That was it: The last Berlinale under the leadership of Dieter Kosslick. Just a few more weeks and he’ll also be out of his office that will then be occupied by…whom, actually?
99% of folks would say: Carlo Chatrian, who else? Well, the correct answer might actually be: Mariette Rissenbeek, who’s the one signing the bills—Chatrian is, technically speaking, the festival’s artistic director; as such, he may be more of a glorified replacement of so-far Festival Curator Thomas Hailer but with greater visibility and more executive power, while Rissenbeek does most of Kosslick’s “industry” job (lobbying, networking, dealing with the politicians et cetera) while probably remaining otherwise in the shadows.
Rissenbeek is career-wise certainly more in line with Kosslick: Both are professionals one could describe as party soldiers. Kosslick, as most people tend to forget, is originally not a movie person at all but a politician who used film subsidizing as a tool to influence the nation’s production and distribution potentials for obvious political benefits: development of the so-called Creative Industries (which in typical neoliberist fashion are neither an industry nor too happy about anything creative), while Rissenbeek worked for German Films, the long arm of the “industry”. Her presence as the festival’s executive director, and especially the way she got the job, shows how much control certain interested groups and cliques are willing to exercise. Mind one thing: She is actually considered by many critical observers as well as cautious insiders as one of the less unpleasant people in the system, but still an administrator above all else.
When the person politicos and “industry” jocks both truly wanted for the job (Kirsten Niehuus of the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg) got burned by a campaign explicitly against Kosslick’s continuation and implicitly against her ascent to Berlinale-power (many noticed that her MBB contract ends smack when Kosslick’s Berlinale one will), the finding commission was looking around to see who else would be available—and found the answer in their very midst: Rissenbeek sat in the commission. And, despite being Dutch, she speaks German fluently, which Chatrian doesn’t in any sufficient manner. That also saw to a few raised eyebrows (if more among foreigners than the locals who seem too enthralled by the idea of having someone “international” run the show). One might wonder how he is supposed to keep his staff under control if he cannot precisely understand what’s going on around him; not to mention the issue of how to talk to politicians, sponsors, et cetera. Looking at some other festivals with similar set-ups the results can be fatal. So, again: Why have a foreigner who barely speaks German run the nation’s biggest festival and “industry” nave? The answer is probably very simple: so that the powers that be remain in control of the situation; so that the Berlinale can continue to do its main job, which is not being a celebration of cinema’s best and brightest but to spread FRG money (i.e., investments as well as funds) sensibly cum profitably while creating job opportunities for as many people living here and working in the Creative Industries as possible (i.e., keep them out of the unemployment statistics while leaving them in freelance limbo). (Not that things were different in Cannes; and Venice seems to be mainly about improving its reputation for local funding-networking-production-distribution-sales.) How much of a political job this is became all too obvious during the 2019 festival’s opening ceremony when Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters made her presence felt uncommonly often.
That Chatrian took the core of his Locarno programming team along also sounded far from reassuring, as few of them speak German proficiently and sport truly strong connections to the FRG production and distribution scene; matters got helped only a few days ago with news about the locals he got into his selection team who, for the most part, could be best described as free-spirited free agents—they are broad-minded, have little alliance to any organization or aesthetic leanings but do know the city very well. These additions could, if the new team listens to them carefully, give the program the necessary je ne sais quoi that should prevent it from floating in thin festival-culture air. This is, for the moment, the biggest threat: that the program will deteriorate into one of those completely faceless, alienated concoctions found in every country by now, the result of an internal streamlining of said culture 100% in line with an ever-growing, expending business model consisting of interlinked subsidizing and training bodies (This Lab, That Campus, Fund X, Fund Y…) that employ the same people who also work for many major festivals. (If this were really an industry, one would call it a trust and go to trial against it.) And it was Kosslick, in fact, who should be remembered as a key architect of this development. Let’s add that these days one hears ever more and more complaints about this ossified state of contemporary festival culture affairs: its world-wide sameness, the ever more blatant disinterest of programmers to take risks and/or propose films not (yet) blessed Higher Up the chain of importance, et cetera. Too bad that these questions are usually discussed only in private—usually with the addition that this is a shame as well…
