The 60th Berlin International Film Festival
By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member
The Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, is a festival of superlatives in a city whose iconic, meteoric ascent from symbol of drabness and division during the Cold War to quintessentially successful cultural, political, scientific and media metropolis has made it one that people from all walks of life repeatedly return to. Be they there to stroll through its historic streets and gardens, cameras poised for that perfect shot, or to stride the red carpet that lines the walkway to the Berlinale Palast, poised with a perfect smile for the blinding flashes of other people’s, they and we come back each year, never tiring of this historic, happening city.
Thanks to the Berlin International Film Festival for the photo.
This year’s Berlinale marked the festival’s sixth decade with a fresh glow of jubilant celebration capped by glittering stars who partied deep into the night and a diamond-encrusted snow that my boots sank deeply into as I wound my way to the Kinos (cinemas) at Potsdamer Platz. Like the awe-inspiring snowbanks I’d left behind in DC, the dazzle soon gave way to the practical as the pavement snow melted, then refroze into treacherous “slidewalks,” and the masks of the night were lifted to reveal the human faces of directors and actors who had been admired and applauded — or, in one widely publicized case, hissed and booed — on the screen.
As any avid movie-goer or student of film criticism will tell you, no two people will see the same film in the same way. But the Berlinale, second only to Cannes among European film festivals, is rare in a commonality that it shares strikingly with its French sister: the ability to get critics and spectators wildly enthused by the same films that appall their friends and colleagues. “All’s well — even the films; the Berlinale of the very near future: a Utopia of the perfect festival,” crooned a trio of Berliner Zeitung writers, while the Tagesspiegel’s Harald Martenstein mourned: “As I enter a Berlinale cinema, the only thing I ask myself anymore is: What are they going to do to each other this time?” followed by the demand: “What monster put this program together?”
Needless to say, both POVs have merit; as the truism reminds us, what you see depends at least to some extent on what you’re looking for. And this year’s Berlinale had lots of lookers, both professional (20,000 of them from 120 countries) and non (a record-breaking 300,000). Both the program and the prize winners embraced, with arguable success, both sides of the spectrum and the wide expanse in between. From the cinematically rich, narratively ruminative Bal (Honey, Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey-Germany 2010), which took the Golden Bear for best film, its diminutive, teddy-bear-hugging star charming the pants off the press, to the crowd-pleasing political thriller by the celebrated and controversial (and still sequestered) Roman Polanski, who won the best director Silver Bear for The Ghost Writer (currently enjoying a long run at E Street), to the smaller films whose technical simplicity made them no less compelling, the program was nothing if not diversified.
The same cannot be said for some other prominent prize winners, which were more predictable, if only because of their previous wins. Winter’s Bone, which had claimed two big awards for U.S. director Debra Granik at Sundance just three weeks before — the grand jury prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwiting Award — was both an audience and a professional favorite in Berlin, where it took the Tagesspiegel readers’ prize and the C.I.C.A.E. (International Confederation of Art Cinemas) Prize. Waste Land, by British directors Lucy Morgan, Joao Jardim, and Karen Harley, another Sundance winner (World Cinema Audience Award, documentary), also scored in Berlin, where it received an Amnesty International Film Prize (the second went to Mohamed Al-Daradji’s Son of Babylon, which also won the Peace Film award) and the Panorama Audience Award after garnering a respected nomination for the grand jury prize at Sundance.
None of these films was screened for the press, making attendance a conscious choice in a very full program of 400 films and leaving many of us who had not seen them at Sundance (especially those whose time was shortened by being snowbound in the States for the Berlinale’s first few days) scratching our heads when the awards were announced. Of course, making the winners near must-sees in advance of the awards, or ensuring that the winners were among the press screenings, would have been inconceivable and unconscionable. The Berlinale does have “Kinotag,” or movie day, the last day of the festival after the prizes have been awarded, on which audiences can see the films at a discount. Here again the schedule is developed in advance of the awards, foreclosing any selection based on prizewinning.
So a system has been developed with no doubt the best of intentions, but which in practice recalls the classic kid-with-nose-pressed-against-the glass conundrum: The day before, the press can obtain a paper listing dozens of films screening at several of the cinemas, from which they can select a limited number — the festival screens at 25, most with multiple screens — to attend on Kinotag. But the choices must be made before the prizes are awarded, no doubt in an effort to ensure that there is no stampede to the ticket counters. Thus, while screaming fans with cameras and pens, trying desperately to leap above or lunge across the rope lines to reach the unreachable stars in an effort to obtain a smile, a photo or an autograph is one thing, jamming, cramming journos wildly flashing their badges in an effort to obtain a ticket would be quite another. Advantage: blizzard. Which didn’t keep us compulsive cinephiles from trying to find a way into our favorites, and after 10 exciting days and nights, not feeling badly if we didn’t.
Thanks to the Berlin International Film Festival for the photo.
The jury was led by the cheerfully compulsive and seemingly invincible Werner Herzog, who famously led cast and crew members in hauling a steamship over a towering hill in the Amazon rain forests among hostile natives in 1982's Fitzcarraldo (and would, I told myself, have had no trouble overcoming the seemingly unconquerable obstacles above: not by force, but by wit, charm, and wits). It also included Renée Zellweger, who demonstrated her own cheerful invincibility by posing in the icy Berlin nighttime air, swirling her blue satin gown with a come-hither demureness for the cameras on the red-carpeted walkway to the Berlinale Palast.
Zellweger was not the only Hollywood superstar to stride Berlin’s palatial klieg-lighted outdoor corridor, although she was one of its most warmly welcomed (her German heritage being a nice, but no doubt only peripheral plus). Another Berlinale favorite, Leonardo DiCaprio, who as before played the dual role of actor promoting a film in which he starred (this year Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island; last year Revolutionary Road) and paladin promoting a noble cause at the “Cinema for Peace” gala, also has German roots: his mother Irmelin, who proudly accompanied him (“Leo with mom in Berlin” screamed Berlin’s self-described “biggest paper” in 210-point type filling half the page). Complimented by a reporter for the Hamburger Abendblatt on his excellent German in Shutter Island (which had its international premiere on the second day of the festival) and asked whether he’d like to conduct the interview in that language, DiCaprio declined, saying that his German wasn’t that good. “It’s OK. I can survive. Order food, ask how to get someplace, stuff like that. But a stimulating intellectual conversation — that’s not going to happen.” [Translated by this writer from the German, as are all quotations from German sources.]
Calling Scorsese “the greatest director of our time,” DiCaprio said “he fights, he lives for his films. And for him there is never a clear black or white, he always works in shades of gray.” How is it to play these darker roles? Calling Shutter Island “certainly the hardest film I’ve ever made. The scenes in the madhouse, and then in the concentration camp...” DiCaprio confessed: “I can’t always play such extremes.” Nevertheless, he carefully drew a line between acting and living a role. “My job is to embody a role... But no one should say he completely dissolves into a role. Don’t believe anybody who says that. When you’re on a set with 150 people around you and a camera running, it’s never real. But you have to try to come as close as possible to make it believable. And I think I was sometimes able to do that in this film.”
While the interviewer quite naturally emphasized DiCaprio’s German roots, at the press conference the actor and Scorsese were pleasantly surprised to find not only that they share an Italian heritage, but that they were born and grew up in the same neighborhood, and that the director and DiCaprio’s father attended the same elementary school. The two, who have made four films together in the last 10 years, expressed great respect and admiration for each other’s work (and for “the same Italian desserts”), with DiCaprio citing Scorsese’s “infectious love of cinema that rubs off on everyone around him” and the “high level of trust” the two have established over the years. (DiCaprio, who was impressed at an early age by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, confessed that he had “never been as emotionally betrayed by a character before. I was with Travis Bickle, I wanted to clean up the streets of New York, I thought there were detestable people out there. And then he starts making this homemade assassination device...”)
“You’d be a fool not to jump at the chance to work with the director that many consider the definitive director of our time,” he concluded. “You’d be an idiot.” From Scorsese he has learned “an appreciation for cinema and cinema’s history. And that’s what’s going to stay with me forever. I only have my fingers crossed to be able to work with him again.” In a Scorsese film, noted Sir Ben Kingsley (Dr. Ben Cawley), “As soon as you walk onto a scene, you know where everything should go. It’s an extraordinary gift to actors.” Scorsese is also “invariably the most intelligent person in the room. But he treats others as if they were as intelligent as him! And the actors feel wonderful.”
Scorsese (whose “finger-thick eyebrows” received special mention from a Berliner Zeitung reporter, who called it “an experience to see how these dark black thought-slashes dance over the director’s powerful horn rims”) offered a critical appreciation of DiCaprio (Teddy Daniels), noting that as he is “maturing as a person, that life is being channeled into the actual work. I’m very happy to be around when something like this is happening with somebody of such extraordinary talent, to be able to focus that and embellish it in his actual work. And trust is really the key,” he added, gesturing over to DiCaprio, who nodded.
Did you have fun shooting in Boston? “I don’t think fun is the operative word here,” said DiCaprio with a laugh. This was, he explained, not just because of the nature of the film but because of the nature of the film shoot. “Especially when you don’t know what the other actor is saying, and you can’t hear the director, and the director can’t see you as well. And you don’t know where you’re going.”
Did Scorsese get his inspiration from the noir films of the fifties and sixties? To an extent, yes: Having “experienced the fifties firsthand in New York City,” he grew up with “the paranoia and secrecy of the Cold War” and the films that reflected it, said Scorsese, citing Laura, Out of the Past and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as influences. To help get his cast on the same cinematic page, Scorsese screened some of those films for them. Laura, with Dana Andrews’s “body language,” was a particular must-see and study guide for DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo (Chuck Aule). Caught up in the subject, Scorsese, ever the passionate film historian and preservationist, quickly reeled off films with just one scene — Crossfire, Let There Be Light, The Battle of San Pietro, Steel Helmet — that helped him to use “the vocabulary of cinema to tell what was going on in Teddy’s head.”
Michelle Williams (Dolores Chanal), describing the film as “dark and intense and exhausting and wonderful at the same time,” noted that the experience allowed her to do what she loved to do: working with people she had never imagined she would, such as Kingsley. For his part, Sir Ben was pleased to work again with Williams, the first time being Species (1995) which left him “deeply impressed with how committed you were... You were wonderful. You were absolutely extraordinary. Wonderful, beautiful performance. Indelible.”
Back to Leo: Which of the films you’ve done with Scorsese was the most demanding and difficult for you? Probably the current film, said DiCaprio. More important for him, though, was The Aviator, which he brought to the director. “It was “a changing point for me — I hate to use that term ‘transitioning into adulthood’ because for God’s sake, I could have been in the army four times by that age.” Nonetheless, there was “a very close collaboration between the two of us, a very intense collaboration, so that was a turning point for me. I loved every single second of it. I wish I could go back and do that movie again,” he enthused, going on to enumerate the technical wonders Scorsese and his production designer Dante Ferretti (who also did Shutter Island) worked to bring Howard Hughes’s Hollywood vividly to life. They brilliantly do the same for a world that is as dark, spare, and horrifying as The Aviator’s was lush, bright, and welcoming.
As did the legendary Austrian expatriate filmmaker Fritz Lang, whose masterly Metropolis has not been seen in its original form in the more than four decades since it was sliced by censors and distributors after being deemed too long for audiences at its premiere length of 153 minutes. On February 12, the world premiere of the meticulously restored cut was celebrated with a dual screening: one before a gala, ticketed crowd on the 72-by-33-foot screen in the 1,895-seat Friedrichstadt Palast; the other, an open-air screening before a huge, expectant crowd (which, according to reports of those literally on the ground, waited restlessly in the frigid air through the inevitable, but given the temperatures, seemingly interminable welcoming speeches). This eagerly awaited restoration represents one and one-half years of painstaking research and reconstruction that began with a fortuitous discovery in June 2008 that the Museo del Cine in Argentina had unknowingly possessed a virtually complete copy of the original film in its archives for more than half a century.
Thanks to the Berlin International Film Festival for the photo.
