The festival is one of our favorites
, a true showcase for outstanding short films. Founded in the 1950s, making it one of the oldest running festivals of its kind, it was the site of the 1962 "Oberhausen Manifesto," a battle cry for the creation of a new German cinema that presaged the arrival of Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But the festival's focus is not just on Germany, but the world, and we're pleased to bring some of this year's best selections to our audience. These are the four films chosen by our curators, available on MUBI this month in over 250 countries around the globe.
Elegance (Virpi Suutari, Finland), 6 May
The "elegance" of the title refers not to the style of this Finnish documentary, though plenty of filmmaking elegance can be found: a stately pace, a fondness for sunny scenes (and silhouettes moving across it), a keen awareness of color, and a tendency towards static, meticulous compositions that wouldn't be out of place in Wes Anderson. But more than that, "elegance" seems very clearly to refer to how its subject sees itself. Its subject is hunters—or, more specifically, hunters of a very aristocratic persuasion, the kind you might see on an old-money European estate in the early 20th century. They dress sharply; a handkerchief pokes discreetly from the jacket pocket. They reminisce about re-creating Manet paintings during picnics and meeting Catherine Deneuve's sister. They know the family trees of their hunting dogs. The help at their club wears cuff links and white gloves.
It is here, where such style and subject matter converge, that Elegance becomes something unusual: an ethnographic film about the well-to-do. On display, and presented without much overt commentary, is a subset of the upper class which adopts pre-modern rituals as a way to unwind. "A wonderful pastime" is how one hunter describes it; he's the first we're introduced to, a former Nokia executive who discovered hunting at the recommendation of a colleague. And so, with guns in hand, hounds at their sides, outfits that don't belong to the 21st century, and gentle pipe music in the background, they walk the countryside and flush game out of hiding.
For cinema buffs, it's hard not to be reminded of the famous hunting scene in Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), which Elegance has the good taste to evoke but not imitate. The difference is that Renoir was notoriously caustic about the perceived cruelty of this ritual and the manner in which the whole aristocratic way of life could go down in flames. There is certainly similar irony in Elegance, starting with the opening shot, which overlays the title word on a meticulous composition of dead birds. But the film contains nothing as crass or tasteless as disdain for its own documentary subject—it's too busy being fascinated by something distinctly human about these proceedings. Note that the final tableaux, in which the senior hunter holds court for his admiring disciples, is a dinner party shot like a funeral. Take it for what its worth. Their elegance, like Renoir's "touch of class," looks ready to give up the ghost.
Snow (Richard Dinter, Sweden), 7 May
"A thriller with no crime" is how director Richard Dinter describes Snow, and the notion of absence may be the perfect entry point for this story, which makes it to the end without showing a single human face. Not much of an additional entry point is needed, however: the sensory experience of provides plenty of its own. Snow is first and foremost a very controlled, rigorous short film, compelling from the start by pure technocratic beauty and ominous atmosphere—surely where the "thriller" comparison comes in. It largely takes a single vein of imagery (a car driving in a snowstorm) and explores it from a variety of angles, serving a steady stream of hypnotic visuals. Eddies of snow swirl around the frame; a pair of headlights bisect it diagonally; snows melts and slides down the windshield, refracting stray light.
There may not be a crime, but there is a death, even if the film treats it obliquely. The narrative is nothing more (though you could also saying "nothing less") than a boy's memory of the drive to the mortuary where his departed father is being kept. The death of a parent qualifies as a landmark if not a traumatic event, but the film doesn't address such things head-on at all. Instead, it accumulates the details picked up along the way, including incidental moments, brief sensations, and a wrong turn that leads the narrator on a morbid detour. The atmosphere of the trip is heightened, even as the narrator recalls the events with a certain worldly remove.
This tension makes the short an intriguing and rewarding exercise in the way that cinema can tackle memory. It may well be that "absence" is the only proper way to do so. The story ends before the central emotional climax can be addressed. The figures in the tale who have "speaking parts" remain unseen, unnamed, and with no voice of their own. The imagery is removed from any specifics, dealing in impressions, archetypes, and silhouettes rather than any attempt to recreate a detailed objective reality. What exactly did the mother's face look like then? What did the father's? We don't know, or can't be sure. But we know the emotional tenor of the drive, the broad strokes, the way darkness looks to a child. And we know that it snowed.
