Film Festival Review

Trotz alledem: The 72nd Berlin Film Festival

Author: Gerd Gemünden (Dartmouth College)

  • Trotz alledem: The 72nd Berlin Film Festival

    Film Festival Review

    Trotz alledem: The 72nd Berlin Film Festival

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Gemünden, G., (2022) “Trotz alledem: The 72nd Berlin Film Festival”, Film Criticism 45(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.2471

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Opening Night: Celebrating the Premiere of Peter von Kant. Carlo Chatrian, Denis Ménochet, François Ozon, Khalil Ghabira and Mariette Rissenbeek (from left to right).

Despite everything—that may have well been the motto (or battle cry) of the 2022 Berlinale. While the 2020 Berlin Film Festival escaped the lockdown in Germany by barely two weeks, and last year’s edition was entirely online, this year the festivities not only saw the return of audiences, but also cast and crews, and some real star power, particularly from France. Admittedly, there were restrictions and adjustments: cinemas were only allowed to operate at half capacity; a strict vaccination and testing requirement was in place; and the duration of the actual festival was reduced from ten to seven days, with extra days added for the public. But the Berlinale could consider itself fortunate that the local governing parties fully supported holding a live event. After all, the State of Berlin not only makes the rules but also provides the lion’s share of the funding. The new State Minister for Culture and Media, Claudia Roth, and Mariette Rissenbeek, Executive Director of the Festival, fully agreed that it was vital “to send a signal to the entire film industry, to cinemas and moviegoers, and to culture as a whole. We need cinema, we need culture.”1

It was obvious that everyone was eager to be back in movie theaters, but the compressed format also presented challenges. Since both the Competition and the Encounters section featured roughly the same number of entries as in recent years, journalists focusing on those films barely had additional room to check out the Forum, the Panorama and the other sidebars where more daring forms of filmmaking find their place, and where gems often hide in plain sight. The films themselves also looked different, since the last two years have imposed serious obstacles to how, where, with what, and for whom filmmakers can follow their profession. Whereas last year’s lineup still consisted of many projects that had been in production well before Covid struck—I recall only one film with characters wearing masks, namely the Golden Bear Winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn—this year’s crop clearly bore the mark of the pandemic, both onscreen and off. There were noticeably more productions that used a limited cast and locations, and many focused on stories about families and couples. Perhaps that is one reason why there was a surprising number of love stories. Not all of them with ended happily, but many had an unexpected twist.

Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian, now in his third year at the helm, acknowledged the challenges imposed by the pandemic, but also insisted that the responsibility of the cinema is precisely to rise above them: “The film industry brought us face to face with numerous films that intend to reproduce that which had transpired during the last year, as though there were no other option. We have considered this and have tried to take it into account when making our selection, while preserving the artistic dimension that requires a film to be something more than a mirror of the state of things.”2

By and large, the program that Chatrian and his team put together did rise to this challenge. With François Ozon’s Peter von Kant the festival got off to a strong start. Fifty years after the Berlinale presented Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant/The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ozon’s newest film is more than just inspired by the original film, as the opening credits suggest. (2022 also marked twenty years since Ozon’s own 8 Femmes/8 Women, which was included again this year again as part of a special tribute to Isabelle Huppert, won its all-female cast a Silver Bear.) Rather, it is an extended homage that shows Ozon’s deep familiarity and respect for Fassbinder’s oeuvre, as well as an intriguing addition to the many films that have reflected on Fassbinder’s legacy, among them works by Todd Haynes, Oskar Roehler, and Nicolas Wackerbarth.

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Denis Ménochet and Isabelle Adjani in François Ozon’s Peter von Kant.

The film’s opening image features a huge black-on-red portrait of Fassbinder, and reddish tones dominate the loft-style Cologne apartment to which the story is confined. Successful filmmaker Peter von Kant dwells here, embodied by Denis Ménochet, who channels Fassbinder’s physique and mentality, with a touch of Peter Kern thrown in, to portray a sentimental but manipulative man-child. Peter falls hard for young and nimble Amir (Khalil Ghabira), whom he desires and exploits, much like Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) did with a young Hannah Schygulla. Ozon’s gender switching not only abandons the all-female cast of Fassbinder’s film, but the omission of the “bitter” in the new film’s title also signals that the cut-throat power-play Petra stages is somewhat softened here, moving it at times closer to a comedy.