In terms of programming, if anybody thinks the new team will get some of those hotter Cannes-style films for Berlin: think twice. If Berlin had wanted, say, Haneke or von Trier as world premieres they probably could have had them long ago—for who foots a very good part of their bills? FRG subsidizing institutions which usually do put a delivery date into the contracts, so if people here had had any interest in having these names in Berlin, they would have had the means for it. In reality, the Berlinale is simply covering a different market segment: Cannes does one variety of product (mainly upmarket arthouse), Berlin another (fresh talents; fringe system-groomed benefits in the main selection and edge art at the Forum), while the Venice Film Festival is by now all about Lalaland, same way Berlin was before the Academy Awards got rescheduled. One wonders how angry Venice’s Director, Alberto Barbera, must have been when neither of his two 2018 heavy-hitters, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Giṓrgos Lánthimos’ The Favourite, ended up with the big one, but rather Peter Farrelly’s Toronto-treat Green Book, a sadly decent piece of classical liberal filmmaking suffering from exactly the same political problems as Roma (Why talk in soothing tones about the past when the Now is burning; why not aim at least for something like Norman Jewison’s ‘67 In the Heat of the Night or Ariel Zúñiga’s ’79 Anacrusa o De cómo la música viene después del silencio, movies both that interacted with the politics of the moment; aren’t Roma and Green Book cenotaphs for cinema as an art with very real political influence; who will sing the threnody—or better: raise the dead?).Venice, strictly parenthetically speaking, seems to be so obsessed with the Oscars that the two European films in the 2018 competition not from France, Italy, or Great Britain (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away / Werk ohne Autor and Nemes László’s Sunset / Napszállta) came courtesy of erstwhile Foreign Language Academy Award honorees whose latest, lo and behold, got submitted as their country’s respective entries for the 2019 edition—but didn’t win, and thank God! in both cases, for they are politically vile creations.
But back to Berlin. What can Chatrian do besides getting rid of Kosslick’s playground Kulinarisches Kino (= flick with a meal…), especially as so much is determined by already-existing contracts that won’t expire any time soon. To give but one example: Many had hoped that somebody other than the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek could be charged with programming the Retrospective, arguably one of the Berlinale’s most important for u.s.p. sections since Barbera is content with hawking digitally enhanced Oldies-But-Goldies in Venice where his predecessors had surprised generations of audiences with new visions of/from cinema’s past (yet maybe Barbera has a point considering that today’s Venice customers simply stays away from masterpieces like André Di Mauro’s eyes-and-ears-opening montage-examination-exaltation of his granduncle Humberto Mauro; or did his programming turn them uncurious?). But it seems the contract situation in Berlin will prevent such deeply necessary measures, which means the future here looks dark. On the other hand: the Forum and its twin section Forum Expanded, with their new stress on archival work, did so brilliantly this year that they might save the day, provide inspired perspectives on film history, and make that a key factor in its own process of re-invention and re-vitalization. But, again, mind: what they were presenting in terms of digitalizations with or without restoration efforts came in toto from various production fringes, with little chances—or attempts being made—to connect them with the mainstream, and therewith maybe change (the perception of) the latter. It’s one thing to celebrate diversity through, for example, Delphine Seyrig’s interview intervention about actresses, their self-image, and their perception as workers in the film industry, Be Pretty and Shut Up! / Sois belle et tais-toi! (1976); Marta Rodríguez & Jorge Silva’s revolutionary epic povera about the battle for indigenous self-reliance and -determination, Our Voice of Earth, Memory and Future / Nuestra voz de tierra, memoria y future (1981); Arthur & Corinne Cantrill’s materialist essay on the lights and colors at Uluṟu / Ayers Rock, The Second Journey (To Uluru) (1981); shorts by the Yugāntar collective of feminist activist-filmmakers, or the Sudanese Film Group—but how can you make it matter to a mindset hung up on Roma or Green Book? The Berlinale as such is that space, but it would help if, say, those Yugāntar works got closer in terms of programming to, for example, Mészáros Márta’s Adoption / Örökbefogadás (1975) or Edith Carlmar’s The Wayward Girl / Ung flukt (1959), both screened in Berlinale Classics, and had thereby a better chance to be understood as parts and parcels of one diverse but united vision of film history. If essayistic media-historical works thematically so close to each other as Mischa Hedinger’s portray of a well-meaning racist-filmmaker, African Mirror, and Billy Woodberry’s look at the stories found in the work of a war photographer shooting on the side of the colonial aggressor, A Story From Africa, didn’t really chime brightly with one another despite being programmed in the section twins Forum and Forum Expanded (the latter screened in single channel installation guise at the Ebensperger Rhomberg Gallery); or, in a similar case, if two in every possible sense style- and milieu-wise related documentaries like the recently revealed Amazing Grace (Sidney Pollack [director of 1972 shooting], Alan Eliott [artistically responsible for project’s finalization]) and the recently digitalized Say Amen, Somebody (George Nierenberg, 1982) don’t seem to develop some double-whammy power during a festival just because they were screened in different sections (Special Screening and Forum, respectively) and at different ends of the event; then it becomes obvious how important this closeness is.
