By Martin Kudláč.
For some time, Berlinale has been grooming its image as a political film festival. Its 2018 edition, which is its current director’s penultimate edition in charge as Dieter Kosslick is to step down after wrapping Berlinale 2019, having held the post and honing the festival since 2001.
Immigration became one of the hottest topics in Europe after Germany opened its gates to a vast amount of refugees. Brazil-born Berlin-based filmmaker, Karim Aïnouz focused on the subject in his observational documentary, Central Airport THF. Although, compared to Ai Weiwei’s epic documentary, Human Flow, he switched the angle as his rendering doubles as social activism. Aïnouz blends architecture with socio-political perspective in his documentary. Another contrasting approach employed by both filmmakers revolves around the representation of the Berlin Tempelhof Airport (used by the Nazi government), which was turned into an emergency refugee camp in 2015. Unlike Weiwei whose scope transcended the affairs in refugee camps, Aïnouz centres solely on the airport, precisely the daily proceedings within the spacious halls and corridors of the indoor refugee camp. The documentary has two protagonists, both of whom relate their views and emotions as they are being integrated into a new society and life while separated from their loved ones. Even though immigration remains a political topic, Central Airport THF eschews any direct commentary, unlike Weiwei’s oeuvre, which concurrently served as an open plea for help and unmasked the tangled and complex contexts of the global refugee crisis. Nonetheless, Aïnouz and Weiwei both subscribe to the humanistic side of the topic, albeit Aïnouz’s is enclosed in thick walls and symmetrical halls.
Panorama section opening film, When the War Comes, a documentary co-produced by Czech and Croatian producers and directed by Czech journalist, Jan Gebert, tackles another hot topic: the rise of right-wing extremism. Gebert follows a Slovak paramilitary group comprised of young people called “Slovenskí branci.” The troop is resolved to defend their home, ready to fight for their fatherland as true patriots. They are led by Peter who just graduated from secondary-grammar school. When Peter was fifteen years old, he was enchanted and trained by the Russian Cossacks. Gebert did not interfere with his cast at any point, and he employed the time-lapse approach to present the group in a developing arc from a past time to ambitions in high politics.
Similar to Central Airport THF, When the War Comes has a political under-text, but the documentary keeps the plane of right-wing ascendancy in the Central European territory underexposed for the benefit of the resulting depiction as more of a sociological and psychological portrait of the rise of an autocrat– a power-drunken kid fuelled by a growing appetite, which drives him from training a bunch of kids in forests to eventually considering a political career (Slovakia already has a right-wing party in the parliamentary of which its members have been accused of xenophobia and Holocaust-denial). Besides the obvious cult of the personality, what’s more terrifying is the sociological observation of a group of people willing to submit to the rule of one person, a megalomaniac, and follow him blindly without giving the situation any critical analysis. The almost journalistic report When the War Comes illustrates, in real time and on a small scale, how the fascist and neo-nazi inklings made a comeback right under the nose of the current democratic society, the same way Peter’s parents are unwitting of his activities and even afforded him their unrelenting support.
The Paraguayan writer-director, Marcelo Martinessi studies relationship and class in the LGBT drama, The Heiresses. Berlin has, for a long time, been home to LGBT cinema – notably, the official Teddy Award for LGBT-related films has featured on Berlinale’s turf since 1987. Martinessi’s feature debut is based on the lives of Chela, from a wealthy family, and her long-time partner, Chiquita,. The drama portrays how difficult it’s for the couple to thrive in a conservative Paraguay. The Heiresses is an intimate observation of how Chela ultimately comes to terms with the harsh reality of no longer being financially secured and had to crawl out of a shell created by isolation.
Chela, a painter, had lived a cloistered life in a secured home, while Chiquita tends to the mundane tasks and practicalities of life. With Chiquita imprisoned on fraud charges, because she tried to preserve their aristocratic lifestyle by any means necessary, and throwing the couple’s life off balance, Chela now attempts to sell off her inheritance to minimize the damage and maintain a certain living standard. After her life partner ends up behind bars, a new maid is hired to manage the household chores. Furthermore, Chela’s rising social interactions, prompted by her drive for self-reliance (desperate times calls for desperate measures), forces her to meet new people, among them Angy, a younger sensual woman who sparked new feelings. The Heiresses remains female-centric, isolated from male elements, in an upper-class circle in which Chela tries to maintain dignity, stemming from her pedigree, and face feelings she hadn’t envisaged in the four walls she’d spent her life.