As so often in a Fassbinder film, it is the women who steal the show. While she appears only in two extended scenes, Isabelle Adjani, as Peter’s former star and lover Sidonie, plays the kind of knowing, cat-like diva that Fassbinder would have loved. And when late in the film Hanna Schygulla makes an entrance as Mutti, we’re in the presence of a casting coup that truly makes Peter von Kant legit. After everybody has run from Peter’s anger and narcissism, Mutti comforts her son with a lullaby, and we feel that he has found the sleep that Rainer Werner Fassbinder himself famously deferred until after his death. In Ozon’s film, the German wunderkind comes alive again for one evening.

Apart from Ozon, the Competition featured a number of seasoned filmmakers, including Pablo Taviani, Ulrich Seidl, Claire Denis and Hong Songsoo, the latter two both winning Silver Bears. So-seol-ga-ui yeong-hwa/The Novelist’s Film bears the hallmarks of a typical Hong Songsoo film, which on a small scale all accomplish so much. Hong’s latest work again features a dialogue-driven scenario with few but complex characters whose layered identities are peeled away slowly and seemingly off-handedly. As usual, the setting is predominantly confined to cafes and restaurants, or here a bookstore and a park. And yes, there is one scene of heavy drinking. What distinguishes The Novelist’s Film is its overt self-referentiality. Most of Hong’s films are littered with reflections on filmmaking, but this new one, filmed in black-and-white, is explicitly. As its title suggests, it revolves around a novelist, Jun-hee (Lee Hyeyoung, who also starred in In Front of Your Face), who is preparing the adaptation of one her works. That work, however, is yet to be written, because Jun-hee is suffering from writer’s block, and her venturing into a new art is meant as an escape, or remedy. The people who cross her path, one by one, unwillingly reveal the more troubled person hiding behind her polite façade, as they become targets of her passive-aggressive darts: a bookstore owner who no longer carries her works (preferring books her customers might like); a film director trying to avoid a chance encounter with her (he waked away from a project based on her work); a poet and former drinking buddy who the novelist would rather not have met again. A seemingly slight film, it gains its weight through its delicate take on the insularity and loneliness of our existence. The brief final sequence, in color, presents a clip from the finished product—made by a filmmaker who can no longer write and an actress who doesn’t want to act.

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Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon in Claire Denis’ Avec amour et acharnement.

One of the most anticipated films this year was the latest by Claire Denis, Avec amour et acharnement/Both Sides of the Blade. Based on a novel by Christine Angot, with whom Denis also wrote the screenplay, the film stars Juliette Binoche as Sara, a middle-aged radio host passionately in love with Jean (Vincent Lindon), as the opening sequence of a blissful afternoon at the beach establishes. Jean is a former rugby pro who has spent time in prison, and he’s also the father of a mixed-race teenager who has been brought up by Jean’s mother, two intriguing subplots that vanish in the second half of the film. Into this marital bliss enters François (Grégoire Colin), Sara’s ex and the new business partner of Jean. At first a figure who lurks on the margins, all smirks and furtive glances, he’s brought back into Sara’s life through Jean, a decision he soon regrets, as Sara sinks into the sort of psycho-sexual obsession that seems believable only in a French film. Avec amour et acharnement begins promisingly, with suspense-driven allusions to a thriller and timely references to France’s current debate on race (in her radio show, Sara interviews former soccer star and author Lilian Thuram about white thinking), but in the second half the film peters out into a more traditional jealousy drama. Paired here for the first time onscreen, Binoche gives it her all as a passionate but deceitful woman torn between two very different men, but it is Lindon’s performance as a tender and vulnerable man that stands out, and our sympathies clearly lie with him, not her. The French title means love and fury, but Both Sides of the Blade is an apt description of Sara’s divisiveness (it is baffling why the US release will be called Fire). It references a song, which is heard late in the film, by the UK group Tindersticks, a frequent collaborator of Denis.3 Its moody and mysterious vibe fits Sara’s character well, as do the lines, “I’m falling down both sides of the blade,” though why exactly she’s committing this emotional suicide remains hard to fathom.

Some observers felt that the Silver Bear recognized Claire Denis’ oeuvre rather than the film she brought to Berlin this year. That may be true, but a prize at a major festival has been long overdue for this accomplished artist. As one of six female filmmakers taking with her a main award, Claire Denis was in great company. The Golden Bear went to the Catalan production Alcarràs, by Carla Simón, a film I missed because I underestimated the difficulty of getting a Covid test early on a Sunday morning. Fingers crossed that the award will mean international distribution for a film widely considered a worthy winner.

