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An ominous embrace: Paula Beer as water nymph in Christian Petzold’s Undine.
An ominous embrace: Paula Beer as water nymph in Christian Petzold’s Undine.

With the new team of artistic director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek at the helm of the 2020 Berlinale, all eyes were on the changes that have been made. By and large, the new directors honored the festival’s history and traditions while at the same time making the unwieldy program a bit more manageable by trimming some of the sprawling sidebars (the Culinary Cinema and the Native Cinema are gone) and also the overall number of films (from 400 to 340). Among the key innovations was Encounters, a new juried sidebar, modelled after Cannes’ “Un certain regard” and Venice’s “Orizzonti,” that clearly bears Chatrian’s imprint. “For this section,” the program explained, “the primary criteria are courage and the search for a new language, even with borrowings from the past.” Featured here were veterans like Alexander Kluge, rising US indie director Josephine Decker, acclaimed auteurs like Cristi Puiu, and first-time directors such as Melanie Waelde, from Germany. And indeed, some of the most memorable films were screened in Encounters, making some observers wonder whether the new section had weakened the Competition, as well as the contours of the Panorama and the Forum.

A big part of the Berlinale’s tradition is its commitment to political films, but politics crept into this year’s edition in particularly shocking form. The very same day that the Competition line-up was announced, news of a very different kind made the headlines. The German weekly Die Zeit reported that Alfred Bauer, who had directed the Berlinale from its inaugural edition in 1951 until 1976, had been a high-ranking Nazi working directly under Goebbels. As such, he oversaw important personnel decisions, including which film professionals and actors could be freed from active duty at the front and which could not. While it was previously known that Bauer had been employed in the Reichsfilmkammer, the extent of his duties was not. The Berlinale reacted right away by suspending the prize that was named after him and given each year to the film that opens up new perspectives, and by commissioning an external team of historians to fully investigate Bauer’s past.[1]

But things took an even uglier turn. On the eve of the Berlinale, a horrendous hate crime targeting a shisha bar claimed the lives of nine people in the city of Hanau, near Frankfurt. A neo-Nazi going on a rampage in 2020, and a former Nazi commemorated for years by a prestigious prize—the continuities are indeed frightening. During the opening ceremony, the organizers recognized the Hanau victims with a minute of silence and defended the values and the vision of the festival, most impressively so Monika Grütters, Minister of State for Culture and the Media, who reminded her audience that artistic freedom and tolerance are values that particularly film can and must uphold.

Actor and director Maryam Zaree (left) leads a protest in solidarity with the victims of the Hanau killings on the opening night of the Berlinale.
Actor and director Maryam Zaree (left) leads a protest in solidarity with the victims of the Hanau killings on the opening night of the Berlinale.

The films that followed did make good on Grütter’s promise that the festival must be an advocate against isolation and discrimination; many films this year championed the hidden, the unknown and the marginal. With 18 films from 18 production countries, five of them directed by women, the Competition featured a particularly diverse line-up. In my view, there were several standout features, two of them by American women directors: Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, a fresh take on the Western frontier of the nascent United States in the 1820s, and Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, by Eliza Hittman, a drama about a pregnant teenager fighting for her rights. When the Iranian film Sheytan vojud nadarad/There is No Evil by Mohammad Rasoulof, a four-episode contemplation on the death penalty, took the Golden Bear for Best Film, many felt that this was primarily a political choice, reminiscent of the Kosslick era. It marked the third Iranian film to win the top prize since 2011, and, like Taxi (Jafar Panahi, 2015), it was yet another film whose director was barred from traveling to Berlin.

King-Lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro) as unusual entrepreneurs in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow.
King-Lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro) as unusual entrepreneurs in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow.

