The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival
By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member
Friedrichstadt-Palast. Photo from the Berlin International Film Festival website.
Where do shrieking, star-seeking, teeny-bopper (and middle-aged) film fans; sober, quality-seeking cinephiles, and movie lovers of all stripes flock by the hundreds of thousands on one of the coldest months of the year, in one of the coldest cities on the continent? If it’s February, it must be the Berlinale, shorthand for the Berlin International Film Festival, which this year saw 24-hour campouts on the frigid streets of Potsdamer Platz as anxious, red-cheeked, thermos-clutching admirers awaited the arrival of their Twilight star.
And they were not alone. A hardy contingent in the hundreds braved the Arctic chill to line up hours before opening to pack the opulent 1,750-seat Friedrichstadt-Palast almost past capacity, where a Bollywood giant had braved a chill (and fever) of his own to be there for them — and to challenge the fest’s grey-haired and -mustachioed director to a few Indian dance steps complete with headstands as they cheered.
And superstar actresses? Never let it be said that said director, Dieter Kosslick, who in his nine years in the position (and counting; during the fest, it was announced that his contract has been extended to 2016) has hosted the most acclaimed and talented with a blend of disarming artlessness, astuteness and charm, isn’t also prescient. Just days after squiring one of them around town with conspicuous delight and honoring her with the fest’s most prestigious award, for Lifetime Achievement, he must have noted with special satisfaction as, across the ocean before a viewership of nearly 40 million, she received Hollywood’s highest acting honor — and with the same honesty, grace and humor that endeared her to Berlin.
But back to the festival, where a glittering present and future joined hands with a distant past as the fest paid tribute to a “lost” — and now rediscovered — film studio, with screenings of dozens of its films. And celebrated the 100th birthday of another, the world’s oldest large-scale film studio complex, where Kosslick would award it the coveted Berlinale Camera (its name both figurative and literal, with 128 individual silver and titanium parts, many of them moveable), in a special ceremony attended by the city’s political and cultural elite and hundreds of invited guests.
The cinematic glory of both of these studios sometimes stood in sharp contrast to the mortal darkness of the regimes that, for all or just a small, but indelible part of their respective histories, ruled the people and lands that seeded and nourished their dreams. Lest this thought occasion among viewers a sense of superiority over our ignorant or ignoble (take your pick) forbears, they didn’t have to go far to find among the fest’s offerings films portraying a host of contemporary examples of man’s senseless determination to destroy “the other.” Including one whose raven-haired director/screenwriter (and one of Hollywood’s most beauteous and glamorous screen sirens and committed peace activists) found herself the object of fan frenzy, her film the subject of alternately admiring, questioning, dismissive or angrily challenging commentary.
Not to worry: My film is rough, it’s difficult, she told a local paper. Moviegoers want to have a good time. [Note: Translations from German or French are this writer’s. In cases such as this, where the speaker’s words were translated from English for publication in the local media, they reflect her best guess as to the original wording.] And showing she knows what that means for the smaller set (and leaving the locals agog), took three of her kids shopping for toys at the local Legoland, just steps from the towering enameled giraffe smiling down from Potsdamer Straße. Recalling for at least this filmgoer — who on occasion over the years, in her rush to get to the next screening, couldn’t resist returning a quick grin — the flesh-and-blood giraffes featured in both a Forum film and a Competition film. The former’s fate recalled the aforementioned darkness; the latter’s, by comparison, suggested a gentle, melancholy dimness, tempered by human warmth and companionship.
Which were sometimes — human nature being what it is — in conspicuously short supply for humans, at least onscreen. On the streets the crowds, which this year again broke previous records, surpassing the 300,000-tickets-sold mark and selling out many of the fest’s complement of some 400 films (including a record-setting 18 world premieres) were on the whole conspicuously well behaved. When they weren’t, their lapses were wryly addressed with okay-folks-you-know-better reminders, as when the Tagesspiegel (Daily Mirror) felt obliged to offer a 2" x 3", bottom-center, cherry-red illustrated “lexicon” for filmgoers who hadn’t gotten the memo:
Cough- and irritation-soothing drops with phlegm-relieving substances.
Indispensable for all festival visitors.
Please unwrap quietly.
It closed with a familiar phrase that as used here, could be an expression of either impatience or appeasement:
Get well soon!
A command that could have brought a wry smile to the frozen faces of dedicated journos lining up each morning in the frigid February air for their required daily dose of early morning screenings. But how we warmed up once inside, having snagged a prime location in the Berlinale Palast with its 1,800 cushioned fire-engine-red seats, where we settled in for a few hours of fiction, fantasy, or fantastical — or formidable — reality.
Of course, for better or for worse, coughs and colds are no more amenable to orders or appeals than the people who have them — indeed, if history’s any guide, when an appeal is to reason or to our better nature, “for worse” appears to have a better, or at least more successful appeal. A sobering thought, because at least in theory, unlike with those intractable infections, people have some control over their choices. And this year’s Berlinale — true to its own history and reputation as the most political of international film festivals — explored the ways in which those choices can not just change individual lives, but challenge the pernicious political regimes that seek to subjugate them.
From today’s Arab Spring, to the Communist East of the eighties; from seasoned and sophisticated works from the masters posing some of today’s most compelling questions, to vibrant new voices of the Talents seeking to at once learn from them and take them on; from Dieter Kosslick’s climate-conscious (and detailed) description of how this year, the fest’s CO2 balance would be even better, to the Forum section director’s declaration that what’s known as “the most daring section of the Berlinale” had redefined itself as “even more radical,” Berlinale 2012 wrote a new script for political engagement while dexterously maintaining the fest’s signature balance between art and commerce.
Where to begin? Perhaps with the most immediate: the Arab Spring, represented this year by 10 feature films and documentaries (with an additional 10 at the fest’s business center, the European Film Market), plus absorbing panel discussions with journalists, activists and filmmakers. At the Talent Campus, the focus was on contemporary video art from Lebanon, the Arab world defining its future, and the city of Cairo, its images and archives. And “World Cinema Fund Day,” at the multifunctional, capacious Filmhaus at Potsdamer Platz, offered a penetrating dialogue on the situation in Syria and what it’s like to be on the ground documenting revolution in Arab lands.
Introducing the seminar in his well-intentioned, inimitably fractured English, Kosslick lauded the Fund (“We would have invented the World Cinema Fund if we wouldn’t haven’t had it”), immediately endearing him to any who have struggled with German grammar. He then expressed regret that the foreign minister could not be there because “he was with Meryl Streep last night. No, not alone,” he added quickly, with a laugh. “I was there, too.”
Festival director Dieter Kosslick with film crew. Photo from the Berlin International Film Festival website.
Then he grew serious. “The poor people have to fight against the rich guys because the rich become more and more rich and the poor become more and more poor,” he told the packed room, adding that Europeans need to stop the name-calling and work together for the common good. “We need to make sure the banks don’t run the world. Culture must prevail,” he told us, a quiet sense of urgency informing his words. “And you and I must help it happen.”
Yes, but how? On the “Focus Syria” panel, filmmaker/journalist Mohamed Ali Atassi (Syria/Lebanon) sounded a guardedly optimistic note. The Syrian people will not give up, he told us; their revolt will result in freedom. But the celebrated man-with-a cellphone news coverage, instead of helping gain international sympathy, may be having an unintended “distancing” effect. Because there’s no BBC or CNN, he continued, the activists documenting the events are a part of them and sometimes victims of them, thereby losing the objectivity at the heart of convincing, believable news coverage. He also hypothesized that a largely white audience would fail to identify with non-white narrators and tend to see the horrors as something happening to people who have no connection to them without a white reporter to act as conduit.
He was especially dismissive of what he saw as the deceptive so-called power of YouTube, in which people watching slaughter unfold before their eyes believe that as they are watching, so is the world, and so something will surely be done. (It was hard for this reporter to keep from raising her hand to remind him of history’s hard lessons: The world can know, and not care; can look, and not see. Perhaps he knows, and is hoping — as they all did — that this time will be different.)
Film journalist Alaa Karkouti (Syria/Egypt) noted that in the tinderbox that is the Middle East, Western governments have come to see Syria as the “good guy” because its relations with Israel have not been as unrelievedly hostile as have those of other Arab states. “It’s people believing in the [Assad] regime, and that’s the scary part,” he said. The only anti-regime broadcast channel is owned by Assad’s brother, who is in exile. Karkouti closed with a chilling observation. “I’m scared and I’m out of the country, so imagine how the people there feel.”
Filmmaker, producer and film activist Hala Al Alabdallah (Syria/France) emphasized the historic uniqueness of the Arab Spring, which in any event is a misnomer, at least when applied to Syria: “It’s true there was an Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen — but in Syria there was a revolution. It’s something that’s never happened before in history.” And the films that have resulted, whatever they may be for anyone else, for her are first and foremost auteur films. “It’s the author who transmits what he’s seen, what he’s felt, what he’s lived,” using YouTube as a vehicle. Calling the result “jewels,” Al Alabdallah told us: “These people risk their lives to shoot these films.”
“People think of Syria as having slept for more than 40 years and never expected it to awaken, the desert to bloom,” she continued, using visual imagery to make the passion she so clearly felt come to life for her listeners. “All these years of waiting ... it’s like a volcano erupting, with new means of communicating, of creating, of meeting with people from everywhere.” Shifting paradigms, she said: “It’s poetry,” adding: “For me, a poetic film is one that shows the strength of freedom.”
Atassi, perhaps renewed by Al Alabdallah’s emotional testimony, recalled the day when, “As a political journalist, I felt that suddenly, writing wasn’t enough. So I enlisted Hala to document a resister who was in prison for 17 years,” which became the linchpin for his own filmmaking career. Putting a different spin on the question of authorship, Atassi said that today, “Syrian filmmakers are making their own documentaries inside the revolution, finding a new way of making documentaries without an author, because we don’t know who made them.”
Filmmakers such as himself are trying to show not the demonstrations, but “the background of the revolution,” much of it without financial support. Unlike in the case of the YouTube films, here the filmmaker is not risking his life; he wants to make a film that he can take back and develop. The images are much better, too, he noted.
The development of a film culture in Syria is singular in other ways, said Karkouti. “There was never a film culture in Syria,” but only “corrupt regimes throughout the Arab world supported by the United States and Europe,” their acts of injustice and violence against minorities largely ignored. Karkouti urged us to not lose sight of the bigger picture. “Every case is different, but it’s all related to human justice.” In Yemen, there was an agora, or public forum; this never happened in Syria, because the Army moved in to crush the first sign of resistance. Today, “people are trying to create their own collective spirit to face their own collective fear,” turning events such as public funerals into “acts of resistance.”
Al Abdallah recalled offering to make a film about the art of caricature in the Arab world — what many might call a curious choice after the attempted murder of a Danish cartoonist who drew caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, and the conviction a few years later of a man involved in a plot to kill another; but one thing these filmmakers do not lack is courage — and being told upon submitting her screenplay that there was a problem. No, it wasn’t the Mohammed issue; rather, there was a law prohibiting the publication of drawings without captions. Why? Because people might write their own. It may be here, in this quickly interjected sidebar, that the core of the argument lay. It is not military might that dictators fear most, but the power of the imagination, the ability of people to think for themselves.
And now, the questions. How do you see the future? Karkouti was unequivocal: “Scary.” While there’s the Internet, the paradox is that its very freedom makes it subject to manipulation. Karkouti was more sanguine about Tunisia (which has “more open-minded people”) than Egypt, where just the day before there had been a call in a local paper for the head of the leader of the Moslem Brotherhood, where “free elections” didn’t necessarily mean “clean elections,” and where Western support in the past has meant the survival of “dirty regimes and dictatorships.”
Al Abdallah was encouraged by a short video on YouTube by the Alawite actress Fadwa Soleiman, in which she makes inventive use of the religious extremists’ own words to create a secular vow. “In the name of God almighty,” she proclaims, “I hereby declare that Syria will unite, and we will rebuild our secular democratic state of Syria.”
Asked about the danger of extremist Islamist parties’ recent electoral successes, Atassi said he wasn’t worried. “People are demanding dignity and liberty, and if [these parties] don’t bring it, they will be thrown out, too.” The people, he said, will no longer accept what they risked their lives to get rid of. Karkouti was more wary, saying he has already observed “signs of repression.” For Al Abdallah, “what we need is not bombs or arms, but more communication and more solidarity with the ‘normal people’ ” who are living through it in Syria.
Responding to a Palestinian journalist who expressed strong doubts about the future of Arab film, Al Abdallah suggested Skype as a viable alternative when other forms of communication are being suppressed. “We call the cinema revolution the Skype revolution. With Skype they vote, they communicate.”
Break time came accompanied by a scrumptious buffet of Arabic and international delicacies, including trays of strawberries on steroids, each a rich, vibrant red and measuring, on average, approximately 2" x 4". Seeking to be able to inform DCFS readers of the name of the exquisite coffee, appearing in small white bowls on the tables in powder form but looking like the most decadent fudge, I inquired of the handsome olive-skinned young man serving it and handed him my notebook, sure that I would never be able to adequately approximate even a transliterated spelling. Agreeably taking my pen, he wrote slowly in a firm, elegant hand, which I noted as I took the pad back, laughing as I read: Arabic Koffee. Musing on the ever-shifting tides of cultural identification in countries where choice does not come at a deadly cost, I sat down for the next panel.
“Documenting Revolution” featured producer and festival organizer Hania Mroué (Lebanon); filmmaker Nadia El Fani (Tunisia/France); filmmaker and producer Hala Galal (Egypt); and journalist, activist and blogger Nora Younis (Egypt). Galal (whose documentary films, according to the European Cultural Foundation, “have marked the Egyptian audiovisual landscape”) explained that she has been too deeply affected by what’s happened in her country to make her own film, but others who can, must. “We don’t want to rest in peace,” she told us, “because we want the world to be able to rest in peace.” Galal is working on a film, but does not know if she’ll ever be able to shoot it. “What I saw was more than terrible,” perhaps more than she would be able to manage emotionally.
For Galal, the YouTube and Twitter postings not only attest to a “very underground movement” but prove that “everybody who has a mobile” can document some small part of the revolution, their postings constituting “an open invitation to everybody to make films.” Galal dislikes labels — “activist,” “revolution,” “Arab Spring” — “It’s more like winter, like International Winter.” And the protests and protesters won’t go away. It’s “a style of life now; it’s a choice to be against every injustice, now and forever. It’s not about nationalism,” she said. “It’s about justice everywhere.”
Younis’s remarks opened a new window on the obstacles facing young filmmakers in Egypt, and in so doing, opened her listeners’ eyes to a world in which the obverse of what the Berlinale celebrates each year was the former’s unhappy lot: not artistic expression, but artistic repression. And on every level: “You felt that you were rejected by the society.” But the success of the demonstrators has had an unexpected benefit, opening their fellow countrymen’s hearts and minds to the possibility of change. Now, everyone was accepted. “The average Egyptian citizen, veiled women, were standing against the Moslem Brotherhood,” Younis told us proudly. “Egyptian society today is very alive.”
El Fani, whose Neither Allah, nor Master (“Ni Allah Ni Maître”) was both honored by the International Federation for Human Rights and denounced by demonstrators infuriated by the film’s criticism and unequivocal renunciation of religion, was encouraged by Tunisia’s tradition of secularism, but still had to lie about the title and subject of her film to get it made. As “quite an active activist” a half-year before President Ben Ali was forced to leave, El Fani had already been uploading films to the Web.
Mroué, like Galal, told us that she was still too emotional about events in her country to make a film about them; that she doesn’t yet have the distance. “”We need time to ourselves” to process what happened, what in fact “is happening as we speak.” More comfortable with the word than Galal, Mroué declared that “there are several revolutions,” each unique to its country. She also was reluctant to call the YouTube uploads films. “They are important documentations, but I’m not sure they’re films.”
For her part, your reviewer was reluctant to leave, but a film beckoned. And not just any film but one for which, as it turned out, the line wound down the long hallway and was still filling with hopeful ticket holders 15 minutes before its scheduled start, despite there being two additional screenings. What was this apparent box office bonanza?
Let’s just say that if anyone is skeptical that the fest’s signature political engagement reflects that of its audiences, the enthusiasm for Democracy Under Attack - An Intervention (Angriff auf die Demokratie – eine Intervention; Romuald Karmakar, Germany 2012) would erase any doubts. On the surface the driest of documentaries, what it is, is not even that. What it is, is 102 minutes of talking heads in business suits (with occasional colorful interruptions of goats on the green, inspiring the Tagesspiegel to title its review “Of Goals and Goats” — whose alliteration and rhyming first syllables work in the original German too: “Von Zielen und Ziegen”). Each takes his or her ten-minute turn at the podium to deplore the current state of Western democracy in the wake of, and for some, in no small part because of, the financial crisis and the failure of the Western democracies to either prevent it or, once it hit, to protect the poor and the middle class rather than what has come to be called “the 1 percent.”
Coming on the heels of the previous session’s panelists’ moving testimonies to democracy, its importance and power, and to the high cost so many have paid and continue to pay to achieve it for themselves and their fellow countrymen and -women, Democracy Under Attack hit like an unwelcome, but perhaps needed, splash of cold water. Filmed (the lecture part) at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, or House of World Cultures, just weeks before the festival, calling it a film may be something of an exaggeration.
Karmakar’s montage film (his preferred term) employs “found footage” from the symposium and combines it with an insert of his own: the pastoral goats who, one by one, slowly meander up the grassy hillside, eventually gathering in what Karmakar calls “Elliott Waves,” after the Elliott Wave Principle used by traders to analyze market cycles and predict trends. The speakers, German intellectuals from various disciplines, including a journalist and political theorist, a broadcasting and newspaper editor, a novelist and short-story writer, and others in the teaching and writing professions, approach the crisis with varying degrees of anger, humor, or attempts at neutral analysis.
The first two speakers are bitter because the EU was created without consulting its citizens, resulting in parliaments that are little more than ciphers. Merkel put the power in the hands of the banks, asserts one, and the banks, through their financial shenanigans, destroyed people who depended on the money invested in them. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, with the poorer nations spending their hard-earned euros to purchase expensive goods from the richer ones.
And some of those goods aren’t even any good, says the next speaker. One day there will probably be a course on marketing yourself as a politician, observes the next. Sloganeering has taken over everything. Like the politician, he added with some bitterness, who told his constituents after 9/11, “Show them you’re not afraid. Go shopping. Go to restaurants.” Meanwhile, ads became political, urging consumers to “seize the moment. The time is now.” And pushing a product that would help you do it.
And democracy? Sacrificed, is the general consensus, on the altar of political expediency.