This digression might in a roundabout fashion provide an answer to the question concerning Chatrian’s options when so much is predetermined: Work creatively with the spaces left between all the stuff he’ll have to deal with for one reason or another. A very smart festival director once told me merrily on day one of his festival: I’m so happy, this year I have only 50% dross in the program instead of the usual 70-80%! (His choice of words was a bit more colorful, though.) On the level the Berlinale is operating, these are the numbers one will have to manage: 70% stuff whose importance Rissenbeek (or some lieutenant) will politely explain to the programmers, if they don't understand on their own what is to be expected, to be screened in a spot as prominent as possible (because this world sale needs to be appeased, or that subsidizing body, not to mention all that stuff shot in Babelsberg, et cetera; looking at e.g. Locarno’s Piazza Grande programming in recent times, Chatrian knows the drill);and then there will be 30% for the selection team to make the proverbial difference with. This is the aspect of industry-connected A-festival programming that Kosslick for too long simply didn’t care about—and when he finally understood the problem and got Hailer to fix it, opinion had already turned against him; it didn’t matter that since circa 2014 the competition got better and better, as few were willing to see this. One wonders whether the new team will have what it takes. So far, Chatrian’s programming in Locarno remained grosso modo inside well-worn Cinephile-friendly arthouse boxes. But what the Berlinale needs maybe more than anything else is some serious outside-the-box creativity—like fielding in competition (as real contenders) spectacular general audience movies with a brain and a social conscience like Zōyā Akhtar’s rags-to riches tale from the Mumbai slums Gully Boy (screened in Berlinale Special), or Aleksandr Zolotuchin’s enchanting Great War-fever dream A Russian Youth (Malʹčik russkij; Forum; in the 80s this would have screened in competition…), or Clara van Gool’s drop-dead gorgeous while at times Resnais-ishly abstract, Henry-James based dance film, The Beast in the Jungle (Market; world premiere: Rotterdam).
Read: what is needed are curveballs, the unexpected, a creative mix of aesthetics that talk about cinema’s artistic vastness, preferably but not necessarily from film cultures that are not part of the Lab-Camp-Fund-Subsidizing gravy train. Hailer showed in the last few competitions how that can be done, though not that too many applauded him for, e.g. 2018’s torrent of mad inspiration that included: Lav Diaz’s epochal Homerian singspiel Season of the Devil (Ang Panahon Ng Halimaw); Adina Pintilie’s splendid meditation on the body defiantly desire-driven, Touch Me Not; Philip Gröning’s crazy leap into a philosophical abyss, the politically disquieting My Brother's Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot (Mein Bruder heißt Robert und ist ein Idiot); Mānī Ḥaqīqī’s latest paranoia trip, Pig (Ḥūk); Måns Månsson & Axel Petersén’s positively grotesque Punch-and-Judy-show about capitalism’s innermost insanity, The Real Estate (Toppen av ingenting); and Erik Poppe’s (re-en)vision(ing) of Norway’s darkest recent hours as a teen slasher flick with found-footage-horror aspects, Utøya: July 22 (Utøya 22. juli). Note that most of these even rode the gravy train; and that yet few of them went anywhere afterwards for they were deemed too different for comfort, it seems; and while politically the discourse that these days goes for bourgeois liberal or even moderately left is obsessed with being different (this minority, that community), it also seems happier with the kind of same-same marble headstone-art Venice deals with, and never more blatantly so than in 2018.
Due to that upward tendency in the competition’s program as well as Kosslick’s notorious vanity, some hopeful folks had expected him to go out with a BANG! so loud everybody would wonder: Why on earth did they want to get rid of him? And as 2018 marked indeed the Kosslick-era zenith in that regard, with Berlin—and neither Cannes nor Venice!—offering that year’s best competition among the A-lot, these hopes were not unfounded:. But the opposite was the case, and the competition-presence of widely dreaded Kosslick-favs Isabel Coixet, Wáng Quán'ān, and Hans Petter Molland were the most obvious signs of the suffering ahead. The competition, in fact, was the lousiest since Hailer became Festival Curator, with almost every work of worth in this edition’s line-up—Vice (Adam McKay), Amazing Grace (Sidney Pollack [director of 1972 shooting], Alan Eliott [artistically responsible for project’s finalization]), Farewell to the Night (L’Adieu à la nuit, André Techiné), Marighella (Wagner Moura)—screening only in that no-man’s-land labeled Out-of-Competition, smack in the center of official attention and yet sans journalistic limelight value as there’s no award-future to these titles. Kosslick returned to the programming strategy of his early years: Masses of bluntly message-heavy arthouse products for the undiscriminating middle-class consumer, with a few morsels of fodder for the members of the Cinephilia-party thrown in for good measure (This year those were: Nadav Lapid’s autobiographical self-loathing-Israeli-wants-to-reinvent-himself-in-Paris Golden Bear-winner Synonyms; Best Director Silver Bear-awardee Angela Schanelec’s wistfully weird-going-Grimm’ish reverie depicting one woman’s desires and fears, I Was at Home, but…/ Ich war zuhause, aber...; and Denis Côté’s Lewton-esque examination of small town Quebec’s neighborliness and paranoia, Ghost Town Anthology / Répertoire des villes disparues).
That one of Kosslick’s more calculating stunts brutally backfired was cause for some mirthless giggling. Over the years Kosslick had courted government approved Chinese cinema in a way one can only call shameless—probably all for the good of FRG exports as well as jobs at home (parts of the CGI for Lǐ Chén’s 2017 Main Melody war actioner Sky Hunter / Kōng tiān liè were created in Stuttgart, to give but one minuscule but probably telling example). This edition, he fielded again three titles by what seem to be his (or the selection committee’s) favorite PRC directors in the competition (Wáng’s artsy crime flick Öndög is featured as a Mongolian production, yet looks and feels like a full frontal National Minority movie with some arthouse-friendly minimalist pretenses). Then, during the festival, one of those, Zhāng Yìmóu’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution-set meta-movie One Second (Yī miǎo zhōng), was suddenly withdrawn, officially due to post-production problems. This would on its own already sound dubious but it became a bit of a farce the moment one remembered that a PRC production scheduled to screen in the Generation section, Derek Tsang / Zang1 Gwok3 Coeng4’s bullying drama Better Days (Shàonián de nǐ), was excised from the program before the festival started. Everybody in the organization tried to keep a straight face, but this was, of course, a knee straight to the balls—an insult of the most unambiguous kind. Let’s consider this Kosslick’s comeuppance for calling the one screening of Charles Ferguson’s documentary film-novel Watergate – Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President a “European Premiere” when it already screened several months earlier at the Festa del cinema di Roma.
Whether Kosslick’s second and much more obvious programming stunt also backfired remains open to discussion: sporting seven films directed by women in competition—probably a world record, at least in A-festival-dom. To ram the message home, the Berlinale ’19 retrospective was dedicated to filmmaking by women in the FRG and GDR from the 1960s onwards—a good example, one has to say, for the need to change retrospective responsibilities, for this felt mostly like a pile of titles considered historically relevant, a von Ranke-esque display of history “the way it happened.” The modern history of filmmaking by women in both German states rarely looked more dead and devoid of future relevance than here, and this has nothing to do with the films themselves—the retrospective failed to make them matter for today and tomorrow, which is the true job of every retrospective: shape the future through rethinking the past. In addition to all that, as if this wasn’t enough already, also the Berlinale Classics did their bit for the statistics by screening two digitalizations of films by women already mentioned above (which made for 33.3% of that sidebar’s tiny program—one more and it would have been 50%!; wouldn’t that have been the berries...). But: When the award hour came and the two main ones went to Nadav Lapid and François Ozon (for By the Grace of God / Grâce à Dieu), many a sigh was heard sounding like: Thank God not a woman. If Barbera had made a mess of matters in Venice 2018 by not caring, Kosslick made a mess by overdoing it—by turning Women into a function of topical value, something to talk about and sell tickets with. The word "feminism" was used so incessantly at this Berlinale (and especially by men) that one couldn't stop thinking of Arthur Hiller's An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997), in which even the lowliest operator on Sunset Boulevard self-identified as a feminist.
Let’s continue to talk about women and cinema but leave the ever-inhospitable Potsdamer Platz for a bit and go back a few months, to a decidedly sunnier place: the Lido di Venezia.
There, Alberto Barbera (delighted to present a competition lineup so perfectly tailored to the bland tastes of nowadays middlebrow that another renewal of his contract seemed a fait accompli) looked genuinely surprised when people started to complain about the fact that only one film in the competition, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, was directed by a woman. There was also the too rarely addressed question of its positioning in the festival: towards the very end, when the industry types had long left for Toronto and also the press slowly started to vacate the premises. Considering the ruckus after the line-up got revealed, it might have been smarter to present it in the first half, ideally during the weekend—but those slots, of course, are for films everybody knows will be important, like Roma, The Favourite, et cetera, plus the glitzy stuff with high red carpet-value, like the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga A Star Is Born. The second half of the festival seems reserved for the films that a fellow who deems himself especially witty described as “the ones one really doesn’t need to catch in a hurry”—the stuff not worth skipping dinner for. Curiously, this edition almost all films from Asia screened in the second half, mainly towards the very end, which begs the question whether this kind of thinking is not only snottily snobbish and lazy but opens up doors for all kinds of socio-politically unhelpful attitudes, like xenophobia. Looking at, for example, the Festa del cinema di Roma (which starts only a few weeks after Venice) and noticing the bonanza of African-American-themed works shown there—Green Book, If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins), The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.), Monsters and Men (Reinaldo Marcus Green )—one has to wonder even more about Venice’s Whiteness (pace Roma’s indigenous maid, pace all the African-Americans in Italian Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?...). Which is to say, the disinterest in films by women is only part of Venice’s political problem.
Truth be told: Venice should have shown a bit more sense from the get-go, read the zeitgeist a bit more closely, indeed selected more films by female directors for the festival’s main section, given prime first-weekend exposure to at least some of these—this is strictly PR-strategically speaking, not politically or morally. When confronted with this rather unhappy state of affairs, Barbera chose to talk about numbers and quality: That not too many films directed by women had gotten submitted, and that quality should be the only criterion for decision.
Regarding the former, let’s only say this: Films being submitted is one thing—actively looking for films and thinking outside the box is quite another. There are more films by female directors out there than the submission numbers suggest. To give but one example: The once-again splendidly programmed Venice International Critics’ Week featured M, an audio-visually gorgeous cum sumptuous structuralist giallo financed by its créatrice-star, singer Anna Eriksson, out of her own pocket—which was thus completely off the radar, as the Finnish Film Foundation didn’t promote it (no stakes in the work) and no world sales had picked it up yet. The sidebar’s selectors stumbled across it by accident: by asking around, being open, wondering what might be found in a film culture like Finland which the self-anointed influencers certainly don’t list as a talent hotspot of world importance. That’s the kind of thinking-outside-the-box mentioned above.
In general, this year the Critics’ Week stressed the importance of new voices from countries many might have problems finding on the map: Montenegro (Ivan Salatić’s look at a proletarian world slowly collapsing, You Have the Night / Ti imaš noć), Tunisia (ˁAbd Al-Ḥamid Būšnāq’s Dachra / Dašra, a region-wise rare excursion into Gothic thrills and shrieks), Sudan (Ḥaǧūǧ Kūkā’s The Roundup / aKāsha, a droll, formally ever-surprising comedy about military regulations and village mores), and Syria—okay, this one people will know by now, if mainly due to events like those documented by Saˁīd Al-Baṭal & Ġiāṯ Ayūb for Still Recording (Lissa ˁam tisaǧǧil). Mind that almost all of these were at least partly financed with money from affluent European countries with film culturally serious power, chiefly France and the FRG—even the section’s Indian opening extravaganza, Rāhi Anil Barvē & Ānand Gāndhī’s cautionary horror spectacle Tumbāḍ, could only be finished thanks to some Swedish support. Which is to say that the Critics’ Week fishes for good parts in the same ocean as Venice’s official selection, or Berlin’s for that matter, but they’re obviously after something artistically, ethically, politically very different. Mind also that they featured three films (co-)directed by women in a dense line-up consisting of a mere nine titles—but enough statistics! And aren’t numbers something for people who think that all in all things are hunky-dory, just a bit of tweaking here and there is needed for perfection?
