The 64th Berlin Film Festival – Berlinale 2014

Black Coal Thin Ice

With jury president producer James Schamus at the helm, the 64th Berlin Film Festival sees a lot of Eastern promise with Awards for both China and Japan.

East Of Eden by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

With its neo-noir intrigue of hacked-up body parts appearing in coal-fired power stations across China, Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice was perhaps an unlikely Golden Bear winner. But like the former detective on the trail of a killer trying to put the corpses back together again and their murderer behind bars, the jury didn’t have an easy time of it with this year’s Competition selection. First there were the Hollywood ensemble pieces, ike Wes Anderson’s opening night caper and Silver Bear winning The Grand Budapest Hotel, a riot of colour and delicious detail supported by an impressive cast list of America and Europe’s finest. It’s a trick that both George Clooney employed for his out of competition war-time caper The Monuments Men and Lars von Trier in his sexually explicit Nymphomaniac Volume I – relying on the bankability of an impressive line-up of A-listers. Nymphomaniac though, with its slow, prowling camera and its witty, referential script feels both like original von Trier – yet again breaking new ground, but also one of the Competition’s most original films – even if its restriction to the first half makes awarding it a prize difficult.

Germany, which had several home-grown films in the selection as well as several coproductions – approached the Bear from a different tack, with the Via Dolorosa as a recurring motif – from Edward Berger’s Jack with its panful story of a young boy who, doing his best to keep the family together, is sent away to a care home after his younger brother scalds himself in a boiling-hot bath, and who escapes after a fight, living rough on the beautifully shot streets of Berlin, as he tries desperately to track down his mother. Sudabeh Mortezai’s Macondo is similar, only with a Chechen boy in Austria and his fear of usurpment, as his role as man of the house is undermined by his mother’s faint interest in a new Chechen neighbour. But the torturous path narrative reaches its zenith in Dietrich Brüggemann’s Kreuzweg – a re-imagination of the stations of the cross with a young girl as the Christ figure – a confirmant in a traditionalist Catholic church giving herself to God (by starving herself) so that her brother may overcome his affliction and speak. Widely tipped by the German press as a candidate for the Golden Bear, or Stations Of The Cross nevertheless won a Silver for Best Script – a daringly formalist (if mockingly uncomfortable) look at young faith piously looking for approval and expression.

Germany’s other entrants – Dominik Graf’s Die Geliebten Schwester – a spurious interpretation of Friedrich Schiller’s twisted love-life, embroiled in a threesome with his wife and her sister, has some stand-out innovations, like the aristocrats quaking in their well-heeled boots once the implications of the French Revolution disseminates across Europe, filmed individually against a black screen, or the lovers’ correspondence read directly to camera. The best though is Feo Aladag’s Zwischen Welten – a delicate portrait of an Afghani interpreter for the German army as he tries to soften the cultural differences between the peacekeeping forces and the locals. It’s a very real portrait of the ongoing situation in Afghanistan, as the European armies with all their equipment and armaments must take second place to local militia, caught between treating the locals fairly and army orders.

’71 – the UK’s only entry in the Competition and Yann Demange’s war film about a marine caught behind enemy lines in Belfast at the height of the Troubles is a seat-gripping adventure with a fantastic performance from Jack O’Connell. It’s even-handed, even if it doesn’t have a lot to say about either republicanism or nationalism – its Belfast backdrop more of an infernal underworld for the video-game style avatar to escape from, and contenting itself with the simple story of a marine’s loss of faith. War was also the focal point of Yoji Yamada’s The Little House, as it describes the Second World War from a Japanese (and very domestic) perspective. It’s old fashioned and undeniably an adaptation from a novel, but as an investigation into Japan’s past, it’s both charming and moving. The other Old Master in the Competition, Alain Resnais brings another Alan Ayckbourn to the screen with Aimer, Boire Et Chanter based on the play Life Of Riley. Unlike Private Fears In Public Places it eschews the realism of film in favour of a telescoping of narrative worlds as we move from location filming via illustration to stage set and close-up. But apart from the narrative interplay, Resnais’ film shows little else to merit its Silver Bear.

But while Hollywood was backing impressive cast list and Germany mortifying its journeys of torture, it was China romping it home with genre twists – not only neo-noir Golden Bear Winner Black Coal, Thin Ice but also redneck western No Man’s Land. Its genre pleasures were entertaining enough, but there’s not much depth to Hao Ning’s No Man’s Land‘s slash-and-burn story of violence and revenge. Best of the lot was Lou Ye’s Blind Massage winning a Silver Bear with its camerawork, with its shallow focus representing the smear of light of partial sight. Its multi-character story belies its origins as a novel and diffuses its narrative urgency, but Blind Massage was certainly one of the most beautiful films of the Competition.

Other contenders must have been Karim Aïnouz’s Praia do Futuro with its subdued shots reminiscent of Gerhard Richter paintings and Claudia Llosa’s Aloft – a muscular mammoth of performance from Jennifer Connelly and Cillian Murphy, but that muddies its awkward mother and son reunion with mystical healing structures in the vein of Andy Goldsworthy. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, although a brilliant coup de cinéma, filming a boy’s awkward years over 11 years with the same key actors and actresses as they grow up and fill out, divorce or find their life’s calling, is a little too unstructured and easily familiar from the director’s early work (Dazed And Confused) with its snappy dialogue and deep and meaningfuls. But one of the Competition’s most enjoyable films on the other hands was Hans Petter Moland’s In Order Of Disappearance</em> – a Norwegian coproduction with its Scandinavian neighbours, and a brilliantly scripted black comedy, but whose classic genre thrills may have proved not quite original enough for a prize.

But while the Competition flailed between genre flicks, coproduction dramas and studio ensembles, the Panorama section soared with audience favourites Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s Difret, Stefan Haupt’s documentary Der Kreis and Daniel Ribeiro’s Teddy winner The Way He Looks as well as some of the festival’s most overlooked films. Starring Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, Sophie Fillières’ Arrête Ou Je Continue is a cold selection of Scenes From An Unmarriage with a cracking script, as a married couple attempt to ford the unbridgeable gulf between them. Robert Lepage’s Triptyque turned out to be not only visually exciting with its lo-fi beauty, but also one of the most thought-provoking films of the festival – carefully negotiating heart, mind and soul in three stories of interconnected lovers looking for fulfilment.

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary follows the Germans on the Via Dolorosa with his story of a good priest suffering as a man in the confessional threatens to kill him in revenge for the abuse he suffered as a boy, and Umut Dag follows up his brilliant Kuma with Risse Im Beton – again with leading man Murathan Muslu at the film’s emotional centre, but this time as an ex-con father trying to go straight. It’s not dissimilar from Rachid Bouchareb’s Two Men In Town, and even though it’s story isn’t exactly new, it’s beautifully shot, acted and gently moving.

As well as Minh Nguyen-Vo’s futuristic love triangle Nuoc, there was also Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game in the Forum section. It looks like it could be the festival’s lowest budget film, replaying the football match between top Romanian teams Steaua and Dinamo as father (and former referee) and son provide a commentary ruminating on football, politics, memory and cinema, but it’s a reminder of the simplicity of cinema as the Porumboius conjure up a lost time on VHS and in the snow. Jalil Lespert’s upcoming Yves Saint Laurent provided some glamorous angst, following the shy Algerian-French designer through a series of breakdowns and affairs, but it’s Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange that was for me one of the festival’s highlights, featuring simple yet devastating performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an ageing gay couple whose lives are turned upside-down after they get married in New York and lose their flat. It’s deceptively simple, as the men are separated, accommodated by their family of friends. But it’s not their love that comes into question – rather the love of family, which can be tense and impatient, but also deeply binding. Genuinely moving, it’s a tender look at family by generation, at life, love and memory. And while the Competition goes head to head, it’s the Panorama section this year it seems that has both the heart and soul.

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