Film Festival Review

How to De-Program a Festival? The 73rd Berlinale

Author: Gerd Gemünden (Dartmouth College)

  • How to De-Program a Festival? The 73rd Berlinale

    Film Festival Review

    How to De-Program a Festival? The 73rd Berlinale

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Gemünden, G., (2023) “How to De-Program a Festival? The 73rd Berlinale”, Film Criticism 46(2). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.4068

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27 Mar 2023
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Childhood and the force of nature: El Eco/The Echo by Tatiana Huezo

The 73rd Berlinale saw the return of glamorous stars, great programming, and sold-out movie theaters. In contrast to 2021’s restrained online festival and last year’s reduced version, the 2023 gala was marked by exuberance wherever the films were shown, from the Berlinale Palast to the many other venues all over town. A particular stroke of luck for this year’s Berlinale was the securing of Kristen Stewart as the Jury President. In her native Los Angeles, the Hollywood star has a reputation of being ‘complicated’, but in Europe she is revered for her forays into art cinema, such as The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper (2016, both by Olivier Assayas), as well as her portrait of Princess Diana in Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021). Her preference for black clothing, her pouty look, and an extra cool demeanor fit perfectly into the German capital’s mid-winter vibe. In the opening press conference, she stated that the Jury’s role, following the Berlinale’s tradition of “being confrontational politically,” should be to advocate for films that “de-program us and that jut out.”

As always, the organizers gave center stage to world politics, which this year meant not only the revolution in Iran and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also the fate of political dissidents in Turkey and Argentina. The two films centered on Ukraine were personally presented by their directors. Sean Penn was in town for his documentary Superpower, which features an interview with President Volodymyr Zelensky that was filmed on the night of the Russian invasion. Roman Liyubvis was also present to show his Iron Butterflies, a documentary that investigates those responsible for the terrorist downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July of 2014. He also briefly reunited with his wife and daughter, currently exiled in England, before returning to Ukraine and the war. His film takes its title from the butterfly-shaped shrapnel found in the bodies of the plane’s pilots, which indicates that it was Russian forces that killed the 298 people on board. Given the intervening year’s fast-moving events, Penn’s interview with Zelensky now feels somewhat distant, but Liyubvis’s research-driven project digs into the past to reconstruct a history that lets us make assumptions about the future. Especially remarkable is his footage of the extended efforts that Russia is making to spread false information.

Focusing on Iran, Steffi Niederzoll’s debut film, Sieben Winter in Teheran/Seven Winters in Tehran, provides an equally powerful documentary about Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was imprisoned in 2007 after stabbing a man to death who tried to rape her. After refusing to withdraw the allegations against the attacker, she was executed in 2014. During a protest on the red carpet, exiled Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, a member of the International Jury, gave a passionate speech asking Europeans to support today’s protesters in Iran.

Golshifteh Farahani (third from left) with fellow Jury Member Kristen Stewart and the Berlinale’s Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian

Consistent with Kristen Stewart’s wishes, the Competition featured a series of films that did indeed stand out. A critics’ favorite was Celine Song’s debut, Past Lives, an improbable love story between Nora (a radiant Greta Lee) and Hae Song (Seung Min Yim) that spans some 24 years. In the late 1990s, the two 12-year-old schoolmates have a crush on each other, but then Nora’s parents decide to emigrate to Toronto. Twelve years later, the two connect via social media and rekindle fond childhood memories, but the impossibility of meeting in person snuffs out any prospect for a shared future. After yet another twelve years, Hae Son finally travels to New York, where Nora, now married, has a career as a playwright. That encounter frames the film’s beginning and end, with the earlier periods skillfully interwoven. A central theme in the pair’s exchanges is the Korean notion of In-Yun, according to which our current selves are only the most recent incarnation of our past lives. While that theme is often presented in Asian cinema as mysterious or even ominous, it is here treated as a thought experiment that is viewed from all angles. Yet there’s nothing cerebral in this sensitive, carefully calibrated film, which uses small gestures to devastating effect. A playwright by trade, Song has crafted a screenplay that contains some of the most poignant writing I know to express the experience of migrants, and the balance between romance and pragmatism is carefully maintained throughout, turning Nora and Hae Song’s relationship into a messy conundrum of hope, illusion, and acceptance. John Magaro as Nora’s novelist husband Arthur makes a big impact in a small role.