“You need to be for something,” the next speaker quotes President Clinton telling David Letterman, referring to the Occupy Wall Street protesters, “not just against something.” Karmakar arguably agrees, and his film, in the voices of nine thinkers, writers and philosophers, makes an appeal for “an intervention.” But how? And by whom?
For the Tagesspiegel’s dependably irrepressible Martenstein, the answer was clear. In the course of the fest, he has come to three realizations. “In the anti-intellectual film Democracy Under Attack by Romuald Karmakar we see, one after the other, nine intellectuals ... For exactly ten minutes each intellectual criticizes society on the subject of the euro crisis. They all say, this has to stop, we have to do something. In the middle of the film, for six minutes we see goats, silently eating grass. Third realization: Goats don’t talk. Goats do something.”
So do people, of course, and at the Cinema for Peace 10th anniversary gala, held at Berlin’s classic Gendarmenmarkt concert hall, Hollywood again came out in force, raising desperately needed funds for the foundation’s work to “further peace and understanding worldwide” through “involvement in the production and dissemination of films about the prevention of disease, violence, genocide, war, poverty and violation of human rights.”
This year’s honorees included people and films from and about Burma, with French director Luc Besson’s latest film The Lady (which screened here in DC at the MPAA on April 9, with an introduction by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton), about political and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s unceasing struggles against Burma’s military dictatorship, receiving the International Human Rights Film Award. Cinema for Peace was also behind the 2010 documentary film about the Burmese comedian and human rights activist Zarganar, This Prison Where I Live; and in October 2011, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s urgent appeal to support Burmese activists, Zarganar, who had been imprisoned shortly after the shooting of the film, was released with 200 other prisoners. (For more on that film, see this reporter’s September 2010 Storyboard article about the Munich Film Festival.)
Angelina Jolie, in a soft, clinging silvery gown, nestled in the arms of Brad Pitt as she awaited her turn to speak: In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie’s directorial debut film about the Bosnian war, was receiving the foundation’s Honorary Award for Opposing War and Genocide. The film had its European premiere at the modernist, glass-paned Haus der Berliner Festspiele’s new cinema, a new venue for the Berlinale (making a grand total of 22, some with several theaters) the night before. “The people in that region mean a lot to me,” she told the glittering audience. “They have suffered so much and have still survived. They are simply astonishing and immensely worthy.”
As was the gala, which in previous years has raised close to $4,000,000 for humanitarian efforts. “Fame is a currency you can use like money,” said singer, songwriter and fellow activist, Live Aid’s Bob Geldof, in his opening remarks. For the stars who came out on a cold winter’s night — among them Jolie who stood coatless, signing autographs for countless shivering, eager fans warmed by her smile — it is a currency that can, in turn, earn money for worthy causes.
For Brad Pitt, turning name and fame into other people’s (much needed) currency wasn’t enough: he added a nice chunk of his own, outbidding the well-heeled crowd for a meeting with boxing legend Mohammed Ali at the Olympic games in London. Perhaps he took to heart Geldof’s threat that if the guests didn’t bid enough at the auction, “I’m gonna come over there personally and beat you up.” Then again, given what he’d just gotten, he may have covered his bases.
Or not: That meeting may not come soon enough if he wants to take on some of the critics of his wife’s film. (Although, as a Berliner Zeitung critic noted, “Angelina Jolie could make a 10-hour film about dust whirls in an otherwise empty room and the attention of the international press would be hers.”) There were few at the SRO press conference earlier that day — most of the lukewarm assessments have come from published reviews — but in the midst of the Hyatt love fest, an Iranian journalist contested what he saw as the film’s one-sidedness.
Seated at the podium in the large room reserved for press conferences at the Grand Hyatt Berlin, clad simply in a classic black cocktail dress and surrounded by eight of her actors, her brown hair flowing down her shoulders, Jolie listened intently as each answered a question, her eyes not leaving the actor’s face. When it came her turn, the first question a direct challenge, she responded with poise and quiet determination — “straight as an arrow,” noted the Tagesspiegel, allowing “no one to make her feel subordinate” — and, this reporter would add, her lips smiling demurely, while her wide, penetrating blue eyes spoke a language of their own.
Jolie, who in addition to writing and directing a film about human rights issues, for the last 10 years has been a very active ambassador with the U.N. Refugee Agency, and currently serves as U.N. goodwill ambassador to the High Commissioner for Refugees. “Even through all my years of working with the United Nations and talking to people at the State Department,” she told Screen International, “I still couldn’t get anyone to explain to me what happened and why ...at that time in the 1990s, when everyone was talking about Schindler’s List and we were very focused on mass atrocities, we could go on ignoring this situation for so long and not assist these people. How did that happen?”
Her film, as it turned out, would seek to answer not that question, but the deeper one underlying it: How could neighbors turn against neighbors in a modern European country in the 1990s? In the Land of Blood and Honey had not answered, but had explored that question as best she could. Now, she was ready to meet the hundreds of members of the international press who had managed to squeeze into the large room.
The first questioner was an Iranian reporter who accused her of making a one-sided film that ignored “the reasons for the war.” Jolie responded evenly. “You have every right to write a review and speak to whatever way you see the film,” she said, as all people have a right to do “based on their own background, their own personal view of art and relationships and story, and so that’s how you see it. Clearly,” and here her smile broadened, “that’s not the way it was intended. And I think that many people do not see it that way; in fact I know that most people don’t see it that way.”
Certainly the actors didn’t. Locked in a room for two to three hours to read the script, Sarajevo native Goran Kostic (Danijel) begged for more time: Having read it twice — “it was so obvious that the script was so complex, and it had a depth which required further readings” — he realized that “the more I was reading, the deeper I was getting into the complexity of the story.” Wondering who had written it, he was — well, “amazed” is too mild a word to describe his reaction when he learned not only who it was, but that it was someone who had no direct experience of the war. (But then, as the Tagesspiegel’s Martenstein could have told him, eyewitnesses to historic events, be they perpetrators, victims or witnesses, are bad judges of them. “Just imagine the Nazi period with films made just by German directors, and nothing by Spielberg, Tarantino, Benigni or Lanzmann.”)
“Living in Sarajevo, surrounded by women who are victims of war,” said Zana Marjanovic, who plays the key role of Ajla, the Muslim artist who falls in love with the Serbian soldier Danijel, “I see that day by day their stories are being forgotten. Which is why it’s so important that I had the opportunity to represent these women. And I can only hope I did a good job.” Vanesa Glodjo (Lejla) said it took her three times as long to read the script because “it was very painful for me, each page,” clearing her throat and blinking quickly. “She gave me the words and opportunity to express what I lived during the war. And I’m deeply, deeply grateful to her.” Another actor said he “couldn’t believe it that it was written by a woman who did not live through this war.”
Rade Šerbedžija (Danijel’s father) praised Jolie and the film, saying it’s “not a film about war, but about the love of two young people who would probably be happy parents in a few years if this war didn’t happen to this country. Thank you very much,” he concluded sincerely, as he and Jolie exchanged knowing glances. Nikola Djuric'ko, who plays Danijel’s best friend, said he was really hoping for the lead role, but found that it had gone to Goran. “But she likes you,” he was told. “ ‘She’? Who, ‘she’? I asked them. ‘Angelina Jolie.’ I thought it was a joke. ‘Yeah, right, and maybe Robert De Niro,’ I told them,” as laughter rippled across the room. He went on to praise both Jolie and the rest of the cast, who through the experience of the film had become not only colleagues, but friends.
Branko Djuric, a self-described Sarajevan “of mixed breed” with Muslim mother and Serb father, had played a Bosnian soldier a decade before in Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land. Offered this role, he amiably allowed, he thought that “maybe it was time [to even the score] of mother-father, 1-1.” Boris Ler, like Goran Kostic, was disbelieving that an actress like Jolie had written the script he was given, so deeply did it explore “every aspect of what was happening in the region,” and echoed his fellow actors’ praise for it and for her. As he was only a child during the war years, his direct experience of the period was limited, but watching them as they struggled with their emotions during the shooting gave him a window into their depth and complexity.
As to the controversy the film has stirred in Bosnia, “for me that is one of the greatest things that is happening, because — I don’t know if it’s rude that I’m saying this, but our region is a slave to their history, and we are stuck in one place. And until we start not being stuck in one place, we cannot move forward. And so, thank you” — with a nod to Jolie — “for doing this story.”
Alma Terzic recalled meeting Jolie for the first time, convinced that she’d bowl the actress, now screenwriter and director, over with her comedic chops within seconds — only to become bowled over herself upon being introduced. “And I said” — her huge, pale blue eyes suddenly expressionless, her mouth frozen in a shell-shocked smile — “ ‘Hi.’ ” As she got to know Jolie and work with her, Terzic began to learn what it meant to Jolie, “that this is bigger than this film, it’s bigger than us. Raped women in a war — it’s bigger than Bosnia Herzegovina; it’s a universal story,” she continued, that is happening in parts of the world now, and has been part of wars throughout history. Jolie herself “was like [a] mother to us,” letting her actors determine their own comfort level, postponing scenes until they felt ready to shoot them, giving them a little push when necessary.
Responding to a reporter (the same one who had challenged Jolie) who had difficulty sorting out the relationship between the two leads — was it true love, or simply sex, “a hostage situation,” with Danijel taking advantage of the situation? — Marjanovic replied that this was one of the things that made working with Jolie such a rarity. “You don’t often get the opportunity to work with a director who understands and appreciates this form of art,” where the audience isn’t given the answers, but has to develop its own.
“I have my own version, of course; I have my truth. I would say it’s a love that would have been beautiful, and could have been beautiful, but it didn’t happen, because the war” and here her tone grew deliberate, as she enunciated every word, “did change everything... And that’s the story we wanted to tell.” Kostic agreed.
Why did the film have to show the killing of children in such awful detail, a young woman reporter wanted to know. You yourself are a mother of six children — “And that’s exactly why,” Jolie replied, thanking her for the question. “There’s always a question in art, when you do a film about war, what you need to show, what you should show ...Everyone who sees this film who lived through this war knows it only shows a small piece of how horrible it was. There is no film that could create the true horrors of war. But we do have a responsibility ... It should be hard to watch. It should linger ...
“With the child, being a mother, it was my worst nightmare. But in fact you never see the child dead. You never see blood, or a body. You just think you do. And that’s part of film.” Perhaps; but it wasn’t as easy for Jolie as her dispassionate demeanor may have suggested. In an interview with the Berliner Kurier, Jolie confessed that directing such scenes affected her so strongly she sometimes collapsed in tears. “I often couldn’t fall asleep at night. I couldn’t eat.” How did you get through it? “I had a duty to fulfill. I reveal things that a lot of people are unaware of. I want to be part of the solution.”
Why did she choose such a difficult theme for her first film? To find an answer to the question that kept nagging at her as she traveled throughout the world and saw cultivated people become monsters, asking herself how men could abuse women “without batting an eyelash.” And how did she manage to write such a film, with all that she has on her plate? By simply utilizing every minute. “I can still remember writing some of the most intense scenes during [daughter] Shiloh’s art lessons. That was really weird.”
Back at the Hyatt, agreeing with a Serbian journalist that the film focuses on the war largely from a Bosnian Muslim perspective, Jolie invited other filmmakers to portray it from “all different sides,” and “tell many different stories.” Asked what the greatest difficulty for her was, Jolie admitted that was it: finding a balance that would be truthful in all respects, and yet be sensitive to the people and politics of the region. Jolie believes she found that balance. “We didn’t want to point fingers — well, maybe at the international community — but to learn from each other and explore how societies are changed after years of war.” And the women, both the actresses and those in the region, “taught me so much and enriched my life. And I hope you can feel that in the film.”
Next up? A lighter touch: “A Disney movie — for my children.” Which, for this devoted mother of six — who, in addition to managing one of the most difficult of cultural and cinematic balancing acts, in her rare free moments enjoys taking the kids to Legoland — brings us full circle. Oh — and where did she go for advice as she was making the film, asked the Kurier. “My single and most important advisor is Brad. I discussed my ideas with him and he gave me critical tips. Even,” she added, “when I didn’t always want to hear them.”
But she probably gave them a listen. Which is more than one would say for Mavis, the antiheroine of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Young Adult (USA 2011), which “intrigued” DCFS viewers at December’s Coming Attractions Trailer Night. Young Adult shows yet another side of the uber-versatile Charlize Theron, who has played everything from the serial-killing Monster Aileen Wuornos, for which she won an Oscar (as well as a Silver Bear in Berlin); to a dedicated city police detective, in Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (2007); to the sex kitten Britt Ekland, in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004).
Mavis, by contrast, is a thirtyish one-time high school prom queen (in her case, both figurative and literal): snotty, self-absorbed, and simultaneously detested and envied by all who wanted to be her. Although highly (if anonymously) successful in her career as a ghost writer for the hugely popular Young Adult book series, Mavis suddenly decides she deserves to have the one thing that eluded her back then: the eternal love of (in the form of marriage to) her now happily married high school sweetheart Buddy — who has just become a father. A mere technicality, easily surmountable.
For Mavis, whose emotional depth seems to match that of her both sadly and hilariously lightweight literary creations — Reitman and Cody show us Mavis in the height — depth? — of the creative process — it’s a natural progression. She will lure Buddy to their favorite high school hangout for a few drinks, and as soon as he sees her in her slinky, low-cut black dress, whose décolletage she attempts to enhance (well, we know what happens with that) and she looks deep into his eyes, he will sweep her off her feet, their love will burst into flame, their throbbing passion reignite — and for eternity.
But life isn’t a romance novel, and since this is a film by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking, The Office) and Diablo Cody (Juno, United States of Tara), it is not aimed at teens, although they would probably see themselves and their friends (and if they’re lucky, as the film progresses, their parents and teachers) in its characters. Briefly, Mavis convinces herself that Buddy still has the hots for her, despite his very obvious happiness and sense of completeness with his attractive, intelligent, warm, funny, talented wife and their new baby. Even the impartial but caring voice of reason, represented by former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), who like every non-jock at school dreamed of making love to/having sex with (depending on how they looked at the world) Mavis, falls on deaf ears.
There will be a reckoning: demeaning, demoralizing, devastating. But because this is a movie for grown-ups it’s not didactic, nor does it tack on a phony Hollywood-ever-after ending. And while this all may sound deadly serious, because it’s a film by Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, the side-splittingly spot-on dialogue and sophisticated directing and acting leave us alternately rolling our eyes and rolling in the aisles. And — something we never expected — with an underlying sympathy for Mavis, as we realize that “her passive aggressiveness, her meanness is really a key to her vulnerability,” as Cody said in an interview. That “in watching people she traditionally pities pity her back, we gain some insight into how fragile she actually is.”
At the press conference, Jason Reitman gave us some insight into how central and how natural his collaboration with Cody is. “Diablo is like a sister to me,” he told the small group of journalists. “And the truth is, she writes on her own,” and exceptionally fast, letting him know when she has something for him. “And the collaboration [for Young Adult] only lasted about a week or two. I’m really just grateful that she’s in my life. By virtue of her writing, my filmography is infinitely more complex.”
Patton Oswalt approached the absent Cody from another, if no less affectionate (but somewhat more curious) perspective. “Diablo is like a transgendered brother to me,” he told us, then went on to explain that “she is such a nonjudgmental listener,” skilled at portraying “how people fail to communicate with each other, especially when they most need to.”
How do you cast your films? The key element, said Reitman, is that the actor “contain some sort of DNA that they share with the character,.” And Mavis? Have you met people as “monstrous” — or “as tragic” — as she is? Reitman rejected the first characterization. “To label Mavis a monster is really to identify her by her symptoms, and not what they are symptoms of.” Mavis is “someone who just desperately wants to be loved, and is just going about it all the wrong way.
“For that reason I don’t judge her, and makes it very easy for me to sympathize with her. Hopefully, when you watch a movie, you’re identifying with a character through the filmmaker’s eyes. I think that’s why it’s been possible for me to make a movie about the lobbyists for big tobacco, a movie about a guy who fires people for a living, and now this film. I don’t cast them in a negative light, because I just don’t see them that way.”
It was important for Reitman that the characters be seen as “hyper-real,” to an extent beyond any of his previous films, from the digital hand-held style of shooting to the costumes, which he got from second-hand stores. The challenge was making Charlize look “slobby. I mean, she’s built as God designed,” so that “even when you try to make her look like a slob, it looks like ‘slobby chic’.” He solved the problem by fitting her with clothes a size too big.
What is Mavis’s problem? Is it psychological, or societal? Reitman considered. “We’re living in a time when people are given the luxury of not growing up,” he said, and so continue to dress and behave like children long past the traditional expiration date of childhood. “And this character kind of falls into every trap.” And behind it is — “and I don’t want to sound repetitive” — a need to be loved. “There is this need to be understood that seems to be universal,” and that “I never see onscreen.”
How many people like this do you know personally? Oswalt didn’t hesitate. “Hollywood is the world capital of people that have decided, ‘I want to be 19 forever.’ ” For Reitman, his admitted fascination with “older, complicated women,” whom he has portrayed insightfully in all of his films, dates back to his teen years, and resides in part in his appreciation of the conflicts of the post-feminist generation, whose members theoretically can have it all, but at a high cost. “There’s a ticking clock on them that doesn’t apply to men, and I think that confrontation is fascinating.”
There’s a ticking clock of another kind on artist and activist Ai Weiwei, whose continuing confrontation with Chinese authorities is the subject of a fascinating documentary by the young Philadelphia-born director Alison Klayman. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (USA 2012), which won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, began its life in 2008, when Klayman started filming Ai shortly after he completed work on Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, only to later boycott the Games when he realized they were to be used for party propaganda.
But there was worse to come. Ai found evidence that poorly constructed schools were responsible for the high death toll in the May 2008 earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in which thousands of children perished. To counter the authorities’ attempted cover-up, Ai began researching the children’s names, which he published. Now under surveillance, Ai becomes a victim himself when he is assaulted during a police raid and undergoes emergency brain surgery in Munich. He later creates an installation of 9,000 backpacks on the Haus der Kunst’s façade called “Remembering,” along with a retrospective exhibition titled “So Sorry” to memorialize the victims — a reference to the thousands of apologies made by government officials and corporations worldwide, without concomitant actions to right the wrongs.
In an even larger and more ambitious installation, Ai pours 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds into London’s Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, symbolizing “the sum of his past efforts and the power of mass connection and mass communication.” (The exhibition, which was a tactile sensation, with people shown in the film strolling through and even blissfully burying themselves in the seeds, was shut down from public access after it was discovered, according to the New York Times, that “the dust they [stirred] up posed a health hazard.”)
