Dieter Kosslick Takes a Bow: The 69th Berlin Film Festival
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After eighteen years at the helm, Dieter Kosslick ended his tenure as director of the Berlinale with this year’s installment, with incoming artistic director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek poised for a smooth transition. Over the years, Kosslick has received wide praise for his new initiatives and for making the festival more accessible to the public, but critics have also frequently taken him to task for mediocre Competition line-ups and programs bloated with too many sidebars. Not a cinephile by training or conviction—he began his career working in public film funding—he did not match the connoisseurship of his predecessor, Moritz de Hadeln. Yet where de Hadeln could at times be irascible, Kosslick was an up-beat entertainer whose self-deprecatory humor not only overcame his challenged relationship with the English language but also built productive relationships with important stars—George Clooney came frequently, with or without a film, and this year’s president of the Jury was Juliette Binoche. Kosslick’s initiatives were even more significant. Long before Venice and Cannes followed suit, he opened up the program to screenings of series, through which especially German films received a big boost. He introduced “Perspektive Deutsches Kino,” the sidebar that showcases the newest German-language films by younger talents, and championed German Competition entries such as Halbe Treppe/Grill Point (Andreas Dresen, 2002), Sehnsucht/Longing (Valeska Grisebach, 2009), and Gegen die Wand/Head-On (Fatih Akin, 2004)—the latter the first German film to win a Golden Bear since Fassbinder in 1982. Most importantly, perhaps, Kosslick rejuvenated the Berlinale’s unofficial claim to be a political festival—Gianfranco Rossi’s refugee drama Fuocammare/Fire at Sea, winner of the Golden Bear in 2015, was an example of the kind of film he favored—and he made serious efforts to include more women filmmakers. Among this year’s 17 Competition entries, seven were directed by women, and the Retrospective was dedicated to women filmmakers from the 1960s to the present. One of Kosslick’s last official acts was the signing of the pledge for gender equality during this year’s festival.
Unsurprisingly, the 2019 Berlinale was a Dieter love-fest, with Binoche, Christian Bale, Tilda Swinton, Catherine Deneuve, and Charlotte Rampling hamming it up on the red carpet one more time with the outgoing director. But once again a mediocre Competition also brought into focus that Kosslick’s popular achievements have come at the price of artistic neglect. The opening feature, The Kindness of Strangers, was a sugar-coated feel-good movie about those left behind in the new global economy of New York City. How far the former Dogma auteur Lone Scherfig has strayed from her beginnings! Fatih Akin’s much-anticipated Der goldene Handschuh/The Golden Glove was a disgusting film about a disgusting human being—the less said about it, the better. And Elisa & Marcela, Isabel Croixet’s Netflix-produced historical lesbian drama, was picketed by cinema-owners who demanded that it be excluded from the Competition for its alleged lack of a proper theatrical release. Last but not least, Yi Miao Zhong/One Second, by veteran auteur Zhang Yimou, was withdrawn two days before its scheduled premiere, officially due to technical problems in post-production but most likely because the film ran into issues with the censors (making it the second Chinese film after Shao nian de ni/Better Days to be scratched on short notice).
