Some of my favorite work at this year’s Berlinale engaged in some way with death or the afterlife. Lighten up, you say? Impossible. The most literal and beguiling of these was Lois Patiño’s Samsara, which ingeniously conjured the transitional passage between life and death, Buddhism’s intermediate state of bardo. There were the cinematic afterlives of lost films, excavated collections, and reimagined family albums; the archive’s perpetual reincarnation as a generative source for experimental and artists’ film. There were homages to artists from the past, whose legacies continue to inspire the present, including work by the recently deceased Michael Snow and Takahiko Iimura, and film tributes to avant-garde legends like Margaret Tait in Luke Fowler’s Being in a Place, and John Cage in Kevin Jerome Everson’s If You Don’t Watch the Way You Move. Then there was the teeming, unseen world of spirits discussed in Manthia Diawara’s open-minded essay on possession cults, AI: African Intelligence, and the cellular geological memory of past lives crystallized in Deborah Stratman’s shimmering speculative essay, Last Things.
But this sensation also had a lot to do with where I was watching the films. A significant part of Berlinale’s Forum Expanded section has largely been shown since 2019—albeit punctuated by a pandemic break—at silent green Kulturquartier, a renovated art center housed in a former crematorium. This subsection of the Forum, dedicated to showing experimental work across both cinema and art gallery, brings together theatrically-presented programs and panels on the moving image with site-specific film exhibitions. (This year, alongside the main Forum Expanded exhibition, titled An Atypical Orbit, Savvy Contemporary showed the work of the Indian feminist collective Yungatar.) Besides Crystal Z Campbell’s Revolver (2022)—another rich speculative essay film, which screened in its own room—the group show highlighted work that asks to be seen outside of the black box of the cinema. This was either because of their multiple screens or roving focal points, extreme variations in scale or duration, or the reliance on different kinds of audience interaction with the work. The dark, cavernous environment of a renovated crematorium was perfectly suited to the bardo states of non-theatrical moving-image exhibition, from the participatory to the ambulatory to the flaccid (and…collapse on a bean bag).
It’s hard not to get carried away with the heightened potential for death-of-cinema metaphors when you’re watching films in a death space. Nevertheless, at a moment of geographic uncertainty for the festival, it’s worth considering the precarity of these sites of exhibition. The festival has traditionally unfolded in Potsdamer Platz, at the heart of the city, but has been gradually shifting to its peripheries. The closure of the Cinestar Sony Center multiplex in 2019 and the planned reconstruction of the Vue-owned CinemaxX multiplex have drastically slashed the availability of centrally situated screening venues. Even the state-owned German Film and Television Academy (DFFB), home of the so-called “Berlin School,” is relocating in 2025 from Potsdamer Strasse to the neighborhood of Moabit. This year, the Berlinale felt increasingly decentralized, as new screening venues sprouted across the city.
One of these newly added venues is the silent green Kulturquartier project. Named after Richard Fleischer’s dystopian eco-thriller Soylent Green (1973), the renovation of the former crematorium was creatively undertaken by artist-filmmakers Jörg Jeitmann and Bettina Ellerkamp. Opened in 1912 in the working-class district of Wedding, the city’s first crematorium was fully operational until 2002, when the state government put the building up for sale. From 2013, it was gradually converted into an interdisciplinary arts space, which now houses Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art’s archive, the offices of Transmediale, and the Harun Farocki Institute, among other places. Situated next to an eerily peaceful cemetery, the Forum screenings take place in the domed columbarium, a space for interring ashes, with the hollowed-out indents for funerary urns flanking the temporary screen. Meanwhile, An Atypical Orbit was held in the underground basement of the crematorium, where the dead were transported and stored.
AN ATYPICAL ORBIT
The curators of the Forum Expanded exhibition had clearly decided to skim off some of the fat from previous editions, and it showed: the group show was leaner, slighter, although not necessarily more focused. Even though it boasted several strong, individual works from artists Tenzin Phuntsog, Eduardo Williams, and the late Takahiko Iimura, I wasn’t always sure what thematically connected the program as a whole. There were tangible links around family and displacement in the work of Phuntsog and Tamer El Said, and shared alterations in scale (whether of the perspectives in the work or how it was exhibited). I found it much more enjoyable to move between the installations and theatrical screenings, finding resonances across the different programs.
Artist-filmmaker Tenzin Phuntsog’s Dreams framed our descent into the exhibition. Appropriately placed at the threshold between the outside and in, his parents, both of them Tibetan exiles who have lived in America since the 1960s, lie suspended on a makeshift duvet above us in the darkened entryway to the show. They also reappear in Phuntsog’s beautiful two-channel video, Pala Amala (Father Mother), which homes in on the family’s protective, intimate gestures of touch and comfort, and which felt, on account of its twin screens, like peering at an enormous family album come to life.