An elderly couple and the motif of isolation lies in the center of Mónica Lairana’s feature-length debut, The Bed. The titular piece of furniture sits in the establishing shot, possessing wider symbolism, instigates the beginning of the story. Minimalist and austere in style, Lairana inspects the central couple, both in their 60s, in extended fixed shots. The Bed starts off as a pantomime of intimacy, wherein only a few sentences will be muttered throughout the running time. Lairana, who is both the writer and director, does not offer any exposition nor context to the story of The Bed. It begins with a surprisingly long scene in which the elderly couple attempts intercourse portrayed amid vivid frankness. After anticlimactic series of trials and errors, the husband and wife decided to tend to usually mundane activities; however, a sense of melancholy penetrates the banality. Their dynamics oscillates between affection and negligence, a natural combination after a long marriage. Although clearing out shared wardrobes and boxing their belongings establishes the context of what seems almost like a ritual of resignation. Melancholia and nostalgia whirls in the household, a combination Lairana invokes in shots showing both spouses isolated yet trying to sense each other’s actions and even humorous run-ins.
Opposite situations compose the backbone of Ki-Yong Park’s Old Love. If Lairana’s sees a relationship that got past its half-time and happened to self-exhaust itself over the years, it has to be Old Love: Park centers his story on one that did not materialize and was not consummated. The two protagonists in Old Love meet after 25 years in a chance encounter and start catching up. However, Park does not involve the jaded formula of reviving old flames. He wrote Old Love against the romantic melodrama genre that sidelines fantasy for memory, nostalgia, and middle-age breaking point contemplativeness, serving as a prompt to balance life. As the two protagonists relay their life stories, hindrances, achievements, and falls to each other, the harshness of reality emerges and desperation veils the story. The crucial scene uncoils as the protagonists meet a group of young theater people, a passion shared by both generations, beckoning a vision of artistic life that defines the expectations of youth and regrets of middle age as well as bitter twists and turns of fate.
The young Mexican filmmaker, Marta Hernaiz Pidal, who had her Master’s degree in filmmaking at Béla Tarr’s Film Factory, set her feature debut, The Chaotic Life of Nada Kadic, into the Bosnian countryside. The initial interior shots recall Rok Biček’s time-lapse cinema-vérité documentary, The Family, where the director captured the authentic goings-on in the household of the protagonist, son of a mentally disabled mother and intellectually challenged father. However, in Pidal’s case, the fact that she is directing a fiction narrative materializes only after the protagonist, the eponymous single mother, Nada Kadic, leaves the four walls of her crowded flat. Embracing the style of an authentic and impromptu documentary in form and style alike, Pidal captures the plight of a single mother caring for her young daughter, who had been diagnosed with a form of autism. Being set in the Balkan region, The Chaotic Life of Nada Kadic reminds of black comedy Requiem for Mrs. J, employing a social drama as a backdrop for the protagonist’s plight in the absurd environment.
Similar to Pidal’s strong debut, Polish female filmmaker, Jagoda Szelc emerged with a cryptically titled narrative feature Tower. A Bright Day. Where Pidal tinkers with the form, Szelc experiments with the substance in a somewhat enigmatic story, matching its cryptic title. Mula and Kaja are sisters. Having disappeared for six years, Kaja returns to visit Mula, who lives in the countryside with her family nursing their sick mother. Malgorzata Szczerbowska plays the role of Kaja, an almost mute donning a smile, which could either be that of complete enlightenment or a simple mind. Although unspoken, viewers can discern early on that the experience responsible for Kaja’s peculiarity might not have been pleasing although it was definitely transformative.
If anything, Tower. A Bright Day. oscillates between family and metaphysical drama with both sisters on the opposing poles. The setting rotates between the countryside house, forest, and nearby church where Mula’s daughter prepares for the First Holy Communion. The situation that accompanies preparations for the Holy Communion introduces a bourgeois air, that of a family guided by social and religious conventions—a sort of dogmatic stereotype. On the other hand are Kaja’s ethereal vibes and strange phenomenon which brings to the mix and represents a pagan free-spiritedness and awareness that things do not necessarily need to be rationally understood to be accepted. The strange combination of two sisters’ contrasting personalities and Szelc’s romance with mysterious elements produce a middle ground between family drama and metaphysical drama, an innocuous psychological horror. The writer-director avoids labels at face value and manages to harmonize threatening and gentle in a remarkable directing style and minimalism in an uncanny pagan realism.
Emerging Danish filmmaker, Kasper Lund Ransen brought his first feature-length outing to Berlin, titled Danmark. Despite the title, the film is a coming-of-age drama about a 22-year-old Norge who enjoys a freewheeling lifestyle and had to face its consequences after 16-year-old Josephine seduced him. Up until that point, the story uncoils as a Danish version of Larry Clark’s “Kids,” also set in a skating subculture. Weed and casual sex form a regular part of the upbringing of the characters. Danish cinema is notorious for their sexploitation comedies; however, Ransen chose a rather chaste way to depict the youth’s excesses to Danish standards, although that does not exclude nudity. Staying true to the nature of domestic cinema, Ransen’s style reminds of Dogme 95 with a handheld camera and a bit raw aesthetic. While there is definitely a moral to be taken from the film, the emerging Danish director does not assert an interpretation in his portrayal, thus Danmark remains more of an observation than a lesson eschewing didactism.