The silver lining to this array of disappointing or simply absent contenders was the wider exposure that more challenging films were able to enjoy. Berlin-based Angela Schanelec’s latest feature, Ich war zu Hause, aber.../I Was Home, But..., split audience reactions into strong rejection and fervent admiration. Here Schanelec-regular Maren Eggert plays Astrid, a mother whose thirteen-year-old son reappears after a week’s unexplained absence. Scratches on his skin and mud on his clothes indicate that he may have been through a rough time, but neither he nor the film provides any hints of what happened. Even though the event still sets off a number of crises in the household, all centered on Eggert’s character, the film, made up of very loosely intertwined vignettes, offers little that can pass for a conventional plot. In one bewildering episode, Astrid haggles with a voice-less bike seller; in the film’s longest scene, she agitatedly berates an actual filmmaker about his “bad film.” The butt of her criticism is Dane Komljen, the director of All the Cities of the North, a highly experimental essay film on socialist architecture in the former Yugoslavia. “You have to see the whole thing,” he responds, quite reasonably. (If Schanelec included this rejoinder to persuade the audience to stay until the end of her film, she was not wholly successful. During the press screening that I attended, quite a few people left.) Interspersed with these episodes are recurrent scenes of school children rehearsing Hamlet, speaking with pregnant pauses and an affected diction completely uncharacteristic of student performances—obviously not a glimpse of the beauty of the everyday but a heightened realism whose purpose remains beyond grasp. Schanelec has always favored ellipses and lacunae—think of the assault in Marseille that is not shown, even though its consequences are severe—but here she takes her fragmented storytelling to new levels, a daring feat to some viewers and an act of obtuse defiance to others. The film opens with a wild dog roaming a rugged terrain, a hapless rabbit in its sights, then cuts suddenly to the next scene, set in an abandoned cottage, in which the dog tears apart its prey while a donkey quietly looks on—echoes of Bresson’s Balthazar? Viewers wondering about connections to I Was Born, But...., Yasujirō Ozu’s 1932 silent masterpiece, will surely have looked equally puzzled. Sadly, Franz Rogowski (last year a Berlinale sensation in Transit and In the Aisles) in a minor role, and Devid Striesow, in a cameo, seem completely superfluous. After the highly intriguing The Dreamed Path, with its intricate blurring of time and space, I Was Home, But... is a return to vintage Schanelec that feels like a step back, not forward. The Jury, in contrast, held the film in much higher regard and awarded Schanelec the Silver Bear for Best Director.
Overlooked for any award was Der Boden unter den Füßen/The Ground Beneath My Feet by the Austrian Marie Kreutzer, a precise and unsettling character study of a young business executive caught up between the ever-increasing demands of her high-pressure job and a family crisis. Valeria Pachner, in a breakout performance, plays 30-ish Lola, who works for a Vienna-based consulting company charged with ‘restructuring’ a business in the port city of Rostock, while her schizophrenic sister Connie fights for Lola’s attention in desperate phone calls from the psychiatric ward to which she has been admitted. When Lola remains unsympathetic to Connie’s reports of maltreatment and rejects her pleas for help, we wonder which of the sisters is truly dysfunctional. While more predictable in its plot line than the critically acclaimed Yella and the Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann, which also revolve around savage capitalism in the former East, The Ground Beneath My Feet impresses through its subtle character studies. It takes Lola quite a while, for example, to realize how manipulative her boss, Elise, with whom she has an affair, really is, providing a Me Too moment where none may have been expected. The rendering of the cold, functional anonymity of Rostock vis-à-vis the sun-drenched charm of Old World Vienna creates a deceptive dichotomy that the film’s dramatic ending will undermine.
As has become the norm for recent Berlin film festivals, the true gems were found not in the Competition but in the Panorama and Forum sidebars. Here, particularly Latin American entries had a standout year, with impressive contributions from Colombia, Guatemala, and Brazil. Having won a Silver Bear in 2015 for Ixcanul, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante premiered his second feature, Temblores/Tremors. Its title alludes to both the real seismic upheavals that occasionally shake Guatemala City and the emotional eruption in the life of Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager), a married man with a wife and children who takes a male lover. The film opens ominously, with Pablo traversing the dark and rainy capital to visit the family mansion on the outskirts, where the extended family and his wife, minus his children, have gathered. At first, viewers wonder what his transgression may have been—did he commit a serious crime; is he facing financial ruin; does he have a mistress—but it soon transpires that he has begun a homosexual affair. Once the truth is out, Pablo actually seems relieved and takes it as a sign that he can begin a new life with his new partner Francisco (Mauricio Armas, in a charismatic performance). But soon Pablo realizes the gravity of his action, as his deeply devout family makes its power felt and doles out punishment. In quick succession, he loses his cushy consulting job and the chance to see his children. As Francisco dryly observes, “You thought being a faggot would be easy? We’re not in Luxembourg.” It’s a line that provides a rare moment of comic relief in a mostly somber film, but it also points towards Pablo’s unpreparedness for the consequences of his decision. A man of faith himself, he becomes torn between self-determination and allegiance to his god and evangelical family. Ultimately, he opts for a kind of sexual redirection workshop lead by the business-like pastor (Sabrina de la Hoz) that fuses spirituality with a boot-camp routine. Like Ixcanul, Tremors shows how the desires of individuals clash with the expectations of the groups that surround them, but its outlook is ultimately much bleaker. The film continues an impressive recent tradition of high profile queer Latin American films at the Berlinale, including Sebastián Lelio’s defiant transgender portrait Una mujer fantástica/A Fantastic Woman (2017) and the more subdued lesbian drama La herederas/The Heiresses from Paraguay (2018), but Tremors’ portrayal of an unforgiving evangelism is ultimately more devastating than either of these.