In conjunction with the screening, the Berlin Filmmuseum mounted a superb exhibition (which will be there through April 25), “The Complete Metropolis,” displaying rare artifacts of the film’s development, production and history. Among the many items of interest are the small camera used to create the film’s expressionist special effects; original costume sketches (with life-size costume reproductions) and script pages; a detailed description, complemented by razor-sharp screenshots and film clips on a six-by-four-foot screen, of how the false “Maria” was turned into a real one (with Lang seen directing the transformation); and an excellent documentary on the film and its history.
Film history of quite another sort was made just a dozen years after the Metropolis premiere, and at the same location — the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin (destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II and rebuilt as the Zoo Palast in 1957) — although the differences that separated these two events, and these two films, were monstrous in both senses of the word. The Germany that Lang feared, and may have foreseen in his masterwork, had become all too real by the time the actor Ferdinand Marian was offered a deal he couldn’t refuse (though not for lack of trying): the lead role in the Nazi party’s propagandistic film adaptation of the virulently anti-Semitic novel Jud Süß (Jew Suess). It is Marian’s story, based partly on his unpublished memoirs but also partly fictionalized, that a new production portrays.
Jud Süß – Film ohne Gewissen (literally, Jew Suess – Film Without Conscience, although it will apparently be distributed to English-speaking markets as Jew Suss, Rise and Fall; Austria-Germany, Oskar Roehler 2010) was greeted with almost as many boos as had the film being screened been the original — which made the lack of confrontation at the press conference curious. (Maybe the booers in the audience felt their objections would fall on deaf ears, or just decided not to register them for posterity.) The principal objections that surfaced in the papers the next day were to the film’s cavalier treatment of historical truth (Marian’s wife was Catholic, not Jewish; he never hid a Jewish colleague from the Nazis; he was not betrayed by his maid) and its glamorization of the heinous Josef Goebbels, played by the much-loved German superstar Moritz Bleibtreu as a sometimes buffoonish caricature, but also an undeniably handsome and commanding one. (In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Roehler agreed that in his view Goebbels, who ran the Nazi propaganda machine which included the film industry, was “the perfect studio boss” with “an incredible creative energy.”)
Your reporter’s objection, however, was to something that seemed to go unnoticed, although it jumped out at her: the film’s surprising depiction of its Jewish characters in an offensively stereotypical way. The chorus of Jewish men ostensibly there to audition as extras for the Nazi film, ill-kempt and scruffily bearded, dressed in Shylock-like black garb and swaying back and forth singing Yiddish songs and prayers in almost comic fashion, apparently oblivious to what was going on around them, would have been marginally acceptable had there been a narrative subtext or visual explanation for their appearance and demeanor. And Tobias Moretti’s portrayal of Marian’s Jud Süß character, with which we are told he bravely defied Goebbels’s intentions by making the Jew sympathetic, is instead the epitome of evil, black eyes looking up from the depths with a calculating glare. Which is not surprising from a historical perspective, given the 1940 film’s unqualified success in stirring up hatred of Jews wherever it was shown throughout Nazi-dominated lands. But the premise of Roehler’s film is that Marian tried to make the character sympathetic.
And yet the film was shown, as Roehler told The Hollywood Reporter, to “a number of people. To the Jewish community, of course, and the reaction was good.” If nothing else, this experience was a striking if not unnerving demonstration of how any number of critics can see the same film — but none will see the same film. This being Berlin, and the original film a significant, if painful part of its history, Jud Süß occupied more than a few column inches the next morning. Tagesspiegel’s Harald Martenstein treated it with his trademark drollery: “When [public TV station] ZDF produces its Goebbels movie — Goebbels survives, has cosmetic surgery, flees to Namibia and builds a new life as whale hunter and environmental scourge...” Which was not far off the mark: At the press conference, Bleibtreu called the real Goebbels “a satire” whose outsized persona was an irresistible turn-on for an actor, who at the same time had a responsibility to depict the diabolical side of his character. Which didn’t quite quiet the media catcalls. Perhaps the pithiest commentary came from the Berliner Zeitung. “Roehler says he sees his new work,” wrote Katja Lüthge, “in the tradition of Clockwork Orange and Mulholland Drive. Both, without question, intelligent films with splendid imagery. Neither description, you can be assured, applies to Jud Süß.”
They do, however, apply to some of the films that arrived with considerably less fanfare, as well as to some of the star vehicles — and to two whose stars (in one case, the director), for very particular reasons, did not come out.
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (France-Germany-Great Britain 2010) was received as favorably in Berlin as it was in Washington, in one instance receiving the most favorable votes of all festival films among a leading newspaper’s (the Tagesspiegel) writers in its “Tops and Flops” poll. (Jud Süß received the most “Flops” votes.) At the press conference, author Robert Harris, actors Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, and Ewan McGregor and others discussed the making of the film and their respective experiences working with its director, who was there in spirit if not in person. Responding to the first question from the floor, producer Robert Benmussa declined to comment on Polanski’s situation: “This is neither the place nor the time.” He went on to say that the film was substantially finished when Polanski was arrested in September, but that the director continued to work on it during his incarceration via courier packet.
How was it to work with him? “Intense... an intense director who’s lived an intense life,” said Brosnan (British prime minister Adam Lang). “The red light was on every day on that set, and I don’t mean just when we were shooting. You had to be on top of your game because you wanted to be on top of your game for this great man... It was just a magic experience, one never to be forgotten.”
“As a director he pushes the cast and the crew quite hard,” said McGregor (the “Ghost”). “That’s one of the reasons I’m sorry he’s not here today, because he’s responsible for everything. It’s really his movie, and when you’re on his set, it’s his set. And he’s a filmmaker in every department: He’d like to be the props man, the set painter, the actor, the sound man, the cameraman — he puts his print on everything. He sets up every shot, every frame of the movie, he sets the camera up and more often than not, he’ll come back and say: “No...” and set it up again. He’s a maestro of all of it. And I know that for me personally, I feel he’s more responsible for my performance in this film than I am. He not only directed the playing of the scenes, but the playing of the character. Which is really a unique experience for me.”
Williams compared Polanski’s method of directing with that used by other directors, who will tell the actor how well he did the scene and then gently suggest that maybe... “Roman will stop the camera and go ‘No. NO. NO!!!!!’ At first it was quite alarming. Fortunately Ewan had done a fantastic impersonation of Roman doing it before I came on the set, so it wasn’t too shocking when it first happened.” Once, when he closed his eyes, Polanski reassured her that “ ‘It’s not that I’m trying to recall your agent’s phone number so that I can fire you. It’s that I’m trying to remember in my head the original model. And everything we’re here to do is to drag these actors and this set and this lighting back to the original model.’ ... And I asked him in which scenes he had [managed to recreate] the original model, and he said ‘None of them.’ But I asked him once which came the closest, and I think it was the motel. Because there’s nobody in that.” The room erupted in laughter.
Brosnan had to reconcile the contradictions between his instincts and even the screenplay — both of which strongly suggested that his character was Tony Blair (“All the book and all the texts and all the emblems point to one man”) — and his director (“No no no, you’re not playing Tony Blair, just play”). Given that he could not, nor did he want to do an “impersonation” of Blair, Brosnan finally settled on a “Shakespearean character that has fallen from grace, some hollow man who is rudderless and lost his way.” Williams, similarly fearing an implicit expectation that she would impersonate Cherie Blair, was both relieved and alarmed to receive author Harris’s concise but contradictory instruction: Ruth should be “naive, cynical... vulnerable, confident... contemptuous, and yet in love with her husband. And that took up most of my time,” she laughed.
How does the movie reflect on the political unrest of the world today? Harris expressed amazement that he wrote the screenplay in 2007, “and since then, events seem to have conspired almost daily to make the movie seem more like a documentary,” what with “the discussions in Britain as to whether the war was legal in the first place, the suggestion that legal advice was overridden, the disclosure that CIA rendition flights did land in British territory... the fact that MI5, the British security service, was receiving evidence that had been extracted under ‘heightened interrogation,’ as it’s called, all these things — the novel and the screenplay, and now the movie — seem to have prefigured what was to come about. It’s been a strange experience.”
Has Brosnan taken on these new, darker roles so he wouldn’t forever be identified with James Bond? “I’m forever grateful for having played the role of James Bond... it’s another stepping stone in a career. Right now I’m at a point where I want to have fun. And I’ve said to my agent, and I’m looking down the road and thinking... how to I position myself, do I go back on the stage..? But this is a fertile time, and I’m having a good time with it.”
Many of Harris’s books deal with empires, the fall of empires. Does this one perhaps deal with the decline of the British empire? “For me... one of the ‘ghosts’ is Britain... It seems to me that over the last 20 years, that Britain has been merely a 51st state of the United States. And so I thought, wow! It seems as though the prime minister has almost been recruited by the CIA. Which was the origin of the whole project. So you’re right, I do feel that this is in a sense about an enfeebled British prime minister as a guest in America where he actually functioned as an American operative, almost. All of my books are political, and that was the underlying political thought in the screenplay.”
How was it shooting the film in the rain? “It was a really wet and cold there [in a town near the Polish border],” said McGregor. “But Polanski uses the weather as another oppressive character in the film.” Recalling the diner scene, McGregor remembered Polanski wanting a pillar moved a couple of inches and going from McGregor to the props guy, grabbing each in turn and shouting, “NO! You do it like THIS! Why are you doing it like that?” And McGregor realized “that it wasn’t me. He wants everybody to be right. And once you realize not to take it personally, it’s fantastically liberating. He’s a bit like your mother. And, annoyingly,” he concluded with a bemused smile, “usually right.”
Being a mother, as any will quickly tell you, is not a job for sissies, and there are inevitably days when despite your best efforts, you won’t get it right. The challenges increase exponentially for working moms, especially those who must juggle kids and job pretty much on their own. And on those days when the pressures mount inexorably and the world slowly closes in on you, threatening your sense of self, the precipice you precariously balance on begins to crumble — and everything can suddenly go horribly, nightmarishly wrong. In Anahí Berneri’s Por tu colpa (It’s Your Fault, Argentina-France 2010) Julieta, the mother of two adorably rambunctious little boys, is trying to do what millions of working moms around the world must try to do on any given night: finish an important piece of work for the office while also trying to get the little ones to bed. First gentle, then stern, then cajoling, jumping up from her chair and returning to it like the boys’ jack-in-the-box, her attention pulled with equal urgency between the deadline she must meet to keep her job and the children who use every weapon in their arsenal of charm and mischief to keep her from it, Julieta at last reaches the breaking point. Or does she? (This film should be required viewing for employers of working mothers.)
The film, which received astonishingly little press, is a closely observed, deeply personal slice of life done in cinéma vérité style, whose camera purposefully captures the intricacies of its characters’ motions and emotions. There is not a wasted shot, nor gratuitous close-up (that much-abused, all-purpose signal by cineaste wannabes that this is a serious moment). Watching Julieta’s pale, blemished face in rare extreme close-up as she nervously gnaws at her lip, making its healing red contusion suddenly noticeable, is a mini master class in communicating visually but unobtrusively on several levels, raising multiple questions that may or may not be answered. The interminable wait in the hospital emergency room will be familiar to many, as will the blasé hospital staff who either are indifferent or have simply seen too many emergencies, and the genial Dr. Welbys with one eye on the patient and the other on the possibility that not all “accidents” are accidents, seasoned perhaps with an instinct for self-preservation and the fear of malpractice suits.
The children seem to have sprung onto the screen full-blown from the neighborhood playground, with the incorrigible but adorable little one tugging by turns at the viewer’s heart and patience. In a press interview, director Berneri described how she was able to get such naturalistic performances from the boys, who are brothers in real life as well. “The most difficult thing was to have the two-year-old actor share his whims and games with us. Although [he] was aware of our job and the camera work, both his laughter and tears are real. It is the film story that adds pain or motives that are alien to the child, but his emotions are real, so older actors had to get used to working with that emotion, sometimes distressing, without being paralyzed, trying to get closer to the truth level proposed by the children.”
