Notes on the 64th. Berlin Filmfestival (Berlinale), 2014
This year, it was exactly the 27th. time I attended the Berlin Film festival since 1987. I could easily compose a list of films I saw in these 27 years which are now forgotten - if awarded or not awarded.
For a long time this festival had two equal main sections, the competition and the International Forum of Young Cinema (today just called Berlinale-Forum. The International Forum which has its roots in parallel events rather against than for the Berlin Filmfest was integrated in 1971 into the whole festival and even with its special status as an independent section. The reason was a big crisis in 1970, caused by a film called o.k by Michael Verhoeven which had straight hints to the American-Vietnamese war. The non confirmed rumour that this film was abruptly taken out of the competition by the festival administration caused the resignation of the International jury. Instead of watching films, there were only protests and discussions - and finally the festival was cancelled. The festival was in need for a section for the political “dangerous” films, for the aesthetic daring experiments – in short for films which do not fit the competition and its conformist policy (we are still in the era of the cold war). The International Forum was born and very soon it turned into a n own cinematic micro cosmos. The International Forum was one of the first European festival sections which attracted attention to cinema out of Europe and the USA like countries from Africa, Latin America and especially Asia. Once new and unknown talents like Hou Hsiao Hsien, Stanley Kwan, Wong Kar-Wei, Hong Sang-soo and a lot more got through the Forum and some smaller festivals in Europe their first recognitions. The results are known, some of them are now favorites for competitions of the biggest filmfestivals. Films by Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani or Ritwik Ghatak were screened in special India-Panoramas of the Forum and some of them for the first time abroad. It was the era of former film critic Ulrich Gregor who was in charge of the International Forum from 1971 to 2001. In Gregor´s time there was a hardly hidden rivalry between the Forum and the competition at that time by Moritz de Hadeln as the Berlinale director. But this rivalry had a vitalizing effect on the festival. Until 1999, the film festival took place mostly in some of the most beautiful film theatres in Berlin. Some of them are closed now or even demolished. In 2000 the whole festival moved to the Postdamer Place and takes now place mostly in multiplexes or this musical theatre called once a year “Berlinale-Palast”.
The year 2002 was a year of change. The new director of the Berlin Filmfest, Dieter Kosslick (rather a man from the industry than the creative field) replaced the surprisingly fired Moritz de Hadeln. Some persons in charge of other sections like retrospective and the Children Filmfest (today Generation Kplus and Generation 14 plus) resigned and were replaced and for the Forum Ulrich Gregor gave his job to Christoph Terhechte, his successor of his own choice. The rivalry ended abrupt but the 5 main sections, Competition, Forum, Children and Youth-Festival and the traditional weakest one Panorama lost a from their profile and even became sometimes exchangeable. Even though still the most interesting section, the Forum suffered most, became just one section among others now with a reduced number of screened films.
For an outsider it looks like Kosslick made a much bigger event out of this festival with more public attention. But with good or with bad films, the festival lost a lot of its charm and reminds me much more in these big international airports where you do not really know in what country you are. After a festival edition is over, it is soon forgotten and we are aware that it has failed again in the most important purpose of a film festival to create an awareness for the beauty, diversity but as well for the endangerment of the film heritage.
But the worst is, the Berlin Film festival is probably not even the most problematic festival of its kind, even once small and specialized festivals seem to have discovered the “big event”, the bad habit to charge critics and even worse – filmmaker for their applications. Well film festivals were always business influenced by politics and industry but now it is visible at every moment you attend this festival. I can remember a time when I thought film festivals are the most important events to establish these awareness for cinema. Today I am not so sure anymore and Berlin is by far not the only reason for that. I rather try to find “my films”, try my best to make a small contribution that these “my films” are not forgotten soon.
Today I see films different. If I see a film which takes me in another world I often think of these unknown masterpieces which are rotten in archives or even less adequate places. And even the film I enjoy just now will probably be forgotten in 10 years and probably decomposed and what remains is just a human memory in it which will die as well one day.
Among the 7 or 8 films which will stay with me was a remarkable Indian documentary seen in the Forum-section called Prabhat pheri (Journey with Prabhat) by Jessica Sadana and Somarth Dixit, students from the film school in Pune. It is about the history of an estate which was once the famous Prabhat studio where a lot of classics of early Indian Cinema were made. After the studio was closed in the 1950s, the Indian government bought the estate and it is now part of the Film Institute of Pune, where, for example, Ritwik Ghatak was teaching and inspiring a whole generation of Indian filmmaker. The film begins with a room full of rusted film cans. The films themselves, diplomas from generations of film students are already decomposed which means forgotten. Many interviews with witnesses of the old film studio or teachers of the Film Institute as oral memories, old abandoned film equipment, film excerpts or the endless dusty rooms we see are the visual memories. We see often people handing with analog film material, editing, restoring or making security prints of films which are in danger to be forgotten. These hands which touch the material almost affectionate are burnt in my memory. Will this handcraft soon disappear in this age of digitalization? Maybe there is a connection with the loss of films, the loss of certain handcrafts and with it a certain knowledge. It is no secret that the Indian film heritage is one of the most endangered in the world. There is much more to appreciate in Prabhat pheri but just alone this caring awareness for cinema as a very endangered part of human culture is a very big achievement in this film made by very young filmmaker.
