Berlinale 2019: Uncovering

In this dispatch, Nikolaus Geyrhalter's epic landscape documentary, a moving research project, and the story of an essential journalist.
Daniel Kasman
After watching numerous televisual streaming shows whose cameras frequently get so close as to kiss their actors, it was refreshing to be immersed in the gargantuan images of Earth, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest wide-widescreen landscape documentary. No mere glorification of nature’s ambiance, it is instead a distressing dispatch of violent upheaval, capturing the magnitude of the displacement of earth on a massive scale in such places as a San Fernando Valley real estate development, Italian marble quarry, and Hungarian strip mine. For those who have seen Geyrhalter’s other highly politicized landscape films, like Our Daily Bread (2005) and Homo Sapiens (2016), the scope of Earth’s images may seem familiar: an immense pictorial canvas so filled with detail as to surpass the maximalism of any Hollywood epic, yet a framing of the land that is inextricable from understanding its use and exploitation by man. Earth opens with title cards explaining the sheer quantity of land moved by humans, and indeed while the film’s subsequent globetrotting visions are impressive, it is a stunning scale that Geyrhalter emphasizes in order to showcase the extreme impact we are having on our planet in order to obtain oil, slather our kitchens in marble, expand towns into the middle of nowhere, and electrify everything with copper wiring. “All human actions on this planet are violent,” muses an archeologist who has found an old Roman mining ruin inside a modern Spanish copper mining site, and the huge heaps of dirt exploded, dug, gouged, amassed, and expelled elsewhere nearly defies visualization.
Earth’s epic observational shots, often made up of muscular machines and bizarre and bespoke mechanical  rigs—a unique Hungarian monster is an early highlight, with a mouth of churning teeth-like buckets, tearing up earth and sending it 16 stories skywards only to have the refuse shit out its back, dropping hundreds of feet—as well as other construction-site pornography are mixed with direct interviews with workers at each location, asked what they think of their job and the impact it has on the land. One, joyous in his easy love for the work, says it’s like playing with his childhood Tonka Toys, and indeed even the film too seems boyishly impressed, and rightfully so, by the overbearing power and ingenuity we employ to rip up the earth for the needs of our comfort and others’ profit. Each interviewee easily acknowledges the almost mind-boggling scale of their jobs and, distressingly, how its speed and scale has greatly increased over recent years. Each, too, justifies the displacement and disruption of nature in their own way, some citing humans’ insatiable need to maintain their lifestyle, others a march of progress, one Italian marble worker exclaiming his almost sexual passion for the adrenaline rush of the job, and several others explaining that if they don’t do it, someone else will. “Today, as we know, it’s the same everywhere,” says one man. Indeed, but the monumentality of the impact is difficult to comprehend, and it is precisely this hope for awesome revelation that Earth chases from land to land.
As mentioned in my last dispatch, this year the Berlinale Forum is highlighting its usual off-kilter and refreshingly welcome take on where the nexus of exciting  American independent cinema takes place, and by premiering Sofia Bohdanowicz’s MS Slavic 7 the festival underscores its dedication to a similarly unconventional alternative to mainline Canadian cinema. Bohdanowicz’s movies, whether long or short—her short film Veslemøy's Song, starring actress Deragh Campbell, was one of 2018’s best—are personal, playful, and very modest in a way the treats the audience like an intimate confidante. Her new feature, co-directed by and also starring Campbell, likewise feels like a soft and sad confession, centered as it is upon the heartfelt correspondence between the director’s great-grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, and the Polish writer Josef Wittlin. As in Veslemøy's Song, with which this feature intertwines and departs in characteristically playful ways, Campbell plays a surrogate for the filmmaker, her but not her, researching family history, in this case the beautiful letters of longing, exile, and the desires not just for love but artistic creativity between two soul-bound Poles separated by national divides.