To me, the truly political films were the ones that sought to address ‘big’ questions on a smaller and more precise scale, demanding—and rewarding!—attention to details. Foremost among them was First Cow, strangely overlooked by the jury. It marked Reichardt’s return to Oregon, her favorite terrain and the setting of her only other period piece, Meek’s Cutoff. The earlier film was a revisionist Western that followed early settlers on the Oregon trail, but First Cow distances itself even more from the genre. Shot in an old-fashioned Academy format, its unlikely heroes are a cook from Maryland, nick-named Cookie (John Magaro), and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese on the run from Russian fur trappers. Trying to survive, the two underdogs strike up an improbable friendship and an even more unlikely business partnership. Most of Reichardt’s films tell stories from the perspective of women, often played by Michelle Williams, and this male duo also maintains a strikingly feminine touch: surrounded by loud-mouthed, brawling trappers, Cookie and King-Lu are averse to violent confrontations, and the film devotes considerable screen-time to their shared housekeeping chores, the foraging for mushrooms, and the selling of homemade baked goods—the latter made with milk stolen from the titular cow, the sole representative of its species in the Western territories. Hardly the sort of crime that propels a more conventional drama, the theft is the catalyst that sets the meagre plot in motion. Clearly, what matters to Reichardt is not high drama but a carefully observed portrait of a quiet humanism, set against the backdrop of a terrain at the cusp of dramatic change. While still largely an unsettled place, civilization—or to be more precise: capitalism—is gaining a tenuous foothold. Already, the native population has been displaced or forced into service, and the exploitation of the resources of the new territory is in full swing. Sustainability is of no concern; “there will always be beavers,” promises a wealthy Englishman. It’s a pre-currency barter society, but in the end everybody sells to, and buys from, the company store. Since the film opens with the present-day discovery of a shallow grave, we know that Cookie’s and King-Lu’s business venture has no real future, but suspense is not what First Cow is really after.

Determined to get out of Pennsylvania: Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) in Eliza Hittman’s Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always.
Determined to get out of Pennsylvania: Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) in Eliza Hittman’s Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always.

A close friendship, in this case between cousins Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and Skylar (Talia Ryder), is also at the heart of Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, winner of the Special Jury Prize and Eliza Hittman’s third feature (after It Felt Like Love [2013] and Beach Rats[2017]). Even more so than the men in Reichardt’s film, the girls communicate mostly with glances, gestures, and unspoken words. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart (also behind the camera for the Brazilian Competition entry Todo os mortos/All the Dead Ones) and her handheld camera are always close to Autumn, following her every step as she leaves her small hometown in Pennsylvania with Skylar to get an abortion in New York City. Stripped of any melodrama, many of the film’s strongest scenes play out on Autumn’s expressive face, which registers memories of harassment and trauma with the slightest twitch, forcing us to imagine the true depth of her abuse. A precise study of a woman’s struggle to have control over her body and of the everyday sexual aggression she deals with—be it by a jerk calling her a “slut” when she performs in her high school or a pervert masturbating on the New York subway—Hittman’s film is never concerned with the morality of Autumn’s predicament; instead, her odyssey becomes an allegory about the repressive state of things and closed minds in present-day America

The Competition also featured three German-language entries, all set in Berlin. The most ambitious in scale was a new film adaptation by Burhan Qurbani of Alfred Döblin’s modernist masterpiece novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz. While Döblin’s Franz Biberkopf, freshly released from prison, becomes a victim of class conflict in the rapidly changing Berlin of the 1920s, Qurbani’s Francis (Welket Bungué), a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, washes up on the shores of Europe in hopes of finding a foothold in the German capital. He has come to stay, and he proudly asserts that he embodies “a new Germany.” Qurbani transposes Döblin’s focus on the working class onto the global economic crisis that forces Francis and thousand like him to flee their homes to find a new identity elsewhere. Like Franz, Francis strives hard to stay true to his principles until Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch) enters the scene. Schuch’s subtly unsettling performance as a soft-spoken psychopath—with obvious nods towards Gottfried John’s role in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s earlier adaptation of the novel—is the true driver of Qurbani’s Berlin Alexanderplatz; when he disappears from the story for longer spells, we hope for, and dread, his return. Yet Schuch’s performance is the only allusion to Fassbinder’s masterpiece. In contrast to this dark, 15-hour television chamber-play, Qurbani’s three-hour-version paints its canvas in bold colors, with loud dancefloor music and enigmatic flashbacks to a slaughter scene in Francis’ village (leaving it open if he is the butcher or the butchered). These jumps between past and present, moods, and tonalities convey a lack of trust in the director’s own gift of storytelling. Less would have been more.