A breakout film at this year’s Berlinale happened to be a sophomore feature, Hard Paint, by Brazilian writing-directing duo of Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon who took home the CICAE Award and Teddy Award for the Best Film. Similar to the feature-length debut, Seashore, the main topic centers on youth and sexuality. For a protagonist, Hard Paint features Pedro who is more alone than confused and spends most of his time holed up in a ramshackle apartment, which he shares with her sister. Pedro makes a living as a performance artist online – dancing and stripping in front of a webcam for paying viewers. He even comes up with a neon act, hence his nickname, Neon Boy. The protagonist falls into the category of a tortured soul since he has to cope with the absence of his parents, his impending trial, his past mistakes, newly emerged plagiarist stealing his act, and the departure of his sister, who is leaving for a better job. Matzembacher and Reolon draw a clear line between Pedro as he moonlights as a sensual performer and his regular day life as a sort of ostracized minority and his inner wrestling with himself, his emotions, and acts.
It might have looked like Romanian New Wave went on a hiatus, though that is not true since new oeuvres keep pouring out of the country. Ioana Uricaru feature debut, Lemonade was introduced at Berlinale. Lemonade, directed and written by the Romanian filmmaker, took place in the United States and was shot in Canada – a clear case of Romanian cinema breaking into the global market. While preserving the Romanian New Wave aesthetic in its DNA, Lemonade takes guise as an American indie tackling hot topics: immigration and toxic masculinity. Mara, a Romanian immigrant who later married an American man that she’d cared for as a nurse, desires to relocate her son to the USA from her home in Romania. However, the immigration interview did not go well with the immigration official’s indecent proposal and flat-out blackmail, both of which were fueled by his xenophobia. Mara attempts not to put her future and her son’s into jeopardy, yet she remains determined to preserve her dignity. Unspooling over a short period, the social drama set against an American backdrop gains a frantic pace as male insecurity stars to ruin her prospects for a better life in Uricaru’s poignant debut.
French director Ursula Meier places a real crime in the context of literature in Shock Waves – Diary of My Mind. Based on true events – a teenager who executed his parents and turned himself in – Meier reconstructs the gruesome happening to examine the fallout and possible impetuses critically. Benjamin Feller, a high school student, meticulously describes, in his diary, patricide and matricide, which he eventually pursues. The diary soon became part of the police investigation as apparent evidence, linking the offender directly to the murders and implicating his literature teacher, played by Fanny Ardant in an excellent performance. The investigators heaped some of the blame on the teacher for her role, since she had ostensibly encouraged him in his a bit dark writing – mental outpourings of a growing teenager. Shock Waves – Diary of My Mind shares a teenage fixation on death as a part of coming to terms with wild ideas while growing up with Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley’s Permanent Green Light. However, Fuller’s obsession materializes by way of his parents. This appears to be unwarranted since they had not wronged him, therefore Meier’s film becomes an intimate examination of a young soul manipulated by an inner turmoil, which he failed to understand and tame.
The actress, Sofia Brito (of Alejandro Fadel’s The Wild Ones) puts on a memorable performance in Sebastian Schjaer’s feature-length debut, The Omission. She stars as a twenty-something-year-old lady working in a hotel, trying to make ends meet, while the camera follows her very carefully. Schjaer’s psychological portrait of an Argentinean working class unravels in a minimalist narration and strong preference for close-up shots. The lack of a coherent plotline generates intrigue (the title of the film could easily refer to the writer-director narrative strategy) as Schjaer gradually reveals minor twists, rendering the psychological portrait more complex. Even though The Omission ponders on the frequent topic of recent social dramas and the economic hardship in the current world, Schjaer shuns clichés and tropes of poverty porn dramas, addressing only the psychological elements of his story.
The festival director Dieter Kosslick will be handing the reins from the A-festival of the great triumvirate to two pair of hands. The managing director of German Films, Mariette Rissenbeek, will share the responsibilities with current artistic director of Locarno Film Festival, Carlo Chatrian, starting with the Berlinale 2020.
Martin Kudláč is a freelance film journalist and independent scholar contributing regularly to a variety of outlets. He holds PhD in Aesthetics and is an external lecturer and researcher at The Institute of Literary and Art Communication at Constantine the Philosopher University at Nitra, Slovakia; a film industry reporter; and co-author of the upcoming book Images of the Hero in the Cultural Memory (Constantine the Philosopher University Press).