On the opposite end of the buzz scale — coincidentally, its protagonist is a beekeeper — was a film that also featured a charming little boy. This film, though, received not merely attention, but the highest award the Berlinale can bestow: the Golden Bear. And its pint-sized star, who shifted a gift, stuffed Berlinale bear from hand to hand as he sat at the press conference podium, plays a boy who does not propose truth, but rather finds it deep in the forests as he sets off alone to find his missing father.
Bal (Honey, Semih Kapanoglu, Turkey-Germany 2010), is the third film produced but the first chronologically in the so-called “Yusuf Trilogy” that includes Süt (Milk, 2008) and the multiple award-winning Yumurta (Egg, 2007). The construct is complex: The lead character, while named Yusuf in each of the three films which show him as a child, as a young man and as an adult, may or may not be the same person at different ages. “I have been asked if all three Yusuf characters are indeed the same man,” writes Kapanoglu. “I choose not to answer so as not to disclose the secrets of the character, the direct and indirect relationship between the films, the mysteries to the films.”
Based in part on the director’s own childhood experiences, Bal bursts onto the screen with spectacular shots that take us from blinding sunlight to the natural beauty and peaceful, almost reverential stillness of the woods, broken only by the lone call of a bird, the hum or chirp of insects, the rustle of leaves. We watch with curiosity as the father comes into view. Making his calculations, he approaches the largest tree and carefully ascends the towering behemoth, his face a mask of determination, his climb photographed in a dizzying high-angle-close-up. The angry buzzing high above him serves as both a warning to us and a reminder to him that the bees whose honey he seeks will not surrender it easily. (This episode required three days of filming, the actor would confess at the press conference, leaving him with an appalling backache.)
As his vertical tightrope-walk progresses, our curiosity grows into increasing concern until, with a horrifying crack, the bough breaks — and in a balletic shot, the father is suddenly, terrifyingly supine, suspended hundreds of feet above the ground, the bough bouncing him menacingly, the viewer hardly daring to breathe. This remarkable wordless prologue, silent but for the sounds of nature (there is no music, nor is there any throughout the film) sets the scene for a film that is short on plot, but long on sensual impact.
At the press conference Kapanoglu was asked why the film had no score. “I never use music in my films because I think the sounds of nature, to a significant extent... convey emotions without the need for music.” While music can be a wonderful addition in some films, in others it “can be used in a manipulative way... A film can be even stronger if it can stand on its own without music. The way I see film is... to have very long takes for the camera, to portray this feeling of time. And I think to leave music out of it can help.”
Asked to what extent his visual approach had been inspired by painting, Kapanoglu said he always used painters as reference points; in this case, the Dutch painter Vermeer, who “has always been an inspiration for me,” particularly “his understanding of light, and the way he uses space.” Acknowledging the spiritual qualities of his films, he observed that “even if the influence of religion is on the wane, it is still a part of reality.” Kapanoglu was quick to preempt any suspicions that he might be trying to proselytize, going on to enumerate the different kinds of spirituality, from Sufism to mythology. “It’s the traditions, the inspiration that religion can imbue society with that are important for me. I think a society without religious values, without moral values, has lost a lot. Which is why I’m also trying to develop a more spiritual language within film.” In the darkness and intimacy of the cinema, “I think film is a spiritual form of art.”
But there is so little dialogue in the film. Was that difficult for the actors? The response came from Tülin Özen, who played the boy’s mother. She had had a similar experience on another film, and came to this one prepared. “In real life, too, we can express quite a lot without verbal communication. Sometimes a non-verbal communication can be even stronger, and more accurate, too.”
The director praised the child warmly, noting that the role he played was entirely different from his own personality. Was it hard work, to act in the film? “No, not really,” Bora replied with a shrug, then allowed that “it was sometimes a little hard, but I tried to do it as well as I could.” Asked how it felt to be approached on the street and asked to be the film, the diminutive Bora — looking sleepy but, listening carefully through his headphones, willing to respond to these curious strangers addressing him in several languages — answered like a little pro: “I was terribly pleased.”
As were his many admirers, who were no doubt also pleased to be able to openly admit their appreciation for a film that was beautiful in the classic sense and did not try to overwhelm them with technical wizardry or mind-numbing violence. For while the common wisdom suggests that the latter are more likely to be found at the multiplex than at a top-tier film festival, they have instead become, in the wake of the much-bruited debut of the terrifying, stomach-churning Antichrist (Lars von Trier) last year at Cannes, common indeed. As our now familiar friend Herr Martenstein plaintively insists: “People are not like that. There are nice people! There is happiness! There is love! Helpfulness. Tenderness. Not everybody you meet wants to beat you to death, or rape you, or thrust a knitting needle through your eye.”
And yet... as with Jew Suess, it may be less a matter of what there is, than of what one sees or focuses on. And, of course, a matter of that all-purpose escape hatch, taste. The columnist’s colleagues at the same paper lauded the fest unreservedly: “All’s well — even the films,” trumpeted a headline. “The Berlinale in the very near future: a Utopia of the perfect festival.”
In fact both perspectives are valid, and differences of opinion are not only constructive but, one could say, “fundamental” to the principles of democratic societies. They are less so, and in extreme cases even anathema, to those for whom the word is rooted in principles based on uncompromising, and what some would even deem fanatical religious belief. And their portrayal in film is almost equally certain to elicit strongly divergent opinions.
One such film was Burhan Qurbani’s Shahada (Faith, 2010), which was nominated for the Golden Bear and won the Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas. (Either one of these would have been a remarkable accomplishment for a graduation film. Qurbani began his studies at the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy in 2002.) Despite its virtually unknown director, Shahada was one of the most-reviewed films this year — Qurbani even merited a front-page section interview, complete with darkly pensive photo, in the Berliner Zeitung.
Critical reception was decidedly mixed, from Variety’s “Classy Culture Clash” to Screen International’s “A poorly scripted indie melodrama.” For a plot summary we go to the irrepressible Herr Martenstein, who as always, took the view from the back row where, primed for another exciting day at the Berlinale, “We watch a Muslim woman abort her fetus, throw it in the Spree [River] — OK, that was a a little bit of a downer — but in the end she reconciles with her father, a very nice imam, or at least almost reconciles, before she then, I think, also throws herself in the Spree... The second Muslim is gay... The third Muslim commits adultery. Make peace with others’ beliefs and be happy. Muslims are just people too, they’re not saints, we’re all children of the same God. We should reach out to each other, laugh together, dance together. Then there will be no more war.”
If those words sound dismissive and cynical, it immediately becomes clear they are not meant to be (“The film was very good”). More likely the writer found himself caught between his own conflicting reactions, similar to those that motivated his Variety and Screen International colleagues, and conflated them in a humorous way. The director, who speaks of the cultural tightrope he negotiated as a practicing Muslim child growing up in secular Germany, would no doubt understand this conflict. “I would lie if I said that Allah and TV — the sacred and the profane — have always cohabited peacefully for me... I wanted to make a film about people in crisis, in extreme situations... Stories that each spectator — independent of their religious belief — can relate to and think: ‘I know this. I have felt this way too once.’ ”
Q.e.d. (if not quite in the way the director intended): “Beside me,” continued Martenstein in the aforecited column, “sat an old Korean woman, who peacefully fell asleep and snored. I contemplated this beautiful, relaxed old face and thought: ‘What a wonder the human being is. Everywhere, he finds his peace. Everywhere is home.”
At the press conference Qurbani was asked about the diversity of his characters. “I wanted to show that Muslims are not just [bearded] terrorists,” he said. “They come from all over. We have one woman who is from Bosnia, and she looks like everyone else, [she’s even] white.” Qurbani was quick to agree with a questioner that his film would be a wonderful educational tool for schools. “I don’t expect that to happen, but I hope this film will reach a young audience that will start discussing and arguing. That’s the objective of the film. Let’s talk!”
Qurbani was mildly exasperated that a questioner seemed surprised at the tolerance and sympathy displayed by the imam. “I don’t know how many imams you’ve talked to recently, but not all of them preach hatred. I would say 99 percent of them do not preach hatred.... The bits and bytes of information we get from the media sometimes trigger fear, and sometimes we’re satisfied with that. That’s something I wanted to counter with this film.
“Sitting here, we are four people with different migrational backgrounds, but we are all Germans. We want to participate in society, we want to achieve something. We have to get away from saying, ‘They are the strangers, they are the others, they want to scare us. We have to say, ‘We are one country, and they are part of this country.’ ” Asked why he folded three stories with so many psychological and philosophical layers into one film, Qubani called it “a typical symptom of filmmakers who are way too young. We young directors want to put everything into one film,” perhaps fearing, “fatalistically,” that they won’t get to make another.
While religion was central to Qurbani’s concept for the film, it was not, he emphasized, specific to one religion, but rather to belief. “Shahada is not a film about religion,” he asserts in the press notes. “But the religious affiliation of the characters influences their actions and their decisions in a very certain way. It is about the path they choose.”
“We have one woman who is from Bosnia...” Coincidentally, those words also apply to the award-winning director of another sharply observed film about Muslims that deals with “the path they choose.” In fact, two of the words are in its title: On the Path (Na Putu, Bosnia-Hercegovina-Germany-Austria-Croatia 2010), directed and written by Jasmila Žbanic, whose Grbavica won the Golden Bear in 2006. Here the conflict between Western and Islamic values and beliefs is observed from a Western perspective. And as Qurbani’s “is not a film about religion,” so “it was not my [Žbanic’s] intention to make a film about religion. The issue is how Amar’s religious transformation affects his relationship with [his wife] Luna,” a flight attendant based at the same airport where Amar works as a ground-control worker.
His “transformation” comes about when his drinking causes him to be suspended from his job, and he runs into an old army buddy who has found a way to deal with the recurring nightmares of the Bosnian War: religion. More precisely, Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam that condemns those who do not strictly adhere to the teachings of the Koran. We watch with a sense of reluctant foreboding as the attractive young couple’s light-hearted, affectionate teasing and passionate sex turn slowly to cold indifference, and the baby they’ve been using every means to try to conceive becomes something neither of them wants to have.
As with Shahada, Na Putu seeks to draw parallels between individual behaviors and the growing global trends they represent. But in approaching the subject from the outside as an observer, Žbanic presents the Western viewer an opportunity to follow her own path as she attempts to understand people who are often seen in a negative light because of the public’s tendency toward guilt-by-association. “Before I started my research,” Žbanic told The Hollywood Reporter, “most of my opinions came from the media. And they were all negative, because, in the media, this community is always connected with terrorism... I was just a sheep led by media coverage.”
Her decision to begin researching what would become the film’s screenplay had two components, both of which, in a word, came down to the question “why”? In a larger sense, it was part of her evolving consciousness that the Moslem community in Bosnia had been moving steadily to the right and her interest in tracing the reasons for this shift. More personally, it was triggered by the refusal of a Muslim man in her friend’s building to shake hands with her, an uncomfortable experience that made her both curious and furious. She would later learn, she told Tagesspiegel, that he was “just a regular guy from Sarajevo with a university degree who used to go out a lot. I wanted to know: How does someone like that become a Wahhabi?”
At the press conference Žbanic relayed yet a third reason for making the film: It allowed her “to explore my own feelings, my own beliefs, through my characters.” Having the characters so firmly in her mind allowed her to envision them and the actors, or types of actors, who would best bring them to the screen. She could not have made better choices. The two leads play off each other as easily as a married couple who have contentedly found their groove, yet retaining an infatuation-like freshness. As the husband becomes more deeply involved with the commune and begins to question everything he once thought he believed in and wanted, the couple’s love turns to doubt, then to violent anger on his part and icy indifference on hers. The supporting cast is also strong, and extremely convincing. Was this simply a matter of choosing the right cast?