In an interview before a large audience at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele that had just seen her film, Klayman described how this remarkable journey began for her. Having moved to China in 2006 “for no good reason, to have adventures, to learn a new language, and maybe make a documentary one day,” Klayman first met Ai through her roommate, who was curating an exhibit of his 10,000 or so photographs — Ai is an inveterate photographer — and asked if she might like to make a video to accompany it. “As I was underemployed at the time and up for anything,” Klayman went along — and wound up following and filming Ai for three years. Until his Shanghai studio was demolished, and Ai was unlawfully detained for 81 days, charged with tax evasion.
A persistent gadfly in a country that swiftly and reflexively swats them down, Ai started photographing his interrogators when he was brought in for questioning, for posting on his Twitter account, explaining that he was only doing what they were doing (apparently these sorts of interrogations are routinely filmed). What they may not have realized, said Klayman, is that “these things were going to be seen all over the world.”
While Klayman has no expectation that the film will be publicly screened in China, she has no doubt that it will be downloaded there, as Ai’s own films and blog have been. “There are a lot of like-minded people in China, and that’s one of the things conveyed in the film,” something that was important to Ai, although most of them have not fared as well — if it can be called well — as he. Still, Ai’s visibility and international renown, as well as his heritage as the son of a dissident poet, have no doubt mitigated the consequences of his refusal to be muzzled. And yet ...
He looked different upon his release, noted a questioner. Do you think they’ve succeeded in silencing him? Klayman was hesitant, but seemed hopeful; while he still posts on Twitter, his statements have been less political. His spirit is intact, but “he has to be a lot more careful than he was before.” But not silenced, by any means. Just days before, Agence France-Presse announced that Ai “is reuniting with the Swiss architects with whom he created Beijing’s spectacular Bird’s Nest Stadium, to build a pavilion for this year’s London Olympics.”
In a press interview, Ai Weiwei was asked what he would like people to do after seeing the film. “I think they should really think that freedom of expression is very valuable, and they should treasure this right. In many areas and locations around the world, you can completely lose your freedom simply because you are asking for freedom...
“What made me a recognizable figure is only because I do have an issue, and also because I successfully use the Internet, to a degree... [T]oday we do have new possibilities, and we can make the world into a better place for everybody.”
A noble charge, one worthy of a man such as Ai Weiwei, who thinks — and acts — globally, often through acts whose immediate impact is imperatively local. But for most of us, “think globally, act locally” is more easily achieved in the abstract: we recycle, conscious that we’re somehow helping “save the planet.” Yet it wasn’t so long ago that, in places much closer than China — in fact, places just a hair’s breadth away geographically from where we sat and watched these films — acting locally, or “simply asking for freedom,” meant risking your freedom, and in extreme cases your life, and that of your loved ones.
In Barbara (Germany 2012), which won Christian Petzold this year’s Silver Bear for Best Director (as well as the Berliner Morgenpost Readers Prize), the eponymous protagonist is a doctor in 1980 East Berlin who has applied for an exit visa — and found herself “exited” to a provincial hospital as punishment for her audacity and disloyalty. At first feeling much the fish out of water, now even farther away from her West German lover, who is planning her escape, Barbara must find a way to adjust to this strange new world, as its inhabitants must to her. Is the handsome and personable colleague, for whom there is a mutual but unspoken attraction, sincere? Or is his attention a sign he’s been assigned to keep an eye on her?
And then there are the supporting characters, one of whom will figure prominently in the film’s surprising conclusion. Barbara is drawn to a young woman from Torgau, the first patient she was given to treat because she was the only one who could calm the screaming girl. The girl tells her she’s pregnant, and begs Barbara to help her escape: she know she’ll be sent back to the “workhouse,” which André tells Barbara is what she already suspects: “Torgau is an extermination camp.” And he has exhausted all legal means of keeping the girl at the hospital.
The more we observe, the less certain we become. Petzold has us placed us in the uncomfortable position of complete outsiders, giving us plenty of POV shots, but so generously distributed among the characters, there is no overarching point of view. Barbara herself, played by Petzold’s muse Nina Hoss in their fourth filmic collaboration, is encased in the protective shell she must needs have developed to survive in the unforgiving world of the communist East. “There was a great deal of mistrust everywhere,” said Petzold, whose impressions were gained through occasional visits, so the atmosphere must have been pervasive, “not only because you felt the government is everywhere [but] also because there was a kind of barter economy: ‘If I give him something, I will get something in return.’ ”
Ronald Zehrfeld, who plays André and grew up in East Germany, confirmed Petzold’s read, recalling “all the sublevels between the people that so constricted the space between them: ‘Can I trust someone? Is he doing this just for his own benefit, or does he really mean it?’ ” For all that, “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for the East) is very real, even for those who hated everything the repressive state stood for. There was “that special social interaction that was so much more common back then,” said Zehrfeld, “that people miss today.” Hoss agreed. “In this atmosphere there is always an underlying mistrust. And yet [there was] great warmth ... This film passes no moral judgments, but rather offers possibilities.”
Perhaps. Contemplating the film’s seemingly intractable contradictions, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted the sudden “trust in the eyes of a young girl who desperately wants to leave the country, and who is treated by Barbara when she enters the clinic.
“What is possible between people who do not dare to show who they are? What does lying to protect oneself make of these possibilities? Can feeling exist without candor, can candor exist where there is fear? Barbara doesn’t ask, but rather tells it, densely, closely; able, again and again, to open people’s eyes.”
The critics’ eyes were certainly open — not a single paper missed reviewing Barbara — and came up with strikingly different appraisals. While the Tagesspiegel’s six- and the Berliner Zeitung’s seven-critic panel consistently rated Barbara head and shoulders above the competition among the Competition films (a judgmental unity that would remain virtually unique for both groups as they viewed subsequent festival films), the non-panel reporter who reviewed the film for the first paper saw things differently.
Calling it “beautiful but hardly great,” and failing to measure up to Petzold’s Ghosts or Yella (nominated for Golden Bears in 2005 and 2007 respectively), he decried what he described as “a clear-cutness that informs not only the way the actors are directed, but the story itself.” For him, the story lacked a sense of urgency, “a feeling [by the characters] of having to flee because the ground is being pulled out from under your feet.” Its novella-like “completeness” might be “a win for its political-historical subject matter,” he concluded, but was a loss — if “a small one” — for Petzold as a filmmaker.
Not so the critic who reviewed Barbara for the Berliner Zeitung (and who did sit on their panel). Indeed, he saw the film’s “completeness” as a telling aspect of its excellence. For him, Barbara was “a genuine masterpiece ... the most perfectly realized film of [Petzold’s] career.” The Berlinale jury — “a jury even Cannes would be proud of,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted approvingly — seems to have agreed with him. Its president Mike Leigh, one of the most important directors of the New British Cinema who according to IMDb has won 57 international awards and been nominated for another 54, including 7 Oscars noms — “Above all,” added the FAZ, in an observation that might offer an insight into his judging style, “he is the man in whose films no one is condemned” — was joined by an equally distinguished panel:
Dutch photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, whose Control (2007) won 16 international awards, including 3 at Cannes;
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) was preceded by four awards, including the Golden Bear for Best Film, at last year’s Berlinale;
Jake Gyllenhaal, perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated turn as Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain (2005);
Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose performance in Lars von Trier’s controversial Antichrist (2009) won several awards; including Best Actress at Cannes;
French filmmaker François Ozon, whose Ricky (2009) and Angel (2007) were nominated for Golden Bears and whose Swimming Pool (2003) was nominated for the Palme d’Or;
Algerian author Boualem Sansal, whose woks have been internationally acclaimed and have won top literary awards in France; and
German actress Barbara Sukowa, onetime protégée of Rainer Werner Fassbinder whose most recent award was for her role as Hildegard von Bingen in Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision (2009), which screened at E Street Cinema a few months ago.
With such a diverse and gifted group of creative types, how did the negotiations go? “We’ve all got a great sense of humor,” said Leigh, who a week before had told us with delightful dryness, “They’re a very well-behaved jury, if I may say so.” (The Tagesspiegel saw him, while “a good head shorter than his fellow jurors,” as “at once guiding spirit, Big Daddy and commander in chief” of a “family,” with Ozon “recognizing [Leigh’s] authority as benevolent patriarch,” Sukowa as the “wise female family head,” and Gainsbourg as the “dreamy sister, eyeing her simultaneous translator as if he were a mini UFO.”) “This is one festival that I really enjoy and celebrate for its joie de vivre. The cold informs the spirit; it brings people together,” Leigh had assured us.
Now, in the Berlinale Palast, Leigh sat surrounded by his fellow jurors as the awards ceremony was about to begin, pronouncing the whole experience “a great celebration of film.” The cinema’s festive elegance, with guests’ variously glittering, satiny, and embroidered evening wear in the darkened cinema and richly hued LED lighting illuminating the proceedings onstage, contrasted sharply with our daily experience there, viewing the contenders in the sometimes literal rough and tumble of the early morning rush to snag that favorite seat.
“I hope,” added Leigh, eyebrow raised, as the last audience members were settling in, “that we’ve arrived at some interesting decisions.”
Always interesting, that word ”interesting,” when used by people with a hundred other words at their ready disposal. It would be an accurate description, in that less common sense, as we would learn in the ensuing hour. But first: more about some of those contenders, and other films, filmmakers and actors that made their mark at this year’s Berlinale.
Where to begin? Well ... why not at the top? All too apt, too, because the Golden Bear for Best Film (as well as the Competition Prize of the Ecumenical Jury) went to a most interesting choice, a film that plays more like a play. In fact, it is a play, framed by the director brothers’ fly-on-the-wall observational construct filming inmates at the Roman maximum-security prison Rebibbia who stage Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Caesar Must Die (Cesare Deve Morire, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy 2011).
The first few minutes of the film are deceptively snooze-inducing: a production of Julius Caesar in Italian, its audience of mostly middle-class, middle-aged theatergoers watching from red velour seats much like those from which we were watching them. Suddenly the palette shifts to a sharp black and white. It is six months earlier; a prison warden explains to a group of inmates that they have been chosen to audition for a play. Auditions consist of each actor telling his personal details — name, date of birth, previous place of residence, etc. — in three different ways: in a detached manner, as if he were responding to a customs official; as if he’s saying farewell to a loved one; and as if he’s saying farewell, but is angry at that loved one.
Some of these hardened criminals display impressive dramatic and comedic chops. One wants to know what dialect the directors want, offering a choice of (if memory serves) Sicilian, Roman, and Neapolitan, declaiming forcefully in each; another smoothly advises that he’s “international,” and breaks into a decent rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” à la Frank Sinatra. A third asks if he can play the Soothsayer as “kind of loopy,” explaining that “they’re all loopy where I come from.”
“Rome, you city with no shame. Naples, you city with no shame, “ proclaims another, adding in an aside to a guard, “Sounds like this Shakespeare lived in my city.” In a film whose fundamental good faith cannot be questioned, the line exemplifies the occasional awkward moments that virtually every review will mention (Screen International: “... feels a little scripted”; Variety: “every line appears carefully rehearsed, even the asides”; The Hollywood Reporter: “A tendency toward overwritten dialogue ...”; two or three winced at the line, “Since I came to know art, this cell has become a prison”).
That said, theatricality is no stranger in a world where artistic or interpretive disagreements can end in violent fist fights or death threats. (At one point, “Caesar” and “Cassio” go outside to “settle it.”) And in a larger sense, Shakespeare did live in their city: we see how the concept of honor (“And Brutus is an honorable man”) strikes a chord with men for whom omertá has defined their lives, and in many cases, landed them in Rebibbia.
We see the inmate who plays Brutus (Salvatore Striano) force his weary cellmate to rehearse with him when he’d rather catch a few needed zzzs, then go off to rehearse his own lines as he goes about his work duties mopping the floor, repeating them till he gets them right or understands their layers of meaning. He suddenly stops when he has to recite the line: “If only we could stop Caesar without tearing open his chest.” (The translations reflect the modern, simplified wording of the screenplay. As the Tavianis told an interviewer, “We have taken over [Shakespeare’s] Julius Caesar, dismembered and rebuilt it.”) He later explains that a friend of his had said the same thing to him once.
The Tavianis see Shakespeare as a “father, brother and son,” said Paolo Taviani at the press conference. Explaining that “we knew prison from American films,” Vittorio, who spoke excitedly, with an almost stream-of-consciousness rapidity that threatened to go off the rails but always circled back, described the ambivalence he felt working with actors who are prison inmates: “You become sort of an accomplice” as you try to understand them and find yourself “almost becoming friends with them,” knowing that “they suffer in prison, they suffer for what they have done... Prison is a terrible experience.”
Both brothers felt that “Julius Caesar” was a good choice for the prison play, then got the idea to incorporate the prisoners’ “own reality” into it “to express ourselves through this film, directly through these people who meet Shakespeare’s characters.” The prisoners “were able to put themselves in the shoes of the characters,” because it reminded them of events in their own lives. The prisoners were given the chance to use stage names, but they all refused, said Paolo. “They wanted to be remembered.”
“When Brutus says, ‘I killed Caesar,’ you can feel that genuine pain that real actors don’t have; you can feel his suffering, because it’s real.” Real indeed, and distressful for Striano, we would learn, whose search for layers of meaning may have had its roots in the almost Shakespearean circumstances surrounding his appearance in the play: Striano had been released from Rebibbia five years before, and had agreed to return to shoot the film with his still imprisoned former cellmates.
Reading the script, “I realized that Shakespeare had messages for me. I realized that we are stupid,” Striano told us, “because this happened 2,000 years ago and Shakespeare wrote about it 500 years ago... and we’re still doing the same stupid things.” The men in prison are all guilty, he said, but “they kind of ask for pardon through this play.”
Why did you shoot in black and white, which has an aesthetic beauty? the directors were asked. “Color is more natural, “ said Vittorio. “We wanted to show how something comes into being inside the souls of these people, of beautiful scenes being born inside their souls. This is why we wanted to use something unrealistic.” (The Tavianis had dealt with the darker side of life in a quasi-documentary fashion in Eastmancolor some 35 years before in their Palme d’Or-winning Padre padrone, whose abused young protagonist, had he not escaped, could well have been one of the inmates we see here.)
How did the translation work? “The translation was difficult,” responded co-screenwriter Fabio Cavalli, the director of theater programs in several prisons whose production of “Dante’s Inferno” at Rebibbia was the spark that inspired the Tavianis’ Caesar project. And not just inherently: After the directors found several of the actor-inmates translating the screenplay into their own regional dialects, “We realized that the dialectical mispronunciation of the lines did not belittle the high tone of the tragedy,” the Tavianis told an interviewer, “but on the contrary lent those lines a new truth. The convict-actor and his character found a deeper connection through a common language.” As did the film with the international market: Two days later, Screen Daily reported its having been sold to France, Brazil, Australia, Spain, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, with “U.S. buyers circling.”
As they may be for Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affære, Denmark/Czech Republic/Germany/Sweden 2012), “In theaters March 29” per its IMDb home page. A recipient of two Silver Bears, for Best Actor and Best Screenplay, this dramatic, lush period film, whose story of insanity, enlightenment, revolution, passion and treachery has been the subject of more than 15 books, an opera and a ballet, could not otherwise be more different from the Tavianis’ — although their Elizabethan “father, brother and son” might have seen it as confirmation that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.
As the film opens, a young woman, her blond hair in a chignon, pensively strokes a chestnut-colored horse as we hear her read, in voice-over, the letter she is writing to her children. Nine years earlier, in 1766, she, Princess Caroline Mathilda, sister of Great Britain’s King George III (yes, the one we had all that trouble with) was sent to Denmark to be married to the 17-year-old King Christian VII of Denmark and Norway, a role for which she had been prepared from childhood.
Though Caroline is every inch a princess, King Christian is no Prince Charming. Our first glance is of a giggling half-wit. Getting down on his knees, barking boisterously as he alternatingly roughhouses with and baby-talks his beloved hound — which might be unobjectionable, and even endearing, under other circumstances — the young king completely disregards his bride-to-be as she is presented to him. Worse, he becomes jealous of the beautiful and cultivated young woman, insulting her coarsely when he’s not ignoring her, having flagrant affairs with every flattered or willing piece of flesh. “Don’t steal my light,” he warns her on their honeymoon night, as he pulls her into the bedchamber and rapes her.
But she will, and not out of will, but out of necessity — and love, for a man of the Enlightenment who becomes the king’s physician and advisor. Johann Struensee (played by Danish dreamboat Mads Mikkelsen) gradually wins the king over to his Voltairean principles of freedom and equality, and we realize that Christian on the whole is not a bad sort, but was brutalized by those charged with his education, is ill-served by his self-serving, mercenary council, and may be manic-depressive.
As Struensee’s influence gains sway and the seeds of revolution begin to germinate in town and countryside, there is a fragile equilibrium in the king’s actions and reactions, and a dangerous one in the tightrope Caroline and Struensee are walking, which we sense — thanks not only to Arcel’s astute direction, but to equally skillful acting, editing and camera work — cannot, indeed will not hold. Or, as the Tagesspiegel succinctly put it: “With the first scene, director Nikolai Arcel makes it clear: This story must end badly. As it did in reality.” And as indiewire cogently summed up the “meaty moral quandaries” facing Struensee: “Should you sacrifice your ideals to gain and retain the power to act on them? Can a belief in your own idealism blind you to the possibility that you are pursuing power for its own sake? How can you be sure your motivation is principle, and not pride?”
At the packed press conference (panel included: there would be eight of them up there), we listened and looked at each other as screams could be heard from outside the room, as if a pop star had exploded. Indeed, they’re mad for Mads in Berlin, who also has a few fans over here (Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre, anyone?) who might give a costume drama a shot, especially if it contains classically framed shots in which, as the Tageszeitung tells us, “Mads Mikkelsen heroically stares straight ahead, into the distance,” as well as one caught by indiewire that “feels momentarily avant-garde“ but is “so beautifully rendered, they should use the scene in acting classes” According to The Hollywood Reporter, Magnolia Pictures has picked up A Royal Affair for U.S. distribution.
The story of King Christian VII is so well known in Denmark — children grow up with it, Director Nikolaj Arcel told us — that he was surprised no one had made it yet. Mikkelsen, meanwhile, told us frankly that he had rarely seen a costume or period film that awakened feelings in him, but was deeply moved when he read the screenplay.
An Israeli journo was surprised to see Lars von Trier listed as executive producer in the closing credits, having heard him say “with my own ears ... very negative things about the Danish royal family.” How did he get involved with this movie, and what does he think of it? Arcel assured us that “Lars loves the film,” adding that he felt “very fortunate, because he’s seen a lot of my films and sometimes he doesn’t like them. But this one he really liked. Maybe,” Arcel grinned, “because he helped us work on the script?” In fact, von Trier served as “sort of a script consultant” and “was very helpful during preproduction”; the same for a historian who was with them. To a reporter who questioned the drama of the film (another had told Arcel he was “still shaking,” it had affected him so) and whether it was at the expense of historical accuracy, the director smiled and shrugged: “Oh yes, always dramatize. I’m a storyteller, I’m not a dry documentarian.”