Interrupted Romance: Celine Song’s Past Lives

It’s hard to see why this film was completely overlooked by the Jury, and why they largely opted for conventional fare directed by older (French) men. The most glaring mistake was awarding the Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance to eight-year-old Sofía Otero, a decision that seems misguided at best (what about Greta Lee? Mwajemi Hussein? Vicky Krieps?), and utterly irresponsible at worst.

When the Competition selection was first announced, some eyebrows were raised because five of the nineteen entries came from Germany. And indeed, two of these seemed out of place. Even a radiant Vicky Krieps in the title role could not save Margarethe von Trotta’s Ingeborg Bachmann—Reise in die Wüste/Ingeborg Bachmann—Journey into the Desert, a cumbersome drama about the Austrian poet’s topsy-turvy and ultimately self- destructive relationship with the Swiss playwright Max Frisch. And Emily Atef’s Irgendwann werden wir uns alles erzählen/Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything was a throwback to Dieter Kosslick’s years of directing the Berlinale, when middle-of-the-road productions dominated

The other three German films, however, all won Silver Bears, a remarkable achievement that, in contrast to other Jury decisions, did not meet with derision from the international press.

Trouble on the horizon: Roter Himmel/Afire by Christian Petzold

Winning the Grand Jury Prize for Roter Himmel/Afire, Christian Petzold surprised audiences by reinventing himself and taking his oeuvre in a new direction. Less suspense-driven and eerie than most of his earlier dramas, and imbued by more than a touch of Eric Rohmer, the story revolves around old and new friends spending a few summer days in a vacation home on the Baltic sea. While the film’s title does refer to a forest fire that threatens the woods surrounding the house, Afire is not one of the many recent releases to focus on natural disasters brought on by climate change. Rather, the fire serves as metaphor for the conflicting and fluctuating desires of the five men and women who meet more or less by chance, desires that propel the plot forward in surprising twists. Thomas Schubert, in a superb performance as the struggling young novelist Leon, and Petzold-regular Paula Baer lead a terrific ensemble cast. While she here appears in a more comedic role than she had occupied in Petzold’s Undine (2020), she nevertheless again leads a life with multiple layers. The film offers more laughs than Petzold had ever afforded before, but they are slightly undercut by a sense of irony or misunderstanding. Before we know it, this seemingly light summer tale moves in a more sinister direction and concludes with a baffling coda. The Austrian group Wallner provides a haunting score.

A fresh take on the tragedy of Oedipus: Music by Angela Schanelec

While Angela Schanelec may not have reinvented herself with Music, she certainly took her trademark elliptical storytelling to new extremes. The Jury made a strong statement by awarding the film the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay. For starters, Music has almost no dialogue. While it is loosely based on the story of Oedipus, Schanelec uses only a few key plot points and certain motifs. Accidentally killing his father, Jon, as Oedipus is called here, is sent to prison, where he falls in love with a friendly warden, Iro, the film’s version of Jocasta. On his release, they become a couple and have a daughter, but when Iro learns the truth, she kills herself. Rather than gouging out his eyes, Jon gradually loses his eyesight naturally, but he finds consolation in his daughter and in music. Covering some twenty years and progressing from a bucolic Greek seaside to urban Berlin (echoing the trajectory of Schanelec’s earlier film, Der geträumte Weg/The Dreamed Path, 2016), the film is considerably less cohesive than this brief summary suggests. Instead, viewers are challenged to weave a narrative out of elements that markedly stand on their own. Wide shots and singular images dominate—often displaying specific parts of the body—yet they lack any narrative context. A multitude of sounds, frequently from beyond the frame, create off-screen spaces that only our imagination can populate. In a particularly poignant scene, a lizard, appearing out of nowhere, climbs onto Iro’s foot, only to exit the frame with her as she jumps to her death. Also new in a Schanelec film is the significance of music. While in prison, music offers Jon an escape from a deadening routine, and it provides him comfort when his eyesight fails. Particularly the songs by singer/songwriter Doug Tielly, which appear towards the film’s drawn-out conclusion, invite a rare emotional release. By means of radical reduction, Music achieves a classic beauty that is all its own.

