The Berlinale, one of the world’s biggest and most important film festivals, is at the beginning of a major transition. Its director of the last 19 years, Dieter Kosslick, will retire after this 69th edition, and is to be replaced by Carlo Chatrian, who has impressively stewarded the Locarno Festival for the last six editions with its reputation as a bastion of challenging art cinema paired with comprehensive retrospectives. For an outside visitor who has attended the Berlinale only ten years of Kosslick’s tenure, the festival is a sprawling event prioritizing abundance over quality, centered around a once-essential competition that only erratically curates a substantial amount of the year’s biggest or most important art films. This main competition is the unstable keystone of an immense program with numerous subsections and many wonderful things scattered hither and thither that have struggled to uphold the festival's reputation.
The most common place to find the essential presentations each year invariably is the Forum section, where more challenging but frequently more ingenious movies can be found, films that grapple with the multitude of risk-taking ways to tell stories in the cinema, and usually films that also understand the inextricable political component of filmmaking as a practice. The head of the Forum left after last year’s edition, leaving an interim team to program 2019 and a big question mark as to what will happen next year. The Forum proposes a balance to the competition’s red carpet that has lately hardly justified itself. But the potency of the section can be diluted by the multitude of other options provided all around the Berlinale: the substantial but catch-all Panorama section, the short film competition, the German cinema section, off-site installations (many organized by the Forum's team), and more. Locally, the festival is one of the key economic events of the city and a podium for expressing how Germany sees not only its place in world cinema, but indeed how the nation views the outside world. The problems and possibilities of this leadership transition have been a matter of high debate, culminating in a statement signed in 2017 by Maren Ade, Christoph Hochhäusler, Christian Petzold, Volker Schlöndorff, Margaret von Trotta, and many others filmmakers demanding that the Berlinale live up to its responsibility to cinema.
What is at stake for these German signatories is far more important than for me as a visiting critic and curator, but the fault lines of this current struggle within the Berlinale, which may or may not be appeased or rectified in the coming years, could easily be seen on the very opening day. The festival’s opening film, Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers, a Euro-pudding embarrassment peopled by international actors awkwardly forced to pretend they are Americans (and two real Americans who seem like they're from somewhere else entirely) and shot in a blandly anonymous (and probably not actual) New York for a drama asserting the heartfelt needs and common decency of most people. The script does the people and place no favors, with its tin-ear dialog and implausible plotting, constructing preposterous coincidences and motivations and finally swathing the whole thing with a treacly sense of humanitarian meaningfulness. It’s the kind of supposedly accessible “international film” whose false notes hit so hard and so often that it becomes far more challenging than anyone’s cliched idea of a black-and-white, three-hour art film.
Yet speaking of such a film, in this anti-red carpet category the festival already has its masterpiece: Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, shown in the Forum and whose presentation there proves why film festivals are necessary, for they provide audiences with unique access to voices and perspectives rarely available elsewhere. A majestic essay film whose scope is national and historical but whose address is deeply personal, Heimat Is a Space in Time tells the 20th century family history of the director through letters and diary entries. These remarkable documents, deeply evocative and wonderfully written, narrate in their own way the 20th century history of Germany, starting before the First World War and moving into the economic catastrophe of Weimar Republic, the increasingly terrifying and oppressive policies under the Nazis, and then segueing into life in East Germany, where Heise’s father was a notable philosopher. These convulsive historical epochs breath in every word of the correspondence and entries that Heise himself reads, but the first encounter with the texts are individual first and foremost. They tell of love (and love affairs), of the yearning for family across borders (some family members are in Vienna while others are in Germany), of fear, of socialist ideals, of children—in short, of the whole gamut of human life on the personal level, emotive, dramatic, confessional, posturing, placating, and brutally honest.
To accompany these texts, Heise has chosen an austere but potent black and white palette which grants a haunting monumentality to his images. His camera sometimes visits current-day German streets and metros, teeming with life seemingly so removed from the previous century. Sometimes he visits site referenced in the letters, old work camps and factories; or we see photos of family members whose long texts are heard. A long, devastating stretch is devoted to scrolling through a list of names and addresses circa 1942 as we hear increasingly desolate and fearful letters from Berlin to Vienna about deportations of Jews to Poland. The specific location of other images are less clear, landscapes and ruptured highways, but the point is always exact: Heise’s eye considers his country now, after the reunification, as through his family’s records he traces how it came to this place. Despite its modest means, the scope of the film is immense and its insights and peculiarities found in its epistolary revelation vast. It is an essential film of essential inquiry, one that looks into what is most close to its maker and finds people and stories that tell their own tale and through them something even bigger.
One may say, with some validity, that to compare the failures of The Kindness of Strangers to the overwhelming power of Heimat Is a Space in Time is apples-and-oranges unfair. (To which I might say: The Berlinale and many people need such a film as Heise’s and few need the universal platitudes of Scherfig’s film.) But then, in that magic of festival logistical serendipity, on the same day was a better counterpoint: Fourteen, a micro-budgeted drama by New York critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt. A personal friend and sometimes contributor to the Notebook, Sallitt’s too-infrequent filmmaking efforts, all self-funded, always feel like they come from another planet of cinema entirely from what is being made in America on either end of the budget scale. Their level of psychological penetration, dramatic concentration and narrative abruptness feels off-trend but very much (and perhaps all the more so) potent and surprisingly.
Fourteen, like the director’s last film, The Unspeakable Act (2012), is a spare and emotionally bracing drama that quickly defines full, complicated characters with roiling interiority, and puts them through bold stories that challenge their conceptions of self and our understanding of their psychologies and spirit. Like his last film, Sallitt’s latest features Tallie Medel in the lead, truly one of the most evocative and interesting actresses working in American cinema, one whose huge eyes, moppet haircut, and small stature allow for clownishly expressive behavior akin to Giulietta Masina. But Medel is also an actress whose psychological presence is deeply imbedded in the image, enriching it with dynamism and mystery. As in the films of Jacques Doillon, whom Sallitt has written about on this site, while watching Madel in Fourteen you feel like you are watching a character perceive, think, and then act upon her thought before your eyes. Even more unusually, sometimes her character seems to be thinking of other things in her life than the scene we are watching before us, creating an off-screen space of thought. In short, she is an always lively and unpredictable presence, and a true joy to watch.
The story is simple but its nuances deep: it is about a friendship between Mara (Madel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), a lanky blonde beauty, an extremely close relationship begun in childhood. Now that they are both adults living in New York their bond, the rhythm and needs of their friendship, is shifting under their feet, at first imperceptibly. Through intense and unexpectedly swift scenes the film sets up Jo’s reliance on Mara’s responsibility and generosity, the former’s unpredictability and drug use, and the latter’s revolving dating life and withheld desires. Time passes quickly in the film without realizing it at first, and when it becomes more obvious, and Jo’s life becomes more of a mess, the film’s center comes into focus: how friendships are not uniform and timeless, but rather they age like people do. To stay true to the original bond of spirit as one gets older and continually has to face the burdens of work, being successful, having relationships, living in the city, of simply (or not) being an adult, these things challenge the very foundation of the friendship. In Fourteen we see this soulful slip before our eyes in a manner almost confrontative in its directness and focus. Where The Kindness of Strangers willfully manipulates a drama to prove how good people can find each other and support one another in the face of life’s difficulties, Fourteen instead offers a challenge, asking without knowing the answer what friendship really means and how time changes not just people but that which exists between them. It is the films that ask the hard questions that we need most, not those that falsify pat answers.