To Mikkelsen: How is Struensee seen today in Denmark: hero, villain? And how do you see him? History has looked at Struensee in different ways through the years, Mikkelsen replied. “In my eyes, he’s an idealist,” but as a physician, one who can be more of an armchair idealist without feeling the need to “go out and change the world.” But then “he gets a chance to go out and climb the social ladder a little,” and becomes “one of many people who starts out like an idealist, and it takes over, and all of a sudden he’s behaving like the people he was fighting before. It’s a very human development of the story; it’s what all good dictators do, and what all good idealists do.” But basically, “he’s a very human character, and his weaknesses are very clear. And I really like him for that.”
It’s not what the idealistic, although quite human (and like Struensee, real) character in Volker Schlöndorff’s Calm at Sea (La mer à l’aube, France/Germany 2011) did, perhaps because his untimely death at the age of 17 precluded it. In fact, it was his actions against and execution by soldiers of one of the 20th century’s most ruthless and demonic dictators that earned him his place in the pantheon of French heroes, one whose story, like that of the Danish king and queen, is taught to his nation’s schoolchildren.
But there are critical differences: The story of Guy Môquet, who much like his German counterpart Sophie Scholl distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets and was caught and executed for it, is based in part on recently discovered contemporaneous writings. And he was killed not specifically for that act, but as part of a gratuitous escalation of retribution by Hitler who, enraged by the assassination of a Nazi officer in Nantes, ordered 150 people imprisoned for what were deemed “acts against the occupation forces” to die by firing squad. (We would learn at the press conference that the order was warped on yet another level: the man who actually shot the Nazi officer not only escaped their fate; he wrote his memoirs after the war.) The shock of the injustice reverberated throughout the land, and led to the creation of the French Resistance.
Told from three perspectives — the Nazi command in Paris, the prisoners held in Brittany and German soldiers stationed at the Atlantic Wall along the coast — while never leaving a doubt who the hero is, Calm at Sea, written and directed by a German who was educated in France and began his career there, purposefully seeks not to pander to the oversimplified good-guy, bad-guy character tropes of most World War II films. “I didn’t want to create bad and good figures,” said Schlöndorff. “This is a polyphony of voices.” Variety agreed, calling it a “scrupulously even-handed ensemble piece.” (The Tageszeitung was of another mind, denoting most of the film “standard operating procedure for films about the Nazi time” whose “ambivalently pleasant perpetrators are reduced to simple cowards.”)
The story itself is a complex one and Schlöndorff has drawn from several sources to build his narrative, including a little-known memorandum by Ernst Jünger, whose novels, diaries and memoirs are widely read in Germany. “On the Hostage Question” details the negotiations leading up to the executions and includes Jünger’s personal observations, including the “high regard for the courage and dignity of the executed” with which “everyone speaks.”
The director was drawn to the story when a French journalist presented him with a small book he’d written recounting the events leading up to that fateful October day in 1941. In it was noted that Jünger had written extensively on the situation in his memorandum, and that he had translated the farewell letter written by Guy Môquet, which French president Nicolas Sarkozy has instructed to be read aloud in schools on the anniversary of Môquet’s death, into German. For the German filmmaker who felt himself to be “half French,” who “wanted to be a young Frenchman” and tried desperately to fit in as a boy, only to be told, as he recalled with a laugh, that his determination was “typically German,” the pieces began to fall into place.
Today, as the European Union faces new and continued political and economic challenges and social change, Schlöndorff sees this German-French co-production as a reminder of “the foundation of our common culture, the foundation out of which Europe has been shaped, developed. This is not just about coming to terms with the past,” he declared. “This is also a way of dealing with present-day reality.”
As is Hungarian director Bence Fliegauf’s triple-award-winning Just the Wind (Czak a szél, Hungary/Germany/France 2011), which was nominated for the Golden Bear and walked away with the Amnesty International Film Prize, the Peace Film Award, and the Jury Grand Prize Silver Bear. Although your reporter did not get to see this film, because of its overwhelmingly positive critical reception (an exceptional rarity) and its achievement on so many levels, DC Film Society readers deserve to have sufficient information to enable them to appreciate the awards it received.
The past is ever present for Roma, or gypsies, living in present-day Hungary, where they have been seen (as throughout Western Europe) almost since their first appearance there more than half a millennium ago as unwelcome intruders, and consistently, forcibly, and often brutally expelled. Those who have remained fare no better today than their ancestors, and in recent months have found the situation worsening, with no recourse to civil remedy; according to Wikipedia, “open discrimination and abuse by government officials” appears to be “part of a broad social pattern of discrimination and marginalization” that “increases in times of economic hardship.” In other words, now.
Just the Wind is a fictional rendering of a recent series of unsolved murders of Hungarian gypsies — eight, over a period of a year — that draws us deep inside the Roma community. An entire family has been killed, the perpetrators unidentified; an ominous, almost perceptible threat hangs over the rest of the inhabitants. The film follows the members of one of these families — a woman, her invalid father, her teenage daughter and preteen son — over a 24-hour period as the impending horror, building to its inexorable climax, closes in on them.
Critics praised “this spare, naturalistic drama” that “puts a face on the victims of racially motivated violence” while “[c]reating an atmosphere of mounting threat without ever resorting to histrionics” (Variety), “mix[ing] the foreboding back story of [Gus Van Sant’s Elephant] with the handheld, documentary intensity of [Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu] to create an atmosphere that’s consistently menacing and strikingly realistic” (The Hollywood Reporter), “imprisoning the audience in their insular community ... [the family’s] sense of heightened paranoia ... amplified by the film’s ominous score which instills a palpable sense of foreboding doom. Steadily building to a nerve-shattering conclusion, Just the Wind is a pressure cooker of social criticism which deceptively hooks you early on, before slowly reeling you in for the kill” (cine-vue.com).
At the press conference, director Bence Fliegauf said that he’d had “some connection with the Romanies” as a boy, then lost contact as he grew older. Deciding to make this film, he realized that as set designer and casting director in addition to being the film’s director (he was also the screenwriter and wrote the score), he would have to get to know these families on their home turf.
Fliegauf said he was “very glad to live in a country where such a film can be made,” and that he “was surprised that some people would think that [the film] would [present] a bad image of Hungary. If a country has a bad image, it is even more important that movies can be made that are critical of society, and that shows that artists are free to criticize [the society] ... I hope that my movie will do something for the image of Hungary.” At the same time, responding to another question, Fliegauf acknowledged that when a gypsy applies for a job, he first calls to verify that he meets the qualifications, then finds upon arriving for an interview — when his ethnicity is evident — that the job “has already been taken.”
A journalist asked what Fliegauf thought of a government leaflet that “relativizes” the attacks on gypsies and “regrets them with crocodile tears.” The director said he was unfamiliar with the document — his producer at the other end of the podium insisting that the government had fully supported the film — and asked that it be brought to him. Upon reading it, he blanched. “Oh my God.” Amid other tangential (and seemingly oblivious) chatter on the podium and in the audience of journalists, the Q&A resumed.
Tangential chatter abounds as well when people want to ignore the elephant in the room. In Hans-Christian Schmid’s Home for the Weekend (Was bleibt, Germany 2012), the pachyderm in the suburban upper-middle-class home where Berlin author Marko’s mom and dad live, is his mother’s longtime mental instability. Having gone off the meds that have keep her on track for 30 years, thanks to homeopathy she’s feeling healthier and happier than she’s ever felt before, but keenly aware that her husband and younger son, a dentist, are waiting for the other shoe to drop while unconvincingly pretending to believe the change is permanent and real.
Into this simmering storm walk Marko and his little boy on one of their regular, intentionally infrequent (which he tries to pass off as due to busyness) visits. This time he has news to share — he’s just published his first book — and news he’d rather not share: he and his wife separated six months ago. The good news is accepted with less enthusiasm than Marko had hoped. Jakob is preoccupied with his own issues, deep in debt from setting up his new practice and building a house, and none too happy that Gitte (both sons, reflecting her and Günter’s sixties-style parenting, call them by their first names) has discontinued, at least temporarily, her prescription medication. And Günter, who’s helping bail out his son and has just sold his publishing house for a sizable sum, beating its inevitable demise as yet another victim of e-books, has plans that his wife’s sudden wellness may throw a wrench in.
Our first glimpses of Gitte form an adept introduction, and foreground the subtext of the conflicts to come. Lying on a white-sheeted table with acupuncture needles sticking out of her head and face, she looks like a death mask. Cut to Gitte out in the garden with her grandson, on her knees, beaming with joy as she chases and teases him and he shrieks with delight. As we meet the rest of the family, with their insecurities and secretive glances, we can’t help but think she has to be the healthiest one there, and push the opening shot out of our minds.
Slowly and at first unobtrusively, we learn that in her previous state she was irrational, given to screaming fits and sudden silences — in short, what we have come to learn of manic-depression. Growing up in that household could not have been easy. The Gitte we see now feels like a new person, and simply wants those she loves to join her in the world of naturalness she’s now a part of. But they can’t — at one point, she accuses them of treating her “like furniture” — with the exception of her grandson. In an exquisitely tender scene, seeing Marko and Zowie (pronounced with a long “o,” perhaps a hangover from, or unconscious tribute to, that generation’s Salinger obsession) and sensing they’ve had a rough day, Gitte silently, lovingly lays them down on the sofa for a midday nap on the sofa downstairs; her famous author son in this moment, too tired to resist, again a child. So weary they don’t even notice the brightness of the sun streaming through the open blinds, they fall fast asleep, oblivious to the sound of the car’s engine outside the window.
The reviews hit highs so high and lows so low, one could reasonably have been tempted to recommend meds to the press corps. While The Hollywood Reporter lauded “This extended gaze beyond the traumatic events of the weekend and into the broader emotional fabric of the family’s lives,” adding, “You never question that this is a group bound by blood ties and love, however difficult it may be to maintain those connections,” Neues Deutschland’s critic must have dipped his pen in poison ink, asserting that it was, instead, a “family sprung out of the craft book for plot parts — every sentence, every picture, every gesture,” adding: “I don’t believe a single word in this film.” (The end of the review is too painful to print.)
The rest of the press more than made up for it. Variety praised “A credible, professionally executed chamber piece” and Tagesspiegel “A finely drawn, minimalist film,” while Screen International assured that “... this delicately executed miniature ... will yield complexity and depth for viewers who care to delve beneath its deceptively smooth surface.”
In a press interview Schmid and screenwriter Bernard Lange talked about what went into the making of the film and how closely they themselves identified with the situation in which their lead character finds himself. “For me Home for the Weekend is an inventory of personal issues that have accumulated over the years,” said Lange. “... exploring the fact that we belong to a generation that are having children but are still caught up in the role of being children to our parents.” Both of them “had a great desire to tell a story that personally had something to do with us,” if not directly, after previously collaborating on Requiem (2006), about a student whose emotional breakdown leads her parents to summon an exorcist, and Storm (2009), which dealt with the International Tribunal’s prosecution of Serbian war criminals.
While Gitte’s manic-depression is the catalyst for the story, for Schmid, this film is “more about how women get the short end in relationships, the downsides suffered from living an unfulfilled life that are amplified when children are out of the house.” Lange is “not even sure if Gitte is really sick. It is a state of unhappiness and discontent that you simply can’t fix with drugs.”
If any woman should be in “a state of unhappiness and discontent you can’t fix with drugs,” it is the oppressed, but not depressed protagonist of Rodrigo Plá’s The Delay (La demora, Uruguay/Mexico/France 2012), who in any event wouldn’t be able to afford them. Living from one meager paycheck to the next with an elderly father on the edge of Alzheimer’s who has a tendency to wander off in search of his past (and whom she has to bathe every day, shown in gritty detail in the starkly cinéma vérité opening scene) and three kids who always need school money and can’t help but want the latest must-have, Maria learns that there are layoffs at the factory where she works. While the bosses, conveniently, are getting big fat bonuses. And in what seems another inevitability in a life increasingly becoming as cramped as her small Montivideo apartment, that she earns just enough to put her above the poverty threshold that would allow her to place papa in a state-run nursing facility.
The Delay, which won both the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for Best Film in the Forum section and the Tagesspiegel Readers Prize, chronicles the day Maria makes a desperate decision that she almost immediately regrets: After yet another rejection, she takes her father to a bench outside the facility and tells him she’ll be back, telling herself someone will surely take him to a shelter where he’ll be cared for. Wishful, and as she soon realizes delusional thinking: While one or two people stop to ask if he’s OK as night falls and the temperatures drop (something we could all ruefully appreciate in Berlin’s sub-freezing February chill), they leave when he tells them insistently that he’s waiting for his daughter; she’ll be right back.
The specifics may be fictional but the phenomenon is all too real, and in today’s worsening economy none too rare, said Plá at a post-screening Q&A, explaining that the idea for the film came from a newspaper article he’d read about the problem. While he’s under no illusions that his film will be the catalyst for change — the issue is too complex for simple solutions — he nonetheless hopes it will get people thinking and talking about it. The Berliner Zeitung got the message, loud and clear: “More and more people, above all single mothers with several children, are caught in a vicious circle of overwork and exhaustion. It’s all about ‘personal responsibility,’ is the popular philosophy, but at the end of the day, [it all comes down to] pure, naked exploitation. [In this film], ‘life’s work’ also means working your life away.”
The message, and the film, hit home not just in Berlin but elsewhere. Closer to home, at the Guadalajara International Film Festival, chicanafromchicago.com reported that “Everyone is talking about La demora down here ... [f]resh off its Berlin world premiere,” and evocatively described up its impact: “The character-driven film is remarkable for its indelible performances and understated, moody and immersive atmosphere.”
And it was not alone. For first-time feature film director Umut Dag, whose Kuma (Austria 2011) screened simultaneously in four theaters to accommodate the enormous interest, characters and atmosphere combine to create an absorbing depiction of the age-old struggle between tradition and today in the lives of immigrant families, where the stakes are significantly higher and the clash of generations more acute than it will be for their children and grandchildren.
The conflict plays out among members of a Turkish immigrant family in rural Austria. As in The Delay, the needs of an older man are the engine driving the dramatic action, and their impact on a younger woman propels the story that unfolds. Here, though, the needs are of a very different kind. Far from being ready for the rest home, Ahmet is looking to take on a second wife, or “kuma,” to live with him, his children — and his current wife.
Kuma is a powerful, disconcerting and at times disorienting film, shifting swiftly from scene to scene so that the viewer loses track of time and place, a confusion that, when he thinks about it afterward, is true to the way young Ayse sees the new world she has been thrown into. It is also spiked with unexpected humor, which while adding to the disorientation is also a not unwelcome distraction from the intensity of the drama.
It begins quietly. A pale, drawn, fiftyish woman — we later learn that this is Ahmet’s wife, Fatma — reassures her concerned twenty-something daughters that she’ll be OK. She steps outside, and for several seconds, in a shot that is masterfully framed, acted and directed, stands silently on the porch, pensive against the daily ordinariness of the street below that has begun to look foreign to her.
Expecting further narrative in that vein, we are blown out of our seats by a deafening drumbeat competing with the equally deafening shrieks of small children at play, dressed in their finest but racing around chasing each other in the sunshine as adults enjoy the celebration in relaxed conversation. It takes a while before we realize the scene has shifted not only to a different place, but to a different country: The woman was in Austria; the party is in Turkey. “I’m sure we’ll be celebrating your wedding next,” a middle-aged woman gushes to a younger one. “I’d rather chew glass,” replies the latter, straight-faced as Buster Keaton, staring ahead.
Arriving at her new home in Austria, Ayse, who was conned into marriage thinking that the handsome young man who stood beside her was to be her husband and would take her to a Western country at least as liberal as the community she grew up in, meets the family (“Mehmet, clear away your shit or I’ll beat you to death with it,” one of the women greets a small boy as the wedding party enters the house) — and the real groom, a man old enough to be her grandfather. Fatma, his wife, gently takes the young bride aside and explains that she has been brought there to serve as a sort of back-up: Fatma has cancer, and fears she may not survive the surgery she is to undergo.
On a practical level the children, most of them adults, understand what the father is doing, and that their mother fully supports it. But not all of them are able to accept it on a gut level. Ayse is made to feel excluded — the young women either insult her or ignore her, conversing in German, which she does not yet understand, glancing at each other conspiratorially, then disdainfully over at her like overgrown eighth-graders.
Ayse may be innocent but she’s not stupid, and soon decides to make a life for herself outside the confined spaces expertly conveyed by Carsten Thiele’s intimate camera. Exploring the city, she finds a job in a convenience store and, having been “deflowered” by her tyrannical husband like a noxious weed, finds refuge under cover of darkness in the awkward but willing arms of the stock boy. As luck would have it, Fatma and the evil stepsisters need a seasoning for a dinner dish and make a hasty trip to the closed store, hoping they can convince the proprietor to open up for them. Let’s just say that what they see offers them more than enough spice — and that Ayse winds up ... well, pick your favorite food analogy.
You can bet it would be a colorful one if the Caldwells of Morrison, Alabama were to pick it. In the Golden Bear-nominated Jayne Mansfield’s Car (USA/Russian Federation 2012), an all-star cast delivers Southern-fried one-liners with spunk and sass in a story whose raucous humor is never far from the pain derived from the director’s personal recollections.
“One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fuckin’ war!”
Morrison, Alabama, 1969. A ragged but gung-ho troop of Vietnam war protesters march down main street, chanting their mantra and carrying the signs we’ve all seen on TV, or remember from being there, or reading or hearing about it. Leading them: the long-haired, mustachioed Korean War veteran son of the town’s good ole boy sheriff, a wealthy cattle farmer whose antipathy for all son Carroll stands — and to his rage, publicly marches — for, results in a (decidedly one-sidedly) violent confrontation. Jim Caldwell don’t take kindly to cowards.
Under normal circumstances, he’d probably take even less kindly to his ex-wife’s English husband; but this is different: Naomi has died, and her last wish was be buried back home in Morrison. Having heard many a tale over the years from Naomi about Jim’s terrifying temper, Kingsley Bedford is still willing, but wary.
And Jim? When he gets that phone call from that place he last saw in uniform a quarter of a century ago, his inner Southern gentleman (eventually) comes to the fore, and he agrees to host the family. The humor lies in the attempts of the ex and his two adult children from a previous marriage to accommodate themselves not just to the American way, the Southern way, the Alabama way — but to the uncompromising Jim Caldwell way of life.
