In spite of its official allegiance with dogme, Rengeteg thrived on a disregard for all rules but its own and an acute sensibility for shapes and especially faces, while Gololed comes into its own from its technical experimentation and sense of colour.
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