In MS Slavic 7, named after the Harvard library reference number the correspondence is archived under, in part is a welcome vehicle simply to expose these letters as text, as material documents, and as things to read out loud. But it is also a kind of dramatic reenactment or pseudo-documentary about this unnamed woman and her lone perseverance to find out more about her relations, her desire to transform this tucked-away treasure into piece of public art that can be shared, and how this project intertwines with her relationship with her Polish background, shown in a 60th wedding anniversary celebration as something both distant and even acrimonious in the split between generations. (The two villains of the film, shown in surprisingly caricatured performances of obnoxiousness and cruelty are, respectively, the librarian minding the archive and an entitled middle-aged family member with nothing but contempt for such a personal project.) Campbell, a now regular Bohdanowicz stand-in who makes these various interpretations of personal quests her own, helps turn a very slender drama of a research process into an introspective experience trying to find deep personal meaning through archival texts and connecting them to the here and now, where her life seems one of dedication but also isolation and melancholy. In the poetry, words, love and papers between her relative and her distant love, she is able to connect to history, to those gone, and to find hope to infuse and sustain her life in the present. This young woman seeks her great-grandmother’s letters because they are physical vessels of thought and feelings, and by absorbing them she herself, like the film, becomes a vessel of emotive transmission.
Up until now, the main competition of the Berlinale has been sorely lacking in (among many other things) a film with the kind of historical urgency as even the petite MS Slavic 7, but with Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones the festival finally has a competitor with a bit of oomph. This meaty and aggressively styled drama is about the brief but bright career of Gareth Jones (James Norton), a Welsh journalist who shortly held a position as Foreign Affairs Advisor to Lloyd George in early 1930s, when, according the film, he was let go for his forward-thinking vision of Hitler’s threat, whereupon he traveled to Soviet Russia to try to find out where the money was coming from that was funding Stalin’s glorious new socialist state. The reality, as he finds out after quickly waking up to the sequestered and myopic position in which foreign journalists were being held in Moscow, was of a horrifying famine of catastrophic scale in the Ukraine, a mass exploitation and starvation he discovers once he shakes off his minders and plunges into a countryside full of abandoned villages, desperate peasants, and conditions so bad as to lead to cannibalism.
Of course the Soviets try to quash Jones’s report, the British, needing trade and peace, are skeptical, and most grotesquely the foreign press in Moscow, spearheaded by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Walter Duranty (a perfectly hammy, balding, limping and flabby Peter Sarsgaard), deny Jones’s findings. As such, Holland has orchestrated a film about the lone-voice necessity of journalist truth not only in uncovering totalitarian horror but in fighting and persevering against others who opportunistically want to silence humanitarian reason—mostly for the sake of profit. Mr. Jones vigorously animates this into a somewhat laborious drama of fear, espionage, and necessary reporting spurred forward by Jones’s idealistic naivety. This quality of the character is what ultimately hobbles the film, for Norton plays Jones as a handsome but boring blonde dreamer, not unlike Leslie Howard’s do-gooder in British Agent (1934), a Michael Curtiz spy film which sees the diplomat fired from his embassy in the USSR in 1917 yet staying on unofficially to do what he can for his Empire. Except Howard’s theatre training lends idiosyncrasy to his young believer, whereas James Norton makes Jones a cipher around which Holland can paint her picture of the corrupt New York Times correspondent, of the decadent yet paranoid international scene in Moscow, of the horrid conditions in the Ukraine, and of the stuffy institutional skepticism and social and professional blacklisting that await Jones’s return to his home country.
But what it lacks in a charismatic or even plausible hero upon which to hang its trumpet call for righteously truthful journalism, Mr. Jones partially makes up for in verve of camera and edit, frequently bringing urgent energy to the lengthy story, as well as a welcome and filling meatiness in subject—that the historical horrors we now take for granted faced what now looks like absurd opposition in the face of the hope of many (including George Orwell, who shows up throughout) that Stalin’s Communism was a improvement for mankind’s condition. Thus one of the film’s most powerful achievements is not just in telling the story of Gareth Jones’s quest for the truth, but of the tragedy of utopian dreams facing brutal reality.


Festival CoverageBerlinaleBerlinale 2019Nikolaus GeyrhalterSofia BohdanowiczDeragh CampbellAgnieszka Holland
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