The director clearly had a ball making this film, but it also must have cost him dearly in emotional capital, not least because the character of Carroll, whose relationship with his father is so tormented, represents the director himself. In one scene, Carroll asks Jim why he never answered the letter Carroll sent him from Vietnam telling him how much he loved and admired him, and how proud he was to be his son. Not even looking up from his paperwork, Caldwell denies ever having received it. But my sister says she saw you reading it, Carroll insists. She lied, says Jim. But it is he who is lying.
Older brother Skip, a World War II pilot played by Thornton, not only seems spaced out, but is: He’s being regularly supplied with hard drugs by Carroll, who wants to help assuage both the physical pain his brother has suffered since his plane exploded in the sky, burning some 90 percent of his body, and the emotional drubbing he gets from the snide carping of the only Caldwell brother who never served in uniform.
The humor? Aside from the script being threaded with witticisms, some of which are funny precisely because the characters are unaware of it, as the film approaches its dénouement, one of the grandkids slips some acid into Caldwell’s drink. Blissfully wigged out, he and the drunk-as-a-skunk Kingsley go off hunting, becoming bona fide space cadets as the hallucinations intensify. Ironically, it is this wildly uncharacteristic episode, experienced with a stranger from across the ocean, that will result in the revelation of a profound truth to one close to him whom he has tried to push away.
Like his film’s three-word title, the triple-threat director and screenwriter of Jayne Mansfield’s Car (the title comes from a traveling exhibit of the car that actress Jayne Mansfield drowned in that Caldwell takes his boys to see) also acted in it, and is also triple-named. In a wide-ranging exchange, Billy Bob Thornton spoke with surprising frankness about his film, the movie business, and his relationship with his own father, the model for the character of Jim Caldwell. Thornton told the packed press conference that his motivation for making this movie was his disillusionment with the current situation in Hollywood: to get financed, American films have to contain “models in gladiator uniforms” or be “wacky comedies with kids who get caught with sheep in hotel rooms.
“So instead of complaining, I decided to write a film and direct it,” which Russian financing allowed him to do. Thornton skipped Sundance in favor of Berlin “because Berlin is known as a place where the quality of the movies is paramount. Not,” he added, “the studio.” In fact, “It’s the only [festival] we tried to get into, and we’re very honored to have been accepted.” Perhaps that is why he felt comfortable speaking so openly about the experiences that served as inspiration for the film.
“My father was a very violent Irishman,” he began slowly. “So there was abuse, both verbally and physically, in our household.” His father, like Carroll, was a Korean War veteran, “a very intense guy who I don’t think I ever had a conversation with.
“There’s a scene in the movie where I ask him if he has any memories of me as a kid. To which he doesn’t reply. And honestly, I don’t remember ever having a conversation with my father” — his words now poured out — “and he’d take my brother and me to car wrecks, and he’d stand there and smoke Lucky Strikes for like two hours, and my brother and I were like, ‘Why are we here? This is horrible’ — and that was how he connected with us.” Thornton played baseball, which his father said was “for weaklings” — with the consequence that “I’ve spent my entire life trying to get the acceptance and approval of older men,” including Robert Duvall and John Hurt. “To this day.”
If the remarks of the panel were any indication, he has certainly achieved it. His honesty was returned in the warmest way by his actors, including the 72-year-old John Hurt, who took turns extolling his directorial skill, sensitivity, patience and insight.
“If you were to sum up in one sentence what this movie is about,” said Thornton, “it’s about the romanticism of tragedy, in a dramatic way,” as well as the impact of war on those who serve and on their families. The movie’s bottom line is “how we don’t learn the lessons of the past,” and “how family members don’t communicate; and if we don’t communicate, we don’t learn.” Thornton’s father died when he was 17; despite “the beatings, the lack of communication,” he loved him, and learned to understand him. “What I finally realized, is that he did not have the capacity to express anything. So it came out the way it did. And that was a big driving force behind making the movie.”
Producer Alexander Rodnyansky recalled John Hurt’s telling him why he (Rodnyansky) liked the script so much: “Because it’s like a Chekhov play.” And he agreed. From the U.S. side, said producer Geyer Kosinski, “It’s all about storytelling. It was Chekhov for him. It was Tennessee Williams for us.” What was essential was that everyone “shared the same creative vision.”
And now, for the question that just had to be asked: With Thornton’s ex-wife Angelina Jolie also screening a film here, “Did you meet her here in Berlin?”
Thornton’s reply came so swiftly the exchange could have been scripted. Taking the question literally — it was asked by a non-native English speaker — “Oh no,” he assured the unsuspecting reporter without missing a beat. “I met her years ago.” But seriously, folks. “Angelina is a wonderful woman, and one of my best friends in the world. We talk on a regular basis. I’ll love her till the end of my life and she’ll love me, as friends. Brad is a great guy. I love them both, I love their children and they love mine.”
A lot of love for a press conference, and from a director whose film so fearlessly portrays what at first may seem a lack of it; but may instead be Billy Bob Thornton’s cinematic love letter to the father incapable of communicating other than through violence and silence; his exploration of his own ”lessons of the past”: of “how family members don’t communicate; and if we don’t communicate, we don’t learn.”
Family members certainly communicated for debut director/screenwriter Barnaby Southcombe’s love letter to noir cinema I, Anna (Great Britain/Germany/France 2012), whose lead actress is his mother, Charlotte Rampling. [See this reporter’s September 2011 Storyboard article on last year’s Filmfest Munich for more on Rampling, who was a special guest there.] And not just to noir cinema, according to a beautifully besotted pressie, but a film “so oozing with tenderness ... so oozing with love,” that it makes Rampling “not only stunning — she is, after all, Charlotte Rampling — but so lovely.”
And the film, in its treatment of both the character and the story (a divorced woman living in London rejoins the dating game, only to find herself suspected of murder and romantically linked to the detective working the case) is so multilayered, and yet so laser-like in “peeling away layers like an onion,” you’re glued from beginning to end. Can you say something about that? (This element was so affecting, another reporter later almost repeated the question. The director’s response both times seemed not to completely satisfy reporters with an appetite for intricate detail.)
“I think that’s perhaps what we like to do most as actors,” responded Rampling, “to have the most complex characters to investigate, because it means that you will be able to have a very outstanding range of emotions to play with. To be able to build a character around changing emotions is like walking in quicksand, is like walking in the desert with sands that move all the time. You can never actually quite catch it, and you can never actually quite catch what that particular moment means or what it will reveal and you don’t know how this character in the end will be touching people.
“And what you [said at the beginning] is very, very moving. I thank you for saying that about the film, because it’s a tribute to Barnaby as a director, but it’s also a tribute to the relationship we’ve had for over 37 years that this emerges.” Rampling noticed Southcombe’s reaction. “I don’t know, maybe he’s 38 or 39. Who wants a 40-year-old son?” she laughed, as he joined her.
But back to the noir. Southcombe acknowledged that he was indeed indebted to French and Italian film of the fifties, which I, Anna so effectively recaptures. “I just love those kinds of relationships, very ambiguous and very unspoken relationships which I [grew up with in film], and which I wanted to develop in a screenplay.” Rampling had actually rejected the script in the beginning, but Southcombe was relentless, working on it for a year before bringing it to her again. But this is how directors must be. “You have to really want this more than anything in the world,” said Rampling, “and you’re not gonna take no for an answer.”
What about the cast Anna wears on her arm? Was that a metaphor, or ...? They laughed: It was, quite literally, an accident, but one that they were pleased worked out well for the film, as the reporter’s question seemed to confirm: Rampling had broken her wrist shortly before shooting was to begin. At first dismayed by the additional time and cost this would add to the production, Southcombe soon realized that as a metaphor, “this was so potent, and so perfect, and so feminine. I don’t know, there’s something about this hard outside and this soft interior, and this kind of terrible burning itch to get rid of it, that just couldn’t have been more perfect for the film. So thank you,” reaching over to affectionately nudge his mother’s shoulder, “for breaking your arm.” Rampling shook it loosely. “Real method acting,” she grimaced with unmistakably dry humor.
Why is so much of the film shot at night? But of course — for a director so enamored of noir, it is part of Southcombe’s palette. “I like to call it ‘perpetual twilight,’ ” he said. “Like the French expression, ‘entre chien et loup’ ” — literally translated, “between dog and wolf.” (Those incurable romantics, the French! In more sensible, practical, empirically and emphatically unromantic English-speaking lands, we call it dusk.)
What happens then, when you bring the two opposites together? In Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s star-studded comedy-of-manners Competition film Bel Ami (Great Britain 2011), you get either an “absorbing” film with “some stellar performances, meticulous art design and an absorbing atmosphere” (thefilmstage.com) or a “costume film” “without any artistic or cinematic ambition” (Tageszeitung) whose two most famous female leads in skipping the press conference either “took the first best opportunity not to be seen with the film” or were on another continent, “also a good decision” (Tagesspiegel).
And the star? For a teen heartthrob best known as a screen vampire, whose very presence (and in such awesome outfits) would have been enough to earn Bel Ami raves had any of those thousands of fans who spent the night on the sidewalk been critics, Robert Pattison as the heel par excellence — or in this case, as a majority of critics had it, heel par incompétence — had a role he could really sink his teeth into, but missed it by a mile. “[It’s] one thing to embody a moral void,” observed Variety, “quite another to look merely vacant.”
Based on Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel, the subject of several film and TV adaptations here and abroad, Bel Ami is the story of a man who — talk about thinking outside the box — sleeps his way to the top in belle époque Paris, using the wives of his patrons as stepping-stones. First stop: La Vie Française, whose political editor, whom Georges knew from his service in Algeria, offers him a job. There’s just one small complication: Georges can’t write worth a dime. But his charm is such that he wins not only the love of his benefactor’s wife, but her hand — her writing hand, that is: Madeleine (Uma Thurman) pens the “autobiographical” soldier’s tale she’d urged him to write. And is he grateful? Let’s see: there’s Clotilde, and there’s Virginie, and there’s Rachel ...
“It’s an incredibly subversive story,” said director Donnellan in a press interview, with “so many modern parallels. It’s about the manipulation of the media; a government illegally invading an Arab country for their natural resources and lying to the people; how the media does or doesn’t collude; sex; celebrity; and it’s also about how somebody can get to the top with really very little talent.”
Little did Donnellan realize that that last is the one category in which the actor would be said to fit the role. “Director Donnellan raved about the way [Pattison] immediately understood the character’s fragility and said that he was the complete opposite of the role he played, of someone who became successful without having any talent (seriously, I swear!), blah blah blah,” snarked the Tageszeitung.
Funny, but not really fair. At the press conference the actor, either jetlagged or party-pooped (or understandably perhaps, both) blinked and tried to keep from yawning, but responded well when asked what it was like playing a journalist. Pattison graciously refused the description and instead said how he saw his character. “He’s not really a journalist. It’s like being a reality TV star now. He found a loophole in life where you could get money and a reputation by basically doing nothing, where you could hide.”
He also followed up unsolicited on a question that had been asked of the director as to why even Georges’ initial poverty, an important part of the book for showing what drove him and what he was running away from, was idealized in the film as “dancing prostitutes and the Moulin Rouge.” In the book, said Pattison, Georges is never really poor; “his parents pay for his education. He’s just lazy,” adding that “I never really saw it as running away from poverty. He feels that he’s entitled to wealth.” Insensitive? “He’s incredibly sensitive. He just tries to relate everything to himself. He thinks everyone is trying to one-up him, or insult him. Every minute of the day there’s some kind of slight to him. He’s completely self-obsessed.”
Which Pattison by and large was not. (Although it must be admitted, the actor’s giggling reply, perhaps occasioned by the question itself which may have momentarily thrust him back into Tennybopperville, to “why did you shave your head?” will win him no awards for maturity. In that regard, it was something of a surprise seeing the erstwhile Handsome Hairy Beast a mere stubble — head and face — of himself.)
As to the prevalence of historical films at this year’s Berlinale and his film’s relevance to today, Donnellan was unequivocal. “What I’m interested in is now. And I think you can say more outrageous and more subtle things through the implicit mask of ‘the other.’ You’re not escaping into a comfy world — and I should be horrified if that was happening — but [actually going] to that world so that you can say things about how we are now. And probably, sadly, maybe always will be.”
Even when that world was not comfy but constricting, and “the other” was the spirit of rebellion and youthful exuberance bubbling beneath its featureless gray surface, speaking not to a parallel past or future but to a tantalizingly close present whose existence was rarely acknowledged by those old enough to know better — or too young to know at all. In Martin Persiel’s “Dialogue en perspective” prize-winning This Ain’t California (Germany 2012), we “go to that world” of socialist East Germany via a treasure trove of super-8 home movies, super-slick animation, and personal recollection. Nico, the narrator, tells us the story of his friendship with Denis, the gifted swimmer son of a ruthlessly competitive, “authoritarian hardass” father, through home movies and animated images so masterfully manipulated and infused with such seize-the-moment vitality, we are as if dropped onto the craggy sidewalks of early '80s East Germany, entering into lives made vibrant via Nico’s and his friends’ impassioned, no-holds-barred dive into its “subversive” skater subculture.
Denis did not respond submissively to his father’s demands; in fact, Nico “never met anyone who had such a hard time with rules as Denis. He hated authority,” making him a natural leader for a group of preteen kids. (While snacks are welcome in Berlin cinemas, this was the only place where food and drink were so prevalent, it felt like a party. A sign of solidarity? Or just chance?) In 2011, Nico contacts as many of the group members as he can, bringing them together to reflect on the momentous changes that have occurred over 30 years and on their friendship with Denis, who cannot be there. Later, we will learn why.
This Ain’t California is a mesmerizing, feverishly fast-paced excursion on radical (in both senses), homemade, personally designed wheels through the handheld memories of these kids, now in their late forties, made possible by Nico’s father, who “got the films free on business trips.” The antithesis of Denis’ father, Nico’s dad let the kids have their way, “so long as we didn’t hurt ourselves.” More to the point: so long as he didn’t find out. “The streets we practiced on were only fifty percent cement,” Nico tells us. “The other fifty percent was our flesh.”
But through practice and falls came well-honed skills — and through Nico’s dad’s trips to Berlin came a chance to see a world apart, where people did things to have fun, not just to pay the rent. More important, a place where there were breakdancers, who riveted their attention. Says Nico: “We felt like they were one of us.” Once home, they incorporated breakdancing moves into their skateboarding flips and zooms, and a new sport was born — one even the GDR couldn’t put brakes on. Not one to concede defeat, it did do its damndest to take all the fun out of it, setting up “training centers” with all the rules that were anathema to the boarders, with a view towards making it an Olympic sport.
For Denis, whose photo shows a fresh-faced, strikingly good-looking blue-eyed blond with winning eyes and a dazzling smile — “He had style,” says Nick. “You can’t buy it, you can’t learn it. And he lived it” — it opened up possibilities of another kind: a path back into his father’s favor. But it was not to be. Rather than reconciliation, the suggestion led to an especially violent confrontation; Denis set fire to the house and ran out, never to return. His friends gave him a new name: From now on, he was “Panik.”
For the group, the trip to Berlin was an eye-opening experience that exposed the true scope of the lies their government had been telling. On their return, in return, they spread the word as fast and as far as they could. Denis organized an all-German skateboard meet, almost daring the authorities to challenge them. Their lives were forever changed; soon after, the Wall would fall. But it would be too late for Panik: Arrested and thrown into prison, in the most agonizing of ironies the badass answer to a hardass father would later enlist in the one place where following rules is the order of the day: the army. He was killed in Afghanistan last year. This Ain’t California is dedicated to his memory.
“This film was cut by the gut and not by the brain,” said director Martin Persiel in a post-screening Q&A. It had already been promised wide distribution at screening time. For the jury, the film’s “visual strength and stylistic confidence of its editing,” its “gripping dynamics” and the way it “mixes personal history with the collective memory of the German Democratic Republic” made it the perfect choice to promote, as is the prize’s purpose, “the exchange between German and French young people” (Lucas Puig, anyone?) and “the intercultural dialogue on film.”
Needless to say there was no lack of intercultural dialogue on film here at Europe’s largest film festival second only to Cannes, along with an impressive share of world premieres. Rarely, though, are we treated to two of them within two days, with one chock-full of dozens of dialogues on film, among and between filmmakers ... on film. Or was it digital? In Christopher Kenneally’s whirlwind but illuminating tour d’horizon of the process and history of filmmaking, Side by Side (USA 2012), seventy-five “directors, cinematographers, colorists, scientists, engineers and artists,” per the pressbook; in short, film professionals of every discipline, open up to Keanu Reeves about their experiences with and opinions about both mediums.
From Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh to Michael Ballhaus, Walter Murch, John Malkovich and the Wachowski brothers, Kenneally and Reeves bring us a balanced and — if you’re a fan of not just what’s on the screen but how it gets there, and how we got here — eminently watchable exploration of the digital revolution in cinema, its technical impact and creative implications. In short: what film means for those who make movies, and those who watch them.
In an interview with the Tageszeitung, Reeves and Kenneally talked about their film (Reeves also produced it) and what motivated them want to make it. For Reeves, the “decisive factor” was “the feeling that filmmaking had come to a fork in the road”: the digital format is increasingly seen “not just in commercials and on TV, but in Hollywood.” The unspoken question: “Are we seeing the end of filmmaking on celluloid?”
It wasn’t simply a knee-jerk reaction. “In the meantime, the picture quality of digital cinema had caught up with that of film,” noted Kenneally, and “more and more filmmakers were consciously deciding to shoot digitally.” The time was ripe for an evaluation and comparison. “And somehow, we both took a camera and started shooting.”
The list of interview subjects kept growing and changing. A tip from a colleague in New York sent them to “Camerimage” (The International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography) in Poland, a Mecca for cinematographers — and a jackpot for Kenneally and Reeves. “When we got there we just started grabbing them on the festival grounds and asking them if we could interview them,” said Kenneally. The attention was not unwelcome: “With a lot of them we had the feeling that they’d been waiting a long time for someone to ask them about this.” According to news reports, U.S. rights to the film were acquired by Tribeca for summer release.
At the Talent Campus, film historian and Variety international publishing director Peter Cowie got “to ask them about this” — the “them” in this case being Kenneally and Reeves, the “this,” Side by Side. With them was the director of that second (unnamed) film mentioned in passing above. At 900 minutes (no, that’s no typo) it probably deserves more than a mention, and not just for its length.