Egyptian filmmaker and visual artist Tamer El Said’s participatory installation Borrowing a Family Album took this one step further, inviting audiences to share their own childhood memories by using someone else’s family photographs as a proxy. As a young child, El Said woke up one morning to find that his sister Eman was no longer there. Her disappearance was only ever discussed much later. The artist turned to another family’s collection of photographs to resurrect his own faltering memories. “Could we explore stories about ourselves in memories belonging to people we never met?” he wonders. Borrowing a Family Album invites us to engage in a collective act of remembrance, pooling resources to build a new shared album of memories. I particularly loved the different ways in which the work was displayed: from projectors showing images on semi-frosted, hanging mobile screens that you could walk between, to a collection of photographic slides shown on a table and surprisingly interspersed with the occasional animated clip.
Most of the work in Atypical Orbit simply wouldn’t function theatrically, either because of length—some were as short as one-minute loops—or a dependence on the spatial properties of their display. Phuntsog's sculptural micro-shorts were a good example of this. Achala, Dancing Boy, and Summer Grass were all exhibited inside miniature boxes resembling Tibetan prayer books, their mobile screens and everyday observations referencing the fragile connectivity of social-media apps like WeChat. There was the crashing enormity of Walid Raad’s Comrade leader, comrade leader, how nice to see you, a one-minute, single-channel projection of two waterfalls, which took up a whole wall and intentionally dwarfed the tiny political figures at its base.
DOWN THE TIME TUNNEL
After walking under Dreams, the first two works in the show are homages to legendary, recently departed artists, which imbued the rest of the exhibition with a slight retrospective tone. Although it was tucked away at the entrance, Michael Snow’s Puccini Conservato (2008) was a playful skit on reproduction and artifice. The short merged a recording of Puccini’s “La bohème,” played in another recorded iteration on a Panasonic music system, with footage of the natural world; the camera tracking the song’s virtuosity in exaggerated pans, finding the sublime in the copy.
I found echoes between Snow’s handheld panning and compositional source material and Kevin Jerome Everson’s If You Don’t Watch the Way You Move. The short shows the emo-trap group BmE recording their song “Shiesty” (incidentally one of several grade-A earworms at the Berlinale: Wallners’s “In My Mind” from Christian Petzold’s Afire lives rent-free in mine). Everson’s camera records the session in one tightly framed and uninterrupted take, recalling the repetitiveness of musical labor in Jean-Luc Godard’s One + One/ Sympathy for the Devil. The work suddenly slips into “silence,” as John Cage’s iconic composition 4’33 takes over. Ambient street noises enter the fray, offering an aural corollary to the visual noise populating the film: the fluctuating light, heavily textured grain, and confined framing of the performers. Everson described the film in terms of his continued interest in documenting Black excellence. But I wondered at the implications of their enforced quiet. Maybe the wider world can only elevate Black voices in the recording studio, where otherwise they might be propelled into silence.
If you somehow missed the Michael Snow, you really couldn’t overlook Takahiko Iimura’s extraordinary, six-channel expanded cinema installation, Time Tunnel: Takahiko Iimura at Kino Arsenal, 18 April 1973, easily one of my favorite works at the Berlinale. This dynamic homage to the late Japanese experimental artist referenced a historic program of his work held at the Arsenal cinema, in which the staff brought their own TVs to the screening in order to share the work with a wider audience. Seated in individual velvet cinema chairs, we watched Iimura’s witty structural films on monitors perched atop film cans, much like the original screening. Wry, funny, and playful, the installation brought together a range of Iimura’s work in video, like his early experiment A Chair (1970) and his innovative later work Double Portrait (1987). Named after his 1971 work Time Tunnel, a disjunctive countdown reel which the artist intended as a conceptual investigation of time travel, the installation also allowed us to travel back in time, evoking Forum Expanded’s origins as a laboratory for expanded-cinematic performance.
Lying prone on a bean bag seems as good a place as any to enter the esophagus. In Eduardo Williams’s intensely corporeal journey through the digestive tract, A Very Long Gif and Graeme Arnfield’s aptly paranoid essay film on home surveillance, Home Invasion, the circular frame draws attention to the act of looking. Circular framing directly indexes the imaging techniques in both films: the Ring video doorbell in the former, and the medical endoscopy of the latter. In Home Invasion, the peephole vantage point brings the outside in, while Williams’s multifocal work brings the inside out, showing the gloopy, bubbling, blood-pulsing human interior in relation to wider social structures.
Williams’s bodily landscape film submerges into the digestive tract while also soaring up through the city skyline. The film was partially shot using a swallowed endoscopy camera, which travels through the gastrointestinal system, photographing its narrow, murky passageways. Flanked on either side of this footage is material shot with a telephoto lens from the filmmaker’s apartment. The three focal points are not stable but expand, contract, and merge, with the smaller frames of aerial footage eventually coalescing towards the center, bringing the macro in line with the micro. Rather than the gory, shocking viscerality of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (2022), which enters similar orifices using lipstick cameras, the images in A Very Long Gif are sublimely beautiful. I don’t mean the beauty of the sort that can be excavated from Stan Brakhage’s autopsy film, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971). This allure is not one tinged by horror or abjection, but remains somehow detached from the film’s gory intestinal origins. The images feel closer to nature footage: pools of bubbling gastric juices resemble inky, petroleum puddles or deep-green mossy undergrowth, and even the intestines take on a soft-pink sponginess. I was curious about the choice to show the work as a single-channel installation rather than a three-channel work. Perhaps the single channel renders the film closer to a compressed .gif, frozen in an endless loop, appealing to us to think of the film outside of the explicitly cinematic.
