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Berlinale. Palast of Swords Reversed: Dispatch #6

Berlinale 2010

You are experiencing information overload. Clear your mind and put your thoughts in order. With distance it is possible to rise above the situation so that you can see the larger pattern, determine some meaning behind it and what actions are necessary. Focus your mind and allow yourself to see the whole picture. How are you liberating your mind from clutter and false ideas so that you can think clearly? When you step back from your problem to gain a clear perspective, what do you see?
Six of Swords (Reversed)

Sunderland, 11:44pm Friday. 
Feature-length films seen/started: 26. 
Walkouts: 5 (The Counting of the Damages, Crossing the Mountain, 108, Portraits of German Alcoholics, 66/67). NB: Of these, only the first two were from impatient exasperation. The other three were films I "checked out" more for festival-programming purposes than anything else. German Alcoholics looked fairly OK from what I saw.
Notably worthwhile: 4 (The Wolf's Mouth, Red Hill, Congo In Four Acts, In the Shadows).

She was probably planning on becoming a teacher. Somewhere along the line, however, she began to get bored. Her life seemed to her lacking in mystery, too predictable, too confined, too plodding.
—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hanna Schygulla--Not A Star, Just A Vulnerable Human Being Like The Rest of Us. Disorderly Thoughts About an Interesting Woman

Back home, dog-tired, my body and brain still operating on Berlinale time and to Berlinale rhythm: I anticipate at least week of dreams/nightmares in which I fleeing across black ice from the Berlinale Palast to the CineStar basement, by way of the Cinemaxx Cafe, the writing-room of the Hyatt Hotel ("the journalistic gulag," as my Austrian friend Markus calls it), and various pinch-points in between.

Two days ago—Thursday—was, while certainly much more enjoyable than black Wednesday, was yet another day that yielded no outstanding discoveries. Andreas Dresen's drolly Woody Allen-ish comedy Whisky With Vodka and Jean-Francois Caissy's old-folks-home documentary La belle visite (aka Journey's End) were the pleasantly passable best of a humdrum bunch.

In the evening I found myself with the unusual luxury of a few minutes to spare while transiting from Cinemaxx to Cinestar en route to the World Premiere of what turned out to be a very undistinguished documentary on Rock Hudson: the bizarrely-titled Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger (by Andrew Davies and André Schäfer)—Hudson, at 6'5", being nothing if not tall. From Maxx to Star isn't by any means a long journey, but it involves a certain amount of death-defying care-taking given the slipperiness of the winter pavements in a stony-broke city too poor to shift the three-inch packed-down ice, plus the 'Frogger' like delights of negotiating the busy four-lane highway that is Potsdamer Straße.

Facing the street is the fancy Mandala Hotel, haunt of the festival's fancier guests, which according to its official website enjoys "a central, downtown location and offer generous studios and suites, privacy, sensual design and authentic service." Among those enjoying the "authentic" service (as opposed to fake?) this year was Hommage honoree Hanna Schygulla, the living-legend among German-speaking actresses.

Though well into her sixties, the muse of Fassbinder—whose surname we Brits have for some reason always pronounced "Shkeye-ler" (in German it's much closer to "shoe-guller") is certainly no back-number, as her performance in Fatih Akin's otherwise so-so The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite) (2007), one of the very best of the recently-completed decade, emphatically proved. She was emerging from the Mandala's doorway as I passed, and I couldn't help but pause and enjoy the rare feeling of being genuinely star-struck, a dopey grin all over my face as I noted the luxuriant length of Ms. Schygulla's dark-flecked grey hair and her regal-but-genial bearing as autograph-hunters pounced and the paparazzi clicked away at a respectful distance.

There's never any shortage of luminaries and celebrities on show at the Berlinale, of course—only a couple of days before I'd texted a friend back home informing him in semi-ironic namedrop-heavy fashion that I had spotted "Renée, Wim, Werner, Julianne and Stellan" (but sadly neither Leo, Marty nor Lars von). Seeing Schygulla in the flesh was on another level, however, and not just because of her great eminence—if Bruno Ganz was to go under a Zürich tram tomorrow, I reckon Ms. Schygulla could well become the first-ever female bearer of the Iffland Ring in its near-200-year history.

Schygulla was the embodiment of art-house cinema when I first became conscious of such a thing in the late seventies and early eighties (I was born in 1971) and the much-abused term "iconic" surely applies to the star whose stack of career awards includes a Berlinale Silver Bear for The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun), one of her 19 (nineteen!) collaborations with R.W. Fassbinder—including the multi-part TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).

Coincidentally enough, 1979 was the only time that 2010's jury-president Werner Herzog had a film in Competition at the festival: Nosferatu the Vampyre (Nosferatu - Phantom der Nacht), which as the years go by strikes me as perhaps the best of his pictures, and which featured Herr Ganz as Jonathan Harker.

The 1979 jury—including Julie Christie and frequent Fassbinder actress Ingrid Caven (to whom he was actually married from 1970-1972)—overlooked Herzog for the Golden Bear, however, instead plumping for Peter Lilienthal's David, a Holocaust picture that's now pretty much forgotten, with Hanns Zischler in a supporting role. Spool forward 31 years and there's the self-same Zischler still as silkily insinuating as ever, in one of my two standouts from the current Berlinale, Thomas Arslan's In the Shadows (Im Schatten).

Nosferatu didn't go home empty-handed—Henning von Gierke took a Silver Bear for his production design. But Herzog could be forgiven for having a somewhat jaundiced view of the Berlinale, especially given the reception accorded to his documentary Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis) (1992) in 1993: "with one voice nearly 2,000 people rose up in an angry roar against me. They accused me of "aestheticizing" the horror and hated the film so much that when I walked down the aisle of the cinema I was spat at."