If Side by Side is a tour d’horizon, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, Great Britain 2011) is a tour d’univers: 15 hours of film history that the true cinephiles among us would probably, given the chance (which we have, thanks to www.networkdvd.net) drink in — drugged and bug-eyed, staring at the screen — like a love potion, in one long, slow, intoxicating draught. And we would be responding to it in kind. For what it is, is a love song to cinema. Networkdvd.net ably does the arguably impossible and succinctly sums it up, calling it “the story of international cinema told through the history of cinematic innovation. Lovingly researched and five years in the making, [the series] covers six continents and 12 decades, showing how film-makers are influenced both by the historical events of their times, and by each other... [A] worldwide guided tour of the greatest movies ever made; an epic tale that starts in nickelodeons and ends as a multi-billion-dollar globalised digital industry.”
Your reporter would be tempted to call it the equivalent of a comprehensive, degree-worthy film course, were it not for the fact that note-taking while watching it is (see “drugged and bug-eyed” above) well-nigh impossible. As soon as one takes his eyes away from the (mostly) superbly transferred clips onscreen or shifts his attention from the perpetually edifying spoken narrative to write something down, he finds to his chagrin that he has missed something even more unmissable, even as the siren call of irresistible information and factoids summons his attention anew. Suffice it to say, it’s a must-see if you can.
Based on the director’s like-named 2004 book, The Story of Film is “some kind of modest attempt to take you around the world,” Cousins all too modestly told us in introducing the exhilarating four-hour marathon of Episodes 1 through 4, which take us from 1895 through 1938. “The idea was to make a kind of old-fashioned, magic-lantern slide show,” he said, explaining why the images we were about to see would come in from an angle we’ve become unused to. Ending his brief introduction, in which he was careful to correct any impression that The Story of Film focuses on classic Hollywood films — ”Hollywood films are too romantic to be classic”; “Money doesn’t drive cinema, ideas do” — Cousins mock-solemnly invoked one of classic Hollywood’s mega-stars’ most oft-quoted catch-phrases. “Fasten your seatbelts,” he told us as he turned to leave the stage; “it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
It would be more than a bumpy ride — more like a bump-and-grind ride, neither romantic nor classic — for the contemporary college women in Elles (Malgoska Szumowska, France/Poland/Germany 2011), a pun encompassing the name of the magazine for which journalist Anne (Juliette Binoche) is writing an article and its very instructive subjects. The first shot shows Binoche as never before: bedraggled, slept-in hair, plain and pasty, horn-rims slipped down to the tip of the nose. Dressed in a drab, grayish robe that looks as tired as she does, Anne’s been up all night sitting at the keyboard working in frantic fits and starts — we see her loom at the screen as if to draw inspiration from it, then drop back in the chair, defeated and demoralized — to get her article in to Elle on deadline.
We meet the first of her subjects, a beautiful young woman with dark-blond hair straight and shiny as a schoolgirl’s, on a picture-perfect day in the park. She tried working in fast-food joints, she tells Anne, but gave up after a few days: the work’s exhausting and the pay’s lousy. Anne listens carefully and nods — Binoche is wonderful here — trying to look sympathetic and concerned but not judgmental, all while allowing us to can see the wheels going around in her writer’s head. (Later there’s a marvelous, completely silent interview scene, subject unseen, in which her highly expressive face, this time not attempting to conceal her alarm, communicates the urgency of what she must be hearing.)
The second subject, a platinum blond Polish immigrant farmgirl, has her backpack stolen (ID, passport, money, the works) and meets with blithe indifference tinged with annoyance from school officials when she reports it. An Arabic man is very sympathetic, offers her his phone card to call home; they hook up. She now has a measure of security — until. (There’s always an “until” whenever things look to be going well.) But she has it all in hand, and even introduces Anne to pleasures this bourgeoise mother of two probably never expected to experience firsthand. Back home with her two out-of-it teenage sons and workaholic husband, she starts looking at her life with new eyes.
At the press conference, Binoche looked her usual youthful, beautiful self. Asked how she felt to be filmed in the opening scene looking so unattractive, Binoche turned to the cameraman (Michal Englert), and then to the director (Malgoska Szumowska), and said: “I can bear it, because you film me with love.” And, too, “There’s a bareness you have to face as an actor, otherwise, why do it?”
Szumowska and producer Marianne Slot were surprised to discover this student-prostitution phenomenon in Paris and other major European cities, driven by young women’s desire to have the material things that would otherwise be unavailable to them — including higher education. (If it’s happening in Paris, where higher education is state-funded, then ...?) There’s no shame, they agreed; nothing hidden. No one challenged them, although in the film, these students are often less than open with their friends and families about their “extracurricular activities.”
That said, the experience of being in the film certainly seemed to loosen up the always composed Binoche, who after posing patiently with smile after smile for the pack of photogs screaming “Juliette! Juliette!” turned to one from the Berliner Kurier, fluffed up her dark brown mane, rolled up her eyes, puffed out her cheeks, and stuck her forefingers in her ears. The result? A hilariously un-Binoche-like, full-page spread. Elles opened in DC last week.
When it comes to being composed, even Binoche at her best has nothing on Belgrade-born performance artist Marina Abramovic, who set herself the task of becoming a living but utterly motionless piece of art, sitting for seven and a half hours, each and every day for three months at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan, facing thousands of strangers, one at a time, in silent, uninterrupted stillness. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (USA 2011), which won the Panorama Audience Award for a documentary film with the largest number of votes ever cast in the history of the award, is Matthew Akers’ (with Jeff Dupre) documentation of that magnum opus and the artist who created it. For nearly a year Akers followed and filmed Abramovic, documenting “nearly every waking moment” of her life through six countries as well as the entirety of the new MoMA work, seen by some 250,000 people.
The complete installation encompasses “The Artist Is Present “ and a retrospective of Abramovic’s previous shows at the museum, occupying several floors of MoMA and featuring 41 young artists whom Abramovic has trained to recreate the earlier segments. These performance-artists-in-training have several rituals to perform, first and foremost: a three-day fast. Abramovic s discipline is the legacy of an authoritarian upbringing; she is, she tells us, three people: a child of partisans; a child who never got enough love, and works for it; and a wise woman. “I was raised like a soldier” by her Yugoslav partisan parents; her mother would awaken her in the middle of the night if the covers of her bed weren’t straight.
Akers takes us through Abramovic’s life and performance history, including her 12-year partnership with German performance artist Ulay, which ended when creative and personal differences led them, amicably but not without sadness — and, as we will see, at least on his part, a lingering sense of regret — to part ways. In a 1988 video we watch them in the final steps of their dramatic parting: Having started from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, a three-month trek, they meet in the middle, bid each other goodbye and keep walking.
Now, more than 20 years later, Ulay approaches the chair at MoMA, and sits facing her. The camera frames each face, now his, now hers; his expressive, his eyes edged with just a hint of hopefulness; hers unchanged, inscrutable. At last, she meets his gaze full-on; their eyes lock. Disciplined artist that she is — among her most notorious and controversial installations are those in which she mutilates herself, in one slashing herself repeatedly, blood running down her abdomen as audiences watch in fascinated horror — she sits there facing him, barely breathing. And then, the camera fixed on her unblinking face, an almost imperceptible tear forms in one eyes, and then another; slowly, silently, they course down her cheeks. He reaches across the small square table; she takes his hands. The MoMA audience bursts into applause, warm, happy smiles, and a few tears of their own.
“Sitting in front of me,” says Abramovic, about the people who line up by the hundreds outside MoMA each morning, some even camping out overnight, for the chance to sit opposite her — “I’m standing in line several days, I get in line at 5 in the morning, I still [haven’t gotten] in,” says one cheerful and determined young man — “very soon it’s not about me anymore. Pretty soon I’m just the mirror of their own self.”
We can only be glad she didn’t have seated across from her the lead character in the Panorama fiction film award winner, which, in a happy coincidence, is by a fellow Serb, director Srdjan Dragojevic. In The Parade (Parada, Serbia/Croatia/Macedonia/Slovenia 2011) writes Dragojevic, “A homophobic, middle-aged, Serbian gangster ends up sacrificing himself to protect gay freedom in his country”; the festival catalog calls it a “turbulent farce that toys with clichés and stereotypes “ and “turn[s] transgression into a comedic principle.”
His on-the-spot wit as sharp as his screenplay, Dragojevic observed that this would be the third award his film had received at the Berlinale (the other two being the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention and the Reader Jury Award of the Siegessäule, Berlin’s leading gay monthly), and that he didn’t know how to react. “Growing up in a communist country, we’re not used to getting awards. Free health care maybe, but ...”
Well OK, but we have many things Serbia doesn’t: the Grand Canyon, the Smithsonian Institution, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the death penalty ... “Killers are simple, everyday people,” observed Just the Wind director Bence Fliegauf. “They listen to commercial radio stations, go to malls, window-shop, have mortgage payments and maybe even kids. Murder is generally just an episode in their lives which destroys them and those in their environment. They are losers.”
And subjects of fascination for Werner Herzog, whose visits to a maximum security prison in Texas might sound like the scenario for another Caesar Must Die — but only if the Shakespeare play was Macbeth or Titus Andronicus.
Werner Herzog on stage. Photo from the Berlin International Film Festival website.
A four-part, 3¼-hour documentary made for Investigation Discovery and shown on U.S. television on March 9, but premiering at the Berlinale in a single uninterrupted session, [On] Death Row (USA/Great Britain/Austria 2012) follows Herzog’s multiple-award-winning 2011 documentary on a single death-row inmate Into the Abyss with this series of five “portraits.” Each segment begins with the same voice-over, with Herzog telling us that 34 U.S. states currently have the death penalty, but only 16 currently perform executions; Texas, he says, has almost 400 inmates on death row. (The most are held in California, he will later tell an interviewer at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, but they are in no immediate danger of execution, since California has a moratorium on the death penalty, although it still sentences people to death.)
Herzog sets his camera in the Florida and Texas state prisons. The first interview is with Jim Barnes, who murdered his wife and a woman neighbor. He tells Barnes that though he may disagree with “procedural injustices” in his case, “that does not necessarily mean I have to like you.” That may be the understatement of the year, at least from what we’re told: Barnes, who has a rap sheet as long as his arm, admitted raping, battering and strangling a woman he barely knew, but whose encounter with him had left him feeling “humiliated.” Having planned the crime with diabolical calculation, after she was dead he set fire to her body to destroy the evidence.
The DA tells Herzog how well schooled Barnes is in the law, to the point of even conducting his own defense, which makes his crime all the more execrable. In a final blow, as Barnes was confessing to the murder in all its sordid detail, the DA says in disgust, he asked that his wife’s ex-husband be brought in, so that he could relay her last moments — as she succumbed to Barnes’s multiple slashing wounds and strangulation — to her children.
While just reading the description of the crime curdles the blood, Barnes himself is open and affable, like your next-door neighbor: calm, unemotional, but not pathologically cold. “They say I’m remorseless, but I’m not,” he tells Herzog. “I have cried so many nights and so many days.” His sister wants to see him, but she has “35 to 40 misdemeanor counts” hanging over her head, so ... “you’re afraid they’re going to keep you,” Herzog completes her thought. The sister tells a harrowing tale of childhood trauma and abuse, the most gruesome example of which is when, she says, their sadistic father — who not only beat his son mercilessly and without reason, but would force his brothers and sisters to stand in a circle and ritualistically do the same till the boy was covered with bleeding cuts and bruises — rode over their sister’s head with a lawnmower as they watched, killing her. Both siblings still suffer from recurring nightmares. Herzog passes on to Barnes a message from his father: “Tell him I love him, but I hate the crimes he committed.” Barnes is visibly moved.
What would you do, Herzog asks him, if you could do anything? Fully resigned to his fate — Barnes even confessed to a couple of unsolved murders while in prison, which is what led to the imposition of the death penalty — this heinous murderer, who through the filmmaker has gained an element of humanity, says he’d like to take a dip in the ocean. “It’s like I’ve been through so much and I’m so dirty. All I want to do is wash it off.”
What death-row inmate Hank Skinner wants to wash off is his whole, to his eyes, wrongheaded, misguided prosecution and conviction. Unlike the guy in Hollywood films of old who goes to the chair proclaiming his innocence, Skinner was within 20 minutes of execution — last rites, last meal (which, having savored every bite, he describes down to the smallest detail, reveling in reliving the experience) — and ready to go. He’s not afraid of dying, he tells Herzog, having watched his fellow inmates die, but, much like Hamlet, he’s afraid of what comes next.
Seeking information that will corroborate or refute Skinner’s claims, Herzog talks first to the reporter who covered the story, and who is convinced of Skinner’s guilt. We learn that he was convicted of murdering a woman and her two mentally disabled sons. (“She was so badly beaten,” it took months to identify her, while “the two boys were stabbed.”) Walking through the desolate, trash-strewn, poverty-stricken, nearly uninhabited area in which the crime occurred, Herzog attempts to confirm — or refute — Skinner’s claims.
Five months later the Supreme Court rules in Skinner’s favor to allow him to be retried and new evidence to be introduced. Herzog returns to interview him again, and finds the newly confident convict with a dark and drooping Van Dyke mustache and beard, and complaining about the food (well, by definition, last meals come around only once). In so doing, Skinner makes a comment that must have caused the filmmaker in front of him to do a mental double take. “You know that movie where Werner Herzog eats his shoe?” he asks Herzog. “That’s me here, every day.”
Skinner speaks with great warmth about his little girl and the bond he says they share, and as with that last meal, is able to recall the smallest detail about her, from babyhood through their last meeting. Describing the ride to the death house and what he saw looking out the van’s windows, Skinner tells Herzog of a wondrous land, filled with beauty, “like the Holy Land.” On his last visit, as he leaves, Herzog takes the same route, and films it for us: gray, drab, deserted, leavened only by brightly colored, kitschy statues and signs for fast-food restaurants.
Joseph C. Garcia probably passed lots of those as he and six other convicts went on the lam after escaping from a South Texas prison, but having more on their minds, would have paid them far less heed than Herzog. One of the infamous Texas Seven, Garcia and six other maximum security inmates, all serving sentences of anywhere from 50 years to the ringleader’s 18 consecutive sentences of 15 years to life, overpowered 17 prison workers and inmates in December 2000. Once out they lost no time in picking up where they left off, stealing enough guns and ammunition to equip a small militia and ambushing the policeman who arrived at the scene, not only shooting him eleven times but running him over as they fled, thereby succeeding in shortening the time they’d spend in prison. Just not in the way they’d hoped.
Garcia pleads his case with Herzog, insisting that he “wasn’t even there,” adding, as if this had to be the ultimate exoneration, “I was still in the back room tying up hostages.” Like Barnes before him, Garcia is calm, rational and persuasive but not as bright, prone to getting caught up in just those little things that fatally undermine his claims of innocence. The prosecuting attorney calls him “his own worst enemy,” telling Herzog how Garcia couldn’t resist showing the jury his proficiency with a butterfly knife — the murder weapon in the case that sent him up. But he is remorseful, and tells Herzog that he still thinks of the murdered police officer, his wife and children, especially on the anniversary of the killing — Christmas Eve.
For Linda Carty, there’s nothing to feel remorse for: “It’s all made up,” a plot “by the people I was supposed to put the sting on,” working undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration, she asserts to Herzog, sounding every inch the federal agent. Her 21-year-old daughter is equally compelling, claiming with apparent justification that her mom had incompetent counsel (at the time of filming, he had a world-record 24 clients on death row) who never called the DEA agent for whom she says she worked — and who tells Herzog he would have been happy to do so — to testify in her defense.
Yet there is much evidence against her, including the testimony of her accomplices, logs of cell phone calls made during the crime, and the fact that she told people the day before the murder that she was about to have a baby, and that it would be born the next day — complicated by the incontrovertible fact that she didn’t look the least bit pregnant. Calling her “street smart” (well, with one very pregnant exception) and “manipulative,” Herzog would tell the Berliner Festspiele audience that “It’s stunning how she talked three street thugs into believing that there was 900 pounds of weed in this woman’s apartment.’ The woman was a young mother whose infant son Carty allegedly wanted for herself. Carty was subsequently convicted in connection with the woman’s abduction and murder.
At the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Herzog spoke warmly of Texas and disparagingly of the “political elite in the United States”: namely, those on the East and West coasts who speak of the “flyovers [states]” as places whose citizens “are fundamental Christians, in favor of capital punishment,” concluding, “I like the American heartland.” Realizing he had to backtrack a bit, Herzog quickly added: “Of course I like Los Angeles, because I live there,” and gave a what-can-I-say shrug and small smile.
Herzog takes pride in the fact that all of the prisoners liked him and wanted him back. “They all liked me because I was so straightforward. If you spend 10, 17 years on death row in isolation, you can probably see from a mile distance whether somebody is a bulls - - - - - - or somebody is phony. Attorneys are all phony, they’re all upbeat: ‘Oh yeah, we still have a chance.’ Family’s only emotional, denies accepting that the son or daughter is a murderer. I’m the only one who talks to them straight.” How do you keep from judging them? “I respect them as human beings. The crimes themselves are monstrous, but the prisoners are human beings.”
You ask them about their dreams. Why? And what are your dreams? Herzog laughed. Calling psychiatry “one of the greatest mistakes of the 20th century ... the 20th century itself was a mistake — in its totality,” Herzog said he rarely dreams. “And maybe because of that lack, because of that void, maybe that’s why I became a filmmaker.” But isolation is a breeding ground for dreams. “And it also shows their human side; that they’re not that far away from what we are.”
Why did you choose the documentary form? This could also have been a feature film. “For me there’s still an option out there for me to make a feature film,” perhaps one on George Rivas. “The prison escape ... it’s really a real movie story.” Arguably even more so now: the leader of the Texas Seven, Rivas would be executed two weeks after this Q&A. Herzog was almost tempted to make a feature film out of the Linda Carty story. “But it would be so grim, after having seen [it], people would [wish they had] never been born. Ever.” James Barnes? “I believe that he is the ultimate nightmare for women. A man comes in stark naked, hides in your closet, watches the woman [go about her chores and daily activities] for four hours, then” commits the ultimate in terror against her. “Probably,” he reflected, “something for a future film.”
Not an unexpected answer from a man who once said, “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”
A sentiment that French director Benoît Jacquot might share, at least as it relates to his Golden Bear-nominated film, which also (uncommon for a Competition entry) opened the festival. Based on Chantal Thomas’s award-winning novel, Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux à la reine, France/Spain 2011) places us in Île-de-France, summer of 1789, whose suffocating heat, acrid stench, and swelling political and social turmoil would explode in a vengeful blood lust that over the next five years would claim the heads of tens of thousands of French citizens.