Rounding out the awards for this trio of directors who are often associated with the Berlin School was a Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance for Thea Ehre. In Christoph Hochäusler’s thriller, Bis ans Ende der Nacht/Til the End of the Night, Ehre plays a character with multiple identities—a trans between being a man and a woman; an informer for, or lover to, an undercover cop; and a pawn in someone else’s scheme or a master puppeteer. Despite the category of her prize, however, the only role she does not play is a supporting one—she is the film.

As for Kristen Stewart’s plea for films that “de-program us,” these works continue to be found primarily outside the Competition. Particularly the Encounters sidebar, created by Carlo Chatrian and now in its fourth year, presented radical and daring films—so much so that one wonders whether this should not be the real Competition. This year, a trio of films stood out that creatively blurred the line between feature and documentary filmmaking. In the Argentine production, Adentro mío estoy bailando/The Klezmer Project, by Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann, a hard-up Buenos Aires wedding videographer meets a clarinetist and invents a film project about the forgotten Yiddish klezmer music in order to be able to accompany her on a tour through Eastern Europe. She calls his bluff, forcing him to indeed make such a film. Traveling from Austria to Ukraine, Romania and finally Moldovia, the two search far and wide for musicians still familiar with this tradition. The few who still master klezmer are mostly Romani who lived close to Jews. What sounds like a somewhat contrived film comes alive through the directors’ ingenious layering. The duo also plays the couple in the film that they are making, interweaving footage of interviews and performances with scripted scenes that provide a narrative arc. In the process of filming, the two fall in love. Additionally, a voiceover narration by Leandro’s grandmother, originally from Bessarabia, tells of a gravedigger named Yankel, who feigns interest in the Torah in order to get close to the rabbi’s beautiful daughter Taibele, mirroring Leandro’s scheme. Throughout the film, the voiceover’s conjuring up of a bygone era indirectly sheds light on today’s Argentine society, and, in turn, on Leandro and Paloma, both grandchildren of Jewish immigrants. The light-heartedness thus introduced creates an interesting tension to the tragedy that the film chronicles, the irreversible loss of a people and its culture—a loss inflicted by the Holocaust but ironically accelerated, the film reminds us, through the founding of the state of Israel, when old European traditions were shed and Hebrew displaced Yiddish. Yet even though the few musicians who still know the klezmer tradition are by now very old, their vibrant and energetic music holds the promise of defying the odds.

Unlike Koch and Schachmann’s road movie of (self-) discovery, El Eco/The Echo, by Mexican director Tatiana Huezo, is a documentary deeply anchored in one place. The titular village is a remote speck in the Mexican highlands of the state of Puebla, where Huezo spent four years embedded with three families to chronicle the cycle of the seasons and of human life. The filmmaker’s special interest is in the children, who learn early to tend to livestock and work in the fields. They also learn about the ubiquity of death. The film opens with Luz Ma and her younger brother, Toño, helping their mother rescue a lamb caught by rising water. Later in the film, they will witness the birth of a lamb and the slaughter of a sheep. Montse, a girl in her teens, is seen bathing her elderly abuela (grandmother), and swells with pride when her mother tells her that the old woman is her responsibility now. Towards the end of the film, the entire village turns out for the grandmother’s funeral, honoring the woman who was the first to move to El Eco. While this cycle of life is common in observational documentaries, here the emphasis is not on how natural and given that cycle is, but on how particularly the children are shaped by it.