The visually and sonically most stunning film I saw this year was Monos, the third feature by Colombian director Alejandro Landes (after Cocalero, 2007 and Porfirio, 2011). A Lord of the Flies-scenario with added guerilla warfare, Monos (which means monkeys) is a survivalist drama revolving around a self-styled militia of child soldiers, set in the remote mountain range of Northern Colombia. The Monos hold as their hostage a white female scientist (Julienne Nicholson), referred to simply as ‘la doctora,’ though we do not learn what they plan to gain from this. As their respective noms-de-guerre, they have adopted monikers such as Wolf, Rambo, Boom-Boom and Smurf, suggesting that their role-play and macho bravado stems as much from popular culture as from witnessing too much real violence. Where that violence may have originated and what made the youths take up arms themselves are never explained. “After years and years of civil war and internal strife in my country,” Landes commented in the Q&A following the screening, “nobody knows anymore who’s fighting whom.” Stripping away the political context turns the film into an allegory about a state of anarchy that could erupt anywhere at anytime, increasing its powerful sense of urgency and being in the moment. Jasper Wolf’s evocative cinematography contrasts exquisitely framed mountain vistas that dwarf the humans with hectic, blurred close-ups of the Monos in action. In the film’s second part, when the soldiers hastily relocate after a tragedy to the steamy and buzzing jungle, shots of mud-caked camp life are interspersed with surreal impressions that remind us of the absurdity of the entire scenario. The narrative, like the child soldiers, remains unpredictable throughout, keeping viewers on their toes, while Micah Levi’s operatic, throbbing score pushes the film towards its messy, violent climax.
A struggle grounded in a far more factual terrain is the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement’s efforts to reclaim land owned by wealthy landowners and the government. Camila Freitas’ documentary Chào/Landless records, over a period of four years, the group’s efforts in the state of Goiás to enact land reform after a sugarcane processing plant has filed for bankruptcy. Landless is filmmaking as embedded activism, as Freitas trains her camera on the daily business of the land occupiers, some of whom advised on the film or took on the role of the crew. Lengthy scenes of mundane tasks such as setting up camp, building observation towers, or watering the crops attest to the filmmaker’s intimacy with the protesters, while breathtaking vistas of the countryside create a sense of awe. Keeping its distance from the corrupt landowners, the police that protect them and the judges that side with them, the film is an impassioned plea for the hope and humanity of the thousands who make up the Movement.
Brazil truly had a banner year, with other notable films including Querência/Homing, a melancholy portrait of a cowboy working the rodeos in the hinterlands; Wagner Moura’s directorial debut, Marighella, a biopic of the revolutionary who led an armed resistance after a military coup in 1964; and Marcelo Gomes’ documentary Estou me guardando para quando o carnival chegar/Waiting for the Carnival, about textile workers in the town of Toritama, who survive their relentless self-exploitation solely through the brief escape provided by the yearly carnival.
None of these, however, was as audacious as Divino Amor/Divine Love by Gabriel Mascaro. Brazil in the year 2027: Divino Amor, a branch of the evangelical church, uses psychological and physical therapy to counsel couples on the verge of break-up. Joana and her husband cannot get pregnant, but do everything (really everything!) to help others succeed where they do not. In this at once utterly sensual and horrifying film, Mascaro lets his imagination roam freely, serving up drive-through confession sessions and his own take on immaculate conception. Mixing 1980s electronic dance music with faux neon-spirituality, this follow-up to the director’s widely acclaimed Neon Bull (2015) is a futuristic portrait of a society enthralled by a form of devotion and submission that seems not too far from what President Jair Bolsonaro may envision for his country if he gets his way.