But let’s look also a little further than Venice’s independently programmed sidebars. Toronto unleashed Claire Denis’s greatest in long, High Life, a wild and pleasantly erratic piece of science fiction dealing with the misery and glory of human sexuality—impossible to imagine that Venice didn’t get to see this, considering Denis’ history with the festival. In October, the Festa del cinema di Roma sported Magdalena Łazarkiewicz’s bleak tract on the evil that Polish Catholicism is for the nation’s social life, Back Home (Powrót), which, one suspects, had been submitted for Venice. The Stockholm International Film Festival (decidedly not known as a hotspot of earth-shattering importance) unveiled on opening night artist Anna Odell’s bleak, wickedly playful probe into social power relations, X&Y, one of the most eagerly awaited films from Europe’s North due to the smash success of her first feature, The Reunion (Återträffen, 2013); it’s again impossible to imagine that it wasn’t submitted to Venice, as The Reunion premiered back then in the Critics’ Week; ditto impossible to imagine that they wouldn’t have preferred Berlin, for obviously sales reasons. In November, Rita Azevedo Gomes’ visually glorious while dazzlingly ironic Robert Musil adaptation,The Portuguese Woman (A Portuguesa), was unveiled in Mar del Plata, with the Berlinale’s Forum hosting the film’s European premiere; in this case, one expected the film to make its first appearance actually in Locarno (like Azevedo Gomes’ previous effort), and when it didn’t, Venice seemed certain—but no; and it was definitely submitted to Venice, that we do know. One could continue this for quite a bit with more and more titles, all adding up to merely one truth: There was enough of excellence around for Venice, but Barbera and his selectors didn’t want them. Would be interesting to know, though, whether Berlin also said “no” to Back Home, which thematically should have been up their alley—or did they not want to have a rival offering to the faux-Balzac-ian child-abuse-in-church-exposé By the Grace of God, this having been one of Kosslick’s special cases? Or maybe they just wanted to avoid a battle of the siblings, as Łazarkiewicz is the decidedly more talented younger sister of Agnieszka Holland, whose Mr. Jones was among the naffest of Berlin’s competition entries: well-meaning while blunt and hectoring.
Which gets us to the subject of quality. In principal one has to agree with Barbera here 100%: Every self-respecting selection is about quality and nothing but—only to ask immediately: What do you mean by quality, which is the same as ideology, values, ethics? In other words, which quality, whose quality?
Let’s talk about one of Venice 2018’s masterpieces and one of Berlin 2019’s masterpieces: Mary Harron’s Charlie Says and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, both of which, tellingly, one might say, screened in sidebars (Orizzonti and Panorama, respectively).
On the surface, Charlie Says talks about the women around Charles Manson, in particular those three who together with him were found guilty of multiple homicides in August ’69, the most infamous being the Tate murders due to the celebrity aspect as well as the killing of an unborn child. Kept separate from the other death row inmates after the ‘72 moratorium on executions in California, the three women, locked up in their own universe, get regular visits from a graduate student who wants to stimulate their minds. These visits trigger memories of their time with Manson—and what looks at first like a Hippie Alt-Paradise turns out to be some Hell-on-Earth where Sylvia Plath’s Daddy-line “Every woman adores a Fascist” is proven right.
Charlie Says is a masterpiece of discursive cinema, a genuinely enlightened work that talks about nothing less than the foundation of liberty and a civilization worth cherishing and defending—a work about the prize of true freedom. In Venice, only Olivier Assayas’s horribly under-appreciated look at a current bourgeoisie, hollow and jolly, concerned and limited, confused and out on a limb in a world it shaped maybe a bit too well in its own image, Non-Fiction (Doubles vies), Mario Martone’s widely dismissed look at politics in the last days before the outbreak of WWI, Capri-Revolution, and Pierre Schoeller’s One Nation, One King (Un peuple et son roi), a spectacular as well as Brecht’o Volksstück’ishly didactic essay about the hopes driving the French Revolution during its early stages up to the beheading of Citoyen Louis Capet (formerly Louis XVI) on January 21, 1793, were in a similar way invested in talking, discussions as a way of making sense of life in a civilized fashion. And all of these had sensible things to say about women, their position(s) in culture at historically widely different points in time: from the proto-Zetkin-esque emancipatory aspects delineated by Schoeller (who glosses, it’s true, over the vilely misogynist side of the Revolution escalating with the Great Terror); via the way Martone shows how a curious peasant woman from a highly patriarchal surrounding learns first by observing then by interacting about very different ways of life, to finally make up her own mind, in defiance of seemingly everybody (in all that, it’s the opposite of Sunset—where Nemes is obscurantist, Martone is enlightening); to Assayas’s melancholic musing about the way people, women and men alike, seem to pr(e)y more on rather than show a genuine dedication to each other. Assayas portrays a world where talking about something seems to have replaced discussing matters of some importance, resulting in lots of intellectual-sounding white noise—a world a less generous director might have torn to shred while Assayas keeps his highly unfashionable humanist calm and good humors.
