Cynthia Beatt has been making films since the late 1970s, which makes my discovery of her work at this year’s Berlinale woefully belated. But it also makes me hopeful that her essential experimental short, Fury Is a Feeling Too (1983), will screen more widely soon. Fury, which first showed at the Berlinale Forum in 1984, and which earlier this year was given a 2k restoration by Arsenal Berlin from the 16mm original, showed in this year’s Forum Expanded—the only film in the program that wasn’t a new production.
The film’s inclusion is an inspired curatorial choice, not only because it continues the crucial work that the Berlinale is doing unearthing important cinema by women directors—including Self-Defined, the program of German women filmmakers organized together with Deutsche Kinemathek that I covered in 2019—but also because the film centers on the one thing that those experiencing the festival in a digital format this year have missed entirely: a physical, perambulatory sense of Berlin as a city.
Not that Beatt’s film is a paean to the city. At times, it feels much to the contrary. Throughout it, Beatt and the director Heinz Emigholz, who play a number of fictional characters, spar on topics, such as the peculiarities of the German language (the film opens with a discussion of the difference between “brain,” “brains,” and “mind” in German) and the inequities of being a foreigner in West Berlin (Beatt’s character, which at times seems to mirror her personal experiences, feels that she assumes too much blame and tolerates the Berliners’ rudeness, while Emigholz’s character defines her attitude as victimhood). These topics are then resumed in vignettes in which Emigholz impersonates gruff Berliner-types (i.e. a shopkeeper lecturing a foreigner on speaking proper German or an obnoxious barman as another bar regular demonstrates his xenophobia by saying that “Turks are yokels”). Questions of language resurface when Beatt, who has been living in Berlin since 1975, speaks to the camera at the end about experiencing German as a constricting social code, impossible to master.
While the cerebral conversations and wry skits lend the film a semblance of a Brechtian drama, Fury is a Feeling Too is, at heart, an amalgam essay-film. The brisk staged sequences bracket the longer ones, in which the camera captures wide-shots of outer-cityscapes, close-ups of building façades, some vaguely classical and others industrial or socialist—the camera in a constant stuttering, jolted motion—and then public interiors, as Emigholz strolls through them. These sequences are accompanied by Emigholz, offering in the voiceover a dispassionate treatise on Berlin as a city of ruins. “This is not architecture,” he says in one part, “It’s a random result of filling in holes where the bombs fell.” To confirm this, Beatt shows elements of earlier styles—from reconstructed Ionic and Corinthian columns to elaborate floral motifs by traditional porcelain makers Villeroy und Boch—which mingle with much grimmer, at times monolithic and brutalist, modern architecture. The Berlin that emerges is marked by destruction, discontinuity, plus a lingering spleen, over cultures, people and narratives lost.
While Beatt's film may be read as a Sebaldian reconstruction, in which architecture is summoned to evoke a deep sociopolitical past and its ghosts — the Benjaminian Angel of History — there is also a keen sense of a much more contemporaneous Berlin of the 1980s, before the Berlin Wall fell, and its citizens could start to look to the future.