A Malignant World: The 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

A film festival is not a bill of goods.
Daniel Kasman

Time of Maturity (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1976).

How does one determine the success of a film festival? There is no single definition of success, but rather a range of competing interests. An event as large as the Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale—with a roughly €29 million budget, over 200 films in its program, public attendance in the hundreds of thousands, and a substantial “commercial component” in the form of the European Film Market (EFM), held simultaneously—is unfairly required to satisfy multiple, often contradictory needs.

The majority of attendees are simply hoping that their €15 public admission will be a rewarding cinematic experience, rather than a waste of time and money. Filmmakers and talent are seeking to show their art at an event that ideally provides remuneration in the form of prestige, exposure, artist fees, an avid audience, and industry professionals who may shepherd their films to viewers in other countries. Distributors with a wide swath of tastes and audience demographics are looking for films to buy and release back in their home countries. Programmers and critics, like distributors, are operating at varying levels of commerciality and specialization, and are searching for the most exciting titles and makers. The government, which provides substantial funding, is principally interested in the local economy and tourism. The institution itself, already the best-attended film festival in the world, is, for reasons unclear, always seeking growth, rather than endeavoring to create a stable, sustainable event. Some participants and observers also insist that, as an international cultural institution of considerable visibility, and one known broadly for the political and social themes of its programming, the festival should make public declarations and act in a way that aligns with their own political orientations. International brands are there too, eager to capitalize this rare and enormous comingling of public, money, and art.

Since the 2020 edition, which was the first with Carlo Chatrian as its artistic director and festival co-head with executive director Mariette Rissenbeek, the Berlinale has had to weather not only the challenges of the COVID pandemic and its extreme disruption of film production and audience attendance, but also fierce criticism, primarily on behalf of an industry that is somehow simultaneously content-starved and content-glutted. This side of the film world claims that not enough of the titles at the Berlinale are viable for distribution sales and that it generally fails to offer a level of glamorous publicity that might attract such films and such sales. Their critique makes the absurd assumption that the main priority when staging a film festival and curating a program is to make a pop-up shop of cinematic goods for sale. 

This is a profound misunderstanding of what a festival is, or what it can and should be. A festival shouldn’t program a film because it has a good chance of being subsequently distributed in France, Japan, and Brazil; it should program a film because its team believes the project and its makers deserve a prominent public spotlight and will reward an audience—an audience that may well include the public, critics, and the industry. Movie theaters already exist as a distribution outlet for commercially viable films; festivals don’t need to serve this purpose. Instead, they are one of the few high-visibility platforms for encountering various kinds of moving-image art alongside fellow audience members. Companies should look elsewhere for their shopping rather than try to strong-arm a platform for film celebration into one whose priority is film commerce. The two obviously can and do intersect, but should they be required to at the expense of other stakeholders? The industry doesn’t need festivals to supply an inventory for purchase. The industry needs platforms to make the best of film art accessible, particularly that which might not have other opportunities for such exposure.

The flashbulb-lit sheen of the red carpet or the critical exaltation of a new masterpiece may make running a festival seem glamorous, but it is an environment more conducive to compromise and disappointment than to freedom and the fulfillment of creative ambitions. This is Chatrian and Rissenbeek’s last Berlinale, and while their editions have hardly been beyond reproach, each year has always offered its pleasures, surprises, and successes. Many of these accomplishments speak to the flexibility for programming that such a huge event allows, one for which there is no single, homogenized audience but a diverse viewership attracted to a wide range of film genres, formats, and subjects. A prominent example of such diversification was the restoration of Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Time of Maturity (1976), one of this year’s major triumphs, which played to a sold-out, 400-seat theater. Following the likewise well-attended 16mm presentation of his bone-dry, semi-surrealist Order (1980) last year, the screening underlined the interest at the festival in this exiled Iranian director and his powerfully austere portraits of West Germany.

For a major festival to create a truly informed and impactful program, it must curate a retrospective, or at very least a coherent slate of singular revivals, that connect world and film history to cinema’s cutting edge. Saless’s film, in its granular revelation of the plight of individual people living alienated lives day to day, feels eerily akin to one of the standout world premieres in the Berlinale Special section, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Chime (2024). With precision and narrow focuses, these two films offered some of the most intense evocations of human experiences at the festival, foregrounding victims of a world that can often feel actively cruel, holding great mystery and terrible malevolence. Both offer a sophisticated cinematic space that is at once social, economic, political, architectonic, emotional, and psychic. They suggest you can start with the individual to understand something about a society; their inclusion in the program suggests how a festival can start with individual films to build an expansive experience for the audience.

Time of Maturity (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1976).

Time of Maturity begins with an image smothered in darkness, barely legible. We can glean only that it is nighttime in a small room; the atmosphere is deepened further by the first thing heard: a thickly ticking clock. It marks the identical seconds with a heavy hand that sets the tone of Saless’s bleak, insistent fourth feature and of the overbearing yet commonplace constraints on its protagonist, an adolescent boy (Mike Henning). Keys sound in the lock, a harsh light comes on, and the boy’s routine is set forth: sleeping through his mother’s return from night work; a hushed breakfast looking at bicycle photos; a normal school day punctuated by stealing from one classmate to swap later with another; greeting his mother after school and performing neighborhood errands for pocket change; dinner, often alone; and finally, sleep. The family’s home in Berlin’s Wedding neighborhood is so spartan that it has no bathroom, and the boy must tiptoe half the time so that his mother, with whom he barely interacts, will not wake. It is soon implied, though the boy is late to discover, that his mother (Eva Manhardt) is a sex worker. Saless’s film, released only a year after Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)—which details the minutiae of three days in the life a widowed mother and sex worker, until a severe disruption—feels like a direct extension of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece: what if we follow not the struggling mother, but her lonesome son?

As with Akerman’s revolutionary film, Saless’s work is built from the charting of routines that are deadening for the characters and flirt with exasperating the viewers. This era of art cinema evacuated the chicness from Michelangelo Antonioni’s modernist ennui of the 1960s, instead challenging audiences by embodying tedium—unglamorous characters, mundane settings, and repetitious events—in order to best evoke and sympathize with the malaise felt by its more marginal heroes. It brings such hardships in cinema closer to those of the real world, in which misfortune, violence, and injustice soon fade from the realm of spectacle and assume the aspect of everyday life, all-consuming for those affected and ignorable for those at a distance. These are people and places one rarely sees in the movies; their days, wearisome to live, can conversely be riveting to watch. The film’s fastidious attention, if met by the viewer’s own, reveals that the boy’s paltry existence orbits around exchanges of goods and services. Saless offers a subtle but withering portrait of West Germany, having moved to the FRG in 1974 to work in exile after making several exquisite films at home in Iran. (Happily, the Shahid Saless Archive is methodically working to restore and revive the works of this under-recognized master. Far from Home [1975], an essential portrait of Turkish guest workers in Berlin, premiered in 2022; Time of Maturity is their latest restoration; and Order is up next.)

The film’s wide-angle cinematography, in high-contrast black and white, renders the boy’s Berlin barren and unfriendly.  Despondency is ingrained in his life, for one can become habituated to suffering. Moments of pleasure are very few and far between: two bartered bike rides, during which, to underline the theme, the boy rides only in circles; and a moving, minute nod of satisfaction when an order of fries from a food truck meets his requirements. Otherwise, the film’s pleasure, if it can be called that, comes in its attention to recording details of an invisible prison. The mother’s postwork routine is shown in a remarkable sequence: she removes her makeup slowly and carefully in front of her mirror, prepares her boy’s lunch for the next day, lays three coins next to his meal, and smokes a final cigarette in bed. The story provides few avenues of relief, and the increasing home intrusions of the mother’s pimp threaten violent escalation. Only the innate blankness, and thus unwritten potential, of a child protagonist gives the film a sense of possibility, however distant and unuttered. The boy is not named in the film until its final act, and the last thing we hear is his mother calling his name for the first time, a baptism into adulthood. His response, whatever it may be, would likely be justly bitter and cynical, but it’s not yet the end of the world.

Chime (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2024).

Enigmatic suggestions of impending doom—or present-tense dystopia—are the calling cards of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose proximity to and engagement with genre cinema frequently cloaks the political and social critiques levied by his films. At 45 minutes long, Chime is what the industry sniffs to call a “mid-length film,” too long to be shown as a short and not long enough to be shown by itself, historically a challenge both to program, despite its ideal balance of brevity and heft, and to sell for distribution, despite its television-episode length. The Berlinale solved the former problem by pairing it with another, less impressive, mid-length film, both produced by Roadstead, a new digital selling and trading platform that runs on the blockchain, a technology that hasn’t yet measurably impacted film creation or distribution. The business, which calls itself the world’s first “Digital Video Trading platform,” is couched in the oft-repeated and worthy aim of “offer[ing] filmmakers fair compensation and a sustainable creative space.” This goal is presumably one shared with most film festivals—or, at least, it should be. That the promise of creative equity continues to be a selling point suggests just how challenging it is to transform intentions into results in such a calcified and fragmented industry.

As with many tales of terror, Chime begins in an unremarkable world that looks a lot like our own: In the back of a cooking class, someone seems to be over-salting their dish. The instruction to chop onions is applied with unnecessary ferocity. Later, those same onions nearly burn in the pan as the student stares off into space. At each step, the unflappable teacher (Mutsuo Yoshioka) provides calm guidance that is clearly being ignored. In another film, signs of fixation and, conversely, inattentiveness and distraction might suggest personal distress, a troubled student unknowingly crying out for a firm and compassionate mentor. Found in a film by Kurosawa, however, these are immediate signals of some great malignancy, with worse manifestations to come.

Chime has the deeply satisfying purity of a thing done right and done well: no shot wasted, no moment without charge. The ambition is limited, which allows the execution maximum effectiveness. Every part of the film is tuned to coax dread from the bountifully fertile ground for unease and dislocation that is everyday existence in a big city. The middle-class life of the teacher, who emerges as the film’s protagonist, is nothing special. A trained chef, he bides his time as an instructor for hobbyists; interviews for a job to run the kitchen of a French restaurant; and finally downshifts from the quotidian to an even more nondescript home life, with a wife who gets up from the table during a dinner she cooked to take out the recycling, and a teen son off in his own world. Nothing special: the perfect environment for evil manifested. This world may be banal, but it’s never normal, and in fact it seems ripe for a rupture. The chrome-glinting test kitchen is lit by sweeping flashes of periodic trains outside that, in Kurosawa’s hands, appear to be from a spirit world trying to communicate something we fail to recognize. Even such a rote action as dumping cans into a recycling container carries with it, through a sudden change in image and sound but no difference in action, an inexplicable unease. Here, as in his other movies, Kurosawa shares David Lynch’s diagnosis that we exist in a space in which the unremarkable and the unexplainable commingle, passing between and through one another. In their films, when someone works at their job, gets a coffee, returns home, or otherwise goes about their everyday behavior, they may just experience another unremarkable day. But it is just as likely, in its midst of this routine, that they will experience something so singular as to change their relationship to the world in which they believe they exist. Every place, at every moment, contains as much capacity for unerring stasis as for radical change. 

Chime (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2024).

Thus, from the unsurprising setting of a classroom in which people use cooking to assuage—in the teacher’s words—“negative” feelings, a dark scenario is elaborated that purposefully fails to add up. The distracted student, whose oddly doughy, vacant face already suggests someone with an affinity for inner disturbance, claims to hear a chime; the teacher hears nothing but, in a quiet moment alone after class, he slowly turns toward the approaching camera as if sensing something unseen and unheard. Catastrophe quickly follows, first in suicide, then in murder. In a masterful balance of excess and evocation, the bloodshed is brutal and vivid, but the intimations of ghostly horror, including the titular sound, remain only suggestive.

Also kept out of the picture is an underlying logic to the teacher’s violent eruption, abrupt and seemingly unmotivated. The onset of evil seems spontaneous rather than festering, contagious, or cultivated—all possibilities explored in past Kurosawa films. In its neat concision and lapidary focus, Chime most resembles an episode of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but where those shows would likely end such a story in a knife-twisting denouement, an irony so strong that it clearly marks the close of the tale, Kurosawa embraces horror’s capacity to leave portals to the unknown wide open. The passage from a quotidian existence to a maniacal one is almost imperceptible and is envisioned not as an escalation of violence, but rather a lonely consumption by strangeness, despair, and horror. In a sense, the teacher has “snapped,” but Kurosawa colors this change inscrutable by removing explanative context; it’s enough to say that a change has occurred, and there’s no going back.

At the film’s finale, the teacher senses something unusual about the swaying of a beaded curtain at the back of his house. (Along with uncanny light effects, Kurosawa is also cinema’s resident poet of spectral curtains.) Behind it is nothing but some household detritus, including, with emblematic oddity, an untended bag of recycling. Such a banal reveal here has a ghastly, inexplicable patina. Following an intuition of something amiss—or perhaps an unheard chime calling—the man steps outside into a world that looks the same, yet different. Chime has cleverly shifted from digital photography to 16mm film, a change that makes the world feel infected, staticky, and alive in a previously unseen way. Perhaps we don’t step into the maw—rather, some come to the realization that we’re in it already.

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FestivalsBerlinaleBerlinale 2024Sohrab Shahid SalessKiyoshi Kurosawa
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