Given such don't be stunned if—as already predicted on these pages—Herzog pulls some kind of stunt during the prize-giving on Saturday night. As one trade-paper remarked, with Herr H. heading up the jury, amok is likely and "all bets are off." Nevertheless, and despite my debacle last year over The Milk of Sorrow, I don my Nostradamus hat—based on hunch, buzz and gossip rather than the evidence of my own eyes (the only competing title I saw was Danish misery-fest Submarino)—and proffer the following prognostications: 

- Golden Bear: If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Florin Serban).
- Jury Grand Prix: The Robber (Benjamin Heisenberg).
- Best Director: Wakamatsu Koji, Caterpillar.
- Actress: Zrinka Cvitešić, On the Path.
- Actor: Jakob Cedergren and Peter Plaugborg, ex-aequo, Submarino.
- Script: Alexei Popogrebsky, How I Ended This Summer.
- Outstanding Artistic Achievement: Thomas Oláh (costume designer), Isidor Wimmer (set design), ex-aequo, Jew Süss - Rise and Fall.
- Alfred Bauer Prize: Howl (Epstein & Friedman).

Final Golden Bear odds (for information only) 
***** If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle (3/1), The Robber (9/2), How I Ended the Summer (6/1).  
**** Caterpillar (8/1), Submarino (9/1).
*** A Family (12/1), Honey (14/1), Howl (14/1), The Hunter (14/1), The Ghost Writer (16/1), Greenberg (16/1).
** A Somewhat Gentle Man (22/1), Puzzle (25/1), Shahada (28/1). On the Path (33/1).
* The Killer Inside Me (40/1), Apart Together (40/1), Mammuth (50/1), A Woman a Gun and a Noodle Shop (66/1).
- Jew Süss - Rise and Fall (150/1).

Juries are strange beasts, of course, and this year's Berlinale competition has elicited such variable responses that it's hard to be dogmatic. As Jim Thompson wrote in The Killer Inside Me, "there are flukes in murder the same as there are in anything else. A man crawls a mile with his brains blown out. A woman calls the police after she's shot through the heart. A man is hanged and poisoned and chopped up and shot, and he goes right on living. Don't ask me why those things are."

He might as well have been speculating about how the Goldener Bär ended up going to U-Carmen eKhayelitsha in 2005 (ahead of The Wayward Cloud), Grbavica in 2006 (Offside), Tuya's Marriage in 2007 (Yella), Elite Squad in 2008 (There Will Be Blood), and The Milk of Sorrow last year. Moral: expect the unexpected, beyond even the wildest fancies of Roald Dahl.

From my personal perspective, while I was there from before the start until pretty close to the end, I had various writing deadlines to hit on most days, and so don't honestly feel as though I saw enough of the 60th Berlinale to really be able to formulate an overall view—apart from being disappointed more often than delighted, and repeatedly detecting a general air of discontent more severe than any I can remember since I started coming in 2002. That also happened to be Dieter Kosslick's debut as what Variety would call "fest topper," and Christoph Terhechte's first year in charge of the Forum.

Back then, I did—o follies of youth!—try to catch a fair chunk of the Competition, as well as more than a smattering of Panorama and Forum offerings, and afterwards filed a somewhat sniffy sum-up for Cinema Scope magazine: "... substance is needed if Berlin is to remain one of the world's most important festivals. By general consent 2002 came up short, the Competition in particular. 'Worst in ten years, at least,' according to one Berlinale regular." What's the German for plus ça change?

My personal B: LX highlights, as previously noted: In the Shadows and The Wolf's Mouth among the feature-length stuff, (ahead of Red Hill and Congo in Four Acts), James Benning's installation Tulare Road (catch it while/if you can!), Hanna S. stepping out from the milky luxury of the Mandala into the ice-blink luck of a flashbulb-popping dusk.

And, nowt to do with the Berlinale, The Fall's Mark E. smile-snarling away before an adoring youthful throng some time after midnight last Friday at Club Maria, and the chance to enjoy Psykick Dancehall in ("When I'm dead and gone / My vibrations will live on.") Disorderly thoughts indeed...But now the frenzy is subsiding, and, after ten days of Berlinale sleep-debt snatches, bed beckons.

Supply at the slaughter-house: Hogs 11,543, Beef 2016, Calves 920, Mutton 14,450. A blow, bang - down they go. Hogs, oxen, calves - they are slaughtered. There is no reason why we should concern ourselves with them. 
—Alfred Doblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

Ha! Well, I wasn’t too far off with my bigging-up of the Romanian picture’s chances – I think we can interpret the Bauer prize as an indication that the jury boiled it right down to ‘Honey’ and ‘Whistle’ before plumping for the former. A 14/1 mid-ranker according to my odds. Honey for the Bear, indeed – first Turkish winner of Cannes/Berlin/Venice since Yol shared the Palme d’Or with The Missing back in ‘82. Shock that ’The Robber’ and ‘Submarino’, both of which had their admirers, went home totally empty-handed. Not a surprise that the Japanese lady won for ‘Caterpillar’ – even those who hated the film conceded she was very fine. I did get the “ex aequo” for the Best Actor right, just picked the wrong movie – Russians took two Bears home (not for the first time, heh heh.)
“Coincidentally enough, 1979 was the only time that 2010’s jury-president Werner Herzog had a film in Competition at the festival” that’s not quite right. herzog’s first feature LEBENSZEICHEN won the silver bear in the 1968 berlinale competition. greetings, thomas groh
I stand corrected. Still, two films in 42 years is a surprisingly meagre tally given Herzog’s standing among German filmmakers of his generation(s)…

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