Versailles, mid-July: a place that for some, time has turned into the site of a historical fairy tale in shades of black, white and red, complete with heroic or bloodthirsty revolutionaries and an evil or beleaguered queen. But, as Jacquot and cameraman Romain Winding show us, with a precision that gives the storied palace (filmed onsite, at a cost of 20,000 euros a day) with its coruscatingly gilded, mirrored halls and celestially named rooms, a decadent majesty and an almost tangibly olfactory offensiveness. According to Jacquot, there was a “stench that came from behind the most beautiful wood paneling in the world. Something revolting, rotting and putrid. As if the state of the building at Versailles was a metaphor for te collapse of the regime.”
“The Revolution begins with a mosquito bite.” So wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in its review headline, a reference to the disease-carrying insects that swarmed through slop-strewn streets and unsanitary homes. One will wake Sidonie Laborde, a young reader and lady-in-waiting to the queen through whose eyes we will see the final days of the Ancien Régime, on the very day the Bastille will be stormed by the mob. For Sidonie has been drawn from the muck and appointed to be lady-in-waiting to the queen, and to read to the monarch her choice of verse or story.
A blond-haired blue-eyed beauty, Marie-Antoinette as played by Diane Kruger comes off as a sharp-tongued, self-absorbed suburban belle: comely, moody, mercurial, willful, yet intelligent and capable of the occasional kindness. She expresses concern for Sidonie’s mosquito bites and sends another lady-in-waiting for a lotion, which she them caressingly smoothes over the girl’s skin. It being 1789, we don’t see much of it except in intimate situations, and then, as the Tagesspiegel writes, there is an “accumulation of suggestive shots of women’s gossamer, luxuriously covered skin that protects a soft, white ‘inside’ and threatens a dirty, slummy revolution, an ‘outside’ metonymically connected to the rats and insects” of Sidonie’s world.
But it is not Sidonie the queen has her eye on; although Sidonie, whose large, intelligent eyes silently take in everything (setting her apart from the “gawking servant girls,” per the Berliner Zeitung, who otherwise predominate) is clearly drawn to the monarch as to a magnet. We see everything through those eyes, but with the post-historical advantage time affords us and the fly-on-the-wall perspective that Jacquot, and Winding’s camera, give us. What she sees, she does not fully understand, and even if she did, whom would she tell? What she does understand, is that her beloved queen is infatuated with the beautiful duchess who often visits her. And when Sidonie suddenly is asked to take the duchess’s place, it is not for what she may have dreamed of. Instead, it is the stuff of nightmares.
At the press conference Diane Kruger, who switched effortlessly from French to English to German depending on the questioner, and who like the queen is German-born and moved to France, said she identified with Marie-Antoinette, and tried not to judge her. And there were personal connections of remarkable coincidence: “I was born on July 15” — the film takes place during the three-day period from July 14 to 16 — “my mother’s name is Maria Theresa [as was the queen’s] ...” Her eyes widened as she cocked her head in an expression of isn’t-life-weird. “I got goose bumps when I read the script.”
Because of the singular nature of the shot sequences there is little linearity, with every scene revealing a different facet of the queen’s personality — “definitely one of the most challenging parts I’ve had.” For Kruger, the queen is “borderline crazy,” but “no, I don’t think she’s a lesbian.”
Like many a modern filmmaker Jacquot has jumped on the digital bandwagon. “I actually don’t think I’m ever going to go back to traditional film stock,” he told us, saying it would be analogous to trading cars in for horses. And yet the technique was used in a film that harked back to costume dramas of old.
Why are there so few French costume dramas these days? the Berliner Zeitung wanted to know. The director was frank: “Producers are enormously skeptical because historical films are expensive and don’t attract a lot of ticket buyers,” leaving the genre to the domain of television. But then, he allowed, “in the end, saving money is their job.” Unfortunately (financially) costume films are Jacquot’s favorite genre, making the award-winning book by Chantal Thomas on which the film would be based irresistible as a possible scenario, but close to impossible as a producible project. It wasn’t until he received a call from a producer he didn’t know — who had obtained the rights to the book, and immediately thought of him — that the irresistible also started looking achievable.
And Versailles became available, if at a royal cost. According to Jacquot, virtually the entire film was shot in the palace, “and believe me,” he told the Berliner Zeitung, “no film star in the world is as expensive as a shooting permit in Versailles!” (How expensive? asked the Tageszeitung. “20,000 euros a day.” Seems to be the going rate.)
Jacquot also believes that in her final days Marie Antoinette went from being merely scatterbrained (what Jacquot said, probably in French, was translated here as “kopflos,” which also literally means “headless” — a deliciously wicked play on words, either the director’s or the translator’s) to nearly mad. “If Marie Antoinette had been a commoner, she would have been declared insane. Naturally, no one dared to do that to the queen.”
Although Léa Seydoux’s Sidonie plays it coolly as indeed she must, given their respective positions, her eyes, with a combination of careful calculation and little-girl longing, betray her emotions. “Sidonie is literally madly in love with the queen!” insisted Jacquot in the press interview. “This love triangle [between Marie Antoinette, Sidonie and the Duchess of Polignac] electrifies the film.”
The roles of the queen and her reader were cast with an eye not just to the acting skills, but to the personalities of the women who would play them. Kruger, said Jacquot, is “meticulous [and] focused.” And Seydoux? The sultry Vogue and Prada fashion model who has been steadily expanding her film portfolio — DC filmgoers will remember her as Gil’s (Owen Wilson) sweet and unaffected Cole Porter-loving amour in Midnight in Paris and in her antithetical turn as the evil karate-chopping Sabine Moreau in last year’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — is “more animal-like, instinctive, blowing hot and cold.”
In Sister (L’Enfant d’en haut, Switzerland/France 2012), Seydoux’s quicksilver character is ideally suited to the role of Louise, a hardened young woman who lives with her 12-year-old “brother” Simon in the blighted valley below a posh Swiss ski resort. Arbitrarily alternating affection (rare) with outright antagonism and indifference, Louise depends on Simon to supplement her meager earnings, even more so when she is summarily fired.
And Simon (Kacey Mottet-Klein), whose need for her love is wordless, but urgent, always comes up with the cash, thanks to his proficiency as a pickpocket and petty thief at the resort. “Don’t worry, they won’t care,” he says, presenting her with a puffy sky-blue ski jacket. “They’ll just buy another one.” Something he and Louise cannot do, even when it comes to life’s little luxuries, which director Ursula Meier brings home to us with painful poignancy when Louise drags Simon out of bed in the middle of the night, takes him to a Christmas tree vendor, and orders him to cut down one of the firs — with a dull kitchen knife.
But Simon’s a hit with the small fry at the resort who see him as a winner, buying from him the stuff he swipes and either reselling or gifting it (or keeping it for themselves). Similarly, Mottet-Klein, for whom Meier conceived the film, was a hit with the critics. The Tageszeitung called him a “real find,” Screen International said he “steals the show,” while for Variety, “His combination of steadfast determination and confusion about where the boundaries in the adult world lie carry the film through to its perfect final shot.” Speaking of which, one of the most perfect shows Simon, having escaped the clutches of a furious guard, hitch a ride on a ski lift, climbing aboard unobserved with the sundry stuff he’s stolen. As the car ascends into a clear blue sky, leaving the Gucci and grime of his world below, he lobs an orange into the air and watches it with childish glee as it bobs and weaves in its descent, making us complicit and conflicted as we feel it with him, guiltily empathizing with someone we’d feel a lot differently about, were it our stuff he’d swiped.
As if in answer to our halfhearted wish for conscience-salving redress, the next guard Simon comes in contact with is younger, swifter and wilier. He has nothing on Simon, though, who talks his way out of it — and into a short-lived partnership with the guy that will end in yet another violent rejection. He doesn’t speak French, so Simon’s English-language skills, buffed at the kitchen table with stolen racing magazines, are a plus. His name is Mike.
As it is in real life: Scottish megastar Mike Compston, who a decade ago picked up five international film awards for his performance in Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen playing, as Roger Ebert wrote at the time, “a decent kid with no job prospects and no opportunities, in a world where only crime offers a paying occupation.” Simon lives in that world, too, but spends his time and commits his crimes in a place that’s physically, and on people who are metaphorically, “above” (d’en haut), a world he can steal from without feeling guilty (“they won’t miss it. They’ll just buy another one”).
But Simon is smooth, as in his initial encounter with Mike, and has learned how to ingratiate himself. He helps beginners get their footing (although he himself doesn’t ski, but never lets on); knows how to worm his way into the heart of an Englishwoman (Gillian Anderson), who largely on that basis will later hire Louise as a maid. Louise is the one nut he cannot crack, who insists that he give her every last franc from a hard day’s work — and despite its illegality and impropriety, when you get beaten up by people twice your size, which happens to Simon fairly regularly, what he does amounts to hard and dangerous work — for the privilege of lying in bed with her. Seeking the mother he now knows is not dead, but who remains as far from human touch as ever.
At the press conference director Ursula Meier readily conceded that the film could be seen as a metaphor for the “upper” and “lower” Switzerland, the one familiar to travelers and tourists, the other hidden from view, and that it was based on real situations, but emphasized that Sister was above all a fictional construct about specific people — its characters — and not a social indictment. Unlike the Dardenne brothers, whose work she “likes very much,” Meier’s characters are not intended to be slice-of-life, she said. (Although in response to another question Meier allowed that she was in part inspired by a boy of about that age whom she had seen at a ski resort, a scavenger selling skis on the street, and who like Simon was banned from the resort.)
And Kacey. How did you find him? Meier laughed. “We saw every child on the face of the Earth, there was even casting by the roadside,” when she chose him for his first film, Home (2008) and worked carefully with him, inventing strategies to help him ignore the camera. Now, he’s “a professional actor,” she said, clearly pleased, adding that he had also played Serge Gainsbourg [in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which screened at West End Cinema last fall].
For Seydoux, who enjoys playing different types of characters and had a good chance to do that in Farewell My Queen and Sister, Louise was a “very, very difficult role,” the character “in principle” hard to sympathize with and understand. But now, “I have a lot of affection for Ursula’s film,” and even for her character. “Yes, that’s what was at stake,” said Meier. “I always said you have to remember what the character has been through, you have to keep it in mind throughout... We wanted her not to be judged.”
The jury certainly judged if not Louise, then certainly the film, for which it felt compelled to create an award, a Special Mention for “a warm, dramatic and poetic study of a moving, beautifully observed relationship.” For Meier, asked that night to summarize the film, it’s “a story about children who don’t find a place, a social, physical, or emotional place. Here,” she concluded, “we’ve found a very warm place in Berlin.” Which may have made up for the below-freezing temps that had many of us dreaming not of ski resorts, but of warmer, more exotic climes. Like maybe Jakarta?
Indonesian filmmaker Edwin’s Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun binatang, Indonesia/Germany/Hong Kong/China 2012) is, quite literally, a dream of a film. Called “a slow and dreamy magical realist romance” by Screen International and “a languid, dreamlike study” by Variety, it begins with a toddler girl walking around a darkened, woodsy area, calling after the father who has abandoned her there. Frightened and at the same time fascinated by the sounds of animals in the distance, she follows them to a concrete expanse surrounded by the zoo’s four-legged and winged inhabitants, some in cages, others wandering free, and tentatively approaches them.
Edwin and photographer Sidi Saleh do indeed create a world wrapped in reverie, but with an almost palpably real core. “To me, this film is completely a dream,” writes the director, then quickly adds: “Reality is [its] raw material.” True to its name, Postcards from the Zoo is constructed as a series of filmic “postcards,” each scene prefaced by an informational intertitle about animals (courtesy Wikipedia, among others), showing how Lana makes a home at the zoo, makes friends with many of the animals and attendants, assists as needed, and yet, never really feels at home.
Her favorite is the giraffe, whose majestic height Saleh’s camera slowly, absorbingly scales, and whose underbelly Lana tries in vain to reach, playing peek-a-boo around a tree with the brilliantly hued animal, till he figures out the game and pegs her. We watch rain falling in sharp droplets into the hippo pond, just the top of his huge, gnarled head and eyes visible, looking around with mild curiosity, having seen it all before.
Years pass. A handsome magician in a cowboy hat appears and takes Lana (Ladya Cheryl) on as his assistant. She learns well, but is unprepared for his pièce de résistance: He enters a hut and tells her to nail it shut, then set it on fire when he gives the word. He does, she does, and when the fire burns out — he’s gone.
As is her home at the zoo, which is no longer allowing its employees to live there. Needing a job and having no experience outside the (literal) confines of an animal park (acutely described by the Tagesspiegel as a “microcosm of refugees, prisoners and migrants ripped from their natural habitat, passing the time between cage and grave”), she finds one working as a massage therapist, where her innocence is effectively played off the friendly matter-of-factness of the woman who instructs her. And who perhaps, like the hippo, has seen it all, but unlike the hippo — unlike Lana — has found her place; has made her peace. She is at home there.
Lana has a longing for the only place she knows as home, and knows she must return. When she does, she finds that things may not have changed very much, but that she has.
“This film is about longing for something lost,” continues the director. “No matter what triggers it, it’s part of human nature to leave home and prove ourselves elsewhere. Once we’ve done that, we feel the urge to return home – maybe not physically but symbolically through the choices we make or the people we befriend.” And it’s also about the need for physical contact. “After her father has abandoned her, Lana’s deepest longing is the need to be touched. But the zoo is full of barriers and fences to obstruct her. ‘Don’t Touch the Animals!’ ”
“How we would have loved to have greeted the animal stars of Postcards from the Zoo on the podium this afternoon,” sighed the Berliner Zeitung regretfully. “But [they] probably weren’t invited.” The human stars were, though, and spoke through what may have been a first: an Indonesian translator who sat at the podium and translated sequentially into English, rather than the usual simultaneous translation transmitted through headphones in a choice of languages.
Asked by an Indonesian journalist which was better, our life or zoo life, Edwin smiled. It’s a matter of perspective, he said, adding that he’s actually considered the latter. “Jakarta’s crowded, and you can find a lot of food in the zoo. For me, life in Jakarta is like life in the zoo. Watching and being watched.”
A lovely and poised Ladya Cheryl said that she’d worked as an assistant zookeeper from 7 in the morning till 3 in the afternoon every day for a year and a half, to get to know the animals and feel comfortable with them. A question from the host to the photographer: What was it like to shoot animals? “Not shoot animals, but, well, you know...” You have to get them to trust you, said Saleh. Feeding them and “sharing saliva with them” works. (No doubt.)
What’s the connection between the two places Lana works and lives, the zoo and the spa? “The animal in the zoo longs to be touched, the person in the spa longs to be touched,” said Edwin, who elaborates in the pressbook: “Lana represents the same idea as the lone giraffe in Ragunan Zoo [where the film was shot], living in an environment that is not her natural habitat. It’s a question I have for my own life and everyone else’s: we live and work in places where we are actually welcome, so how come feelings of isolation or estrangement still visit us?”
A question haunting many a character at this year’s Berlinale. There was Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s bleak Francine (USA/Canada 2012), starring Oscar winner (The Fighter 2010) Melissa Leo as an ex-alcoholic ex-con loner trying to pull her life (back?) together, but coming up empty at every turn, turning for comfort to the barking, meowing menagerie that fills her shack of a home. And Matthias Gläsner’s equally (but night-and-day differently) bleak, Golden Bear-nominated Mercy (Gnade, Germany/Norway 2012), in which a German woman, living with her relocated husband and their son in a Norwegian town that for two months is “caught in an icy reverie somewhere between black night and permanent twilight,” hits something driving home one night, blinded by the northern lights. And Frédéric Videau’s Coming Home (À moi seule, France 2011), a disturbing hostage drama that disturbs in part because the tables turn in a way that portrays the victim as sly survivor: The 17-year-old Gaëlle, having gained the upper hand and bullied her kidnapper into releasing her after eight years of captivity, returns to her overjoyed parents, only to find that she can’t come home again.
Nor could thousands of residents of Fukushima, Japan, site of nuclear meltdowns in the wake of the 9.0-magnitude, tsunami-triggering earthquake (the largest ever to hit Japan) in March 2011, although — in the cruelest of ironies — for many of them, they also can’t leave. For former film critic Toshi Fujiwara, whose No Man’s Zone (Japan/France 2012) was one of three Japanese documentaries about the disaster to screen here this year, the film is not only about the nuclear crisis itself, but about the two-pronged “cost of forgetting and sharing things.”
The title is not meant to be whimsical, but factually descriptive: “No man’s zone” is what the 20-kilometer area around the accident site that is forbidden to visitors is called, and which Fujiwara and his cameraman disregard so as to bear witness to the destruction not just of property but of lives and livelihoods, of hopes and dreams. A woman’s clear, earnest voice narrates the images.
“Perhaps today, we have become addicted to images of destruction,” she posits, as the camera pans across ravaged landscapes of splintered buildings and unidentifiable rubble, apocalyptic devastation, filmed 41 days after the still unfathomable, inexplicable events, 10 miles from the power station. “No one really knows what did happen — or what will happen.” No cameras have been here since the disaster, she observes. Unless the images are recorded, there is no testament to the disaster, and to the people who died.
It’s early spring. Blossoming cherry trees dot the landscape, all is peaceful and quiet — “like a still life,” observed the Tageszeitung. Too still: there’s no life. No human life, anyway; we hear the chirp of a bird.. People populate the soundtrack that plays over images of destruction. They recall voices of the injured and dying, friends and neighbors calling for help. They heard them then; they hear them now. “If someone had gone, they could have been saved,” says a woman, still tormented by the sounds.
The camera pans across shattered, unrecognizable objects, stopping occasionally to allow us to contemplate what they once may have been. Just a few yards away, we see the white hull of a boat, nary a scratch on it, nested among the devastation. Gorgeous gardens, seemingly untouched. Incongruities, if on a leviathan scale, familiar to anyone who’s suffered the ravages of a summer storm while his neighbors a few dozen feet away escaped scot-free.
The reactions are as disparate as the impacts. A farmer scorns the parliament. “Do they take us for fools? They’ll promise us compensation, and we’ll get nothing.” A woman says that “nothing looks different, it all looks the same, so it’s hard to rationalize why we can’t stay here. If it looked different, I could rationalize.” Other people are accepting, perhaps accustomed to unkept political promises. It’s easy to condemn these people’s acceptance of their fate, the narrator says, anticipating our thoughts. How do we know how we would react in their place?
A question we may ask ourselves as we watch Israeli soldiers confronting it in director Silvina Landsmann’s Soldier/Citizen (Bagrut/Lochamim, Israel 2012), a brief but bracing look at the civics course required of returning soldiers who had not completed their exams before entering the service. (The film was shot in 2006 but released only now, premiering in Berlin, for both technical and personal reasons, said Landsmann, who learned about the project from her brother, who teaches at the facility.) Some concepts are new to them — one teacher uses the word “pluralism” in English because there’s no Hebrew word for it — while others may have been forgotten. “Jewish ethics,” he reminds them, “tell you to regard the stranger as your brother, to treat him as you would your own.”
