By Yun-hua Chen.
The 65th Berlinale celebrates two generations of German cinema, featuring Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert and Wim Wenders’ Every Thing Will be Fine, alongside Andreas Dresden’s Als Wir Träumten and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria in the competition category. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, made under extremely difficult circumstances, earned the Golden Bear for all its clever self-reflexivity and exceptional ingenuity, which beautifully demonstrates creativity under constraints. In the section of Berlinale Classics, the restored version of E. A. Dupont’s Varieté accompanied by music newly composed by The Tiger Lillies, was an inspiring example of film festival as an “event”. This version renders Dupont’s somewhat constructivist mise-en-scène, enhanced by fluid camerawork, even more breathtaking. Although The Tiger Lillies’ lyrics are sometimes too literal when alluding to certain images and plot twists, its ambiance is perfect for the milieu of aerobatic performers consisting of a frivolous girl in the process of becoming a woman, her macho and over-protective boss/boyfriend, and her malicious and promiscuous lover Articelli. This combination between a film screening and a concert, both circling around classic themes of love and lust, the betraying and the betrayed, was definitely one of the highlights of the Berlinale.
There is a healthy dose of family drama this year, such as Juan Schnitman’s El Incendio from Argentina. With a carefully-scripted story and powerful dramatic turnabouts, a bit in the vein of Asghar Farhadi, its tension is well timed and dialogues are insightful. Suspense was held through slow unfolding of various incidents of misunderstanding and conflicts in a relationship. It is an intimate portrait of power struggle and multifaceted fear between men and women in a domestic setting, as well as a psycho-thriller with violence always lurking nearby. Also coming from Latin America, Ann Muylaert’s The Second Mother from Brazil was awarded with Panorama Audience Award. Scripted by Ann Muylaert herself, who co-wrote The Year My Parents Went On Vacation in 2006, the film starts off like a Brazilian version of Sebastian Silva’s The Maid, but progresses into a soul of its own with a different set of social interaction and clashes. With the appearance of the maid’s beautiful and intelligent daughter in the household, the well-established class division is in the process of being reconfigured, as youth, beauty, intelligence and self-assertiveness all play an essential role in the dynamic between family members. This assertive young woman’s empowerment transgresses the artificial and ambivalent delineation between members in the bourgeois family. With a good sense of humour, the filmmaker takes the audience to observe the bonding between mother and daughter, between the substitute mother and substitute son, as well as the rivalry between father and son, mother and substitute mother, and privileged elder woman and dignified younger woman. The value system composed of money, family, career, fame and pleasure becomes fluid and questionable with the progression of the film, which eventually weaves into a complex interpersonal network with subtle characterisation. The director’s sincere affection for all her characters is visible in her sensitiveness and tenderness. Even more reminiscent of The Maid is Sergio Castro San Martin’s The Mud Woman, especially because of the presence of its lead actress Catalina Saavedra, who is being type-casted here. She plays the role of an introvert working-class single mother working in a grape farm, who has to endure harsh working conditions and sexual harassment in order to support her family. Catalina Saavedra’s performance as the suffering and potential avenging angel is quite convincing, but the character’s attempt at empowerment is far from gratifying.
Along with The Second Mother and The Mud Woman which look like spiritual children of The Maid, Sebastian Silva came to Berlin with his New York based Nasty Baby. The first half of the film features smooth camerawork and engaging characterisation. All the characters are accurately positioned in their milieus of a Brooklyn neighbourhood and everything until the mid-point of the film is in the line with the best American independent films. The artist Freddy (played by Silva himself) is preparing for an art exhibition entitled “nasty baby”, in which childhood would be reenacted and relived, while he and his partner Mo are both physically and emotionally involved with their friend Polly’s plan of having a baby. The multicultural, multiracial and multi-gender trio forms an unconventional family. Despite fluid performance, exquisite cinematography and witty script throughout the first half of the film, a plot twist comes completely unexpected and crudely divides the film into two disconnected parts. Changes of atmosphere, colours, tone and genres remain unjustified till the end. Maybe it is the film’s attempt to question the relation between children and parents, or life and death, but these potentially thought-provoking moments appear at the expense of integrity and turn out to be more puzzling than inspiring.
Le Dos Rouge follows the artist Bernand’s journey of looking for an artwork which represents the monster figure for his upcoming film. In the labyrinthine structure heavily dwelling on film within film as well as art work within art work, realities are dubious and narrative structure multi-layered whereas “truth” within images is impossible. Dreams, thoughts, Bernand’s filmmaking and the actual plot are completely intermingled without pretending to be directional. What dizzies even more is the fact that the role of art historian Célia is played by two different actresses. Long sequences in art galleries and close-ups of art works intersperse between scenes of Bernand partying with the art circle, his love affairs, preparation process for theatre within the film. The quest for the monstrous, both the visible and the inner one, remains unsolved. This intriguing and labyrinthine film drifts in and out of the psyche, interweaving different layers of virtual realities – at once the imagery of epidemic and the epidemic of imagery.
Christian Braad Thomsen’s intimate portrayal of Fassbinder in the documentary entitled Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands assembles his personal footage filmed by himself as film journalist and Fassbinder’s friend, archival footage, as well as interviews conducted in Fassbinders’ entourage. This honest and fearless documentary demystifies the film icon and embraces him as a human being. It traces back to his childhood growing up without much presence of his parents but with a lot of freedom, which leads to his obsession with re-establishing his own big family with friends and colleagues. We see how his lifelong struggle with Freudian Oedipal Complex moulds him as an eternal child, a workaholic, a tyrant and manipulator who enjoys playing with power over people, a charmer who is never satisfied in love, but at the same time also a man of vision. It is a truly complex picture straddling film works and and filmmakers’ persona and crossing the border between art creation and artists themselves.
Guy Maddin and Eva Johnson’s The Forbidden Room – Psychedelic Journey into Film History is the most daring all-star film infused with sublime creativity at the Berlinale. Charlotte Rampling, Ariane Labed, Mathieu Amalric among others gather to pay tribute to film history through a Russian-doll and Caligari-like narrative structure and carefree digression. Many moments of fantasy, parody and pastiche are perfect for film buffs to dive in and enjoy diverse visual styles, vintage colour shades through filters and a very challenging plot. It is an experience of trance, intentionally absurd but with well-intended humour.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, online magazine of Goethe Institut, as well as academic journals.