In the case of Arnfield’s Home Invasion, the circular frame invites us to experience firsthand the paranoid surveillance tactics of the Ring video doorbell. This technological phenomenon, Arnfield argues, has created more problems than it has solved, feeding into a reactionary culture that fears the outside world and wishes to patrol the boundaries between “us” and “them.” Asking the wider question of what can be done about technologies that no longer serve us, Arnfield’s exhaustive—and, indeed, exhausting—collage pools from varied sources, including working-class labor movements, home-invasion movies, film theory, and the fascinating history of the doorbell, to question technology’s ubiquity in our lives and complicate our assumptions of progress.
Visually, the circular frame encloses the action within a narrow peephole, creating interesting aesthetic moments through image compression and flattening, while also evoking early cinema’s preference for iris masking: a useful reference as we later segue to a section on the birth of parallel editing in home-invasion films. Sound is similarly compressed through the Ring doorbell’s microphone, creating intense distortions that heighten the thick atmosphere of dread. Home Invasion is an insomniac’s nightmare: characters in the film repeatedly wake up from early-morning nightmares to dramatic realizations about their own vulnerability. The film draws deterministic connections between discrete events, reminding me strongly of the pothead paranoia of British documentarian Adam Curtis: this is not wholly a critique! But the sheer density of visual and aural information threatens at times to overwhelm the stew.
Another, very different film replete with cinematic peepholes was Mary Helena Clark’s dense yet exhilarating short, Exhibition. Structured around a first-person voiceover associated with the artist’s perspective, the film delves into several women’s embodied relationships with objects, from functionless art pieces and erotic surrogates to elusive copies that stubbornly maintain their material traces. There’s Eija-Riitta Eklöf-Berliner-Mauer, the Swedish woman who married the Berlin Wall and sets up a museum of substitute objects, and Mary Richardson, the suffragette who pointedly destroys Velzázquez’s Venus to mimic the destructiveness of patriarchy.
Also present is the artist’s own attitude to the materiality of film and the refusal of subjecthood, interwoven with a sentiment from the artist Agnes Martin: “I am not a woman. I am a doorknob.” Like so many films in the Forum Expanded program, the film evokes the site-specific qualities of non-traditional cinemagoing. To the narrator, the room tone and compression of a bootlegged film, watched in a cinema, denotes an embodied “record of a viewing.” Exhibition is a prismatic reflection of different kinds of looking, asking what gets lost, or maybe gained, in reproduction.
GOOD FILMS DON’T DIE
“Good films don’t die,” declared the veteran Brazilian filmmaker Antonio Carlos da Fontoura. In attendance at the Berlinale to present a glittering new restoration of his defiantly queer exploitation epic, The Devil Queen (1973), his comment, though well-meaning, simply doesn’t hold true. Good films do die, and bad ones too: by neglectful governments putting profit over cultural legacy; by fire, like the one that engulfed the film prints in Fontoura’s native Cinemateca Brasileira. Or, in that most modern of cinematic deaths, by falling through the digital slipstreams.
Thierno Souleymane Diallo’s The Cemetery of Cinema, a Forum film at heart but presented in the Panorama section, turns the proposition of a lost Guinean film into a quest narrative to recover Ghana’s obscured yet pivotal cinematic history. The search for Mamadou Touré’s Mouramani (1953), believed to be the first film ever made in Guinea, becomes an obsession for the young director, who travels barefoot, on a donkey, and finally by plane to France to find the film. Along the way, our charming, “faux-naif” guide meets with Guinean directors, old cinema-ticket clerks, bootleg DVD sellers, archivists, and film historians, each of whom unearths an aspect of the disappearance of his country’s cinematic history. At one point, a French archivist opens a film can to reveal a film that’s rotted to dust, reminding us that nitrate films, like people, have a natural life cycle: one that can be extended, but not indefinitely.
Cemetery of Cinema is a rallying cry to preserve community cinemagoing and theatrical environments for future generations. Tellingly, the film winds up in Cinéma La Clef in Paris, the last nonprofit, community-run cinema in the French capital, which has been illegally occupied by activists since September 2019. Known as La Clef Revival, the Paris-based collective took over the cinema after its enforced closure and reopened it to show films. Both La Clef’s occupation and Diallo’s project are acts of resistance to preserve art from the Grim Reaper of corporate greed. In a post-screening Q&A, Diallo warned the audience that the death of Guinea’s cinema was coming for us too. The alarm bells couldn’t be louder.