Berlin Alexanderplatz could not fully convince, but Schwesterlein/My Little Sister, by Swiss directing duo Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, disappointed. Set around Berlin’s Schaubühne, a stellar cast headed up by Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger could not save a film that suffers from a script with improbable subplots and a random switching of locations between Berlin and the Swiss Alps. Among these Berlin-centered films, it fell to Christian Petzold and his romantic love story Undine to mark a highpoint. Again uniting Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer (who won a deserved Silver Bear for Best Actress), this is Petzold’s second film to use these actors’ synergy to maximum effect. If Transit (2018) inhabits the space between past and present, Undine straddles the realm of the supernatural and the real. Beer plays a Berlin-based tour guide who lectures about the city’s urban history, yet she clearly is bound by the laws of her namesake’s fairytale, according to which the water nymph can marry a mortal man, but if he’s unfaithful, he must die. When in the opening scene Undine’s boyfriend breaks up with her, she quietly warns him to reconsider, because if he leaves her, she’ll have to kill him. Undine is one of many Petzold’s “Halbwesen,” a creature that inhabits two spheres at the same time (as do all the protagonists of his so-called ghost trilogy, comprised of The State I Am In [2002], Ghosts [2005], and Yella 2007]), yet less rooted in the here and now than her precursors. Distanced and aloof in her professional life, she goes all out in romance. No wonder Christoph (Rogowski) falls for her, as he’s also a creature of the underwater realm—an industrial diver who, Petzolds explains, “looks like a mixture of Jules Verne and 2001.”[2] Smitten, he fails to notice that Undine has no friends and that her life is strangely empty and ungrounded. If this all sounds hokey, be assured—Undine is a deft shape-changer of a film that makes equal space for allegories of urban development, exploding aquariums and the Bee Gees.

Together with Reichardt and Hittman, Petzold clearly saved the Competition from a sub-par performance. Yet because of its many duds (particularly disappointing were the films by old-timers like Abel Ferrara and Benoit Delépine), attention to Chatrian’s new sidebar Encounters became even more pronounced, making visitors wonder why a film like Decker’s Shirley, starring a mesmerizing Elisabeth Moss as reclusive American horror writer Shirley Jackson, did not compete for the Bear. A fair question—but be that as it may, Encounters certainly offered promising newcomers a coveted spotlight. Melanie Waelde’s first feature, Nackte Tiere/Naked Animals, is a quietly observed study in friendship that closely follows five young adults over an extended period before their high school graduation. Camilo Restrepo’s intense debut Los conductos, in contrast, packed a real punch into its 70 minutes of screen-time. Shot on grainy 16mm, it feels like a film from the 1970s, both for its look and its combative and associative style. Essentially an unclassifiable film, there’s no clear narrative or coherent chronology here, only bits that may add up to a larger story. The main character and narrator is Pinky, a mostly nocturnal and shifty character who roams the alleys and warehouses of Columbia’s capital Bogotá. Pinky wields a gun, uses drugs, prints fake Adidas shirts, which he steals and tries to sell, and philosophizes about the meaning of life.

Better Not Mess with Pinky (Luiz Felipe Lozano): Camilo Restrepo’s Los conductos.
Better Not Mess with Pinky (Luiz Felipe Lozano): Camilo Restrepo’s Los conductos.

The stunning opening sequence is a condensed lesson in how small means can achieve great impact. Edited together in a quick series of close-ups, we see: a man hiding in the shadow of prison cell; his hands holding a gun; a blood-soaked chest with a bullet hole; a nozzle from a gas pump being inserted into the tank of a red motorbike; a round stone being picked up; a motorbike lying on the ground. By the time Pinky speeds away on the stolen bike, we are deep into a story of murder and prison break. There’s talk here of Colombia’s past and future, of how the country should treat its children better, and of giant potholes that give way to subterranean highways, but Los conductos is foremost a visual feast of saturated colors and clever editing. When Restrepo was given the Best First Feature Award, his acceptance speech was equally brief and opaque: “I made a film about my friend Pinky, who thinks there is no future. And I want to tell him and all the young people out there: there is a future and it is yours!”