Another great Indian film from the Forum was Lajwanti (The Honour Keeper) by Pushpendra Singh, the finest Indian narrative film I saw for years at the Berlin Film festival. Lajwanti , this only 64 minutes long film takes place in the desert of Rajasthan. The film is like a song moving around its Leitmotiv, the endless long way women have to go to the well for fetching water. Sometimes they sing, sometimes they exchange stories. The well, said Singh during the Q & A, is not only the source of water this essential condition for life but also the source of stories. We see both, the elements, sun, water, the endless sand of the desert but at the same time the man made thing we call culture: the beautiful dresses of the women, the songs, stories, the architecture of their village – which literally seems to have grown from this landscape. Lajwanti is one of these cinematic miracles which seems to be arising just in front of our eyes. Despite our awareness that every film is edited, each shot is selected and moments even forced – Singhs film reminds me at the same time in it´s formal rigor in the films of Straub and Huillet but at the same time in the magic of Jean Renoir´s masterpiece The River.
Another highlight among the often daring and experimental films at the Forum was Le beau danger (The beautiful danger) by German René Frölke. On the surface a documentary essay on the famous Romanian writer Norman Manea who spent a part of his early childhood in a german concentration camp. Frölke´s film is composed of interviews, observations of Manea during his journeys to Romania and the Ukraine. But each moment is fragmental. He gives much space to Manea`s writing in long, often some minutes long excerpts of his literature appearing on the screen as English text black on white. You have to read a lot during this film. These eycerpts are like printed text fragments. They seem to me much less fleeting like the visual fragments. One unforgettable moment shows Manea at the graves of his family in the Ukraine and in Romania. Even though filmed with discretion and retention, it left a deep impression on me.
Nuoc (2030), screened at the Panorama-section, is a post apocalyptic Science Fiction film from Vietnam but also a love story, a melodrama and partly a thriller. Main protagonist is a young widow who tries to survive in a nightmarish future. Most parts of South East Asia are under water as the result of the global warming.
In this often stereotypical discussion about art cinema and opulent genre cinema, the director Nguyen-Vu Nhiem-Minh offers a refreshing mixture of both. This film from one of the most neglected film countries in South east Asia is an enrichment for this special science fiction genre which is often polarized between the high art of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and mostly as blockbuster generated mainstream films. Even though I saw this film quite at the beginning it also stayed with me.
I can hardly choose with what film I open my festival covering but I allow myself the luxury to choose with what film I finish it. And what is more adequate than finish with a film by an old master – in this case Yoji Yamadas 83th film Chiisai Ouchi (The little house), the only film I watched from the competition. Yamada, 82 years old and his work as a director includes 50 years of Japanese film history is one of the last dinosaurs in Japan and one of the last links to the almost lost glory of Japanese Cinema.
In this dignified late work, Yamada tells about wartime memories recorded in a kind of diary of a dead women found by her grandnephew. First the films begins with flashbacks revealing the relationship between this young man and his aunt. Later the films goes far back in time, to the 1930s and the film´s flashbacks become the memories of a dead woman. Where I do recognize a film of an old master? Well first of all in its richness of narration, form and even thematic substance. Chiisai Ouchi is in several way one of Yamada´s most complex films but it seems to made with a strange lightness or in other words with a somnambulistic certainty.
One of the many layers of this film is a bitter reflection of a woman whose best years are wasted and exploited. Forced by her poverty the aunt was sent by her family as a young girl to Tokyo to serve a rich family as a maid. Just the confrontation with a time where Japan was already the leading military power in Asia ans the often extreme poverty of its lower classes opens a very sophisticated portrait of an internal fascism. As a home drama, most parts of this film takes place in interiors. The invasion and the massacre by Japanese troops against China are mentioned but not visible. Yamada focuses on the micro aspect of Japan´s inner fascism, the feudal dependency of a young girl on the mood and mercy of the bourgois family she serves. That she is mostly handled very polite does not change the fact that she leads the existence of a slave. Without her will she is involved in a love affair of her lady but her own oppressed wishes and longings have no place to enfold. The often used high focal lengths make this interiors even a bit more flattened for this young girl. From outside this “little house” looks cozy with its red roof but inside it becomes often almost claustrophobic. In moments this film reminds in Ozu´s sharp and subversive view on Japanese fascism in Toda-ke no kyodai (The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda family, 1941) Only near the end when the young nephew makes further researches about the hidden fate of his aunt, the films leaves this kind of minimalism so unusual for Yamada and turns into the melodramatic art, Yamada is famous for.
Finally the kind how the film passes the memory of a black chapter in Japan´s history from a dead woman to a representative of the young generation has the character of a testimony and the films seems to me like a long premature farewell of Yoji Yamada. It is with one of his previous films Kaabee (Kabei-Our Mother, 2008) one of Yamadas darkest views on Japanese history.
Yamada´s film really invites comparisons with a lot of films from the retrospective “Aesthetic of Shadows”, on lightning in Cinema where you could see a lot of old Japanese films by Naruse, Ozu, Shimizu, Kurosawa and others. That will probably demonstrate how deep Yamada is rooted in a unique art of filmmaking which exist only in Japan.
A different attraction of another kind was not a film but the reopening of the newly restored legendary film theatre Zoo-Palast. For decades this cinema hall was the emblem of the Berlin Filmfestival. The reconstruction took several years and the reopening took place a few weeks before the film festival opened this year. Ironically the new owner Mr. Flebbe was once a pioneer of the multiplexes, but since some years he is specialized in restoring old traditional film theatres. The Zoo-Palast was endangered to be demolished for the benefit of a new shopping mall, but Mr. Flebbe and massive protests of the Berlin film festival administration avoided it. This new restored Zoo-Palast is a work of love. The practical improvements, comfortability, security and technical updates remain almost invisible and the beautiful cinema architecture from the 1950s can enfold itself in all its glory. Well it could have better used by the film festival. It reminds me in some unforgettable festival experiences in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
If cinephilia is a religion, than it has a right for its own temples and the Zoo-Palast is such a temple for Cinephiles.