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Berlinale round up

Ekkehard Knörer rounds up the tops and flops of the Berlin International Film Festival 2005

The Berlinale which ran from Febrary 10-20, has three main sections: the Panorama which presents new works by well-known directors, showcases debut films and exciting new discoveries; the International Forum of New Cinema with avant-garde and experimental films, essays, reportages and yet-to-be-discovered cinematographers; and the Competition where major international world and European premieres are shown. The Golden Bear for the best film in the competition went to "U-Carmen eKhayelitsha" directed by Marc Dornford-May.

This was the Berlinale of the Chinese film. In recent years plenty of interesting and enlightening underground films have come out of China, but now the emerging independent scene is starting to produce films of real artistic excellence. And now that stars of the so-called fifth generation such as Zhang Yimou und Chen Kaige have lost favour with international critics after making overly conformist Hollywood and martial arts spectacles, the West is starting to notice films that are strong-headed enough to escape the Chinese censors relatively unscathed.

The greatest surprise was a miniature masterpiece in the Forum section from Peking film student Liu Jiayin. "Oxhide" is not your typical home movie. Liu Jiayin's parents might play her parents, her flat might be her flat and her cat her cat, but the young director's extraordinary vision transforms this rather obvious idea into a work of art. The film consists of 23 shots filmed with a fixed camera. The framing is as radical as it is stunning. One never gets a sense of the flat as a whole, and the protagonists are never shown entirely. The brilliance of "Oxhide" lies in how it simultaneously shows the visible and the invisible. The breathtaking confidence with which the film arranges the family for the camera lifts it above mere representation and turns it into art. When talking to the audience after the film, the 23-year-old filmmaker stood utterly fearless on the stage, like some unknown provincial chess player who, having just beaten Kasparov, says nonchalantly: "You just have to make the right moves". Absolutely. Liu Jiayin won the Caligari prize in the Forum section of the festival.

"Kekexili" by Lu Chuan is more ambitious than "Oxhide", if not as beautifully crafted. Set in the mountains of Tibet, the film is about a well-meaning group of environmentalists and their struggle to prevent the mass slaughter of antelopes in the region. Antelope hides are a source of income for the farmers in an otherwise economically barren region. Kekexili lies over 5,000 metres above sea level. There are no trees or shrubs, only sand, wind, snow and ice. It is cold, the rivers are a frozen mud-bath, and if a car breaks down in the middle of nowhere it can mean death. Lu Chuan's avoidance of certain script conventions makes the death and decay, wind and weather, and the saving of Tibetan antelopes far more moving than one could ever have imagined.

Another impressive Forum film was the documentary "Before the Flood" by Li Yi-Fan and Yan Yu, which traces the last weeks of a dying city. The town of Fengjie which so inspired many great poets is about to be flooded as part of a project to construct the vast Three Gorges embankment damn. As the new Fengjie is sketched out on the drawing board, the filmmakers observe the preparations for the resettlement with hard-nosed exactness. The film concentrates on just a few people, a warden with doubts about his future, and an Anglican church and its executive committee which is embroiled in endless squabbling over money. As the arguments drone on, we become aware – it almost seems unintentional – of the sound of an abacus, click-clack, click-clack. In fact this would be a fitting summary of the film: a great flood and the clicking of the abacus. The film makes no great drama of the situation. The filmmakers observe with care and respect how the inhabitants of this legendary town face their destiny without despair. The jury awarded the film the renowned Wolfgang Staudte prize.

Other Forum highlights were less surprising, with new films by old masters. James Benning's "13 lakes" and "10 Skies" showed anyone in the audience prepared to remain in the cinema how to hear and see until they were beside themselves with happiness. Both films show no more and yet no less than their titles promise: thirteen or ten ten-minute fixed camera shots of lakes and skies. There is no direction except in a literal sense, through the camera, which frames the scene in space and time. A slope is a slope, the moon is the moon, the lakes and skies are ordinary lakes and skies. What the viewer becomes aware of with the passing of time, however, is the act of experiencing. Benning's films show that intoxication can be reached through pure perception.

French photographer and director Raymond Depardon's documentary "Profils Paysans" is the second part of his ten-year observation of peasant life in provincial France. Many productions could learn from the documentary. The unobtrusive camera also remains mostly fixed, creating a space for the men and women in the film almost as if it were offering them a chair. With respect, curiosity and empathy, Depardon brings unfamiliar people and lives closer to the viewer.

Even in the generally unmemorable competition programme, one of the best films came from the People's Republic. "Peacock" truly deserved to win the Grand Jury Priz, or Silver Bear. The debut film of Gu Changwei, who gained recognition as cameraman on Zhang Yimou's "Red Sorghum" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine", "Peacock" is the story of a down-on-their-luck family in 70s China and offers what most of the competition lacked: precision, impressive detail, and an avoidance of false niceties.

This year it became clearer than ever how festival director Dieter Kosslick's simplistic understanding of film's political element has had a disastrous effect on the Berlinale. Seldom has there been a more embarrassing blunder than year's screening of Lájos Koltai's film of Imre Kertesz' book "Fateless", with its disastrous combination of beautiful images and Holocaust horrors. Kertesz's book tells the story of a young boy who is deported to Buchenwald concentration camp and survives. What makes the tale successful is the first person narrative. The focus is strictly narrowed to the naive boy who does not understand what is happening to him. Unfathomable events are described by someone protected by his innocence. The author can talk about having had moments of joy in the camp. But only someone who has experienced this can tell of it.