The seventies were clearly also a point of reference for the Forum sidebar, which was inaugurated in 1971 and celebrated its 50th birthday this year. To mark the occasion, the new section head, Cristina Nord, and her team decided to replay a selection of the original line-up from the first year. Yet this was less a gesture of honoring a tradition than a purposely created dialogue between two historical moments that may have much to say to each other. During our politically polarized times, when, according to Nord, there’s a “drift to the right and discourses of purity and ideas of social homogeneity” are gaining prominence again, she contends that “these historical films [from the inaugural Forum] carry tools that can be used to react to current shifts and imbalances.”[3] As Nord further explained, many of the films newly selected for this year try to establish connections between the past and the present, thereby creating moments of non-simultaneity that enable processes of (self-) recognition.

No film did this more literally than the Chilean El tango del viudo y su espejo deformante/The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, which opened the Forum. Its material was shot by Raúl Ruiz in 1967, but the director was unable to complete the film before going into exile in 1973. Now director Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’ widow and for many years his editor and co-writer, has given the material, which was recorded without sound, an idiosyncratic shape. Lip-reading experts were engaged in the recreation process, actors were hired to give voice to the original cast, and a score was completed. According to Ruiz, the plot revolves around “a man whose wife has committed suicide and appears to him as a ghost. The ghost follows him everywhere, under the bed, under tables. ... After seeing the ghost so frequently, the man begins to resemble her, becoming more and more feminine, in a spiral in which we discover that he was never really married and that what is really going on is his personality doubling.”[4] To make things even more surreal, at a certain point the image track begins to run backwards. A throw-back to earlier days, the present version straddles the times uneasily. Salvador Dalí would have approved, but it remains to be seen if such a hypothetical endorsement matters to non-film historians.

A mythical place, composed of color and sound: Lúa vermella/Red Moon Tide by Lois Pantiño.
A mythical place, composed of color and sound: Lúa vermella/Red Moon Tide by Lois Pantiño.

Not just this rediscovery from Chile, but many films from Spain and Latin America stood out this year. Anunciarion tormenta/A Storm Was Coming, by Javier Fernández Vázquez, about the abuse of power of the Spanish colonial rulers during their reign in Equatorial Guinea in the early 20th century, is an intriguing exercise in decolonization, using historical photos and archival materials to highlight the imperfect role of representation and its contested archive when (re-)writing history. A moment in time completely outside history is conjured up in the enigmatic Lúa vermella/Red Moon Tide. It’s the second time, after Costa da morte/Coast of Death (2013), that director Lois Patiño trains his camera on the rugged seacoast of Galicia, in Northwest Spain, and its legends of shipwrecks, sea monsters and a people that live from, and in fear of, the ocean. Working primarily with a richly textured soundscape and score, hypnotic colors and a dispassionate voiceover, Lúa vermella would make a haunting double-bill with Undine.

Only one Cuban film reached Berlin this year: Entre perro y lobo by Spanish-born, Cuban-trained director Irene Gutiérrez—a regrettable dearth, considering how important Cuba’s ‘impure cinema’ of the late 1960s was for the formation of the first edition of the Forum. Gutiérrez’ title refers to the time of day when the twilight makes it hard for the shepherd to distinguish between dog and wolf. Who exactly is friend and who is foe is also at stake for the three veterans of the Cuban army who in 1975 fought in support of the People’s Movement for the Liberation in Angola. Gutiérrez visits them in their homes in the Sierra Maestra, a near-mythical place in Cuban history from which Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their small core of fellow revolutionaries staged their guerilla warfare. Not unlike for Vietnam war veterans in this country, the services of Miguel Soto, Alberto Santana and Juan Bautista López have never been offially recognized, adding insult to widespread lack of treatment for war-incurred trauma. For some viewers, the film might echo Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), for which the director took Vietnam vet Dieter Dengler, captured by the Army of North Vietnam, back to the jungle locations where he suffered starvation and toture, with locals playing the part of his captors. Gutiérrez, however, does not encourage her subjects to reenact warfare. Instead the trio, now farmers again in their home communities, takes the initiative to show the director how they keep ready for battle. Meet the last defenders of Cuba.

The fighting never ends in the Sierra Maestra: Miguel Soto, Alberto Santana and Juan Bautista López in Entre perro y lobo by Irene Gutiérrez.
The fighting never ends in the Sierra Maestra: Miguel Soto, Alberto Santana and Juan Bautista López in Entre perro y lobo by Irene Gutiérrez.

