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If film festivals were banquets, the signature dish of a vintage Cannes would be a rich, piquant bouillabaisse; of a good Sundance, a juicy burger dripping with relish. In Berlin, however, we’ve learned to expect something more like a tofu bratwurst with extra broccoli. This festival tends to be stodgy and not obviously appetising, but you generally hope that it will at least be good for you. This year it was barely that, and the broccoli was decidedly wilted.
Everyone expected that festival director Dieter Kosslick, in his 18th and final Berlinale, would pull out some farewell fireworks. Yet 2019 gave us the dreariest competition anyone could remember. You can only feel sympathy for the jury, headed by Juliette Binoche. The opening film was shockingly insipid. Lone Scherfig (An Education) came a cropper with The Kindness of Strangers, an ensemble story about a bunch of outsiders crossing paths in New York and generally being endearingly nice to each other.
They include Zoe Kazan as a mother on the run from her abusive husband, and Andrea Riseborough as a nurse who wears herself out helping others, but neglects to be good to herself. Bill Nighy does one of his languidly offhand comedy routines as a Russian called Timofey, later revealed as plain Tim; you suspect it became apparent in mid-shoot that Nighy’s bizarre accent was fooling no one.
Among other clunkers, Yuval Adler’s non-competing thriller The Operative starred Diane Kruger as an undercover Mossad agent in Iran, and Martin Freeman as her increasingly flustered handler: an altogether indigestible platter of Le Carré-wurst. And Spanish director Isabel Coixet offered the dramatically inert, clunkily prettified black-and-white Elisa y Marcela, the true story of a fin-de-siecle lesbian couple, garnished with sex scenes that were all white-lace decorum – even with an octopus on hand to spice things up.
There was also something genuinely abhorrent on offer: The Golden Glove by Fatih Akin, the German director who won the Golden Bear here in 2004 with his Head-On. The subject was serial killer Fritz Honka, who chose his female victims from the alcoholic regulars at a Hamburg bar in the 1970s. With its meticulously art-directed squalor, the film revels in ugliness and ostensibly black-comic nausea, and generally shows leering contempt for its characters. With its plethora of schnapps and sausage, and kitsch soundtrack of schlager ballads, it also comes across as an expression of loathing for working-class German culture, making it both queasy and condescending.
There was a different kind of controversy in the last-minute withdrawal of One Second, by the Chinese maestro Zhang Yimou, on the grounds of “technical difficulties”. That is understood to be a euphemism covering disapproval by the Chinese authorities, here most likely because the film addresses the sensitive topic of the Cultural Revolution.
a ‘timely call to arms’. Photograph: o2 films
And yet another Chinese competition film, Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son, addresses the aftermath of that period in a complex and provocative manner. Set over several decades, it’s a labyrinthine family chronicle tracing the social and psychic repercussions of China’s one-child policy. Narratively perplexing and, at three hours, a daunting watch, this was nevertheless the one truly ambitious title I saw in competition.
By contrast, two major names offered watchable but rather academic items. The prolific François Ozon put his impishness aside with the solid but unthrilling By the Grace of God, a docudrama about a group of men seeking redress for childhood abuse by a priest. Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones told the story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, whose report on the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s inspired George Orwell’s Animal Farm. James Norton excels in an unshowy lead performance, and the section detailing his journey is a panorama of wintry bleakness and genuine lived horror.
There was also one out-of-competition blast: Marighella, by the Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, of Narcos and favela drama Elite Squad, Berlin’s Golden Bear of 2008. Its subject is Carlos Marighella, who led a militant cell against Brazil’s dictatorship in the 60s. Singer/actor Seu Jorge is intensely authoritative in the lead, Moura directs with vim and commitment, in the vein of The Battle of Algiers, and Marighella comes across as a timely, impassioned call to arms as the Bolsonaro regime sets up shop.
Finally, Varda by Agnès was essentially a filmed masterclass, with French doyenne Agnès Varda, now 90, proving that it’s possible both to have longevity and to constantly reinvent yourself. With the festival’s new artistic director, Carlo Chatrian, coming in next year from experimentally leaning festival Locarno, it’s a lesson that the Berlinale is likely to take to heart.
The best of Berlin
Best discovery A hit direct from Sundance: Alejandro Landes’s Monos, a fiery Colombian drama, realist but with a hallucinatory twist, about a group of teenage guerrillas stationed in the wilderness. British composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin) offers a score heavy with timpani and ’copter-blade throbs, to match the intensity of this junior Apocalypse Now.
In competition: Valerie Pachneras an executive unravelling in The Ground Beneath My Feet, a promising Austrian psychodrama by Marie Kreutzer. And in Joanna Hogg’s Sundance hit The Souvenir, Honor Swinton Byrne’s gauche film student heroine, and Tom Burke, doing the ultimate dissolute posh boy.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Rob Garver’s portrait of the influential, combative film critic, maker of reputations and ruthless scourge of mediocrity. She would not have been amused by this year’s Berlinale.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Berlinale 2019 roundup – from bad to wurst | Berlin film festival 2019