“ ‘Democratic’ and ‘Jewish’ state are the two legs this country stands on, and sometimes the legs get twisted,” says another teacher, who tries to convince his class, some of whose members aren’t having any of it, out of either prejudice or bad experiences, that “every human being has human rights,” regardless of nationality, religion or citizenship.
When it comes to demonstrations against the war, the soldiers are emotionally torn. “A woman who looks like your mother” berates you for protecting her, says one, the anxiety visible on his face. And what about the Arab with crying kids, you feel bad for him, you let him through, and then you hear a BOOM! He’s set off an explosion and killed innocent people. “Well, maybe it’s because you made him wait 8 hours at the checkpoint,” says the teacher.
No, seeing things through others’ eyes isn’t easy, but is indispensable to being a citizen or soldier — or, to be sure, a filmmaker or reviewer. And if prejudice and a rush to judgment should, as a virtual prerequisite, be taboo, they couldn’t help but come into play for critics contemplating the latest work of one who was once one of their own, and whose newest film has a name that almost dared them to ignore their temptations.
Miguel Gomes’s Golden Bear-nominated Tabu (Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France 2012), which would win both the Alfred Bauer Award and the FIPRESCI Prize for a Competition film, is a picture whose themes and title evoke Murnau’s 1931 silent of the same name, but whose style inverts, and structure reverses those of its illustrious predecessor. With Variety finding it “surprisingly enriching and poetic,” achieving a “sort of transcendence despite head-scratching scenes of a perverse absurdity,” and Roger Ebert amusingly encapsulating it as “a Tarantino movie for art house romantics,” this Tabu, with its “alienation effects and black-and-white images,” is “a strange film that expressly wants to be strange,” so the Tagesspiegel, and one that may take multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. (Or will have you exiting somewhere around the point that “a Portuguese man’s expedition to Mozambique in search of his lover’s soul [ends] in him being devoured by alligators and being reborn as one,” as an IMDb User nicely abstracts it. The film is scheduled for U.S. release at the end of this year.)
At the press conference Gomes acknowledged the complexity of his Tabu and the homages to other filmmakers seeded throughout it, and suggested that we perceive it as “an ongoing dialogue between types of films,” but not overthink it. “I didn’t want it to be a closed circuit that would exclude people who don’t get the references,” he said, conceding that he’d seen “an entire cycle of Murnau films” on Portuguese state television as a child and that they “were somehow working in my subconscious.” With Tabu, declares the aforementioned IMDb’er, “Gomes becomes a cinematic force to be [reckoned] with.”
As always, cinematic forces to be reckoned with were the focus of the Berlinale Retrospective — and this year, as rarely, spotlighting not stars, but studios. “The Red Dream Factory: Mezhrabpom-Film and Prometheus 1921–1936,” a joint venture years in the making, screened more than 40 of the almost 250 surviving films, classics and new discoveries produced by this innovative but ill-fated German-Russian enterprise which “set out to change the world and use the power of cinema to steer the [course] of history.”
It all began in 1922 when art met commerce and social conscience, and turned into a socio-cultural love affair that would fall victim not to feuding families, but to warring empires. Mezhrabpom (“Workers’ Relief”) Film had its genesis in the humanitarian impulse of a young Berlin communist named Willi Münzenberg who had established Workers’ International Relief the year before to help those in need after the great Volga famine. In the course of his efforts Münzenberg came up with the idea of making documentary films and releasing them in Germany to draw attention to the crisis. (Wikipedia’s seven-page article on Münzenberg curiously omits any mention of his groundbreaking project.) This led him to Russian media entrepreneur Moisei Aleinikov, who was trying to fit his Studio Rus to the rigid form of the new regime, and from there to a collaboration that would transfigure the face of film history.
Compared to Russian state-financed films, “Mezhrabpom had greater freedom in its choice of forms and subject matter,” said Rainer Rother, director of the Retrospective. “Between 1933 and 1936, Mezhrabpom became a refuge for German artists, who were allowed to work there after they had fled Germany.” The freedom would be short-lived. “During the Stalinization phase, the specific organizational form of a German-Russian limited company increasingly became a thorn in the flesh to the regime. Consequently, ideological attacks on the studio’s films increased steadily until Mezhrabpom was liquidated at Stalin’s behest in 1936.” Its German distributor, Prometheus-Film, “viewed itself as a counter-model to everyone else operating in the [German] film sector at the time,” but lacked the capital basis of the Nazi-controlled UFA film studio.
“Mezhrabpom’s studio productions typically play with genres while, at the same time, steeping them in real experience,” said Rother. They also “would repeatedly explore new avenues in the future,” with films such as Loss of the Sensation (“probably one of the first robot films in cinema history”) and Aelita, one of the earliest full-length science-fiction films, which imagines the storming of the Winter Palace in space-station-like surroundings. And Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is “one of the outstanding examples” of the so-called “revolutionary films” that would make their mark on world cinema.
Curated in cooperation with Gosfilmofond in Moscow, MoMA in New York (which would screen the series for two weeks in mid- to late April) and six other international archives and partners, the 11-day retrospective was supplemented by lectures, discussions, and an imposing glossy 264-page, coffee-table-size German-language publication complete with essays, historical documents, previously unpublished photos and posters, and an extensive filmography.
In an interview with Neues Deutschland, Martin Scorsese, whose 100-plus awards over a 40-year-plus career in film should make him something of an expert on “dream factories,” was asked what he thought when he heard the words. The auteur of such uncompromisingly brutal, cinematically rich films as The Departed (2006), Gangs of New York (2003) and Raging Bull (1980), as might have been expected does not see castles in the air when he thinks of the term. “Movies don’t make dreams. Movies just react to what people dream. The dreams are in us, and movies have to struggle to make sense of them and get them out of us in the form of pictures.”
And studios must struggle to make dollars out of the sense, in the form of pictures that draw audiences in large numbers. Those that do, last. Those that do while also making quality pictures can be said, perhaps, to have the last laugh.
For “dream factory” (as more than one local paper called it) Studio Babelsberg, which received the Berlinale Camera award and celebrated its 100th birthday during this year’s Berlinale with a 10-film retrospective representing each of its decades and dozens of its legendary directors and stars, The Last Laugh was something it relished both as phrase and as film. The latter, needless to say, being the 1927 Murnau movie whose star Emil Jannings would win the first-ever Best Actor Oscar two years later, for his performances in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. (Recent scholarship has revealed yet another level to that laugh: Jannings was actually runner-up to another “German” — a German shepherd. Rin-Tin-Tin lost out when the Academy thought it might undermine an organization created by MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, in part, “to enhance the film industry’s image,” to give the first Best Actor award to a thespian with a tail. Just imagining the deliberations, the announcement, the fallout — not to mention the acceptance speech — is a film waiting to be made.)
But back to Babelsberg. It all began in 1912, a year whose centenary the world would commemorate on a mournful note, remembering the sinking of the Titanic; the film world on a commercial one, with a new miniseries and a 3-D limited release of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. Just two months before that fateful day in April 1912, when so much ended tragically for so many, things were blooming in Babelsberg, in a former artificial-flower factory whose glass walls, as the festival catalog notes, “provided ideal lighting conditions” for making movies. And while the studio may have been in danger of going under a few times in the course of its long and storied history, it has remained afloat for a century, with a clear horizon in sight.
The “world’s oldest and largest film-studio complex,” Babelsberg has, in Variety’s arch formulation, “survived the end of the monarchy, two World Wars, hyperinflation, world economic collapse, Nazism, communism, capitalism ... and Hollywood.” Not just survived it, but in a sense, become it. “It is certainly no exaggeration when people call Babelsberg the German Hollywood,” writes 3sat magazine. It had, and still has, all the glitz and glamor — and many of the same stars. In its 100 years Studio Babelsberg has been the site of some of filmdom’s most singular cinematic achievements, from Fritz Lang’s futuristic and foreboding Metropolis (1927) to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and The Reader with Kate Winslet (2008). The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) with Matt Damon, Valkyrie with Tom Cruise (2008), Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) and Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011) were all shot at Studio Babelsberg.
In grimmer times, Babelsberg was also the site of more than 1,000 Nazi films starring some of Germany’s biggest film stars. It also lost some of its most gifted artists, among them Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, to Hollywood, which offered a haven from the depredations of the Nazis and in turn derived substantial financial and creative benefit from these prodigious directors’ contributions. In a divided postwar Germany, Babelsberg came under Soviet control. With its new ownership came a new name, DEFA, under whose aegis some 1,500 films, some of them propaganda but many of them classics, were produced. Today Studio Babelsberg http://www.studiobabelsberg.com/en/german-film-production-service-partner-film-studio-germany-berlin/ is a thriving production metropolis with a dynamic view to the future and an attentive eye to the past.
Past and future, classics — and class. Concepts that fit the recipient of this year’s Berlinale Hommage as seamlessly as she has slipped into each of the sixty-seven (and counting) characters she’s incarnated onscreen since her feature film debut three and a half decades ago. “As a young actress,” the Berliner Zeitung tells us, “Meryl Streep wanted to be King Kong’s screen partner. She auditioned for the role next to the ape, but they hired Jessica Lange. That was a small setback in a career that has lasted without interruption for 35 years,” one that has caused her to be “rightly regarded as the world’s finest film actress.”
The paper marveled at the esteem in which the actress is held and the affection for her felt by everyone who knows her, noting that while British critics may have reacted negatively to The Iron Lady, it was “only to the film; for Streep is beloved like no other actress,” and demanding: “Can this really be?”
At the packed press conference the answer to the question was evident as Streep fielded queries and declarations of unequivocal, but not unrequited admiration and affection. What’s it like to be up for an award? asked the first journo, hoping for a press-worthy quote just days before the Oscars. Streep considered. Well, you have people saying they think you’re going to win, and people saying you haven’t got a chance, “and suddenly you feel like you’re in a sporting event, and you haven’t signed up for it. You did some work in a film that you’re proud of, and you’re hoping that people will go and see it, and suddenly you’re doing calisthenics to get ready for, you know ... Super Bowl.” As the laughter subsided she added genially, with a lively nod to the reporter, “It’s an out-of-body experience. It really is.”
“Fifty percent of this film is entirely the work of the imagination,” she responded to another question. “It’s the work of the writer, Abby Morgan. It’s complete fiction. And the other half of the film is told from Margaret Thatcher’s point of view. So it’s completely subjective. And we’re only showing a few moments, a few episodes from her life. And all these episodes are being triggered by the events that are happening in the present... So she’s remembering moments when she felt particularly isolated and alone.”
In an interview with tip Berlin magazine, Streep went further. “We’re not showing a triumphant rise to power; for us it’s about someone who’s given up her power and said goodbye to a life.
“Many people are offended that Thatcher is old for most of the film. But that’s the point. And that’s exactly what’s subversive about The Iron Lady. Because in our society, and as a result in our cinema, old people are stigmatized. And that’s why they particularly interest me, because they mediate a whole range of human existence. Here we look deeply into the being of one such person and try to find the universality of humanity in it.”
Asked at the press conference about playing the older Margaret Thatcher (“Now that I see you from so close, I think you could have played the very young [Margaret Thatcher],” smiled the admiring young Romanian journo, eliciting a happy “I love Romania!” from Streep) and how she prepared for it, Streep credited her makeup team. And singled out her longtime makeup artist J. Roy Helland, “who has been with me since the first play I did right out of drama school — 35 years,” and his colleague Mark Coulier, a British prosthetics designer, “who [together] did four decades of Margaret Thatcher.”
You’re always so believably different, in every role you play. What is your secret?
“I always think I’m playing sort of the same person, which is essentially ...” She laughed. “I find me there, what’s like me in this person, and I’ve been lucky in tracking a lot of characters that have qualities that I recognize in myself. And I won’t identify the ones that coincide with Margaret Thatcher’s qualities ... and neither will Jim, or any of my colleagues,” she chuckled, looking down the podium at either side. “And you know, I think that even though we look different, we come from different places, we come from different cultures, we have a lot more in common in our interior lives than we care to admit. We all have a lot more in common with Margaret Thatcher than we care to admit. Our humanity — we share it. So it interests me, those common notes.”
Streep conceded that she had “a knee-jerk, left-wing reaction to [Thatcher] as a liberal actress in America from New York.” Not only was Thatcher “a friend of Reagan,” but she had “frumpy clothes and bad hair — you know, this is the way women judge each other in the public realm,” she admitted to murmurs of agreement from the audience. “But I came to learn a lot of different things about her that surprised me, and would surprise many of the conservatives in the United States.”
Such as? “She was pro-choice, and she read the riot act to [then] President Bush and Vice President Quayle in a private meeting that I learned about when I went to raise funds for the National Women’s History Museum in Washington.” (“No, it’s still a dream,” she told a questioner. “We’re taking donations, so anybody who wants to help ...”) At that meeting, Thatcher “took our president apart. She said, ‘How dare you, how dare you use this as a political football. This is none of your business.’ Which is an amazing thing to me.” She also never dismantled the country’s national health program — “she may have wanted to,” but “she never touched it.”
“I just was interested in a woman who stood against the tide, who was unreasonable, autocratic, had hubris, had a mission,” and unlike most politicians “didn’t check the polls for every position that she had.”
Asked about Thatcher’s ever present but ever silent husband, whom he portrays in the film, Jim Broadbent recalled Dennis Thatcher’s “famous line that ‘It’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.’ ” The apothegm showed not just his philosophy, said Broadbent, but that he had a sense of humor. “Which he needed,” the actor added, married to Margaret,“who had no humor. The speechwriters would write her jokes, but she wouldn’t understand them.”
Do you think Margaret Thatcher was a feminist? “I think Margaret Thatcher would be dragged kicking and screaming to the altar of feminism,” said Streep, “but she was a feminist whether she likes it or not. She opened doors for women,” all the more remarkable an accomplishment for a woman coming from the conservative political wing in Britain.
How do you co-exist with a strong-willed character like Margaret Thatcher? How do you get back into yourself after a day of being her? “At the end of each shooting day,” began Streep in a serious, measured tone, pausing for effect, “the director would bring me a gin and tonic.”
At this point, it being Valentine’s Day, the press conference briefly morphed into a loopy, good-natured cross between a “teacher’s pet” competition and show and tell. First, a young journo told Streep he had something for her. Encouraged to bring it over he leapt up from his seat, propelled headlong by a large bouquet of white carnations. Streep received them warmly and laid them on the podium. When a second reporter yelled that he had a check for her, the actress vigorously waved him up, the room reveling in the lunacy, only to have him avidly embrace her and punctuate it with a two-cheek kiss, explaining triumphantly: “I’m a Czech.”
The ultimate gift, though, came from a Russian journalist, who passed it through the rows to a delighted Streep, who posed with the specially designed Siberian nesting dolls, each with a Streep-like visage and costumed as one of her most beloved screen characters.
What is it like to receive the Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement? Streep had a hard time hiding her emotion. “It’s kind of overwhelming to be honored outside of your own country, because — still, still — you are where you grew up, and I grew up in New Jersey, in a town of 5,000 people. And to imagine that so many years later, I’d be on the stage of the most prestigious film festival and receiving a lifetime achievement award — it’s like a dream. I’m trying to make it feel real, trying to make it feel like me. But it’s not quite there yet.”
The Berliner Zeitung recalled a similar moment of Streepian self-effacement, when the actress was honored with the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 2004. “On her way through the audience to receive her award, she kissed Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson heartily on the mouth, then bathed for several minutes in the applause, blissfully stretched out her arms and said, ‘I wish I were her!’ ”
She is certainly “her.” But she’d like people to also recognize her many sisters in the profession whose performances, in her view, equal if not excel hers. Extolling “the level of acting today in general,” Streep called it “higher, deeper, more daring, more adventurous and felt and edgy” than in Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age.
One such performance is in a film that, as it happens, just opened last week at the West End Cinema. “Anna Paquin made a film called Margaret that very few people have seen. In any other year, it would have won every single award,” but “because of the machinery of publicity,” such films fall through the cracks. “And it’s your job,” she said intently, looking out at us, “to publicize them, and make noise about them.” (Consider this noise, fellow filmgoers and cinephiles!)
As the festival came to a close, BZ Berlin featured an exclusive interview with its chief. Laid out in a two-page spread, the story had a huge headline and candid photos guaranteed to grab even the most (happily) frazzled filmgoer’s attention. “Berlinale boss Dieter Kosslick takes stock of the 62nd International Film Festival,” appeared in unobtrusive small type across the top of the pages, followed immediately below, in bold, inch-high letters, by a question that qualifies as both noisy and nosy: “What was better,” it demanded, “kissing Meryl or working out with Shah Rukh?”
Before we get to the juicy part, Kosslick confessed that he doesn’t read reviews during the festival, but that he too had heard the positive buzz about the quality of this year’s films, and was gratified by both ticket sales, which hit or surpassed the quarter-million mark, and the fact that the European Film Market, the Berlinale’s commercial arm which runs parallel to the festival, was the most successful in Berlinale history.
This year’s highlight? “Definitely the presentation of the Ehrenbär to Meryl Streep. That was really incredible. Never in my entire eleven years with the Berlinale have I experienced such an emotional evening. The enthusiasm of the audience, and how elegantly and movingly but without emotionalism Ms. Streep delivered her speech ...”
She called you by your first name, pursued the reporter, obviously knowing his own audience and eager to get to the good stuff. Do you have her phone number? Kosslick, who must have been enjoying the interview as his high-pressure, highly successful eleven-day excitement- and celebrity-packed cinematic marathon was winding down, found a way to have his cake and eat it too: “Of course I won’t call Meryl Streep,” he declared — he would defer, as proper, to their respective agents — then added: “But I could if I wanted to!”
Now to the question Berlin’s supermarket-checkout readers all wanted the answer to: What was better: kissing Meryl, or working out with Shah Rukh? Ever the diplomat, Kosslick again managed to have it both ways. “Both,” he said. “It was the perfect combination!” Streep and Khan agreed with him. “I have never, ever had so much fun making a film as I did in Berlin,” the latter had told the crowds at the Friedrichstadtpalast the night before. And Streep’s moving testimonial to Berlin and the Berlinale at the press conference, expanded upon at the glamourous award presentation that same night, left no doubt where she stood.
And there is no doubt where your reporter will stand come February 2013: outside the Berlinale Palast, waiting for the doors to open and welcome her into the healing warmth of its red and gold cinema and the exciting, inspiring, illuminating warmth of cinema itself. And opening those doors to DC Film Society members and readers.
See you there next year!