By Yun-hua Chen.
The 64th Berlinale opened with Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, a fitting festival film that set a playful tone and brought glamour to town, thanks to which we saw the presence of Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Saoirse on the red carpet. In this yearly event of film exhibition and distribution, over 400 films are showcased in 10 sections. This year’s Honorary Golden Bear went to the UK film master Ken Loach, whose comprehensive retrospective could be found in different Kiez of Berlin. Somewhat surprisingly, Asian films were the biggest winners in the competition category, with the success of Diao Yinan’s Chinese noir Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri yan Huo), Lou Ye’s Blind Massage (Tui Na), and Yoji Yamada’s The Little House (Chiisai Ouchi).
What I found really impressive with this year’s Berlinale was the beauty of films from the former Eastern Bloc, such as the Georgian film Blind Dates (Shemtkhveviti paemnebi), directed by Levan Koguashvili, and the Estonian film Free Range (Ballaad maailma heakskiitmisest), directed by Veiko Õunpuu. In Blind Dates, the 40-year-old single school teacher Sandro (Andro Sakvarelidze) is still living with his parents. He is uninterested in double blind dates, which his friend Iva (Archil Kikodze) zealously organizes through the internet, and passively accepts his parents’ intervention into his private life. After falling in love with the married hairdresser Manana (Ia Sukhitashvili) during an outing to the Black Sea with Iva, his predictable tranquil bachelor life is turned into an absurdest adventure. He assists in the funeral of a complete stranger, becomes a fraudster’s driver, gets involved in a family dispute and then a massive fight, and is consequently forced to move the pregnant Natia (Sopho Gvritishvili) to his parents’ home as his fiancée, after seeing the woman briefly on the same day. The ingenious script is further enhanced by carefully measured cinematic rhythm and strong performances from the entire cast, especially from the main character Sandro. Thanks to Sakvarelidze’s humane and subtle interpretation, Sandro becomes such a convincing and likable loser, who is prone to catastrophes despite his good will and efforts. Without over-sentimentalizing, this film captures the unique texture of gray tone in the area and manages to successfully pull off its dark humor.
Portraying the young drifter’s existentialist crisis, Veiko Õunpuu’s Free Range from Estonia is evocative of the French New Wave. Fred (Lauri Lagle) is a talented writer who defies all routines and work ethics. He is bursting with poetic energy and hence unable to handle mundanity. Things get worse when he is fired from his job as a journalist and is notified that he is a father on the same day. After refusing to selling his soul for instrumental fame as a writer, he takes up manual labor as a forklift driver in a field which he sees more as a playground than a workplace where he earns bread. Meanwhile, his artistic installation, an attempt to turn repetitive chores into creative self-expression at his workplace, is not appreciated by his employer. This film, shot on 16mm film stock with a soundtrack recorded from vinyl, conveys a sense of longing for a time when usefulness and productivity could be understood in a different way and when not everything was for sale.
In this year’s Berlinale, Greek cinema offered different ways of looking at the Euro crisis from realist representations of poverty and misery. Athanasios Karanikolas’ At Home (Sto Spiti) acutely looks into the hypocrisy of the upper-class milieu in crisis-struck Greece. It is an unusual Greek festival film, which is set against the backdrop of financial crisis without showing the crisis itself. It follows the Georgian maid Nadja’s (Maria Kallimani) daily routines in a mansion by the sea, where she works for an upper class Greek couple and their daughter. When she is diagnosed with a terminal neurological illness, while not having been insured by her employer for the past couple of decades, the harmonious domestic life that everyone in the household takes for granted is turned upside down. Under the excuse of running financial difficulties and having to be relocated to South Africa, the employers want to get rid of Nadja, in a similar way that the family’s old horse is discarded. Tension is gradually built up, although no satisfaction is granted. In this film, which exudes an intense undercurrent of anger and discontent, the milieu’s heartlessness is placed against the backdrop of cold color palettes of predominantly blue and gray, leaving a chill lingering on long after the film is over.
The revenge that audiences fruitlessly waited for in At Home could be found in another film at the festival, Yorgos Servetas’ Standing Aside, Watching (Na Kathese ke na Kitas). The latter is also set in a secluded empty space, like in At Home, but this time the strong-willed heroine boldly confronts violence in a much more physical fashion. Antigoni (Marina Symeou) moves from Athens back to her hometown, a working-class village ruled by a group of misogynist bullies. As Antigoni refuses to stay submissive despite all the brutality that she has to endure, barbarity and vengeance ensue. It is a film about an extremely unfair society in the idyllic—albeit claustrophobic—countryside, in which abusive behavior is tolerated for far too long. Aesthetically, the skilfully executed 270-degree panning at the end of the film, which poetically brings violence away from itself and into nature, is one of the most beautiful shots seen at this film festival.
Another film with a central female character is Maria Speth’s Daughters (Töchter). It came from research for her previous documentary 9 Leben, in which her camera followed young people who ran away from their parents. This time, Speth seeks to investigate a case of an alienated mother-daughter relationship without directly pinpointing confrontation or providing a psychological analysis. Taking a step further back, she implies instead of diagnoses through her examination of a mother who comes face to face with someone else’s stray daughter. Agnes (Corinna Kirchoff), the mother, rather than finding her runaway daughter Lydia (Dzamilja Anastasia Sjöström) in Berlin, bumps into a young vagabond called Ines (Kathleen Morgeneyer), who behaves like a substitute daughter of hers. Ines’ provocation and blatant disregard for social conventions initially disturbs Agnes, but later on helps her break free from obsessive thought loops and acquire a certain kind of understanding. The two actresses, Kirchhoff and Morgeneyer, whose faces bath in somber close-ups most of the time, perform a great feat. Their strong presence holds the whole film together, both tenderly and powerfully.
A few of documentaries re-visit the cinematic tradition of foregrounding mechanic movement and robotisation of human bodies, such as Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s Iron Dreams (Cheol-ae-kum) and Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring (Que ta joie demeure). In Iron Dreams, the filmmaker embarks upon the journey of documentary-making after his girlfriend abandons him in search of a shamanic god. Several threads are interwoven – whales in the sea, workers at a steel factory and shamans in the middle of a religious ceremony. Industrial space is cold, geometrical and orderly, whereas religious space is colorful, chaotic and mystic. The filmmaker juxtaposes his personal heartbreak with the collective feeling of being left behind by a socioeconomic system, experienced by the factory workers, while at the same time editing mechanic movement and religious dances side by side. It’s a film that plays with comparison and contrast between the past and present, the personal and the collective, as well as the living and the non-living. Although at times it seems self-indulgent, it is nevertheless a poetic study of mind and heart encapsulated in corporeal activities.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals.