Early as it may be to provide a cogent assessment of the 70th Berlinale, the first edition under the new leadership of executive director Mariette Rissenbeek and artistic director Carlo Chatrian, fresh finds and new ideas seemed to herald much-welcomed changes to the festival's curatorial vision. Sure, the official competition—historically a mix bag often stashed with one too many crowd-pleasers under former Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick—may not have featured “many more truly great and prize-worthy contributions” than in the past, as noted by Andreas Kilb at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But in his thorough analysis of Chatrian’s first mandate, over at IndieWire Eric Kohn contends that the fest’s official lineup has always had to wrestle with a difficult calendar slot:
Hamstrung by its placement after Sundance and before Cannes, [Berlin] must compete with both the most prominent festival in the U.S. and the most revered one in the world. With the pressure to assemble a program mainly comprised of world premieres, the Berlinale is often saddled with rejects rather than discoveries.
Yet the inclusion of critically acclaimed non-world premieres next to new works by the likes of Hong Sang-soo, Christian Petzold, and Tsai Ming-Liang made for an intriguing program. Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, a Telluride entry, found a slot along with Eliza Hittman’s Sundance premiere Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which nabbed the Berlinale’s Grand Jury Prize. At Sight and Sound, Jessica Kiang hails “the relaxation of World Premiere dogma” as a promising—if not altogether unprecedented—trend:
[It] may lose Berlin some inter-festival bragging rights, but it makes for a less flabby selection overall, and everyday attendees benefit as a result.
Tipped by many as a Golden Bear favorite, First Cow left Berlin empty-handed, as the top award went to the Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil. Like Jafar Panahi, winner of the Golden Bear in 2015 for Taxi, Rasoulof received the award in absentia. Accused by the regime of “endangering national security” and “spreading propaganda” after winning Cannes’ 2017 Un Certain Regard sidebar with A Man of Integrity, Rasoulof has been barred from making films and leaving the country. A moral case against Iran’s death penalty, There Is No Evil unfurls as a quartet of stitched-together stories, a strategy that helped the director fly under the authorities’ radar (more carefully focused on feature-length projects).
But if for Variety’s Peter Debruge the Golden Bear comes across as “four films for the price of one, none of its segments anemic, and each contributing fresh insights to the paradoxes of capital punishment in Iran,” others have argued that the film’s overall gestalt can feel somewhat patchy. At The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young suggests the four tales “suffer from being narratively uneven, making the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time seem long indeed,” while the first one, “a perfectly balanced and crafted little jewel that stands out in Rasoulof’s filmography,” ultimately sets the bar too high:
It promises a very impressive film and it is disappointing that nothing at this level follows it. As things stand, perhaps it would have done better as the culminating final tale, rather than the first.
There is no denying Rasoulof’s brave and impassioned work, but the worry, per Lee Marshall at Screen Daily, is that the film’s four segments “turn out to be loose and increasingly contrived variations” on the same theme:
…the director’s last two films, Manuscripts Don’t Burn and A Man of Integrity, served up political exposé in a tense thriller package. In contrast, this collection of cinematic short stories revolving around Iran’s death penalty, conscientious objection, and the question of how to preserve one’s moral sanity in the face of a repressive regime, can feel loose and uneven.
Still, debates around Rasoulof’s narrative pale in comparison to those spurred by another competition entry and prizewinner, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU, a mammoth multimedia art installation project 15 years in the making that saw the creation of a massive, historically authentic Soviet-era USSR scientific research center where the film’s crew and non-professional cast lived and shot for years (a “Stalinist Truman Show,” as Steve Rose described it in a comprehensive behind-the-scene reportage for The Guardian). The Berlinale showcased the first two theatrical installments Khrzhanovsky and his team culled from over 700 hours of footage: DAU. Natasha, co-directed with Jekaterina Oertel, was screened in the official competition—where it won an award for best cinematography—while DAU. Degeneration (a six-hour-long series co-helmed with Ilya Permyakov that makes Natasha’s two hours and fourteen minutes feel lilliputian by comparison) found a slot in the Berlinale Special sidebar. A character study of a canteen worker who’s in turns seduced and tortured by the male colleagues she serves, “in all its absurd, imposing, cement-heavy glory,” Guy Lodge remarks at Variety, “DAU. Natasha is thoroughly persuasive”:
...it’s atmospherically vivid and emotionally agitating, and much of the suffering on screen feels duly lived rather than merely performed: an über-highbrow reality show of mindbogglingly elaborate conception yielding an experience of utterly authentic artifice, or vice versa.
But while Natasha did seem to successfully conjure an Orwellian dystopia (not least, Peter Bradshaw observes at The Guardian, for all its “doublethink” associations and the room of horrors where the eponymous Natasha is very graphically and very realistically tortured), questions remain as to whether the film captures the sheer might and scope of Khrzhanovsky’s overall project better than its longer Berlinale Special companion, DAU. Degeneration. It’s a doubt raised by The New York Times’ A.J. Goldmann, who goes on to argue that “a more courageous curator” would have swapped the two films, and it finds an echo in the concerns shared by Jonathan Romney at Screen Daily, to whom Natasha remains:
...a puzzling, inconclusive drama that doesn’t quite hold its own outside the parameters of the overall project, with little background information given (…) to suggest how Natasha might relate, narratively or thematically, to the bigger picture.
None of this is to downplay the film’s performances: Romney himself commends “the sheer courage and endurance” of Natasha Berezhnaya (serving as the eponymous Natasha), and the choice to rely on non-professional thespians, who “all let rip, dropping their defences, in a way that professional actors might have drawn the line at.” Which raises the key question around which much of the controversy surrounding DAU has orbited: just where exactly does one locate the line between simulation and reality in a work designed to serve as facsimile of unhinged totalitarianism and violence?
Long before it reached Berlin, Khrzhanovsky’s project has met a hostile backlash over allegations that nonprofessional actors were subjected to psychological and physical torture—accusations the director fielded during an evasive Q&A at the festival, dismissing the idea that psychological support could have helped the participants. In an open letter to Chatrian and Rissenbeek, members of the Russian press at the Berlinale questioned whether the film’s admission into the main competition meant that the festival “supports and encourages mistreatment of talent in the name of art.” To be sure, Berezhnaya and her co-star Olga Shkabarnya have reiterated their free choice and consent in all scenes. But while this does not render void the potential trauma suffered through the DAU experience, as suggested by Carmen Gray at The Calvert Journal (in one of the most thought-provoking takes on the project):
…it is also patronising to merely disregard [Berezhnaya’s] own assertions and her right to define her own experience, as if a film critic from Berlin, Moscow or London knows better what she went through. (…) Outrage over the ethical minefield the production raised has so dominated the press, it has completely overshadowed the question of whether the films are any good, and what they are actually trying to do. To the first, I can say an unequivocal yes. Natasha is engrossing to watch, shifting fluidly between camaraderie and bitter sparring in a witty dance of toughness and vulnerability (…) As much cult of personality as may be attributed to Khrzhanovskiy, his influence is effaced from inside the frame, and it is the sheer multi-layered force of the participants that infuses the film with its nuance, vividness, and depth.
DAU aside, the 70th Berlinale also unveiled Encounters, a new competitive section perceptively described by Jessica Kiang at Sight and Sound as “the closest reflection of the sensibility of artistic director Carlo Chatrian and those members of his Locarno Film Festival team who came to Berlin with him.” Designed to showcase “aesthetically and structurally daring works” that “challenge traditional forms,” it did live up to its promises, opening with Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog, a 200-minute conversation between Russian aristocrats stranded in a grand rural mansion circa 1900 that beckoned the viewer in anfractuous philosophical debates about Good and Evil, theology, Europe, and History. Intellectually rich and rigorous as it may be, Malmkrog nonetheless felt “too richly complex for the medium of film to convey,” as per Nick James at Sight and Sound, a remark shared by Variety’s Jay Weissberg, who questions whether cinema really is “the best means to delve deep into [the film’s] level of intense philosophizing,” all the more so when its “verbal sparring requires so much focus that a rewind button is required.”
Where Malmkrog may have proved an arduous watch, fellow Encounters entry Gunda, Viktor Kossakovsky’s wordless black-and-white take on animal sentience, turned out to be among the festival’s most singular and captivating offerings. Trailing behind farm animals and centering on a sow (eponymous Gunda) raising her piglets, Kossakovsky conjures a tale that Screen Daily’s Jonathan Romney finds “intensely moving, transfixing and quite genuinely unique,” reminiscent "of Bresson’s Balthazar or Bela Tarr’s Turin Horse." And yet, for all the empathy it elicits for its non-human protagonists, Gunda eschews facile manipulations and sentimentalisms. For Sheri Linden, over at The Hollywood Reporter:
Avoiding the shock and gore of some anti-meat treatises, [the film builds] toward a final sequence that's as affecting as any ever put to film. (…) No party-line screed, Gunda is a soul-stirring meditation on some of our most underappreciated fellow earthlings. For many viewers, it could well be life-changing too.
And if this is any early indication of the festival’s curatorial direction for the years to come, there are many reasons to be hopeful.
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.