This limitation to the first person narrative, depicting the world with pure subjectivity, is possible only in literature. "Fateless" objecitifies the subjective perspective and becomes a film of beautiful if kitschy images. In one of the most sadistic tortures in the camp, the prisoners are forced to stand outside in the wind and rain until they fall down. Those who fall die. How beautiful it looks in "Fateless". And how picturesque the falling snow, how strikingly framed the naked bodies. How homey it is in the camp. Even the maggots in the hero's knee are photographed aesthetically. The recurring soft fade to black which breaks through the beautiful images of horror is spine-chillingly elegant.

Unfortunately this disaster was not a slip up, but stems directly from the competition committee's selection criteria. Not everything with 'political' stamped on it is a political film. This is seen in "Paradise Now", a film about a Palestinian suicide bomber, which the majority of the press seemed to find laudable. With resounding conventionality and no sense of form, Director Hany Abu-Assad leads us through the last hours in the lives of his heroes. And I was so revolted by the soundtrack in the Rwanda drama "Sometimes in April" by Raoul Peck, with its Carl Orff-ish threatening tones, that I had to flee the cinema after half an hour.

Another stroke of bad luck to add to the programmer's cluelessness about aesthetics: for timing reasons, Hollywood was not interested in the Berlinale as a launching pad for its films in Europe. Volkswagen is said to have shown considerable unease when they heard how few stars there would be this year. And then art house films – at least judging by those in the competition - experienced a dismal spring this year. Andre Techine's "Changing Times" presents Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu and nothing more. Wes Anderson proves himself to a be a successful imitator of himself in "Life Aquatic" – not quite enough to make a good film.

Christian Petzold's contribution to the competition, "Gespenster" (Ghosts) was also disappointing. It is clear that Petzold, after "Die Innere Sicherheit" (The State I am In) and "Wolfsburg" is one Germany's major directors. And much of the German press actually believed they had seen the film that "Gespenster" tries to be: a great elegy of people missing and then finding each other in and around Potsdamer Platz. But at the end of the day, as the international press grasped, it is not. The film is about two girls, Nina and Toni. They meet, quarrel, and stay together until they lose each other again. A second strand of the plot tells of a mother who believes she has found her long-lost daughter when she meets Nina on Potsdamer Platz. The two stories rub shoulders in one film, sharing narrative tone, characters and location.

Granted, the soundtrack is wonderful, and beckons you to shut your eyes and simply listen to the film. The images are beautiful. Petzold and his dramatic advisor Harun Farocki balance the two stories skilfully. Actresses Julia Hummer and Sabine Timoteo are both excellent, and the film is intelligent. But it does not work. Perhaps this has to do with a story Petzold told at the press conference. A scene where you catch a glimpse of Berlin's famous victory column with the golden angel on top he threw straight into the bin. He refuses to allow chance to play a role, and possibly introduce a cliche, in his film. He wants to control what is visible in the film and the thoughts that can arise from it, down to the last millimetre. He does not allow the ghosts to mean anything other than what he intends. Christian Petzold knows precisely what he wants, perhaps too precisely. Maybe screen writers and directors shouldn't know everything. Maybe they should allow the wrong accidents to happen, and include images other than the ones in their heads. Only then can a story, and the ghosts, come alive.

Tsai Ming-Liang's film "The Wayward Cloud" is as amazing as it is admirable. There are three types of images in this sometimes silent, sometimes grotesquely bizarre film. And there are basically three films as well. The main film does not so much fall apart as constantly put off answering the question of how the three hold together. When it finally comes, the answer is extraordinarily unsettling. Film one is a love story, a sort of development of Tsai's "What Time is it There?". A woman carries a melon under her heart, a sort of comical but not terribly meaning-laden fetish.
Film two shows how pornos are filmed, starting with a melon which the actress hold between her legs as a swollen metaphor for her vagina. Then they get down to things without the melon. Film three is so to speak the unfolding of the metaphorical melon of the first porno scene.

At times the film pauses, then explodes into song and dance. First in the form of solos by the protagonist, and later with Tiller girls choreographed to winsome cantopop somewhere between camp and Busby Berkely. When these three films finally run together at the end, I could not shake the uncomfortable feeling that the distraught state the film aims to achieve with its unreflected pornographic use of bodies and images falls prey to the swirling chaos that results. With the last images, this undoubtedly most daring film of the competition moves into a moral grey zone and perishes as a result, because it does not want or is unable to separate its own curiosity from that of pornography. And yet, it was – next to "Gespenster"- the only film I saw in the competition that even merits discussion. Its winning of the Alfred Bauer Prize, which is awarded the most innovative film in the competition, is a logical outcome.

The awarding of the Golden Bear to the south African film "U-Carmen eKhayelisha" by jury president Roland Emmerich was a coup. The filming of Bizet's "Carmen" in the townships was not exactly considered a top candidate. I didn't see it, but no doubt it will be coming to a cinema near me and you soon, now that it carries that distinction.

The third spot, with silver bears for director Marc Rothemund and lead actress Julia Jentsch, went to the German drama "Sophie Scholl - The Final Days". It is the story of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans whose activities in the "White Rose" group against the Nazi regime resulted in them both being beheaded at a young age. The prize for "Sophie Scholl" was a given: the yellow and serious press all agreed and plastered her face on their covers. We quote Perlentaucher online magazine: "Julia Jentsch is great. Even as she lies and cries about her life and finally gives up to defend something higher, she never gets theatrical, she is always slightly reserved, a young woman of 21, whose saintly seriousness is actually appealing." So, it's a conciliatory conclusion after all.


Ekkehard Knörer, born 1971, studied English, German, philosophy and cultural studies. He is a freelanced journalist and publisher of the Internet magazine for film and literature Jump Cut.

Translation: lp.

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