The cast begged to differ. Zrinka Cvitesic (Luna) told of the director’s exercises, which Cvite?ic, having successfully avoided them in drama school (example: a “clown workshop”), was not about to submit to now. But Žbanic stuck with it and with her, through arguments and tears, and when Cvitesic couldn’t take any more and walked out, convinced she’d blown it, she was surprised to get a call asking her to give it another try: “Let’s take a risk together.” Leon Lucev (Amar) told of Žbanic’s taking members of the cast into Wahhabi and Salafi mosques and communities for extended periods so that they could actually live the lives of the people they were portraying and become them, rather than merely act them. Ermin Bravo agreed that the intensity of his portrayal as Amar’s ultra-religious war buddy Bahrija was designed to show that his motivation was not just to help, but to attract his friend to his cause. Preparing the two-minute prayer in which he devoutly recites a portion of the Koran constituted “the hardest work I’ve ever done in my career, acting-wise. Learning Arabic and investigating, going to mosques for three months, infiltrating the society so that I could become friends with them and ask them questions. Not only to get all the religious things right but to ask them questions [that would enable me] to play a human being, a human soul, not just a religious man.”
Members of the creative team did the same, down to the smallest detail: The makeup artist, writes Žbanid, “examined the specific features of Wahhabi beards and produced and applied dozens of them in mass scenes.” Her entree into the Salafi community was facilitated by a mutual friend. Interestingly, the fact that she is a woman somehow made it easier for her to communicate with the Salafis, and her research (and those of her creative team) was prodigious: “I went to mosques, talked to theologians and anthropologists. I attended religious studies. I spoke to their female partners. I studied how they felt and what they thought.” Your film does not offer resolution of the issues it raises. What was your motivation in making it? “I think I wanted to raise questions, more than give answers,” the director responded. But religion itself was not the key issue: “I wanted to provide a broad picture of how people react to each other’s change, of how long we could tolerate or respect the other person’s wish to find his or her own path. Do we stay on the same path or do we change, and do we lose ourselves. I wanted to leave the end open, for the audience to find their own end to the story.”
“Even if someone told me that nobody would accept this film in Bosnia or worldwide, I would still make it, because it’s so important for me, and — maybe it sounds pretentious, but it’s important for my society to make it, to put a mirror in front of us. Because this topic is usually always portrayed as a black-and-white picture,” promoted by the media. “For me it was, I would say, an obsession to make this picture.” Realizing that people would have to identify with the characters for the film to have the kind of impact she was hoping for, Žbanic chose her actors carefully, and “was lucky to have these wonderful people, wonderful human beings, wonderful artists, wonderful actors, who totally dedicated their time and their lives to these characters.” It was a close collaboration, the actors frequently suggesting new lines or approaches derived from their understanding of their characters.
What has been the reaction of Muslim audiences? While the film had not yet screened in Bosnia, Žbanic believed that, as with all films, people’s reactions would reflect not only what was on the screen, but what was already in their minds. Has Bosnia become radicalized since the war? Is this something you also wanted to draw attention to with your film? As the only state of the former Yugoslavia whose citizens are still not allowed to have visas — Serbia’s entry was contingent on its capture of Ratko Mladi?, “but that didn’t happen,” and yet Serbia’s application for EU membership is being actively considered, unlike Bosnia (which remains under international supervision) — Žbanic noted carefully that this “is not something that is helping Bosnia [to become] liberal.”
Your cinematic language is truly brilliant. Who were your influences? Campion, Lean, Kiarostami, plus other “subliminal influences,” but “what is important is to observe film as one part of all arts. Films are influenced by those who are there to make it,” and the director depends on their collaborative contributions. And although there is no conscious attempt to emulate other filmmakers, “Very often I go through it in my head as if Bergman is watching, just to have a dialogue, to see what he would say. It may be silly, but I’m kind of talking to other directors who may be dead. Or alive.”
And then there are those creative iconoclasts — or maybe pseudo-sophisticated rip-off artists; take your pick — who somehow manage to be both dead and alive. Or would like you to think they are. Banksy, the congenitally elusive British graffiti artist whose Exit Through the Gift Shop (Great Britain 2010) had made a splash at Sundance the month before, had half the Berlinale press contingent in a state somewhere between curious anticipation and I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it skepticism. The other half — those not already familiar with him through his art or his hijinks, which are such perennial partners they may by now amount to the same thing — could only wonder what the mysterious whispering was all about. We were soon to find out.
We are warned at the outset that this is not your father’s movie. “I guess my ambition was to make a film that would do for graffiti art what Karate Kid did for martial arts,” we are told as the film begins. “As it turns out, I think we might have made a film that does for street art what Jaws did for water skiing.” We are not immediately inclined to disagree: Our senses are assaulted by a clashing montage of shots of graffiti artists run riot — or running from the police — as filmed by our man with a (hand) camera, Thierry Guetta. A French expat obsessed with taping everything that isn’t nailed down (and a few things that are), Guetta was inspired initially by his cousin, the French mosaicist who calls himself Invader in tribute to the Space Invaders game, whose characters populate his mosaics.
Determined to preserve for posterity the endangered masterpieces of Invader and other graphic street artists, the unassuming Guetta soon becomes a man with a mission. He will travel the world, capturing their work and becoming a familiar fly on the wall, feeling a silent thrill at the danger he is courting, knowing he could be arrested as an accomplice if caught. But now, his videotaping marathon had purpose. “The more people saw, the more they wanted to know,” says Shepard Fairey (of the Barack Obama “HOPE” poster). “And so came real power from perceived power.”
But not, alas, for Thierry Guetta. However strong his passion and commitment, Thierry is a director manqué, his home filled with thousands of hours of unwatched, unedited videotapes destined never to to be lovingly linear-edited, his exposé destined never to see the light of day or the darkness of a screening room.
And then, he found out about Banksy.
Banksy has been silently infiltrating the British art scene with his canny, often socially or politically scathing graphic and stencil images since the 1990s. Unobserved, he has placed them in exclusive art galleries, outside hospital windows — wherever he could, as Thierry’s compatriots might say, épater le bourgeois. Making a name for himself by insisting on anonymity, Banksy has remained tantalizingly, and for the British authorities exasperatingly, out of reach. If only Guetta could capture him on camera, he would have the pièce de résistance for his film.
After years of hiding from public view, Banksy agrees to the proposition, allowing Thierry to shadow him wherever he goes. His only condition is that he must remain completely unrecognizable. “Thierry was like a release for me,” he says (the narration is by Rhys Ifans). “Maybe I needed to trust somebody. I guess he became a friend.” Their joint effort would not be without problems: Thierry is arrested in — of all places — Disneyland, where they interrogate him for four hours about Banksy (“all their Mickey Mouse questioning”), who appears to have defaced some paintings, including one of Thomas Jefferson, who was now inexplicably sporting a raised middle finger.
Encouraged by Banksy’s acceptance (and by his limited success in doing what Jefferson only seemed to be doing), Thierry adopts a persona of his own. From now on he is “Mr. Brainwash,” who goes from spraying, splashing, and dripping paint on poster paper to out-Warholing Warhol with his pop art creations. “Andy Warhol wanted to make things meaningless,” Banksy tells us. “Thierry really made them meaningless.” Soon he is asking $30,000 and more for a one of his posters, and in June 2008 two thousand people line up for his first exhibit, on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard. The show is extended from the originally planned five days to an astonishing two months. By the end of the first week, he has sold $1,000,000 worth of his art. And it is Banksy’s turn to be épaté’d. “I used to think everyone should make art, I used to encourage everyone to do it,” says Banksy. (Pause.) “I’m not so sure anymore.”
The local papers were buzzing with Banksy’s apparent agreement to appear at the press conference; even fest director Dieter Kosslick went on record, saying that Banksy would “of course be present. But no one will see him,” he added. Alas, the buzz fizzled — or was it heightened? — at a press conference later that day for Noah Baumbach’s Golden Bear-nominated Greenberg, when one of its co-stars, Gift Shop’s narrator Rhys Ifans, informed us that Banksy “suddenly passed away quietly in his sleep last night.” Seeing the shock on some faces (the others perhaps knowing Banksy’s ways too well), he added cryptically: “She was a beautiful eight-year-old girl who was very deft with climbing and very handy with a spray can.” Exit Through the Gift Shop opened at Landmark's E Street Cinema on April 30.
One might easily imagine Ben Stiller, who plays the title role in Greenberg (USA 2010; it opened March 26 at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas) being handy with a spray can in his youth. (The press, mildly obsessed with facial hair, dutifully reported his “gray ten-day beard” after noting similar growths chez Messrs. MacGregor and DiCaprio.) But both he and the character he plays would gainsay those expectations. Roger Greenberg is a fortysomething singleton who never found his path in life after his early dreams of rock stardom led instead to rejection and disappointment and a career as a carpenter in New York. Asked by his yuppie brother Phillip to house-sit his elegant Hollywood Hills home while Phil and family go on a dream vacation, Roger, recently released from a psychiatric hospital where he was treated for a nervous breakdown, reluctantly agrees.
Happy that his house will be looked after but a bit doubtful, Phillip asks Florence (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring young singer who is making ends meet by working as the family’s personal assistant, to look in on Roger and their beloved pooch Mahler while they are away. Roger — who is blue, if not Oscar-night Na’vi blue (Stiller, looking deadly earnest, almost emaciated in the role; Baumbach would later tell us the actor lost 15 pounds to play it, while Gerwig had to gain 15), spends much of his time writing complaint letters to those who have failed to measure up to his exacting standards. Included among his targets are the airlines (the seats don’t recline right), Starbucks (the music sucks) and the city (the veterinary transport system is for the dogs; in other words, not at all for dogs who, after all, are sick to start with). He also reconnects with an old friend and former bandmate (Ifans) who to Greenberg’s puzzlement is still smarting from a perceived offense dating back some 20 years. Florence, meanwhile, seeing how at loose ends Greenberg is (and unable to drive, which is second only to death in L.A.), becomes a quasi-amanuensis for the poor guy. And his lover.
Critics were all over the map on this one, reflecting to some extent where they are geographically, demographically and culturally. Variety called it “an outstanding L.A. movie,” and the Tageszeitung dubbed the lead characters “typical protagonists of today’s American independent films” and the film itself Baumbach’s attempt to “extend himself, with this ironic, laconic case study of a loveable but catatonic generation of the over-forties.” Screen International found Greenberg himself “more palatable” than other Baumbach characters, largely because of “his foil — a good-hearted young woman, played by Mumblecore doyenne Greta Gerwig” whose “schlumpy and appealing Florence softens Greenberg’s edges and brings tenderness to Baumbach’s world of churlish people.”
They — or at least the actors who play them — were not at all churlish on the podium. Does this mean that Stiller is returning to “those great independent comedies that made you a household name all over the world?” Acknowledging with a smile that, yes, it was nice “to work in a movie that was not that other kind of film,” Stiller then got serious, expressing his appreciation for Baumbach’s work and for the opportunity to work with “an amazing group of people — Noah’s sensibility to me to allow characters and actors just to be onscreen and not worry about having to fill the space — it was really nice to work in that world and be with him. I had a great time.”
What would Stiller say about about the relationship between Greenberg and Florence? “I think there are elements of a love story there, but for me it was a well-observed story about two people who were just going through their lives, and Roger’s at a point in his life where he’s either having to face some things in himself or never do that. I think he’s so focused on what he thinks he wants in his life, the way he think his life is supposed to go, that he can’t even open himself up to the possibility of being with Florence. Until he does. And I think the way they affect each other — for me, that’s the beauty of the writing of the movie. It’s not in any way unreal. I feel like it’s a very believable path that these two people are on. And you believe that they could actually come together in some way. And not a movie sort of way.”
Noting that the two leads are also filmmakers in their own right, the host invited them to say something about their work. Gerwig explained that her films were made “with not very much money... with people I respect. That was the only way we could have made them,” and now feels “very lucky that I’m in real movies,” gesturing with a laugh and a smile to her director and co-stars. “Not that the other ones weren’t, but...” “We’re fake,” said Baumbach.
What was it like for Stiller to work with actors like Gerwig and Jennifer Jason Leigh? And how do you react to being in Competition here in Berlin? “I don’t know how to react to that,” replied Stiller, breaking into a big smile, “because I’ve never been in Competition here, or anywhere. Actually, I’ve very honored to be in this movie, across the board.,” singling out his director and co-stars. “That was one of the bonus things, doing this movie, because I got to work with Jennifer Jason-Leigh, too (who plays Roger’s ex-wife) in working with Noah. And Jennifer also wrote the story with Noah, and was a real integral part of making the movie.”