A personal favorite of mine was the black-and-white, O reflexo do lago/Amazon Mirror, by Fernando Segtowick, in the Panorama section. Ostensibly a documentary about a reservoir created by a huge hydroelectric power plant built in the 1980s by the Brazilian military government, it chronicles the meagre lives of those eking out a living on the shores of the dam (most of them without electricity!). But Amazon Mirror is also a highly self-reflexive film that becomes an essay film on the role of the filmmaker in telling the story of those affected by a forgotten ecologic disaster. Segtowick’s debut film was one of 19 Brazilian films in the line-up of this year’s Berlinale (counting the shorts), making it a banner year for the country. In his opening statement as member of the International Jury, celebrated director Kleber Mendonça Filho spoke of a golden era of Brazilian cinema—the result of 20 years of hard work, which at the present moment is “being dismantled and sabotaged” by the current government.[5] Ever since Jair Bustamante took office as president in January of 2019, official funding for the audiovisual sector has dried up, and independent filmmakers, including Mendonça Filho and Academy Award nominee Petra Costa, have come under assault. Ancine, Brazil’s national film agency that was responsible for funding most of the current crop, has yet to announce a new round of applications since that January, and it is currently uncertain when new financing will become available again.

Pop Goes Ulrike: Paris Calligrammes by Ulrike Ottinger.
Pop Goes Ulrike: Paris Calligrammes by Ulrike Ottinger.

Among the many awards that were handed out this year, probably none was more richly deserved than the Berlinale Camera for Ulrike Ottinger, in honor of her lifetime achievement as feature filmmaker and documentarian, photographer, and painter. Since the 1970s she has been one of Germany’s most important filmmakers, and her films have been invited to the Berlinale more than a dozen times, most recently with Chamissos Schatten/Chamisso’s Shadow (2016). This year she premiered Paris Calligrammes, her most personal film to date, in which she retraces her own footsteps as a budding painter in the Paris of the early 1960s. The film presented her with the challenge of reconciling the story of “a young artist, which I remember, with the experience of the older artist that I am today.”[6] In her laudation, the Japanese-German author Yoko Tawada praised the uniqueness of Ottinger’s approach to ethnographic filming. “Ottinger’s films,” Tawada stated, “are for me the absolute exception whose existence I can barely believe. Usually I dislike films about non-European cultures. It’s always the same scenario, no matter whether it’s Cuba, Kenia, or Korea. In these films, you always see a traditionally-clad Buddhist priest with a smartphone. The voice-over then tells you about the immense contrast between Western modernity and indigenous cultures. But a far better contrast would be the one between a Catholic priest on his cell phone, because he honors celibacy and the smartphone was made in China.” A touch of that approach to ethnography shines through in Ottinger’s new film about herself.

Notes

    1. “Erster Berlinale-Leiter war hochrangiger Nazi.” Der Tagesspiegel, January 29, 2020. https://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/berliner-filmfestspiele-erster-berlinale-leiter-alfred-bauer-war-hochrangiger-nazi/25486112.html?fbclid=IwAR3lX3Ev3LvAnulc6IPrDgKHfDC37SYRwFXaLHf_1J_Heu2tbVy0xKjBt24. Accessed 01/30/20. The Berlinale subsequently published this statement in response: https://www.berlinale.de/en/home.html. Accessed 01/30/20.return to text

    2. Christian Petzold, “‘Ich schreibe im Zustand völliger Umnachtung’: Interview with Andreas Busche,” Der Tagesspiegel, February 23, 2020, 25.return to text

    3. Official Program of Forum/Forum Expanded, Publication of the 70. Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin, Berlin 2020, 3.return to text

    4. Agustin Mango, “Chilean Master Raul Ruiz’s Unfinished First Film Gets Restored and Scheduled for Premiere,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 3, 2019. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/raul-ruizs-unfinished-first-film-gets-restored-scheduled-premiere-1199320. Accessed 02/20/20.return to text

    5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTeCQRtiFqg. Accessed 03/03/20.return to text

    6. Director’s statement for Paris Calligrammes, Official Program of Berlinale Special, Publication of the 70. Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin, Berlin 2020.return to text