13/02/2006

Breathless 3

A Berlinale diary

See all our Berlinale film reviews at a glance.

Thomas Arslan: "From Far Away" (Forum)

A true documentary film is a somewhat tautological affair: what you see is what you see, the way it is shown. In the best cases this is not a deficiency but the richness of a documentary. It is and becomes and remains a matter, quite simply, of being there, with all the complexities implicit in this expression. And because it is a question of showing and not telling, few words are necessary. Thomas Arslan's "Aus der Ferne" is a marvellous documentary, as it provides things to see by offering a direction for the viewer's gaze without ever giving prescriptions. What the camera registers, "Aus der Ferne", from afar and also so close, is given to us in order to be seen.

Thomas Arslan belongs to a group of German directors - Angela Schanelec and Christian Petzold among them -, who have been labelled "Berlin School". What they have in common is an unusual level of aesthetic reflection. It makes itself felt - as an absence of cliché and stupidity - in every single frame of this film that begins in Istanbul and moves to Turkey's most eastern regions.

There is a signature image that turns up repeatedly, at every important step of this journey. It is of the outside world shot from inside a room. What one sees in these shots is an open window and a view, but also the window frame which is necessary to turn the "there" into cinema. A true documentary is a window to the world that never forgets that there is no picture without a frame or a framing device. The director's voice simply adds to this the facts about the place and the narrator's position.

Thomas Arslan was born in Turkey and went to elementary school in Istanbul. He came to Germany when his father left the country and did not return for twenty years. That much we learn about him. Turkey is the country of his childhood and this might explain why he prefers to show children in this film. Children immersed in play and activity, but also children at work and children reacting playfully to the camera's presence, thereby always making the camera's absence felt, the absence of that which makes you see what is there.

Arslan's camera moves very little. It follows and presents the movement East by filming the roads travelled on the way. Occasionally it opens places and spaces in wonderful sweeping pans, giving a sense not simply of an openness to the world's "being there", but also of the power of a documentary to make it visible - within the limits, of course, of the tautologically possible.

Ekkehard Knörer


"Aus der Ferne"
(From far away). Director: Thomas Arslan. Documentary. Germany 2006, 89 min. (Forum)



Don't call me victim! "Tough enough" (Panorama)


Like children everywhere, children in Berlin's Neukölln district love to play – games like "bang the cooking pot" (a popular party game not unlike blind man's buff). In this case, the rules are as follows: in a multi-storey car-park, one child gets an enamel bucket put on his head and another is blindfolded and swings a baseball bat around until he has demolished a large number of cars and knocked the poor bucket-headed victim off his chair. Neukölln, the toughest part of Berlin, is where the fifteen-year-old Michael (played by David Kross) ends up with his mother (Jenny Elvers-Elbertzhagen), who has been thrown out by her rich lover. Michael's fate is sealed when his schoolmates hear that he comes from the wealthy district of Zehlendorf and that he knows what a square root is.

Things only start to improve when the drug boss Hamal (wonderfully played by Erhan Emre) offers Michael a job as a mule ("I know the value of an honest face"). After this turn of fate, his iPod and his brand new sneakers are safe, no one dares to maltreat him any more. But of course, the small-time gangster soon gets out of his depth; things start going wrong during a trip to Berlin's Wedding district. Although the film is headed for disaster from the outset, when disaster strikes, it hits like one of Erol's punches.

Up to this point, "Knallhart" (Tough Enough) was above all funny: like when Erol's teenage girlfriend – the mother of his two children – uses the worst of all curses during an argument, calling him an "Opfer!" (victim) Or when Erol gets Michael to help him up the stairs from the underground with the pram. Or the laconic dialogue between Crille and Michael: "My old man is back." – "Was it very painful?". By the end, one is almost moved to tears of sympathy by these Neukölln petty criminals who always think they have boxed themselves out of a corner, only to find themselves in deeper trouble than ever. And who simply fail to heed the age-old message of the great Clint Eastwood: "Tough ain't enough."

Thekla Dannenberg

"Tough Enough". Director: Detlev Buck. Featuring David Kross, Jenny Elvers-Elbertzhagen, Erhan Emre, Oktay Özdemir et al., Germany, 98 min. (Panorama).