While Juliette Binoche’s Sara suffers as a woman wavering between the presence and the past, Meltem Kaplan, the winner of the Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance, very much lives in the here and now in the title role of Andreas Dresen’s film, Rabiye Kurnaz gegen George W. Bush/Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush. Combative, quirky, and with disarming charm, Rabiye Kurnaz is the mother of alleged German-Turkish terrorist Murat Kurnaz, who was held and tortured in Guantanamo for five years despite a lack of clear evidence. The title announces the kind of David vs. Goliath scenario that is common for films exploring of his kind of terrain (most recently in The Mauritanian). Yet while it suggests that the giant is none other than the American president, Rabiye and her lawyers eventually learn that the German government is the main culprit in this blatant miscarriage of justice. Visually rather indistinct and often resembling a TV drama, the film comes alive through Kaptan’s ebullient force; the disconnect between her naïve ignorance and her self-assuredness inserts a healthy dose of humor that floats the film. Her motto, “You set out like a Turk and finish like a German,” penned by Laila Stieler, who won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay, could serve as wonderful advice to all those meaning to foster German-Turkish integration.

The true bandwidth of this year’s Competition is perhaps best exemplified by the winner of the Silver Bear Jury Prize, Natalia López Gallardo’s feature debut Manto de gemas/Robe of Gems. By far the formally most daring entry, López’ film is in every respect the exact opposite of Andreas Dresen’s middle-of-the-road drama. Together with El norte sobre el vacio/ Northern Skies Over Empty Space, by Alejandra Márquez Abella, running in the Panorama (where I often find my Berlinale favorites), Manto de gemas is announcing a new generation of Mexican filmmakers who are building on the legacy Alejandro Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, among them Issa López, Tatiana Huezo, and Fernanda Valadez.

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Figure 4:

A traumatized Isabel (Nailea Norvind) is questioned by the police in Mantos de gema.

The plot of the film has all the makings for an entire season of the Netflix hit, Narcos: Mexico. Here is how the press materials describe it: “In the midst of divorce, Isabel (Nailea Norvind) settles in the countryside where she discovers that her housekeeper María (Antonia Olivares) has a missing sister. When Isabel offers her help, an unspoken pact to find the missing one is born between the two women. Meanwhile, Roberta (Aida Roa), the local police commander, hopes to rescue her son from the criminal underworld and ends up crossing paths with Isabel and María. Three destinies come together in a world of confusion and abandonment where, despite it all, the human spirit to rebel against misfortune persists.” With its scenes of kidnappings, duplicitous cops, and threatening drug dealers, Manto de gemas indeed references well-known tropes. Yet, as quickly becomes clear, “confusion” is the operative term in this summary, as López Gallardo is not interested in creating a linear, suspense-driven narrative. Rather than focusing on a single storyline, the film offers pieces of a puzzle that do not assemble into a larger picture. What is more, not only is the plot fragmented (too much so, in the opinion of some critics), but individual shots foreground seemingly random objects or disconnected vistas that perplex efforts to make sense, creating in viewers the same lack of orientation that also marks the characters.

A rural location also provides the setting for Alejandra Márquez Abella’s El norte sobre el vacio, a kind of revisionist take on the Western. Here it is a cattle ranch in the arid landscape of Taumalipas, not far from the Texas border, where family patriarch Reynaldo, or Rey (king), gathers his extended family to celebrate Easter. A hunting expedition, which opens the film, soon clues in viewers that the self-assured Rosa (Paloma Petra), will be more than a bystander; it is her shot that kills a formidable buck, but she lets Rey bag the trophy and collect the applause—a secret well-guarded by him and her. The trail of blood of the slain animal marking the way home to the ranch is just one of many ominous signs that more serious bloodshed will follow. Sure enough, soon real predators pick up the scent. Meanwhile, the patriarch strives to uphold peace, tradition and the unity of the family, while underneath a generational rift opens up between those who want to leave behind machismo and the myth of the rural.

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Rosa (Paloma Petra) in El norte sobre el vacío.

Márquez cleverly uses the sound design to convey a sense of dread and foreboding, while her camera plays with unusual perspectives and distortion to suggest altered realties. Frequent cutaways to animals looking on—motionless lizards, turtles, and snakes, and the equally immobile, penetrating gaze of the mounted hunting trophies—convey that Rey is clearly missing the signs that change is inevitable. When it can no longer be ignored, Rosa moves into the center of the drama—a position, we now understand, she occupied from the very beginning. Based on a true story, El norte sobre el vacío is a powerful telling of Mexico’s transition into the 21st century, marked in equal measure by the violence of the land and the survival of the strongest, as well as the promise of economic and gender equality. Shot on location under taxing conditions, Márquez’s film certainly reflects “more than the state of things,” as Chatrian demanded—it creates a window into what the future (of filmmaking) may hold.