While he and Gerwig had time to work out their characters and their characters’ relationships, with Ifans coming directly from another job, the two men had only a couple of days to sort it all out. “And we had to have this relationship that went back 15 or 20 years.” No worries: “I was blown away at how Rhys came in and immediately made me feel so comfortable with him. I think it’s just his skill as an actor; he brought so much specificity to who he was playing that I could just believe that we had this relationship, and we very quickly sort of figured out a way how to interact with each other, and trusted each other early on.” With perhaps one qualification: “I did have to do a bunch of driving scenes where Rhys was driving, and Rhys does not drive. And he definitely doesn’t drive in America... So that’s where the trust was really forged,” adding: “But if you look in the film and see me a little nervous — and luckily it worked for the scene — that was not acting.”
As to working with Greta, “I think she inspired me to be as committed as I could be, because I think she cared about her character, and how protective she was of Florence. That really resonated with me.” For her part, “within the first five pages of reading it, I knew who [Florence] was, because Noah chooses his words so carefully, every scene reads like a short story or a play.” Gerwig called it “pretty magical, the way he makes everything come alive. I know Florence, and I love Florence Through the whole audition process, which lasted about a month, I fell in love with her even more. Had I not been lucky enough to get the [part],” she continued, “I still would have felt lucky to have been able to live with Florence, as Florence.”
How do you write those lines? And can you tell us something about the music you used? “Maybe I’ll start with the music one... I was in Los Angeles, where I was writing Greenberg, and I was missing New York, which is where I’m from. I had heard this song called “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” by this band LCD Sound System, and it felt to me like another voice from Greenberg. It’s about aging, and about feeling like you’re losing your edge, about anxiety, and self-consciousness, and location... and so I bought the whole record... And it became another voice for me while I was making this film.” So he approached the band’s producer James Murphy and brought him into the film, for which Murphey would write the music. “It’s the first time I’ve made a movie where I feel like the score is a really significant counterpart to the movie. Other songs in the movie were more maybe the taste of the characters... I’m always interested in characters and their taste, way taste defines people or the way they think it defines them.” And as for those lines, “I don’t know, you’re just sort of hearing voices and you’re trying to write them down.”
Despite the film’s improvised feel, only “maybe one or two” lines were not in the script, Stiller added. “Someone may say, ‘You are a total idiot to hire Ben Stiller and not let him improvise,’ ” said Baumbach, only to have Stiller jump in: “Yeah, you idiot!” breaking everyone up. But it turned out to be “for me as an actor such a lesson,” teaching him “how to be closer to the character, rather than trying to figure out how to make the character closer to me by changing lines... Noah’s words are so specific and his cadences, they’re very well thought out,” making it “a joy just to be able to do his script word for word.”
From the professional to the personal: Do people always expect you to be funny? If so, how do you deal with that pressure? “There’s an expectation, I guess, but really, at the end of the day you just have to be who you are,” said Stiller. “People are going to react the way they react, and hopefully they’ll be OK with who you are.”
They say that our generation has a hard time growing up, entering adulthood. Do any of the men on the panel remember a time when you realized that now, you are an adult? “I’m looking forward to that day, yes,” Baumbach deadpanned. Stiller offered that Baumbach’s impending fatherhood may help, and Baumbach added that as a New Yorker who didn’t need a car, he was at last learning to drive. “So ask me in a month.” For Stiller, “Life sort of creeps up on you. I’ve got two kids; kids sort of force you you into thinking outside of yourself a little bit.” But he also understands Baumbach’s point, “the feeling like the rest of your life is ahead of you — and that’s something that relates to the movie, too: Greenberg for a long time has felt that he had it all ahead of him, and is coming up against the fact that he doesn’t, and having to adjust.” But that’s just “a part of being this age. And I think that’s a good thing, a healthy thing to be aware of where you’re at in life, and to realize you can’t take everything for granted. Everything doesn’t last forever and people don’t last forever. Inevitably you have to accept those things, and that’s a part of growing up.”
Indeed. But what happens if the two elements of this emotional equation are combined, when memories of our childhood remind us not only of our increasing age, but of our and our loved ones’ mortality? This question is the focus of Tamara Trampe and Johann Feindt’s thoughtful, humorous, heartbreaking, deeply poetic documentary Wiegenlieder (English-language title: Lullaby, Germany 2010) which despite the title, was SRO at the screening I attended, with ushers politely shooing people off the steps lining the left row of seats.
The premise is elemental; in execution, emotionally complex. How, ask the two filmmakers — whose White Ravens (2004), about young soldiers who return physically and psychologically disabled from the war in Chechnya, was “so oppressive... we felt we had to embrace life” — will people respond to the question: Can you remember a song your mother sang to you to help you fall asleep? The people whose recollections we hear, approached in man-on-the-street interviews, represent a range of ages, races, geographical locations, social classes and political persuasions. Many say they can’t recall any songs, then reconsider as a part of them long dormant slowly emerges. What unites them is their willingness to share, often reluctantly, some very personal, sometimes joyful, sometimes all-too-painful memories. And how these memories, long forgotten or repressed, have the power to suddenly spring to life and move them to reverie or to tears, as if they’d happened yesterday.
What surprises the viewer is how misleading our first impressions will turn out to be. The first woman, young, blonde and heavily made up, with studs and rings piercing her face and nose and chains hanging from her chin, tenderly sings the Brahms lullaby to her daughter, holding her gently and gazing at her with love. A little girl confesses that yes, her mother sings lullabies, “but it’s embarrassing.” A snarky group of pre-teen boys dismiss the question with lewd remarks and rude gestures, then — almost as if under a spell — grow quiet, as a lullaby is sung to them, simply, soothingly, gently.
A man who was born in prison and spent much of his life in and out of one says his mother never sang to him. A foster child, he remembers getting a hug if he’d cleaned the bathroom properly. “Oh, it was quite normal,” the sixtyish man, gruff and hearty, assures us. “The social worker would come and say, ‘Clean and tidy. No problems here’,” ending his assurance with a knowing, and for the viewer chilling, smile. (He would later break into tears, silent and almost imperceptible, as he recalled his yearning for a mother who would sing to him, then hold up his hand and ask for the filming to stop so that he could compose himself.)
A Georgian woman thinks back to a lullaby about a dove that flies from Moscow, “bringing peace in its beak” (and a lump to one’s throat). The former Chechnya vice premier lives in a flat, furnished only with what he can carry on his back if he has to leave on short notice (“If I had to, I could get it all together in 10 minutes”), yet cherishes among his few drab possessions a colorful, stuffed, smiling ladybug doll. “When I was a child, we used to let a ladybug run along our hand, and when it flew off, we would say: “Ladybug, ladybug, find my happiness!” A composer who grew up with deaf parents, heard only sign language as a child and now writes cacophonic music complains about the noise the average housewife makes. “But some of it is in your music, no?” “No.” Wham! BANG! Squeeeeeak! He smiles beatifically.
An animated African-American voice teacher coaches her students (some of whom we recognize from earlier interviews) in vocal and physical exercises to limber them up. Her proudest moment, face beaming, is when her efforts pay off in a rousing Negro spiritual, her multi-ethnic choristers, for whom the music is probably as strange as Bavarian folksongs would be for most of us — and for whom English is not a second language, but more likely a third, or one they barely know — giving it their all.
The film begins with children peacefully sleeping, brightly lighted carousels dipping and rising in the night, babies and toddlers eagerly exploring the world. Its segments are separated by scenes of elongated bubble behemoths emanating from what must be a gargantuan swisher, floating gracefully through the city. Yet despite the seriousness of the theme and its often dramatic depictions, the filmmakers never lose their sense of humor, as evidenced by the little girl whose mother’s lullabies embarrass her. (In a Q&A after the screening, she was asked how it felt seeing herself in the film. “Well, remember how I said my mother was embarrassing? Well, now I’M embarrassing!”) And then there’s the unforgettable young mom who glows with pride as she bounces her bundle of joy on her knee, perhaps a tad too vigorously, for the benefit of the camera and the countless thousands who will see them. Is there a more beautiful baby than yours? asks the interviewer. “No. Mine’s the most beautiful,” she happily asserts --- only to have her little prince barf all over her. “Well, “ she allows, “some maybe spit up less,” then hastens to add, her smile as bright as a carousel light: “But he’s the most beautiful!”
Yes, life is filled with contradictions. In the Q&A, commenting on her own experience of making the film, Trampe recalled a lullaby her grandma always sang to her that she now realizes “was actually very cruel. Yet all I remembered was her deep voice, the tenderness and the atmosphere. Only much later did I understand the lyrics. But that wasn’t all that important. What was important was that she sat at my bedside, humming to herself.” And the former prisoner who so missed a mother’s tenderness that he had to ask the cameras to stop? “My girlfriend said a lot of people have as bad a childhood as you,” he told us, “but none of them have the courage to say it.”
That may be true, but it takes extraordinary courage to say it to the world. Indeed, there are those with dark chapters in their lives who find it inconceivable to tell even those who are closest to them. In Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s L’Arbre et la forêt (English-language title: Family Tree, France 2010), the music, too, is hardly the stuff of lullabies. Instead, it soars and crashes with the dramatic fervor of Richard Wagner’s Die Götterdämmerung, or offers a yearned-for blessing, with the unearthly peace and pardon of Parsifal.
Frédérick is a professional tree grower and paterfamilias of a large — and largely estranged — family, who gathers them all to the family estate after the funeral of the eldest son, at which papa was a visible no-show. We see Frédérick walk the grounds of his estate (shot in panoramic CinemaScope), the strains of Wagner in the background, stopping by a large tree outside the house, with which he seems almost obsessed.
The Wagner is now diegetic, and fearsomely so: he has it at ear-splitting volume, awakening his daughter and son-in-law, who, recognizing that they’ve lost the battle, wryly deliberate whether Wagner works better as a narcotic or an aphrodisiac. The selection is from Siegfried, which may or may not be a commentary on Frédéric’s fractured relationships with his sons, soaring majestically over the magnificent aerial views of the hundreds of hectares of woods comprising the property. Frédéric’s daughter-in-law will later put on a recording of the Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, whose exquisite melancholy would move a tree to tears. “Why Mozart?” she is asked. “Because it’s a nice change from Wagner, and it makes you cry.” And that’s something this family could use.
With the funeral’s combined somberness and embarrassment some weeks in the past, Frédéric feels he can now tell his family why he was conspicuously absent from it: Charles had found out that his father was imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II because he was a homosexual, and humiliated and despised him for it from then on, at one point telling him angrily that if he were to die first, Frédéric was not to attend his funeral. Frédéric’s wife Marianne, having come to terms with her husband’s sexual orientation, has more or less looked the other way and allowed him to lead a double life. (At one point she asks him whether Die Götterdämmerung is the story of their family. “You’re right,” he responds. “Wagner was very wise.” “And a lot of crap, too,” she replies, and closes the door behind her.)
Charles’s daughter, meanwhile, is distraught because she never knew her father and feels nothing at his death. Her husband tries to reassure her with platitudes; understandably, she explodes. A kitchen table exchange between Marianne and Charles’s widow has an extraordinary fly-on-the wall intimacy, so that the viewer feels a disturbing duality of emotions: On the one hand, privileged to witness its palpable, almost raw honesty; on the other, as though we are intruders who shouldn’t be there. But we learn something important, not only about the characters and the story on a narrative level but also on a meta level, about how womanly wisdom is passed on from one generation to the next, part of an unbroken continuum. “We’ve always had the feeling that women are stronger than men,” said Martineau in an interview. “They are better at resisting the type of disaster that the characters in Family Tree must live through.”