Terrence Malick's "The New World" (Competition/ not competing)

Terrence Malick's film "The New World" about the legend of Pocahontas is perhaps the most eagerly awaited film of the Berlinale. The German author Klaus Theweleit saw it ahead of the festival and accused its images of innocence of tending towards pederasty. His harsh verdict: "colonialist soft porn".

Malick's project is as simple as it is extravagant: the portrayal of innocence, at the zero point of American civilization, in the encounter between the natives and the first settlers, in the founding legend of John Smith and the Indian Pocahontas. The year is 1607, but essentially it is a year zero. And this is something the film suffers from, since everything in it is allegorical: the wind in the grass, the smile of the woman whose naming is so overdue, the whites, the reds, the chicken and the lake: everything is itself and more, innocence, love, Mother Nature.

The meanings Malick introduces are meant to be felt by the viewer. This is far from self-evident and leads – logically enough – to a certain aesthetic of coming to terms with history. And this aesthetic, surprisingly at first glance, is conventional in a plain way. This applies above all to James Horner's music, that is ceaselessly occupied with the production of pastiche. And it does so within tight limits, reaching from early to late Romanticism, from Chopin to Bruckner and Wagner, the latter for a sense of religious uplifting, something that recurs again and again.

It is characteristic that he does not make it as far, roughly put, as Gustav Mahler. For this is where quotations enter music, the possibility of appropriation that frames and questions instead of merely pointing outwards towards the emotional landscape of a different world. The innocence through awe that Malick is aiming for here comes at a huge price: a lack of humour and irony, of reflection and awareness of form and aesthetic tradition. Nowhere does "The New World" go beyond the formal idiom of Hollywood. Making Malick's undertaking more philosophical than aesthetic. But the eye of the beholder can and must not forget either colonialism or the obvious sexism of the camera gaze. Such forgetting would be aesthetic ideology in its purest form. And "The New World" would be nothing more than colonialist soft porn.

Ekkehard Knörer

"The New World". Director: Terrence Malick. With Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale et al. USA 2005, 136 min. (Competition / not competing)


Michael Glawogger's "Slumming" (Competition)

Michael Glawogger's "Slumming" is hard on the outside, soft on the inside, with a generous dose of humour into the bargain. The characters let loose on the film's essentially realistic but slightly surreal world include the drinker Kallmann (played rousingly but with discipline by Paulus Manker). He curses, scrounges, steals, does no good, and will do literally anything for a beer or a schnapps. They also include Sebastian from Berlin (not without his diabolical side; played by August Diehl), a young rich kid who does as he pleases, lending a cruel indifference to the crimes he commits, acts that do not make the world a better place. He meets women who he finds through chatrooms and takes pictures up their skirts under the table. His accomplice is Alex (played by Michael Ostrowski): together they go on expeditions through Vienna's underworld, and it is these forays into milieus where they do not belong that give the film its title.

One night the drinker and the slummers meet. Sebastian and Alex amuse themselves by taking this rum-drenched character across the border to a small place in the Czech Republic. Where he wakes up the next morning to ask himself and the world: "What's going on here?" This act – an evil deed – will have astonishing consequences. Kallmann meets Bambi in the woods and the seven dwarves (or something similar) on the ice, for this is the beginning of a kind of fairytale (or at least the soft side of the film).

Or a miracle. Someone with evil intentions ends up doing good. Although this is a matter of opinion, for now a sober Kallmann shovels snow for a pittance. Sebastian leaves to do his slumming in real slums in Indonesia, a little like his creator Michael Glawogger, who always goes out into the world for his documentary films, most recently "Workingman's Death". Sebastian may become a better human being. Guilelessly enough, the film certainly thinks so. And somehow I just can't seem to find fault with that.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Slumming". Director: Michael Glawogger. With Paulus Manker, August Diehl, Pia Hierzegger, Michael Ostrowski, Maria Bill et al., Austria, Switzerland 2006, 96 min. (Competition)


Good solid entertainment: Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" (Competition)

Meryl Streep howls. She howls like a coyote and off it goes, the show. Or is this just part of the preparations? You never know where you are in this film. "A Prairie Home Companion" is a real show that has been running successfully in American radio for 30 years. Its originator, Garrison Keillor, wrote the script for the film and he's simply added some carryings-on around the set and has even managed to accomodate most of the characters from his radio show. Many of Keillor's original cast play themselves in front of the camera, and other roles, like that of the private detective Guy Noir or the singing Country sisters, are played by Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin. Keillor's crew and Altman's ensemble work together seamlessly. After all, they're all the same business.