Tatiana Huezo and Ernesto Pardo on the set of El Eco/The Echo

Huezo’s acclaimed feature debut from 2021, Noche de fuego/Prayers for the Stolen, Mexico’s submission for the Oscars, had focused on adolescent girls and their mothers who are threatened by the violence of drug traffickers and built toward a powerful climax. El Eco also focuses on women, but unlike Prayers for the Stolen, it deliberately lacks the punch of the earlier feature. Still, danger is lurking everywhere—be it the drought that threatens the livestock, the torrential rains that open the film and trap a sheep in a quagmire, or when the men of the village set at night out to catch timber poachers that roam the woods. But the film never takes that narrative route. Huezo’s strength lies in finding images that express without words what the children are thinking or feeling, such as looking into Montse’s eyes after her hopes to participate in a horse race have been dashed. The film is strikingly photographed by Ernesto Pardo (who also shot Huezo’s documentary Tempestad, 2016). Often only at arm’s length from his subjects, he produces images that convey tenderness and sensitivity, catching moments of delight and profound empathy in an environment in which both nature and tradition create seemingly insurmountable challenges for the women. In contrast to other observational documentaries, though, Pardo does not hide his camera. While the children appear not to notice it, the filmmakers make no real efforts to obscure their presence. They have become accepted members of the small community in which they have spent a lot of time.1

The contrast between Huezo’s quiet, empathy-driven documentary and Ayşe Polat’s agitated thriller, Im toten Winkel/Blind Spot, could not be greater. Polat’s latest film combines genre filmmaking with the ambition to draw awareness to a political reality that is seldom talked about—the disappearance of hundreds of young Kurdish men in the 1990s after confrontations with the Turkish police. The film splits its story into three different chapters, each told from a different perspective and in a distinct style. In the first, a German film director and her cameraman arrive in a town in North-Eastern Turkey to shoot a news report about Hatice, an older Kurdish woman whose son was disappeared for political reasons 28 years earlier. The crew is aided by a human rights lawyer as well as a translator, Leyla (Aybi Era), who brings along Melek, a neighbor’s girl she is tutoring in English. Soon thereafter, the lawyer goes missing and Leyla informs the filmmaker that Melek’s father, Zafer (Ahmet Varli), is a member of the secret police. He offers the crew an interview in exchange for political asylum in Germany. This first chapter combines ‘objective’ storytelling with footage taken by the German cameraman, as well as more sinister videos from a smartphone camera, creating an atmosphere of heightened tension. A shocking event concludes this first episode, which, as we later realize, marks the end of the overall story. Melek remains at the margin, but she catches our attention through her psychic abilities. As the film progresses, these become more prominent and disturbing, adding a layer of the supernatural to the film’s disturbing realism.

In the second chapter, the perspective radically shifts. Rather than staying with the plight of Hatice and the fate of the film team, Zafer now becomes the focus. It is revealed that he was the one observing the Germans and his neighbor Leyla, while he, in turn, realizes that someone is also observing him. A cycle of paranoia builds towards a climax in the third part, which presents events mostly through the quasi-impersonal footage from surveillance cameras. The ambition of Blind Spot is to link the story of Kurdish suffering, repressed by the State, to the larger question of which images we can trust or not in our over-saturated media landscape. “I’m interested in the representation of trauma,” Polat said in an interview. “How do you capture what happens in the blind spot of our medial perception? And what tension arises between what is shown and what happens outside the frame.”2 While the film is not flawless—the finale ties up things a bit too fast and too neatly—it takes risks, both conceptually and in its execution.

