This year could have been simply wunderbar for the Berlin film festival, but it didn’t quite work that way. The festival organisers, including new artistic director Carlo Chatrian, found themselves with more on their plate than expected, including controversy over jury president Jeremy Irons, because of his previous comments on gender politics; the dropping of the prize commemorating the Berlinale’s founding director, Alfred Bauer, following revelations about his Nazi involvement; and the closure of a key venue, the multiscreen CineStar. Worse still, most of the eateries in the mall on Postdamer Platz were closed for renovation, leaving this soulless architectural complex more desolate than ever.
It wasn’t the ideal mood for the festival’s 70th edition, so perhaps we’ll have to wait for 2021 to provide the fireworks that this year needed. Things weren’t entirely sparkle-free, though: the Berlinale can still attract big names, including Hillary Clinton, here to launch a four-part TV documentary about herself. And the competition was as mixed as ever, but had its joys.
For me, the big discovery was Bad Tales, by young Italian duo the D’Innocenzo brothers. An ensemble piece about fraught families in a suburb of Rome, it’s oddly American in feel, with echoes of diverse Texan or Californian long-hot-summer stories. But the milieu and the stylistic invention are authentically Italian, and the brothers handle their emotionally delicate material with crisp control and a sharp feel for everyday madness. Another highlight was First Cow by US stalwart Kelly Reichardt, a downbeat but tender comic parable about male friendship and the birth of entrepreneurship in the old west – a charming film that wears its depth and its social insight lightly.
Undine, by the brilliant German director Christian Petzold, was a thinly veiled modern retelling of the siren myth, with Paula Beer superb as a woman who finds herself embroiled in quasi-supernatural occurrences around a Berlin lake. Slyly mixing modern realism with old-school German Romanticism, it confirms Petzold as one of the canniest storytellers in cinema today.
More quality German acting came from Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger as siblings – a blocked playwright and an actor with cancer – in Swiss title My Little Sister by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond. Essentially a traditional middle-class crisis drama, it’s mature, seriously moving, and the two leads have mesmerising authority.
More demanding but utterly sublime, was Days, by Taiwanese master of slow cinema Tsai Ming-liang. Pushing his minimalism to new limits, this was a pensive, dialogue-free study of a gay brief encounter between a man with neck problems (the perennially impassive Lee Kang-sheng) and a Thai masseur. On the screen, almost nothing happens; on an almost emotional, subliminal level, everything happens, with the barely audible tinkle of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight theme on a music box adding a wonderfully laconic end note.
Controversy came in the form of DAU.Natasha, the first feature to emerge from the notoriously ambitious art project by Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, which involved its non-professional cast living for extended periods in simulated Soviet-era conditions. DAU is about a canteen worker who undergoes brutal KGB interrogation; grimly claustrophobic and full of unruly drunkenness and graphic sex (both seem to be real), it’s a gruelling rather than edifying experience. But it could well bag an acting award for lead Natasha Berezhnaya, not least for holding her nerve beyond the call of duty.
It wasn’t the strangest competition entry: that was Siberia, by wild-man auteur Abel Ferrara. Some admired the chutzpah of this spiritual quest, in which Willem Dafoe treks with a team of huskies across the windblown expanses of his psyche in search of redemption and his dead dad (also played by Dafoe). I’ll refrain from a full verdict, as I lost patience and left after an hour, which means I missed the talking fish.
But one talking fish per festival is plenty, and the tuna in Pinocchio – by Gomorra director Matteo Garrone – was more than unnerving. Roberto Benigni, who once directed himself as the puppet, now plays woodcarver Geppetto in a version that’s extravagantly kitsch yet true to the spirit of Carlo Collodi’s original story and Italian folk culture. With its grotesque talking animals and grislier humans, this Pinocchio is a baroque confection that could traumatise a child for life.
Among the earnest prestige titles that Berlin invariably offers, there was opener My Salinger Year, with ascendant Margaret Qualley as an aspiring poet who gets a job in the literary agency that handles JD Salinger, and receives life lessons from her boss, a consummately lofty Sigourney Weaver. Palatable but predictable, it’s essentially a literary The Devil Wears Prada (or should that be The Devil Reads Kafka?). And Minamata was about W Eugene Smith, the photographer who exposed a shocking case of industrial pollution in Japan; the solemnly urgent narrative was nowhere near as intriguing as the beret and beard combination donned by Johnny Depp, in a performance that honourably dialled down his usual eccentricities.
I wasn’t convinced by some of the festival’s more full-on performances, actorly or directorial. Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken starred Javier Bardem as a writer with dementia, and Elle Fanning as his daughter. The light touch that marked Potter’s 2017 Berlin success The Party was replaced by a sombre portentousness that Odyssey references did nothing to leaven. Elisabeth Moss played writer Shirley Jackson in Shirley, less a biopic than an imaginative psychodrama, but with Moss’s more histrionic tendencies boosted uncomfortably by the hothouse stylistics of director Josephine Decker. More successfully nervy was Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli, with Riz Ahmed co-writing and playing a British rapper forced to come to terms with his Pakistani identity. Ahmed’s turbocharged raps combine with nightmare sequences to make an emotionally intense, culturally provocative, very political drama.
Finally, there was a magnificently improbable surprise hit – a wordless black-and-white documentary about pigs. Gunda – by Victor Kossakovsky, the Russian director behind recent eco-doc Aquarela – simply follows the daily existence of a sow and her squealing, squabbling litter. There are some cows too, and some scrawnily charismatic chickens, but it’s mainly the pigs’ film, and the lyrical camerawork and vividly oinky sound design make this seemingly banal topic yield revelatory insights into what it might mean to be an animal – and therefore, indirectly, into the human condition.
Joaquin Phoenix has attached himself as executive producer, and Paul Thomas Anderson has been raving about Gunda too – although there’s no truth in the rumour that he’s planning to remake it under the title There Will Be Mud.
Source: The Guardian