Both Natalia López Gallardo and Alejandra Márquez Abella can be seen as students of the films of Lucrecia Martel. A Silver Bear winner in 2001, Martel’s La Ciénaga/The Swamp single-handedly redefined the venerable Latin American tradition of films revolving around the decline of a bourgeois family, territory also charted by the two Mexican films. As if to quote Martel’s film, Manto de gemas opens with a scene of children splashing around in a neglected swimming pool. But more importantly, it’s the aesthetic choices that signal her influence on both filmmakers. What stands out in Manto de gemas, apart from the visuals, is the sound design, created by Martel’s longtime collaborator Guido Berenblum soundscape. Loud and penetrating noises dominate, at times reaching uncomfortable levels; frequently sound and image do not match, further enhancing the sense of a life out of balance. López Gallardo’s own background as editor (including for films by Lisandro Alonso, Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas, her husband) also becomes obvious here, for her film is designed as a series of disconnected, stand-alone shots or scenes that evoke strong reactions in the viewer, none more so than a startling and violent slow-motion sequence that concludes the film. In Márquez’s El norte sobre el vacío major plot points remain similarly opaque, especially the ambiguous relation between Rey and Rosa, but the film follows a more unified narrative. What mattered to Márquez Abella, in contrast, was creating an atmosphere that is at times mysterious, ominous, or surreal, befitting the extreme violence that marks these parts of the country and the rugged way of life of those who struggle to eke out an existence on it.

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The Casting Couch in Ruth Beckermann’s Mutzenbacher.

But there were even more standout films by women directors. A festival favorite of mine was Mutzenbacher, by Viennese documentarian and Berlinale regular Ruth Beckermann, winner of the top prize in the Encounters sidebar. The opening shot prominently features a pink couch adorned with golden brocade, referencing that most famous couch in Vienna on which Dr. Sigmund Freud had his patients confide their secret sexual desires and anxieties. What happens in Mutzenbacher would have probably amused the founder of psychoanalysis, for the men seated on Beckermann’s couch are asked to read passages from, and comment on, the pornographic novel, Josefine Mutzenbacher, or The Story of a Viennese Prostitute as Told by Herself. First published anonymously in 1906, the novel consists of a series of sexually explicit vignettes that the now aging woman shares with her readers. Today, that controversial novel is considered a classic of pornographic literature and an important historical document of turn-of-the-century Vienna, but it is also widely criticized for playing down the violence of child abuse.4 The people we see in the film are here because they have followed Beckermann’s casting call for men between the age of 16 and 99 who are interested in sharing their thoughts about the novel. We watch them as they read passages describing seduction, sodomy and sadomasochism; some do so with troublesome relish, others with curiosity, slight embarrassment, or true discomfort. The thrust of Beckermann’s project emerges when she prompts her readers to share their thoughts on the text. As we listen to their responses, including vivid endorsements of ‘good old fun,’ musings why we talk about toxic masculinities but not toxic femininities, testimony about personal trauma and experiences of sexual abuse, or speculations about the state of love and sex in the age of online dating, we become aware how the novel has lost none of its relevance for charting the diversity of Austrian society.

Over the years, Ruth Beckermann’s oeuvre has re-invented what documentary filmmaking can be. In 2018, the Berlinale showed Waldheims Walzer/The Waldheim Waltz, which exclusively used archival footage to unearth the scandal surrounding the former Austrian president and United Nations Secretary General accused of participating in Nazi-sponsored persecutions during World War Two. While this film documented the systematic creation of alternate facts for ideological purpose, Die Geträumten/The Dreamed Ones (2016) imagined, in a more experimental vein, a romance between novelist Ingeborg Bachmann and poet Paul Celan, based on their correspondence. With Mutzenbacher, Beckermann works altogether in another register. As one of the men in the film explains, he followed the casting call because he was eager to meet the famous director, and he was willing to share his private thoughts because he trusted the integrity and work ethic of an artist he admires. I imagine that the completed film will confirm him in his belief.

For many years, the Berlinale has paid particular attention to films that blur the line between fiction and documentary form, and particularly the line-up of the Forum featured some stunning entries charting this terrain. Europe, by acclaimed documentarian Philip Scheffner, is a film that creates fiction from real life: Rhim Ibrir plays Zhora Hamadi, a young Algerian woman who lives in the French town of Châtellerault. When the film begins, Zhora visits her doctor, who assures her that she is finally fully recovered from a severe back injury, which for a long time prevented her from walking straight. It is summer and a new life could begin, but because of this clean bill of health the local authorities are unwilling to renew her residence permit. Physical pain is replaced by psychological distresses, as Zhora suddenly faces deportation to her native Algeria, where her husband has been biding his time for a chance to join her in France. As everybody in the city readies to leave for summer vacation, Zhora’s seemingly stable life, with a steady job and surrounded by friends and family, dissolves. The sudden vacuum in which she now finds herself forces her to invent a new existence.