One inspiration for Polat’s film are the efforts of the mothers of the disappeared, who to this day organize weekly protests in Istanbul, demanding information about their sons and their remains. These Kurdish mothers recall a much more famous group of mothers, “las madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” which formed during the Argentine dictatorship. In weekly protests, the mothers petitioned in front of the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires for the return of their disappeared children. In 1985, two years after the dictatorship ended, President Videla and eight members of his military junta were put on trial on charges that included unlawful detention, torture and murder. The trial became a true measure for the young democracy. It lasted from April until December and ended with convictions for five of the accused. The proceedings in the courtroom were recorded by two television cameras. El Juico/The Trial, by Ulises de la Orden and playing in the Forum, is a montage of the 530 hours of footage assembled into a three-hour documentary. The director and his team have skillfully condensed the material into 18 chapters, including a section about prisoners being thrown out of helicopters over the Rio de la Plata, the rape of women in prisons, and secret torture centers such as ESMA (Escuela Superior de la Mécanica de la Armada). In the film, some of the Mothers of the Plaza Mayo can be seen giving testimony in front of the jurors.

A witness giving testimony: El Juico/The Trial by Ulises de la Orden

The accused, just like the men standing trial at Nuremberg 1945-46, did not accept the authority of the court and denied any responsibility. They appeared smug and sure of themselves, and their frequent smirks were noted by the jurors. But El Juicio does not let the accused tell their story—that privilege falls to the victims and their families who, in moving and shocking testimony, speak in detail about kidnappings, hours of torture, or giving birth in prison. The TV cameras captured the witness stand only from behind, thus preserving the witnesses’ dignity and never exploiting their vulnerability or trauma. State prosecutor Julio Strassera called the trial a descent into a place “where the misery, depravity and horror reach a depth that one couldn’t have imagined beforehand, and afterward can barely comprehend.”3

The footage, miraculously unearthed some forty years later, includes no zooms or pans; it therefore has an objective feel that renders history ‘as it really happened.’ Ulises De la Orden’s film provides a companion piece of sorts to the widely acclaimed feature film, Argentina 1985 (Santiago Mitre, 2022), in which the charismatic Ricardo Darín plays Strassera. At the Berlinale, de la Orden explained that Mitre’s film can claim some credit in his country’s renewed interest in this historic event. “All of Argentina now talks about this trial,” he told the audience at the Delphi Film-Palast, “even Messi.” Mitre’s film is a powerful recreation of the tremendous challenges Strassera and his team face before and during the trial, yet that feature cannot match the direct impact of the seemingly unmediated reality presented by El Juicio.

El Juico can be said to fall on one end of a trajectory that spans from ‘pure’ documentary to ‘pure’ fiction, with impressive features such as Past Lives and Afire marking the other end. Taking their spot somewhere in the middle were El Eco and The Klezmer Project, as were several others such as Orlando, ma biographie politique/Orlando, My Political Biography, the first feature by theorist and writer Paul Preciado. These hybrid and playful films resonated most with me from this year’s Berlinale, and apparently the different juries agreed.4 It is worth reflecting on why there seems to be no place for them in the Competition. If we’re really looking for films that “de-program us”—as Kristen Stewart claimed—these are the ones!

Notes

  1. In a Film Comment podcast, B. Ruby Rich noted that in El Echo “every single person, every city council is listed in the credits (…) It is clearly not an extractive documentary.” https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/the-film-comment-podcast-berlinale-2023-1/ Accessed February 18, 2023.
  2. Andreas Busche, “Beharrlichkeit zahlt sich aus,” Der Tagesspiegel, February 16, 2023. https://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/kreuzberger-regisseurin-ayse-polat-berlinale-debut-mit-im-toten-winkel-9355121.html. Accessed March 7, 2023.
  3. Berlinale press materials. https://www.berlinale.de/en/2023/programme/202303113.html. Accessed March 7, 2023.
  4. El Eco won the Documentary Award and the Encounters Best Director Award; Orlando, My Political Biography received the Encounters Special Jury Award and Special Mention for the Documentary Award; and The Klezmer Project won the Best First Feature Award.