Women also are better at resisting a more common type of disaster — one that most of us will have to deal with at some point in our lives — depicted in Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Golden Bear-nominated, FIPRESCI-winning En Familie (A Family, Denmark 2010). Ditte, an attractive, determined young woman, seems to have everything going for her. Born into a famous family of Danish bakers (“Purveyor to the Royal Court,” the bakery’s heritage dates back 300 years), owner of a successful art gallery, in a happy, long-term relationship with a handsome boyfriend whose career is also on the the fast track, she’s offered a job and the chance of a lifetime: to become a consultant and scout for the Gagosian Gallery in New York. As we absorb the joy and positive vibrations pulsating from the screen, two voices compete for dominance in our minds: that of the indomitable Ethel Merman belting out “Everything’s coming up roses” — and that of the veteran movie viewer murmuring to herself: “When will that first shoe drop?”
It soon does. And its mate will not be far behind.
Ditte is hit hard, from both sides of the emotional and experiential spectrum. She learns that she is expecting, which leaves her both joyful and doubtful; a baby would be impossible at this time with the move to a strange country, a new job, new responsibilities. He boyfriend Peter proposes to her, but her father’s brain cancer, after weeks of the family’s alternating between hope and despair, no longer responds to chemo, and he has only a few months to live. Her distress over both his treatments (with which she assists at home) and his prognosis takes a sharp turn when he calls her in for a heart-to-heart, and asks her to take over the family business during his illness... and in the future. While she is touched and honored by her father’s faith in her — she has three siblings, a mother and a stepmother, any one of whom he might, at least in theory, have chosen — this adds another, and maybe decisive weight to the negative side of the career-planning scale, not to mention the move to America and the new life she and her soon-to-be-husband had been dreaming of.
The film has almost a documentary feel, as if we’re watching events unfold in real time. And Christensen did take some of her screenplay (written in collaboration with Kim Fupz Aakeson, who also co-wrote her 2006 Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix-winning A Soap) from personal experience: “Both my parents have been ill and the film originally sprang from a need to delve into my own memories and see what could grow from them.” And if she is at all exorcizing demons here, she gives no quarter to the viewer: doubt, fear and pain, inexpressible joy and inconceivable decisions, all are incarnated with meticulous, even disturbing detail.
The camera lingers with excruciating deliberation on the agony of the dying man, whose portrayal by the multiple award-winning Jesper Christensen, in a striking switch from the role for which he’s become familiar to James Bond fans — the villainous Mr. White, in Quantum of Solace (2008) and Casino Royale (2006) — was so convincing, one was almost relieved to see him pop up on the press conference podium looking positively vital. (The actor did in fact lose 16 kilos over six weeks of shooting to illustrate Richard’s physical decline.) “I’ve done 10, 11 days of [James] Bond filming; I’ve done 100 films or more,” he would gently chide us upon being asked about the Bond work.
He also displayed a whimsical sense of humor. Asked by a concerned member of the press what he thinks is going to happen to the bakery now that Richard’s dead and Ditte’s declined to take it on, Jesper Christensen seemed puzzled. “What do I know? I’m dead.” Becoming serious, he praised Pernilla Christensen’s methodology, which included having the actors create and then discuss experiences from their character’s childhood and throwing parties to celebrate the characters’ birthdays, which helped them develop a strong sense of family closeness before shooting began. “I would get them to create stories that are even secret from me,” added the director (who, in contrast with Noah Baumbach’s strict fidelity to the script, said in an interview that “My crew jokes that my motto is, ‘We’ll see what happens’ ”).
The inspiration for the story, on the other hand, was anything but secret from the director. In 2001 Christensen lost her own father and began putting words on paper, not intending it to be anything but a personal record. When many years later she began thinking of doing a film and took out those pages, “I realized that it wasn’t about death. It was about family: brothers and sisters, and my dad and my childhood, all that. And so the script sprang from that.”
Christensen took exception to the suggestion that Danish films are unusually preoccupied with family woes or dysfunctional families. “Everybody’s asking this about Danish film and family, but I don’t think it’s a Danish phenomenon. It’s just pure drama. Look at all the Greek tragedies and comedies, and Shakespeare, Thomas Mann and Arthur Miller, everybody. The biggest dramas in life...” and here she took a deep breath, “are in the family.” Indeed. And bringing a loved one home to die among family, rather than relegating death to the sterility of hospital rooms, makes death “something you can be safe with. It’s something which is very close to you and you should not be afraid of it. It’s just really part of life. And it can be a really, really powerful way to say goodbye.”
The Swedish papers are always talking about a “crisis in Danish film.” What do you say to this? Christensen and one of her producers were quick to call it a canard. “For a country of 5 million inhabitants, having a film industry of such a high quality...” began producer Sisse Graum Jørgensen. “When I was young, it was like: ‘We have to go to Hollywood!’ Now, we all want to stay home. Personally, I don’t feel there’s a Danish film crisis.” Pernilla Christensen was even more explicit. “I don’t personally have a crisis either. And I don’t see my colleagues having it. There’s a lot of diversity in Danish cinema: We have the deepest avant garde things going on, young new directors, we still have the old guys going strong — my teacher from film school, Lone Scherfig, nominated for the Oscars [for An Education, which has had a long run at E Street Cinema, among others]... I mean, if that’s a crisis, I don’t know,” she laughed.
Film characters, in contrast, are often in crisis, either real or imagined.. And if their story as A Family’s is drawn from personal experience, it can pull viewers into their world and allow them to glimpse their own reflections in it. Some tell of families supposedly like our own; A Family begins with a mosaic of family photos that could be anyone’s, to connect us with the characters from the start and facilitate our identification with them. Others, like Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck’s Moloch Tropical (seen recently at Filmfest DC) (France-Haiti 2010) draw us into the story on both a conscious and subconscious level: the first, because it brings to mind any number of historical realities we wish were fiction; the second, because we are still dealing with the horrific aftermath of a present-day reality that serves as a subliminal subtext to the film as we watch it unfold.
In this compelling case study of an archetypal megalomaniac ruler, Haitian president Jean de Dieu drags his cronies, family, servants and supporters through the political, emotional and sometimes literal wringer (here, the notorious “necklacing”). The film progresses with a classical sense of ineluctability; even in the lighter scenes there is a sense of doom just under the surface. Delusional and schizophrenic as he ruthlessly eradicates with equal force both real and perceived opposition, Monsieur le Président tells the friend he has just had brutally tortured and is about to have necklaced, that he is his brother and will always be. You are not a monster, the broken man replies, his courage and dignity undiminished; you are worse than a monster, “because a monster has majesty.” Hearing his agonized screams in the background as the fateful match is lit, the president says softly: “My friend, my brother.”
The majesty, if it exists, is in the palatial compound de Dieu maintains, demanding over-the-top opulence and or-else perfection in every detail. The film’s title is an allusion to Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s Moloch, a fictional take on Adolf Hitler’s 1942 stay at his mountain retreat, which was Russia’s Best Picture submission for the 1999 Academy Awards.
In an interview with Tagesspiegel, director Raoul Peck called Sokurov’s film “a masterpiece” but rejected the suggestion that Jean de Dieu is a Hitler-like dictator. “I tell the story of an elected president who willfully abuses his power. Unfortunately this tendency has been seen everywhere in the last 30, 40 years — with Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton as well as with Berlusconi and Sarkozy. And I’m not even mentioning Yeltsin or Putin.” Asked whether George W. Bush and Guantanamo might also belong to this select group, Peck vehemently agreed. “Absolutely! Never would it have been thought that a democracy like the USA in the 21st century would allow torture.
“In the film it was also important to me to demystify this omnipotence,” he continued, “this claim to infallibility. People are less and less willing to dare to say, the king has no clothes. Even the media are suddenly debating when torture is justified and when it isn’t. What’s astonishing is to be talking about torture at all.” Peck also did not hesitate to castigate the West for its treatment of Haiti over the last hundred or so years. “Haiti has survived many interventions, many attempts to curtail the country’s sovereignty — not just from the American side.”
And in the wake of the earthquake, “What disturbs me is how much energy and how much money is wasted on useless debates. And the corruption. Great business enterprises pop up in the devastated areas and have nothing better to do than to immediately mobilize their political influence back home and get hold of some lucrative contracts — while people are still being pulled out of pulverized houses. It’s wrong to pour tons of aid goods into the country,” he declared. “Much better would be to buy up local products and give them to the people there to strengthen the native economy.”
Haiti’s deeply rooted problems can only be exacerbated by the earthquake, and Peck doesn’t hold out much hope for improvement, at least in the short term. In his view, the world’s wealthier nations have a history of making things worse for the country. “The problems of the country are of a structural, historical and political nature. Haiti’s whole history, after the end of the colonial period too, is marked by meddling. Not just in the sense that they installed certain regimes. They also made sure they stayed as long as possible, even when the people wanted to get rid of them. The international community bears a large part of the responsibility for that, especially the Americans.”
Peck was withering in his denunciation of the West’s failures vis-à-vis his homeland. “Haiti is a nation that freed itself after centuries of the monster of slavery. Since then the country has been punished for it: first, through the boycott by France and the European powers; later by the USA, which wanted to prevent the model of Haitian emancipation from reaching all of Latin America — and which didn’t recognize the country until 60 years later. And who cared then that the country was becoming impoverished? Haiti had to repay enormous sums to the former colonial power France until World War II,” he observed. “They were collected through extremely high taxes which the average citizen had to pay. The whole country was milked.”
Poverty also exists, as we know too well, in the wealthiest nations, including those Peck castigates for selfishness and indifference to his own. The place to go during the Berlinale for films that look deeply into the lives of people whose daily struggles to exist are largely ignored by the mainstream (in cinema and in life) is the Forum section, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. Conceived in 1970 as a rebellion against the glamor and perceived snobbishness of the Berlinale’s “red carpets... parties and cliques... censorship and self-censorship,” the Forum section focuses instead on “politically and artistically independent” films — and not necessarily new ones.
This year’s selection included three restored films from the 1930s by the Japanese director Shimazu Yasujiro, whose quotidian dramas had a great influence on Ozu and others, as well as the Mariposa Film Group’s 1977 Word Is Out, Stories of Some of Our Lives. Described as “the first film that challenged the prevailing image of homosexuality with an image from the gay perspective,” it “uses individual stories to create a polyphonic collective ‘we’ at a time when the identity politics movements of the past century were still in their infancy.”
One of the more recent films screened, at the ripe old age of ten, was 2000's George Washington, whose director David Gordon Green’s expressed fondness for “huge action movies” was, if not belied, then certainly put into perspective by this film, told from the POV of a preteen girl in rural North Carolina. A telling example of the “diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks” phenomenon in the area of critical reception, it was given a big, four-star smooch by Roger Ebert (“This is such a lovely film. You give yourself to its voluptuous languor”) and a comparative kiss-off by Variety (“Guilt and anxiety take a toll on the youngsters, but that’s not nearly enough to provide sufficient narrative drive to sustain audience interest”).
If one were to judge by audience reception, at least in Berlin where the small cinema was packed — remarkable for a decade-old American indie without big names or a big-name production company behind it — one would be inclined to say that Ebert had the people’s pulse on this one. (There were even a few people who played the film enthusiast’s version of Goldilocks, trying one seat after another until they were satisfied they had the perfect vantage point.) What was even more astonishing to someone not familiar with the film is that he or she is in the distinct minority, at least among cinephiles. A quick glance at IMDb reveals a mind-boggling 61 reviews (making Gone With the Wind’s 100 — with seven times the time, and incalculably more fame, to accumulate them — look positively puny), along with eight awards and 17 nominations.
The title is deceptive, and anyone looking for a historical documentary or docudrama on the Father of Our Country (less likely in Germany, perhaps) was in for an awakening. It is instead a deeply engrossing observation of moments in the lives of kids on the cusp of adolescence — amateurs all, there is not a false note among them — in a depressed area of North Carolina in the 1960s. It is narrated by a girl named Nasia, who who begins by telling us of her relationship with her friend George (she calls him George Washington because she foresees greatness for him) and the difficulties the grownups have, which she and her friends observe with the unvarnished honesty the adults have long since lost.
