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Berlinale 2020: First Encounters of the 70th Year

The 70th Berlin International Film Festival opens with a new team, a new competition, and new films by Jia Zhangke and Cristi Puiu.
Daniel Kasman
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
Above: Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
This year is the 70th anniversary of the Berlin International Film Festival, and it celebrates with a change of guard: Out goes festival director Dieter Kosslick and in comes Executive Director Mariette Rissenbeek, presumably managing the business side of the massive event, and Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian, who most recently held the same title at the Locarno Film Festival, leading the curation. This hand-over of responsibility is not unique to Berlin; last year, Locarno’s programming team was new; this year sees new heads of Sundance, Sheffield, and New York film festivals; and next year Rotterdam is under new leadership. As film culture is shifting under the just cultural pressure of inclusion and diversity, major festivals around the world are in the process of shifting gears.
What does that mean for the Berlinale? In these early days—and in the first year with the new team—it is hard to say, especially for such a large festival and one whose industry component, the European Film Market, may go mostly unnoticed by the general public but whose impact on the attendance and attention from the business side of cinema is critical. At least since I’ve been attending the festival, its main competition, while undoubtedly considered one of the world’s most prestigious, rarely presented a selection that would go on to dominate the year’s discussion of important movies like Cannes and Venice, and to a lesser degree, Sundance. (Just try quizzing a cinephile to name the last ten Golden Bear winners for a litmus test.) Yet it never seemed to fully embrace trends, Hollywood, nor the industry death-grip like some of its other red carpet brethren, and the competition selection frequently underscored its commitment to the intrinsic political meaning and impact of cinema. (The Forum section of the festival, the most aesthetically adventurous and politically acute part of the festival, is now in its 50th year and also has a new head, Cristina Nord.) On paper, this year has some attractive art-house names in the main slate, including Tsai Ming-liang, Abel Ferrara, Christian Petzold, Rithy Pahn, Philippe Garrel, and Hong Sang-soo, two already-premiered and well-received American films (Never Rarely Sometimes Always and First Cow) and one part (of many) of Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s sprawling Dau project (another part is showing in another section of the festival). These look promising; many others in the main slate remain question marks, and an early entry, Natalia Meta’s half-comic, half-ominous psychothriller The Intruder, while starring a ridiculously charismatic Erica Rivas, is the kind of bland and uneven picture inexplicably peppered through many of the past competitions.
But a great example of a Berlinale-style film is Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, a new documentary whose subject (writers either from, or who have lived in, the director’s home province of Shanxi) and form (predominantly interviews) suggest a side project rather than a major work. This is not entirely untrue, but to expect prominent filmmakers to not explore new directions and only produce immaculate and unimpeachable masterpieces every few years is an attitude at once ridiculously high-pressure and imminently tiresome. Let’s not forget, too, that Jia’s art, like that of Michelangelo Antonioni, is founded in documentary, and in some sense a movie like this is far more pure in focus and intentions than his last feature, Ash Is Purest White (2018). Its scope is even bigger too: Telling the history of Communist China not in its broad, nation-spanning immensity, but in the gradual shift in countrysides like that of Shanxi after the revolution to increased literacy, the movement of writers from the big cities, and then the countryside either producing its own writers or serving as inspiration for visitors. Through the personal stories of these authors, their upbringings, frequently in extreme poverty, and their migratory careers, we see not only the blossoming of modern provincial literature in the country, but through them, a certain blossoming of a country itself.
Above: Malmkrog
The biggest change in the festival at its onset, beside some venue shuffling—festival logistics always being a topic at once unavoidable and strangely metaphysical amongst attendees—is the addition of an entirely new section, and a competition one at that. Titled “Encounters,” its logline is devoted to daring works, but this can be read as a euphemism for films too experimental or too small for the main competition, yet whose profile in terms of director or accomplishment ask for placement at the festival that stands out. Greatly anticipated examples being C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s long-awaited follow-up their lovely 2009 film The Anchorage, the intimidatingly long (and lengthily titled) The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin), and the feature debut of Camilo Restrepo, a Colombian filmmaker whose short films have been favorites here at MUBI. This new section might bring better attention to their films and other such inaugural selections as films by Matías Piñeiro, Heinz Emigholz, and Josephine Decker, but the practical side effects are that the large Forum and Panorama sidebars are now more emptied of the kind of names that made the Berlinale a festival whose importance was not only its competition. But perhaps this frees these sections from the need to anchor their curation with cinephile magnets and better define their visions independent of such pressure. 
Certainly one might be hard-pressed to know what to do with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu director Cristi Puiu’s new feature, Malmkrog, which premiered in Encounters. A supremely dedicated adaptation of Vladimir Solovyov's 1900 text War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ, it expands upon a workshop the Romanian director turned into a 2013 feature I have not seen, Three Exercises of Interpretation. Rather than that spartan production, the new film is more elaborately dressed in its 19th century trappings—a snow-bound manor house inhabited by the wealthy guests sipping tea and eating meals—but the substance is similar: Long, cerebral debates over the need for war, modern Christianity, the nature of evil, God’s goodness, and the possible return of the Antichrist. Despite the Downton Abbey-esque setting and the floating presence of various servants—one of whom gets one of the six character-titled chapters named after him—the film has little interest in staging an elaborate social gathering and uses the veneer, like the director’s customary long takes featuring bravely loose camera framing, as a gesture towards realism that disarms the audience all the better to deploy heaping mountains of dialog. Not speaking French, the main language featured, resulted in a viewing experience akin to watching a Manoel de Oliveira film, nearly reading the screen as much as watching it, and the conversations being nearly wholly abstract and highly intelligent but never penetrating on their subjects, the content for me soon blurred together.
What was mainly left were two things: Puiu’s thrilling ability to stage and block actors in a domestic space—used to greatly witty effect in his terrific last feature, Sieranevada (2016)—where the arranging and movement of people throughout a scene is thrilling, even when the film shockingly shifts to more conventional shot/reverse-shot dinner table talk; and absolutely spot-on casting of a group of wonderful archetypes: the sardonic and self-satisfied bon vivant; the teary and earnest believer; an adamantly warmongering matriarch; the wry, wide-eyed doubter; and, best of all, the arrogant, hectoring, and domineering intellectual ringleader, who may be the Antichrist himself. These portrayals ride a fine line throughout of existing plausibly within the pretty period setting—I cannot say within the drama because there is no conventional narrative other than the progress of a long conversation—and being pin-prick precise satires of such pendants. The darting eyes of mockery, egotism, and condescension cast continuously through the picture offers as much delight as the conversation does tedium. To what end this satire, these conversations, I know not. Despite touching contemporaneous topics that easily spill over into the present—including the nature of Europeanness!—the film never shakes the sense of being an elaborate exercise or even prank, seeing just how long it can draw out and sustain such talk until the audience grows exasperated or the characters do—or the world ends. (Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel feels ever present.) In fact, the film’s high point, coming roughly midway through the film, is an event that perhaps tips Puiu’s otherwise cryptic purpose, when music that may not exist within the film world is heard by the gathering, their talk stops, servants fail to answer to summons, and everyone seems frozen in extended comic uncertainty. For just a few moments, the absurd uselessness of the gathering reveals itself to hilarious effect.


Festival CoverageBerlinaleBerlinale 2020Jia ZhangkeCristi Puiu
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