Venusia (Louise Carrin, Switzerland), 8 May
The first striking thing about Venusia, as with Elegance, is how firmly the camera establishes a point of view. Most documentaries today could be typified by a total absence of style, which is both a gesture towards journalistic integrity and a consequence of relying on talking-heads interviews and found footage. Generally, if a contemporary documentary contains visually striking images, it's because of what is being filmed, not how. In Venusia, where no spectacular sight is being filmed at all, the camera's fixed position adds a cheeky dimension: simultaneously symmetrical and off-kilter, colorful in a kitschy, vaguely whimsical sort of way, and static enough to let your eyes wander the frame in search of odd details, of which there are plenty. (The film would be very at home in MUBI's last series, "Art of the Real," which highlighted unconventional approaches to documentary filmmaking.)
What unfolds is essentially a two-hander between a pair of very interesting subjects: Madame Lisa, the chain-smoking proprietress of a Swiss brothel; and Lena, her flighty junior associate. One watches their conversations, ideally, as one might watch a John Cassavettes film, picking up on what people reveal in the way they talk. Madame Lisa registers as utterly no-nonsense, too driven and jaded to care about any distractions, including the camera that's been set up to record her. She favors cigars, not a traditionally feminine habit but one that suits a boss like her. Madame Lisa is preoccupied with finances; Lena seems to largely ignore them. Lena floats the idea of going to a psychic, which Madame Lisa teases her for. When a potential client calls, Lena adopts a different voice—higher, more precise, and sultrier. She lists the erotic delights on offer. He thanks her and hangs up without making an appointment.
Most of this starts out in comedic territory, contrasting the taboo nature of their work with a cheerfully mundane patter ("the girls are ordering a pizza") that illustrates how the world's oldest profession isn't so different from any other. As money troubles pile up, the arc of the film moves towards a recession-era tragedy, with Madame Lisa's place on the totem pole in jeopardy. It's a credit to Venusia that this downbeat turn comes without patronizing, just as the comedy came without condescension. The women are survivors, like anyone else. Even without any tight close-ups, they fill up the frame.
To anyone who's been closely following the festival circuit these past few years, the phrase "Lav Diaz short film" has a certain perverse, contrary humor to it. Arguably no narrative filmmaker working today, especially now that Jacques Rivette has left us, has done more to experiment with extremes of duration. His films commonly run over four hours long; his latest feature, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery
(2016), is over eight. So if nothing else, The day before the end
, at a swift, hypnotic 16 minutes, allows newcomers to sample the mysterious rhythms of a filmmaker whom many cinephiles will tell you is one of the most exciting voices in current world cinema.
The day before the end unravels as a series of impromptu public Shakespeare recitals, all wedged in between an apocalyptic title at the beginning and a climactic monsoon at the end. In a sense, it's reminiscent of the Taviani brothers' recent Golden Bear winner Caesar Must Die (2012), which also restaged Shakespeare in an incongruous modern setting and an even more incongruous quasi-documentary style. But whereas the Tavianis saw non-professional actors being raised to ecstasy through their text, Lav Diaz's film has a much cagier, more elusive relationship with the Greatest Writer in the English Language.
Indeed, The day before the end seems less about the importance of words than their utter smallness. Compositions make you constantly aware of background action—are those people extras? bystanders who didn't even know they were being filmed?—while the sound design makes you constantly aware of off-screen space. (The first recital, Juliet's balcony scene, is only just decipherable among the background noise.) In one of the movie's more inspired touches, our poets unite and try to recite all at once, with their competing poetry creating not beauty, but cacophony. Above all, image is made king: gorgeous, high-contrast black and white photography, like light blooming from street lamps, sparks in the night, a cyclist in the rain. The final monsoon, which yields some remarkable imagery of its own, quite literally threatens to wash the poetry away. But the peaceful coda (the day after the end?) is an absolutely sublime note for a film or a series to finish on. Who can say what will last—but there's always a chance to create more.