Robert Altman's film basically focusses on one particular episode of the show. It's going to be the last one ever, it emerges gradually. We follow everything in real time, from the first curtain to the last. The entire story takes place inside the World Theatre in the small town of St. Paul. It almost feels as if you were sitting in that very theatre, in its antiquated seats that are so like cinema seats. At some stage you ask yourself why you didn't just buy a ticket for the radio show itself. It must be just like this in the weekly recording sessions, the sung adverts, the un-PC jokes, the songs about life in the country and young love. But where's Altman? Is he in Kevin Kline, who sees an angel while goofily carrying out his investigation backstage? Or in Lindsay Lohan, who can't do more that temporarily worry her singing mother, Meryl Streep, with her suicide poems?

Don't get me wrong: it's very pleasant to be in this show. One big family which offers its guests a solid evening's entertainment. Completely harmless though - and what a shame that Meryl Streep only howls once.

Christoph Mayerl

"A Prairie Home Companion". Director: Robert Altman. With Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline et al., USA 2006, 100 min (Competition)


Chen Kaiges "The Promise" (Competition/ not competing)

Chen Kaige enters the competition with China's supposedly most expensive production of all time. Compared with the budgets Hollywood directors have at their disposal, the 30 million is peanuts, but the film is spurred along by the desire to blockbuster. Even the cast is international, the leading roles are played by the stars of Asian cinema: Hongkong's Cecilia Cheung, Japan's Hiroyuki Sanada and Korea's Jang Dung-Kun.

The images blow you away. Purple armies tear through vast landscapes and violet fields of flowers, tender pink almond petals rain from azure blue skies, robes undulate in all colours of the rainbow: it's resplendence itself. And no costs have been spared for special effects – the martial arts scenes have comic-book dynamism.

The story, though, is miserably thin. In a distant kingdom, long ago, a young girl wanders through the bodies on a battlefield. She's searching for some food and a pair of boots. A boy takes her prisoner and only sets her free after she promises to be his slave. But the girl breaks her word and runs off. Then she meets a fairy, who promises her a life full of power and riches – but only if she accepts that every man who loves her will die. The girl accepts.

Twenty years later she is the lover of the king, who is under siege from the soldiers of the Prince of the North, Wuhuan. The general Guangming sends his slave Kunlun to their aid. But he kills the king and the beautiful princess falls in love with him, thinking he is the general. So who will have to die now, the general or the slave?

One reads everywhere that the producers, the Weinstein brothers, re-edited the film once it was ready. But whoever is responsible for the end, takes all fun out of the film.

Thekla Dannenberg

"Wu ji - The Promise". Director: Chen Kaige. Starring Cecilia Cheung, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jang Dung-Kun and others. China 2005, 103 minutes (Competition)


Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" (Competition/ not competing)

"Syriana" is about oil, and oil is a murky business. Everything is connected, the movie poster tells us, and no one really knows who is linked to whom. Especially when, as in this case, we are talking about American interests in the Persian Gulf – about high-level politics, then, about national interests, and, of course, about a hell of a lot of money.

For "Traffic", Stephen Gaghan wrote the screenplay: here, he directs, making use of a similarly puzzle-like narrative technique. Only this time the concept fails. There are just too many players that Gaghan wants to introduce. Dozens of names that bring authenticity but no drama. There is no one to identify with because everything runs according to plan. The entire film feels like an introductory seminar on the dirty oil business. And when the director finally thinks we might be ready for the plot, when – after all the secret operations, family dramas, investigations and behind-the-scenes talks – one of the countless stories is just about to take off, the window is slammed shut. Or someone presses the red button. The reset button.

"Syriana" has everything one would expect from a political film from Hollywood's Democrat camp. The winner is: Bad Big Business. For any sincere Democrat, this is doubtless depressing. But for any moviegoer, it is also pretty insipid.