Charlie Says, like Capri-Revolution, One Nation, One King, and in a slightly less immediate way also Non-Fiction, are useful films with indeed a didactic core: They explore intellectual processes and make them understandable, appreciable. They are about choices being made and the reasons for them. They’re interested in how life could be better for everybody.
It does, of course, always take two to talk and reason, as one of the most horrifying moments in Tiyākarājaṉ Kumārarājā’s sophomore masterpiece Super Deluxe (2019) shows: when a sex-changed father-now-mother arrives at his boy’s school and is chased away with an unending hiss-stream of gos (go-go-go-go-go-GO-GO-GO…) by some authority figure simply refusing to listen to the gentle, soft- and well-spoken person in front of him. (Despite being more intellectually and politically and artistically daring than roughly 90% of all films mentioned here, and outrageous-crazier cum more fun to boot, Super Deluxe didn’t open anywhere prestigious, although some of Europe’s main winter festivals were offered it as a world premiere—catch it in a multiplex near you.)
This single-minded go-go-GO-growl also describes quite well the vibes send of by the kind of stuff Kosslick seems to deem politically important: films like Lone Scherfing’s The Kindness of Strangers, Teona Strugar Mitevska’s God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunija (Gospod postoi, imeto ì e Petruniǰa), Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath My Feet (Der Boden unter den Füßen), or indeed By the Grace of God, which all know right from the get-go what’s right and what’s wrong, and thus don’t feel the need to make an argument for anything. These films merely reinforce what we all need to accept as being true—call it soft totalitarianism for the bourgeois liberal good. Barbera, in that regard, isn’t any bit better with the faux-liberal, politically highly unhelpful (yet at least gleefully enjoyable) rape-revenge Outback Western The Nightingale, the crypto-High Stalinist solemn tone of Paul Grenngrass’ 22 July, or the meta-texting-to-death in Suspiria—same thing for a different class of consumer.
But being discursive isn’t the lone way to enlightenment, and Berlin had its fair share of works that made one smarter—by seduction, the wisdom, and knowledge of carefully woven textures, colors, and rhythms.
Laura Amelia Guzmán & Israel Cárdenas’s Holy Beasts (La fiera y la fiesta) was maybe the most staggering work to premiere at this year’s Berlinale: Part tribute to, part historical essay on, part reference-filled phantasmagoria about Dominican auteur Jean-Louis Jorge, who between the 1970s and 1990s created a small oeuvre—oneiric, sublime, surreal, luscious and luxurious—climaxing early in La serpiente de la luna de los piratas (1973) and Mélodrame (1976). Guzmán & Cárdenas used an unrealized project of Jorge (in fact a relative of Guzmán) as the starting point for their delirious journey. Geraldine Chaplin plays a directress called by an old producer friend back to the Dominican Republic to take over a project he’d cultivated for long: doing a film in homage of Jorge together with many of his collaborators of yore (played primarily by Jorge’s actual collaborators). She then calls another old friend, an actor/choreographer played by Udo Kier. Things go wrong on the set from the start, and don’t get better. While the shoot dissolves into a nightmare, the film changes its tone and becomes ever more a gay Jorge-style fairy-tale, with Kier doing a turn as a vampire at a fancy dress pool party in a nod towards his Warhol-Morrissey days—or did he maybe turn into a vampire? In all its ambiguity, Holy Beasts is a formally unique beast: Yes, it’s a fiction feature, but it is also an information-heavy, densely argued bit of let’s-call-it applied film history—instead of explaining what makes Jorge tick and great, Guzmán & Cárdenas exemplify it by the way they tell their story, relate the facts. So one could watch it also as a bit of filmmaking that pushes the boundaries (to use an especially disgusting neoliberist phrase/concept) of “creative documentary” to the limit and beyond.