Sometimes film festivals are memorable not only for the films you see but the people you meet. Enter Letizia Battaglia, the Palermo-born photographer who was the first female Italian journalist to publish photos of the victims of Mafia violence and bloodshed, and whose life and career are chronicled in Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia. While the film is a bit uneven and traditional, its subject is anything but. Still energetic and fearless at the proud age of eighty-three, the red-haired Battaglia with a tell-tale name has led an extraordinary life. She was a frustrated housewife until well into her forties, but then took up journalism to make a living. She found a mission in the process, namely to document the Mafia’s detrimental impact on her native city. While she began by photographing blood-stained crime scenes and traumatized family members, she then turned her lens on the perpetrators, often taking clandestine snapshots of the clans at funerals. “I always coughed a little when it clicked to cover up the noise,” she explained in the Q&A. But as the film also makes clear, Longinotto can go only where Battaglia lets her. The journalist’s strained relation to her daughters is briefly mentioned but then dropped, and her later affairs with younger artists are at odds with the gravity of her journalistic work. The photos themselves tell the real the story, and Shooting the Mafia gives them ample room.
The film’s loaded title may suggest that the lens may be more powerful than the bullet, but it is important not to forget what the consequences can be for those who report on the Mafia. Perhaps no living individual personifies this more dramatically than Roberto Saviano, the author of the acclaimed 2006 docu-fiction Gomorra, which details the practices of the Camorra clan in Naples. (Saviano’s book was turned into a widely-acclaimed film in 2008 by Matteo Garrone). After numerous death-threats Saviano now lives in hiding under the protection of the Italian state. The German police guarded Saviano when he came to town to present La paranza dei bambini/Piranhas, a film about fifteen-year-old Nicola, who rises from leading a youth gang to running a violent drug-dealing clan. What still seemed a game in Battaglia’s photo of a masked boy with gun was very much the reality of Naples at the time, Saviano tells us. Based on his 2016 novel of the same title, he co-wrote the screenplay with director Claudio Giovanese. Utterly different from the impulsive Monos, Giovanese’s focus on youths corrupted by power and money follows well-established patterns of rags-to-riches stories that end, predictably, in the tragedy familiar from so many other Mafia films. That it was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay surely confirms Kosslick’s idea of what political cinema means these days. But there’s good news for those of use who think that formal innovation also matters. In a recent announcement, incoming director Chatrian and Rissenbeck declared that a new sidebar will be launched at the next Berlinale: “Encounters is a platform aiming to foster aesthetically and structurally daring works from independent, innovative filmmakers. Its goal is to support new voices in cinema and to give more room to diverse narrative and documentary forms in the official selection.” And only a few days later the Berlinale followed up by making the long-time critic, author and curator Cristina Nord the new head of the Forum. The 2020 edition holds great promise!
Less than a week before the festival began, Kosslick admirably proved his political commitment again when his spontaneously added another film to the lineup, Das Geheimarchiv im Warschauer Ghetto/The Secret Archive in the Warsaw Ghetto (Roberta Grossmann, 2019) with the promise to provide free tickets for all supporters of Germany’s right-wing party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). Combining archival footage with reenacted scenes, the film tells story of a secret archive founded in the ghetto in 1941 by the young Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum that was meant to document the richness of Jewish life for future generations. Its remnants were first discovered in Warsaw in 1948, buried deep under the rubble of houses. With this addition Kosslick reacted to the members of the AfD who left the Bavarian state parliament during an official session commemorating the Holocaust in late January. “If the members of the AfD watch this film,” Kosslick explained, “and still tell me that all this [i.e., the murder of the European Jews] is a flyspeck (Fliegenschiss), well, then maybe it’s time for someone other than the filmmakers to intervene.” The film can be viewed through the platform of Germany’s ARD television: https://www.daserste.de/information/reportage-dokumentation/dokus/sendung/das-geheimarchiv-im-warschauer-ghetto-100.html. (In German without English subtitles.)
https://www.berlinale.de/en/das_festival/2020/berlinale_2020.html. Accessed May 7, 2019.