Christoph Mayerl

"Syriana". Director: Stephen Gaghan. With George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper et al., USA 2005, 126 min. (Competition, not competing)


Oskar Roehler's "Atomised" (Competition)

Michel Houellebecq's novel "Les Particules elementaires" (translated into German as "Elementarteilchen", has appeared in English as "Atomised" and "The Elementary Particles"), about two brothers and their relationship to sex, triggered probably the largest literary scandal of recent years and has now gone down in literary history as a monument to cynicism. But can such cynicism be filmed? Oskar Roehler's movie – the first German work in the competition – does not even try. Roehler has rewritten the book with the greatest lack of respect – for which thanks is due to the patron saint of moving images. The most important change in the film is that the two half-brothers, the geneticist Michael and the teacher Bruno, now live not in Paris but in today's Berlin. Most of the philosophical remarks have gone, as has the incendiary porn. And lo and behold, the fish-like, heartless Houellebecq is transformed into a discoverer of gripping characters, a keen, empathetic observer!

As he is destroyed by feelings for which he has no outlet, Moritz Bleibtreu in the role of Michael displays such fiery anger that one can almost feel the heat from one's cinema seat. Christian Ulmen, who plays Bruno, said at the press conference that he prepared for the part by rewatching the Terminator movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger. After this film, it is still impossible to say whether Ulmen himself is an actor. But he does have a quiet presence, even if he spends most of the time standing around with a curious stiffness.

One question remains: could Houellebecq bear this more human version of himself? He has not seen the film and his current whereabouts are unknown.

Christoph Mayerl

"The Elementary Particles". Director: Oskar Roehler. With Moritz Bleibtreu, Christian Ulmen, Martina Gedeck, Franka Potente, Nina Hoss, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Corinna Harfouch, Jasmin Tabatabai et al., Germany 2006, 105 min. (Competition)


Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" (Competition)

What a reputation this director has! He has made videos for the Chemical Brothers, the Rolling Stones and Kylie Minogue. The screenplay for his first feature film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was written by Charlie Kaufmann. He is acclaimed far and wide for his creativity, his fantasy, his playfulness.

For his new film, he has managed to cast great actors in Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg. And they do not disappoint. "The Science of Sleep" overflows with ideas, playfulness and funny inventions. The young Stephane is a graphic designer who has just devised a new calendar with comic illustration of the worst disaster to occur in each individual month. In spite of this, his new job is so tedious that he prefers to escape to more exciting realms, such as his papier-mache television studio. His new neighbour Stephanie is a not especially successful music agent, and just as odd as Stephane.

As well as being made for each other, the couple's brains are actually connected. When Stephane has wild dreams, Stephanie sees them on her television. Stephane has cobbled together a one-second time machine; swathes of cellophane flow out of Stephanie's tap. All very nice and sometimes quite funny. What Gondry's humour lacks is an edge. His gags rarely go beyond teenage standards. The film would have been better suited to the Berlinale's young film programme.

Thekla Dannenberg

"The Science of Sleep". Director: Michel Gondry. With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gael Garcia Bernal, Miou-Miou, Michel Chabat et al. France 2005, 105 min. (Competition, not competing).


Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica" (Competition)

The war in Bosnia has not been forgotten. Everyone was thrown out of their old lives into a new one, and many went mad. In Sarajevo, where Jasmila Zbanic's powerful film "Grbavica" is set, the three-year siege is still especially present. "You're totally insane", Cenga says to Esma – and what he means is that they have something in common.

Cenga runs away from his mother who is still waiting for aid deliveries from the Red Cross, runs away from his interrupted business studies degree and from the hopelessness of Sarajevo in winter. Esma cannot separate herself from her terrible experiences so easily. Thirteen years ago, she was raped by Serbian soldiers. Her daughter Sara is the child of a Serbian cetnik fighter. In her first work of fiction, the documentary filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic casts a calm, steadfast eye on a single mother as she tries everything to pay for her daughter to go on a school trip and to protect her from the past, watching as the pressure gradually mounts, a pressure that ends up getting directed against the beloved illegitimate child.

Jasmila Zbanic's film digs its way cruelly, shot by shot, into the viewer and loads the burden of the memories that torture Sarajevo onto the viewer's narrow shoulders. This burden is at its heaviest in the film's longest shot, when the camera pans so slowly and so hesitantly over the faces of raped women, forcing us to look into their eyes for a long, uncomfortably long moment.

Christoph Mayerl

"Grbavica". Director: Jasmila Zbanic. Featuring Mirjana Karanovic, Luna Mijovic, Leon Lucev et al., Austria / Bosnia-Herzegovina / Germany / Croatia 2006. (Competition)

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