There are some golden moments in this film, which never never settles on (or maybe for) one style. The music is highly effective; the film opens with gripping, shimmeringly suspenseful strings suspended in the upper register (think: fate motif in Bizet’s “Carmen”), the thrumming of drums below. Later there will be bayou guitars. The camera work is superlative; especially memorable is a scene where George comes into the house, emerging with amoeba-like slowness from the hazy background of the outdoors into sharp, crisp, clear focus. (Tim Orr would win for best cinematography at Stockholm and be nominated at two other festivals.)
Nasia and her friends have what must be one of the finest girl-talk, trash-talk, coffee-less coffee klatches ever committed to film about the utter worthlessness of boys (one or two of whom they nonetheless have their hearts set on, describing their plans for pursuit in hilarious detail). The boys, of course, are in another world entirely, roughhousing in the squalid playground men’s room where one of them takes a bad hit, goes into a stall, and dies there. The boys now have a dead body to hide, and stories to create to deflect suspicion. Meanwhile, George takes in a stray dog that follows him, hiding him from his dog-hating uncle and keeping the poor mutt barely alive on Gummi Bears, the only thing George can find to give him unnoticed. (The uncle will later tell George, after confessing to brutally murdering the dog, that having been humped by one as a small child, he’d been repelled and terrified by them ever since.)
Despite the poverty, ignorance and desperation that are constant companions to these kids’ lives, at the end the viewer is left with the feeling that most of them are fundamentally all right, and thanks to their resilience, will be.
Although the nature of their concern cannot help but seem, shall we say, somewhat shallow after George Washington, folks at the opposite end of the socio-economic scale also worry whether their offspring are OK. Not a problem: this year’s Competition featured a film with reassurance right in the title. In The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, USA 2010), which would win the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play affectingly and hilariously against type as two married suburban L.A. lesbian moms whose teenage kids decide it’s time to get to know their biological father.
The all-star cast, including Mark Ruffalo as the erstwhile sperm donor, now very surprised father Paul, is pitch-perfect, with everyone effortlessly natural in speech, gestures, verbal and physical tics and behaviors (as Variety aptly put it, “wonderfully lived-in performances”). Moore as landscaper Jules and Bening as physician Nic bounce off each other both bitchily and lovingly while trying to maintain sanity in a situation that turns into a gender-bender when Jules’s long-dormant X chromosomes start responding to Paul’s shameless come-ons. Then Nic discovers that she and Paul share a passion for Joni Mitchell and her cold façade begins to crack — only to become a mask of steel when she discovers something in his bathroom betraying passion of another sort.
At the packed press conference, Julianne Moore was asked what her secret was: You’re loved by women, men and gays. How do you do it? First gracefully deflecting the question with laughter, Moore then reflected on it. “I always say that about movies and about actors: People don’t really come to see you in the movies; they come to see themselves. So the best compliment an actor can receive is when someone comes to them and says, ‘Oh, that was me’ or ‘That was my story.’ So I think that when people like you, it’s that they’ve identified with something that you’ve played. So that to me is great, because that’s what acting is kind of all about.”
It was indeed the emotional and psychological dimensions of the characters that were key for Cholodenko as she wrote the script, rather than questions about their sexuality, “which weren’t really very interesting.” And if she felt it “veering off into something more superficial... or political, or politically correct, I reined myself back in and I said I need to dig deeper into this.” She felt fortunate to be able to get Moore and Bening, who “really felt the same way about the characters” and were able “to take them to that kind of level and play them with that kind of depth.”
For Moore: Can you tell us something about how you established such a close connection with Annette Bening? We [the audience] really feel the complicity between the two women. For Moore, the film “is very much a portrait of a marriage and a family, and what it’s like to be married and to have children. And I don’t think it matters what your sexuality is; I think all families are the same that way.” Moore and Bening, having both been married with children, were able “to bring all of our life experience to it.” Moore was also glad for the chance to explore a long-term relationship in a film: “Usually it’s about who am I gonna meet and who am I gonna get married to.”
Both Cholodenko and Moore (Bening was out of the country and unavailable) spoke highly of the two young actors who played the children, noting that Mia Wasikowska, who plays the daughter Joni, will be seen in the title role of Tim Burton’s Alice (now playing at area cinemas) and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Laser, has an impressive résumé (at 17, he already has 28 acting credits on IMDb, and is listed as producer for another film scheduled for release this year). The film has secured international (including U.S.) distribution, but given its subject matter, financing was difficult to obtain.
The screenplay took five years to write, an inordinately long time in the U.S., said Cholodenko, who is nonetheless glad that she devoted so much care to it, and appreciative that Moore would keep checking in on her every few months to see how it was coming along. Moore noted that the tone of the film changed with every draft, including the very last line of the movie. And what did Moore think of her character, Jules, and the decisions she made? The words “so fucked up” and “lost” would pretty much describe it, said Moore: “She sort of went down the rabbit hole [shades of Alice?]. You don’t often see that in the movies.” What is most interesting “is that she messes up, but they don’t reject her. They punish her — she deserves to be punished,” she laughed — “but they don’t reject her.”
How did you select your actors for the two lead characters, who are somewhat stereotypical? After working with Moore, Cholodenko decided she wanted Bening to play opposite her, “simply because Annette Bening is an amazing, awesome, soulful, dramatic, comedic actress” and “they seem like a viable couple to me.” To Moore: What is love to you for this family, after so many years together? “That’s a tough one. You know, love is time... What is a partnership but the amount of time you put into it, and who you live with every day and who you talk to every day, who you cook for... That’s what it is, and that’s what this movie is saying, too.”
What does Cholodenko think of the current state of gay rights in America? While “not a political person,” the director expressed optimism, noting the “level of activity in the U.S. right now, Proposition 8, this case that’s [theoretically] going to the Supreme Court,” making the timing of the film “really interesting” and “quite nice.” That may be, but for one questioner, Paul’s rejection at the end of the film was a throwback to the 1950s, when any threat to to the “sanctity of marriage” was summarily dealt with. In a truly forward-thinking, liberated film, there would have been room for him in this family. Could it be because the American public wouldn’t accept it, and you had to consider the film’s marketability? The question was met with a scattering of applause.
Cholodenko smiled, graciously taking the well-aimed thrust but seeming to enjoy the challenge (“This is great, I feel like I’m at an academic conference”) and responded masterfully, in a way that somehow validated both positions. She admitted having asked herself the same questions, but having already challenged convention with the female lesbian couple, felt it sufficient that she had “left the door open” for Paul to play a future tole in the family. Rather than “close the door as if this could never come around again” or “do something which felt like it would be pandering to some liberal idea of how to close this — not pandering, but it would have been a much more aggressive comedic approach,” with the three of them living in an open relationship, going from bedroom to bedroom “like in a hippie commune... back to the sixties, free love” — Cholodenko rejected both concepts. “I just don’t believe that that’s a viable family structure. I have friends who grew up in situations like that... I couldn’t really personally get behind it, so I didn’t want to explore it as a way to end the film.”
Free love is something Melissa Riley also cannot personally get behind — but that’s because her husband can, and does... with a teenage stripper. Directed by Jake Scott, son of movie and TV director-producer Ridley Scott (who produced the film) and heretofore perhaps best known as a director of commercials and music videos, Welcome to the Rileys (USA 2010) is a breakout film that portrays with intensity and understanding the breakup and healing of a marriage that has been sharply derailed by the death of the couple’s daughter. Doug (James Gandolfini) finds solace in the unlikely arms of young Mallory (Kristen Stewart) while at a business convention in New Orleans, and in trying to help her get her own life on track, learns something redeeming, if in the end not redemptive, about his own.
The first thing we learned at the press conference was that the film has U.S. distribution, and will be coming to a theatre near you (and hopefully us) in the fall. The choice of Kristen Stewart, now identified by moviegoers with her incarnation of Bella Swan in the Twilight films (two more are in post-production or pre-production) to play Mallory, was based not on those films — which actually preceded Rileys, shot in 2008 — but on her performance in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007). Scott’s principal motivation in making the film was both very simple and very personal: “I’m a father, and I made a film really about fatherhood. That was how I approached it.” He also “was compelled by the idea that somebody so conservative — from the Midwest — a bit like Alice in Wonderland [mamma Mia! Wasikowska], could fall down the rabbit hole. I liked the idea that these two people could somehow heal each other.”
Producer Scott Bloom noted that his company had hesitated to get involved with the project. “It kind of goes against the normal way of thinking in Hollywood — it’s kind of counterintuitive — but we met Jake, and we met (producer ) Michael (Costigan)... and it was an amazing piece of material. And Jake’s a great storyteller. And that’s why we did it.”
Although Scott did not hold the camera himself — “There is no way you can judge a performance through a monitor; I just don’t believe it” (the cinematographer was Christopher Soos) — his two biggest influences for shooting the film were German: Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Scott was especially attentive to “the way [Fassbinder] holds a scene. He has this way of moving the camera which is very surprising. And it seems to be guided by emotion and not by action. To me that was really compelling. And the rigor of the film aesthetic — the framing, the head room, not too many close-ups,” was influenced by the two iconic German filmmakers.
What was it like to work with your father? “To work with my father? It’s a nightmare,” Scott said with a hint of a twinkle, then added with undisguised affection: “No, it’s all right. He’s great.” Were you not encouraged by your father to become a director? “When I was a teenager I did everything I could to avoid it. I went to fashion school to confuse the shit out of him. And I’m not gay but I acted gay to confuse the shit out of him even more,” he laughed. “He’s a good dad; I’m very lucky,” he concluded, adding softly: “I got to meet Stanley Kubrick.”
Directing the film was challenging in a very particular sort of way because each of the three leads came from a different school of acting. So Scott simply “trusted them, because I had these three amazing actors”: Gandolfini, the method actor, who hews to the words as they appear on the page; Stewart, who “couldn’t follow her lines” but “is so instinctive”; and Leo, who “brings with her so much experience and so much knowledge, and grace, and kindness” (to wit, “Jim would be punching out walls, Melissa would be ‘Oh, don’t worry about him,’ and Kristen would be twitching in the corner”).
Scott spoke movingly of New Orleans, where the film was shot. “New Orleans is one of the great cities of the world, in my opinion,” although “it was tough, because we were in a really rough neighborhood... But Southerners in the United States are incredibly hospitable and welcoming.” While New Orleans is “a very damaged place, it’s also the most European city in the world, its traditions, its culture. Its society is fabulous; quite francophile... But that’s an astonishing place to be, and I was very privileged to have done a film there. They’re cool people.”
Cool people conspicuously inhabit another celebrated American city, this one on the East coast, although at one time the cool was in the eye of the beholder — mainly, their own. Blank City (Céline Danhier, USA 2009) explores the “Cinema of Transgression” and “No Wave Cinema” movements of the mid- to late 1970s and 1980s with an oral history of the time and place. A rich mosaic of filmmakers and film clips, it brings to life a period that’s rarely remarked on in either cinema or public circles, although it was the geographical and artistic birthplace of many of today’s most celebrated directors. The film premiered at Tribeca last year, and the large audience here in Berlin was populated by a notable contingent of Americans (and New Yorkers), suggesting that for some, it was worth a second visit. And it was.
Amos Poe (The Blank Generation 1976) was the movement’s progenitor, having visited his father’s family in (then) Czechoslovakia and experimenting with his first Super 8 camera: It was love at first sight. Poe inspired many others — most of whom knew nothing about filmmaking but were open to (or maybe desperate for, in the depths of the mini-depression of the city’s brush with bankruptcy) the open-ended possibility of doing something radically creative — to grab a camera and experiment. Some of the movement’s still-active founding members recall what first inspired them to literally seize that Super 8. According to Jim Jarmusch, it was largely the largesse and/or larceny of a nameless Houston Street benefactor who came into a stash of cameras and peddled them for a pittance to anyone who wanted one. The passion spread like a virus to anyone susceptible to its infectious lure.
