Pitting first-time directors against studio blockbusters, the 65th Berlin Film Festival reserves its glitz for the red carpet as Jafar Panahi’s Taxi takes the Golden Bear.
Cherchez La Femmeby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Opening with Isabel Coixet’s Arctic-set story of female rivalry, alliance and endurance Nobody Wants The Night, the 65th Berlin Film Festival proved a great year for female filmmakers, with a Silver Bear for Malgorzata Szumowska’s anorexia-themed Body and the Panorama Audience Prize going to Anna Muylaert’s charming The Second Mother – itself a story of one Brazilian maid’s emancipation. The subject of female agency however really comes under the microscope in Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin – as she grapples with the Albanian tradition of a woman taking an oath rejecting all kinds of sexual contact in exchange for the man’s role in society. But while it’s a fascinating glimpse into a dark corner of Europe, Vergine Giurata makes for an intriguing look at femininity, as – with a brilliant performance from Alba Rohrwacher – Hana makes the journey back from manhood.
One of the best though is Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone?. Eschewing the actorly episodes of Love, Marilyn it’s a devastating portrait of the bestselling vocalist’s rise to fame, fortune and political activism followed by rapid decline into violent abuse, poverty and manic depression. Besides Margarethe von Trotta’s underwhelming and clunky identity thriller The Misplaced World, there’s also Natalya Kudryashova’s playfully charming Pioneer Heroes and Stina Werenfels’ sensuous Dora Or The Sexual Neuroses Of Our Parents – a simultaneous look at both a mother’s midlife crisis and a mentally handicapped teenager’s burgeoning sexuality. But female-centred stories weren’t the preserve of women directors alone – with Werner Herzog’s operatic Nicole Kidman vehicle The Queen Of The Desert and Benoît Jacquot’s questionable but lush remake Diary Of A Chambermaid. Yet, the best one hands down is Jayro Bustamante’s Silver Bear winning Volcano – telling its story of an indigenous community in Guatemala through the eyes of a young reluctant bride.
Better known for not featuring a single cut over its 25 locations and two-hour running time, Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria isn’t just a brilliant feat of logistics, it’s also the portrait of a woman – a young Spanish migrant to the German capital caught between her failed career as a professional pianist and her one-night romance with cheeky Berliner Sonne (Frederick Lau). Perhaps unsurprisingly for a two-hour urban theatre piece, it’s an accomplished performance from Laia Costa, just not given the opportunity to really shine as much as her character deserves. Despite great plaudits from German critics, it wasn’t a great festival for other German directors – along with Herzog’s overblown The Queen Of The Desert, there was Wim Wenders’ glacial and ultimately underwhelming 3D extravaganza Every Thing Will Be Fine, Andreas Dresen’s disappointingly clichéd As We Were Dreaming and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s workaday 13 Minutes, a worthy if uninspired depiction of German resistant Georg Elser. Pushing into first place Rosa von Praunheim’s Härte – a visually striking documentary blending interviews and stage-set drama of child abuse, adult violence and belated redemption.
Without von Praunheim to lead the charge, the gay baton was instead taken up by Sebastián Silva’s Teddy Award winning Nasty Baby. With natural and funny performances from Silva and Kristen Wiig, the black comedy takes a turn for the worse as heroes become villains. But nevertheless it makes for an interesting concept, turning the tables on the audience and the likeable gay protagonist. Straight from Sundance, Justin Kelly’s Franco and Quinto starrer I Am Michael though is a disappointment – at its best a charming but predictable dramatisation of a fairly ordinary gay relationship, at its worst a clumsy mess of homophobic Christian values. And while there was no shoe-in for the Teddy this year (even Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands drops the ball by neglecting the great German director’s gay loves), Jannik Splidsboel’s Misfits provides a touching portrait of gay and lesbian youth growing up in Tulsa – the buckle on the US Bible Belt, while the NEST Collective’s Stories Of Our Lives gives voice to the testimonies of gay men and women in Kenya – their fear of violence, intimacy behind closed doors and dreams of escape. And while it’s not just a gay film, Marco Berger’s Mariposa delivers a delicious look at the inevitability of desire, delicately and seamlessly editing between one parallel universe and the next, on the beat of a butterfly’s wing.
Alongside Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, a funny and meaningful return to form following the claustrophobic heaviness of This Is Not A Film and Closed Curtain, the best films were Andrew Haigh’s moving performance piece 45 Years, Patricio Guzman’s cosmic The Pearl Button, Bill Pohlad’s refreshingly artifice-free Love & Mercy, Pablo Larrain’s clever and hilarious El Club, Peter Greenaway’s quirky and energetic return to form Eisenstein in Guanajuato and Ermanno Olmi’s slowly devastating Great War mood piece Greenery Will Bloom Again. And while this year’s Competition was a rather erratic affair – with big names not quite up to standard (Herzog, Wenders, Dresen and Malick) jostling alongside better films from first-time directors, it was the Panorama section which saw many of the festival’s best films. Perhaps it’s a changing of the guard, as smaller films take the limelight or a warning to meddling studios – a problem which found its way into many a film, including Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato in which a camera turns virtuoso circles around Eisenstein’s bed while the director does battle with money man Upton Sinclair’s wife and brother. And with Jafar Panahi’s car-bound Taxi taking the Golden Bear, it’s a statement against interference (state or otherwise) and a welcome win for the little man. And woman.
The 65th Berlin Film Festival took place between 5th and 15th February 2015