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Zhora’s body as x-ray: Philip Scheffner’s Europe explores modes of invisibility.

Rhim Ibrir is herself an Algerian refugee, who, having recovered from serious injury, faces extradition. When Rhim plays Zhora, Scheffner explains, she creates a state-enforced fiction—she invents a person and a life that might be. And while Ibrir might be acting for the film, that act will not stop when the film ends; she will continue living the life she has just portrayed. For Scheffner and Merle Kröger, his regular co-author and collaborator, it was important to find means of expression that reach beyond the ways in which traditional documentaries frame their subject, namely as films ‘that talk about…’ Instead, Europe is a film in which the real invents the fiction, and the fiction impacts the real. One of the first shots of the films shows an x-ray of Zhora—the viewer literally sees through her. As the film approaches its final third, Zhora becomes invisible in a different way. We become witness to a story about someone who, according to the authorities, should not be there. During dialogues between Zhora and others, the camera holds steady, either on the person talking or on the one listening, avoiding the customary shot/counter-shot. The viewer is left to wonder whether what is taking place is a real conversation or a work of the imagination. “Europe” is the name of the bus stop where Zhora lives, right next to City Hall, but also the symbol of hope, promise, and rejection—a home that suddenly turns into fiction.

Fiction and documentary also intersect in truly stunning fashion in Mato seco en chamas/Dry Ground Burning, by Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós. Set in Sol Nascente, a favela outside Brasília, the film tells the story of an all-female group who became local legends by tapping into oil pipelines buried under their property and selling the loot on the black market.

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Chita (Andreia Vieira) leads a motorcycle gang in Mato seco en chamas by Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós.

The cast portraying these gasolineiras de Kebradas consists entirely of nonprofessional actors who play fearless and formidable versions of themselves, intentionally blurring fact, fiction, and myth-making. To further enhance this mix, the film references a whole series of genres. The makeshift refinery, a sophisticated if surreal structure, belongs to the realm of sci-fi and dystopian fiction, as does the lookout tower where at night the women patrol with guns, with the lights of Brazil’s capitol illuminating the horizon. While the bravado of the bikers cites classics such as The Wild One (1953) or the 1979 Mad Max, the frontier mentality and glorification of the outlaw references the Western. Most memorable, however, are the long, intimate exchanges when the women talk about their dreams as well as their experiences of abuse, loneliness and time spent in prison.

The 2022 Berlinale may not make history for its outstanding Competition and extraordinary events. There were no (official) parties, receptions, or other forms of get-togethers that make a festival come alive. The stars mostly came from Europe, with Hollywood glamour almost entirely absent and Asian, Latin American and African artists also sorely missing. But the festival set a signal. It began when the pandemic was at its worst, and it ended when a return to “almost normal” was announced for the near future. It was heartening to see how grateful filmmakers were to present their films in front of live audiences, and how Berliners flocked to the theaters. For me, the people who truly deserve the Golden Bear are the ones whose courage, tenacity, infectious optimism and very hard work made this event possible: Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian; the many curators who viewed numerous submissions; the numerous staff who worked the theaters; and the medical professionals who politely took my nasal swab bright and early every morning. The extensive safety measures were effective and willingly accepted by almost all, setting an encouraging example how thorough planning, clear communication and effective execution can show a way forward, not just for this festival but for public life in general. If the Berlinale will only be remembered for the ways it defied the odds, then it will have been a successful festival.

Notes

  1. Berlinale Press release from January 12, 2022, “Festival With New Concept for In-Person Event / European Film Market, Berlinale Co-Production Market, Berlinale Talents and World Cinema Fund digital.” https://www.berlinale.de/en/news-topics/news/detail_115464.html. Accessed 02/02/2022. [^]
  2. Carlo Chatrian, “Exercises in Resistance.” https://www.berlinale.de/de/news-themen/artistic-directors-blog/standhaft-bleiben.html. Accessed 02/02/2022. [^]
  3. The official video for the song can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SfAu_MmvEw&t=14s. Accessed 02/20/22. [^]
  4. The novel is sometimes attributed to Felix Salten, the author of Bambi (1923), but while this claim remains contested it is widely assumed that the author was a man. Censored in Germany between 1982 and 2017, because it was considered harmful to minors, it was recently released in an annotated critical edition. There were several adaptions of the material during the German sex film boom of the early 1970s. [^]