In 1975 New York City was near bankruptcy and President Ford refused to bail it out. Suddenly, it was the Wild West. “The place was owned by rats and cockroaches,” recalls one of the filmmakers wryly. “I paid the rent, but they were the tenants.” Then came the great Blackout in the summer of 1977 when power failed throughout most of the city for an entire day, leading to widespread looting and lawlessness. These events were seminal for a generation of filmmakers and performance artists such as Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Nick Zedd, and many others whose frank and often irreverent recollections open a window on this forgotten filmic generation. “[Performance art and trash cinema founding father] Jack Smith was a presence in the neighborhood,” says Waters. “He’d point out rats running in the street and say ‘Aha! The souls of dead landlords.’ ”
Jarmusch recalls how they purposely alienated themselves from the avant-garde. “We wanted narrative, not art films.” Technique was also rejected. “Nobody was doing what they knew how to do. They were doing what they didn’t know how to do.” In honor or irony — testament to or rejection of their French forbears? — they would call themselves the “No Wave.”
After the film, director Céline Danhier was asked if it had been difficult to get some of the notoriously reclusive filmmakers to talk on camera. Not at all, she said. Everyone enthusiastically participated, and some even saw the film as a way to support new filmmakers. And the ones who started it all: What are they doing now? While some continue to make movies, a lot of them have moved on to different media. But their passion remains evident in whatever they do.
Passion for one’s craft is not, of course, unique to filmmakers. Actors feel it, too, as anyone who’s ever been on or behind a set — or a stage — can testify. It may arguably be even stronger for those who revel in not only the roar of the greasepaint, but also, and perhaps indispensably — even primally — the smell of the crowd. In Andreas Kleinert’s Barriere (English-language title: Boundaries, Germany 2010), nine young aspiring thespians travel from their homes in Berlin to audition for roles in a summer-theatre production of Hamlet. The play, to be performed at an old provincial church, is being staged by a venerable directorial lion who’s used to ruling the theatrical roost with an iron hand. Needless to say he has no intention of relinquishing it, and will probably enjoy flaunting it, for this motley crew of self-important striplings.
There are some real delights in this film, which puts human faces on the classic theatre masks as we follow these alternately ambitious, apprehensive, despairing, indomitable, hopeful, talented twenty-somethings into the insanely energized, multitasking world they are about to abandon. Kleinert (who also wrote the screenplay) is meticulously attentive to the small things that make people and places come alive, in a way that recalls Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right). In one memorable scene, the seat belt refuses to release from the retractor despite repeated, increasingly exasperated tugs by the young actress who is already running late. Who of us hasn’t been there? They drive their friends and loved ones crazy by insisting that they listen just one more time to their audition piece and reassure them that it’s all right. Who of us can’t identify, at least with the concept?
The current economy has unfortunately enabled many of us to identify with a related concept: not just the need for reassurance that we’re doing a good job, but the need for a job, period. In Doris Dörrie’s (last seen here in 2008’s Kirschblüten – Hanami, or “Cherry Blossoms”) unapologetically, gleefully exaggerated but all-too-real Die Friseuse (The Hairdresser 2010), the woman of the title is indefatigable in her pursuit of a position in her old profession: Her ex-husband has kept their suburban home, leaving her barely scraping by in the depressed area of the former East Berlin where she grew up. Kathi is her own person, not necessarily a good thing in the East, which even 20 years after the fall of the Wall still stubbornly retains vestiges of suffocatingly socialist aspects and attitudes.
It’s especially not a good thing to be larger than life there, and even worse if one is so both literally and figuratively. Kathi is obese, and dresses like the irrepressible (and tiny) Poppy in Mike Hawkins’s 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky: screamingly bright colors in huge swatches, accented in Kathi’s case with eye-popping dollar-store jewelry (in one memorable instance, a necklace of near life-size colorful plastic fruits threaded on a bright string).
Unable to find a job in a salon — “Our profession is aesthetic,” sniffs one owner. “You, my dear, are not aesthetic” — our heroine, for whom every rejection is a challenge, sees only one way to get her foot in the door: to make the door her own, and open her own salon. Her never-say-die enthusiasm and defiant cheerfulness do not endear her to the government bureaucrats, mall managers and banking officials whose approval she needs, and who send her in endless circles trying to obtain documents and fill out applications that she inevitably learns on the next visit are not the ones she really needs. And when at last she’s signed every last document on the dotted line, she learns that the going-out-of-business Asian noodle shop she dreams of resurrecting as a beauty salon has more structural problems than you can shake a chopstick at.
And everywhere she turns (or is spun round to), Kathi finds more problems than you can shake a billy club at: Styling hair at an old folks’ home with her new partner to try to earn enough money for the 2,500-euro deposit, she gets hauled away in a paddy wagon for not having a permit. She does, in the course of her misadventures, find love in the most unexpected places (and with the most unexpected person — a Vietnamese refugee, one of twenty she’s agreed to smuggle into the city in exchange for enough money to pay off her debt). And her smart-mouthed daughter does become less ready to write her mother off as a hopeless case, and more willing to see her as a someone going beyond the call to make the best of what she has.
This film divided the press, with Variety judging it a “colorfully styled blue-collar comedy” and a “likable tale,” Screen International calling it “a competently directed but silly work crammed with lowbrow humour,” and The Hollywood Reporter taking frankness to a whole new level: “The difficulty with Doris Dorrie’s [sic] jolly and colorful romp ‘The Hairdresser’ is that when the fat lady sings, it still ain’t over... she keeps on chirping relentlessly until you wish she’d just eat a wafer-thin mint and explode like Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote.” (Ouch.) Perhaps we should let Mr. Martenstein have the last word. “I really found the Dörrie film, about a fat, unemployed but not too modestly dressed single-mom hairdresser from Marzahn, positively splendid. It reminded me of the previous Berlinale public darlings ‘Irina Palm’ and ‘Happy Go Lucky,’ and is until further notice my favorite feel-good film this year.”
We only wish our Tagesspiegel gadfly had had a chance to comment on the closing-night film. It could well have challenged his #1 spot in the feel-good category — up to a point. As with the Dörrie, Otouto (About Her Brother, Yoji Yamada; Japan 2010), whose director received this year’s Berlinale Camera award for lifetime achievement, our laughter is limned with an ineffable sadness, as we watch an unconventional and outré character try to find his way in what must seem to him an impatient, intolerant and unforgiving world. Yet unlike the heroine of The Hairdresser, Tetsuro’s reaction is not one of determination, but rather — given his nature and perhaps, after all these years, expectations — an outwardly cheerful resignation that belies the pain he feels.
Tetsuro is the paradigmatic relative everyone hopes will not show up for the wedding. Loud, boisterous, unable to hold his liquor and under no inclination to try, this familial black sheep rams his way into his lovely young niece’s elegant wedding dinner and makes an unforgettable scene, including an interminable celebratory speech that has everyone else looking for that last drop in the bottle.
Yamada’s film is itself filled with memorable moments, both narrative and photographic. In one scene, delicately shot in the soft autumnal glow of an early morning sun, the bride-to-be, instructed by her mother, dutifully thanks the uncle who paid for the wedding. In response, he gruffly chides her for misplaced gratitude. Koharu turns to her mother and humbly, tenderly, with singular sweetness and grace, thanks her for raising her alone, through extraordinarily difficult circumstances, to enable her to reach this day, this moment. Standing in sharp contrast, and equally memorable in its way, is the scene where Tetsuro greets the dressed-to-the-nines guests at the reception with his klieg-light-wattage grin and says to a hefty dame: “Boy, did YOU get old.” “BITE ME! ” she shrieks, swinging her satin purse at him, her brocaded skirts swishing angrily around her.
The beautiful day is also marred by the peremptory rudeness of the groom. Excused by all as wedding jitters, it instead proves to be a harbinger of the couple’s life to come, and when Koharu begs her mom to find out why he refuses to sit down and have an honest talk, his abrupt response speaks volumes: “Talk about what? I don’t even have time to eat,” adding with more than a shade of pomposity, “If she’d send me a memo, I’d answer it.” Tetsuro brings more tsuris to his sister, this time financial, and she takes her life savings to (once more) bail him out. True to form, even in death he’s hopeless. Here, though, our exasperation is tinged with both laughter and tears. Distressed that his IV drip doesn’t seem to be working, sis calls the doctor, who soon learns why: Tetsuro has decided has to exit life on his own terms — and replaced the glucose with whiskey.
As in A Family, here too we have an extended sequence dealing with death. But in contrast, the tone here is shamelessly but powerfully melodramatic, infused with love, regret, and forgiveness. And of course, humor. “This is a special moment,” says the young hospice attendant brightly, seeing brother, sister and niece in a tearful embrace. “Let’s remember it,” and takes out his cellphone to snap a photo. In an interview with Tageszeitung the eve of the press screening, Yamada said he had learned many years ago in the Shochiku Studio what counts: “The ability to observe, and humor.”
At the press conference, the final one for this year’s Berlinale, the grand old master, recognized by the Guinness Book of Work Records for a life’s work totaling (before this one, we presume) 106 screenplays and 78 films, reflected on his oeuvre and its cinematic and cultural and influences. What do the seasons mean to you? he was asked. They are always so evident in your films. The seasons are a part of Japanese culture, replied Yamada, reflected in poems and paintings as well as films. “We are aware of the way the seasons change. That depicts the passage of time.” The use of rain as a motif in this film was “a conscious decision. Be it in the form of a river or a sea or a lake or the rain — it’s something that’s very special to me,” as it is throughout Southeast Asia, where it is seen as evoking “a very decent and calm atmosphere.”
Your films also frequently deal with family relationships — as a German proverb has it, “The family is the world in a drop of water.” Do you think you’re picking up on the tradition of other Japanese directors, such as Ozu? Indeed; “Ozu was my master in a sense,” working in the same studio as Yamada when the latter started out, although Yamada first wanted to go beyond what he saw as the limitations of family stories and looked more toward Kurosawa as a model. “And then one day I looked at my work, and I said, ‘What am I doing? I’m always describing families, the stories of families’ ” — a realization that struck him after he had been making films for ten or twenty years.
Your film portrays a hospice in some detail, and “death with dignity” is a topic of some interest in Germany. What is the situation in Japan? It’s even more critical in Japan, said the director, where “it’s become a major social issue” with the country’s rapidly aging population, and where hospices are not widespread and older people often die alone, “without anybody really noticing.” This was, in fact, an important focus of this film.
The subject matter and Yamada’s style ran somewhat counter to the practice of shooting films in Japan these days, noted the producer, but they wanted to afford him the time and atmosphere he required; they hope to be able to do more “contemplative, careful, well-thought-out films” with him in the future. It is, after all, “the way for Japanese film to survive as true cinema.” That was in fact his intention from the outset, said Yamada, who dislikes the multiple-camera, multiple-video-screen approach which in theory allows a director to focus on specific elements of a shot. “I would like to shoot like Ozu, like Kurosawa, next to the camera, where I can catch the eye of the actors and actresses.”
A woman reporter was ambivalent about the character of the sister, who is selfless and good, but “it’s always the women who have to be good.” Women have to save the world, which is all fine and dandy. But what about her needs? Is this the way women are in Japan? Yamada’s response was revealing: Maybe people will see this film and think, Why aren’t I nicer to my miserable little brother? Maybe he’s human, too. Why am I so impatient with my parents? “I’ve been cold sometimes in the past with my own family. And I shot this film with that awareness.” If people after seeing this film think, maybe I should be kinder to my dear old dad; maybe I should go out and by my mom a present, that would be great. “And I’m seeking to establish that kind of connection with the audience.”
Do you have a message for young Japanese filmmakers? A tall order on short notice, but Yamada gathered his thoughts and responded decisively. “Young people today, students, directors — when I talk to them, I realize that they scarcely watch any films. Not the classics, films you really have to have seen, films from the forties, fifties and sixties... And it’s only when you really look at those films that you can learn from them, and start to work properly yourself... By looking at these films you can learn the basic techniques, the basic modules. And you need the foundations, whether you’re doing art, or science, or anything. That’s what I’d like to say to the new generation of filmmakers.”
Advice often given and always taken by the best filmmakers from any land and of any generation, and whose films we will look forward to viewing in Berlinales to come. See you there next year!