Similar intuitions should be avoided at all cost with Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Yes, it seems to be an autobiography based on her life during film school and focused on an ill-fated love affair, but that “I”-part is irrelevant for what makes the film so special (even if it is quietly enforced by the casting of Tilda Swinton and Honor Swinton Byrne as what they are in life: mother and daughter). Some people were driven almost nuts by the fact that Hogg refuses to offer any psychological hints at her protagonist’s inner workings: Why does she stay with a well-bred junkie? No psychological hints of the realism-variety, no explanatory words and phrases—zero. As if that would help! It would merely make matters debatable inside certain well-established behavioral patterns. Instead, Hogg focuses on the sensual aspects: The couple’s shared rhythms, the closeness and sense of security often expressed in harmonious color patterns, the matching sounds of their voices, et cetera. The film’s most gorgeous sequence is a trip to Venice for which she dresses up in style: a very beautiful, somewhat 1950s-ish dress tailored especially for the occasion; the whole trip will throw them out of time: everything from the train compartment to their hotel room looks elegant and from an era more splendorous and sensual. Love and desire throws you out of the now into a space part past part future. It is anti-social, intimate, and certainly subject to wrong memories—Hogg, in fact, pointed out that whenever she was unclear about something she went with the way she remembered incidents, places, characters, instead of researching them. Thus, The Souvenir might be wrong about many details and unjust to this person or that, but it is rigorously true to Hogg’s mind at the moment she embarked on this film-journey towards a person she never was.
It might be interesting to look at The Souvenir and Charlie Says as companion pieces: The upper class-rooted former looks inward at a soul-scape clearly shaped by social rules and expectations, while the lower(-middle) class anchored latter describes and analyses social structures that shape female lives. What both do is: offer a glimpse into an abyss of oppression and pain that both Venice and Berlin tried to ignore as studiously as possible.
Here is one thing more to ponder, a closing thought that brings us to yet another place so far mentioned always only in passing: Rome. Maybe a look at the spread offered last year at the Festa del cinema di Roma would do many people in the festival “industry” a whole world of good, as it shows that an intelligent and politically productively concerned program can also be popular. Which doesn’t mean that everything was great there, certainly not: like Venice before and Berlin after it did have its fair share of shit.But that shouldn’t distract one from the program’s main lesson: Cinema can still be a people’s art—the sectarianism defining too many places deemed major today is not a situational/economical/cultural given but a choice. If you offer a selection featuring (and to give only titles from the line-up not mentioned so far): Funan (Denis Do), a politically sober, animated tale describing one family’s survival of the Khmer Rouge terror; Ether (Eter; Krzysztof Zanussi), a sarcastically sinister Catholic existentialist take on the Faust-myth set prior to WWI; They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson), a discretely experimental documentary spectacle that looks at WWI like no film did before; Jan Palach (Robert Sedláček), a biopic of a Cold War icon done with uncommon discretion; Diario di tonnara (Giovanni Zoppeddu), a documentary about tuna fishing as well as an essay on how film history has presented this labor; and Titixe (Tania Hernández Velasco), a mournful look at a vanishing rural world—then you are certainly on to something multi-facetted, inspiring, and productive while generally accessible and delighting. Something useful for the many and not merely the few to think about.
Top Ten Berlin 2019
Holy Beasts (La fiera y la fiesta, 2019; Laura Amelia Guzmán & Israel Cárdenas)
Vice (Adam McKay, 2018)
The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
African Mirror (Mischa Hedinger, 2019)
A Russian Youth (Malʹčik russkij, Aleksandr Zolotuchin)
The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To Thaúma tīs Thálassas tōn Sargassṓn, Sýllas Tzoumérkas)
Die Kinder der Toten (Pavol Liška & Kelly Copper)
The Beast in the Jungle (Clara van Gool)
Kokdu – A Story of Guardian Angels (Kkoktu iyagi, Kim T’aeyong)
False Belief (Lene Berg)
+ The Invincibles – Extended Version (Die Sieger – Extended Version, Dominik Graf, 1994/2019)
Top Ten Rome 2018
Funan (Denis Do)
Ether (Eter, Krzysztof Zanussi)
They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson)
Watergate – Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President (Charles Ferguson)
Back Home (Powrót, Magdalena Łazarkiewicz)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Fede Álvarez)
Jan Palach (Robert Sedláček)
Diario di tonnara (Giovanni Zoppeddu)
Titixe (Tania Hernández Velasco)
Before the Frost (Før frosten, Michael Noer)
Top Ten Venice 2018
Charlie Says (Mary Harron)
Graves Without A Name (Phnaur kmean chhmoh, Ban Ritthi)
One Nation, One King(Un peuple et son roi, Pierre Schoeller)
The Favourite (Giṓrgos Lánthimos)
Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman)
Ville Neuve (Félix Dufour-Laperriére)
Vox Lux (Brady Corbet)
Aquarela (Viktor Kossakovskij)
Non-Fiction (Doubles vies, Olivier Assayas)
The Roundup (aKāsha, Ḥaǧūǧ Kūkā)