Something has happened to Berlin in general, and the Berlinale in particular. The festival, once a model of Teutonic efficiency, this year featured a number of screenings which ACTUALLY STARTED LATE—sometimes by as much as fifteen minutes, which for this event represented a level of chaotic disorganisation worthy of . . . well, let's say it plainly: of Venice.
I suspect it has something to do with that other great city-symbol, the Berlin Brandenburg Airport—still unopened 16 months after its supposed launch, and now unlikely to be ready before 2014. It's as if the Germans woke up one day, looked at each other and thought, screw it. What's the point in pernickity exactitude when there's all this lovely beer to drink . . .?
And the reputation of the Berlinale—once lofty; it was, only as long as a decade ago, considered a serious rival to Cannes—could no longer be considered high. Long-time attendees joke about its fall from grace: in the trees outside the cinemas of Potsdamer Platz, where the event is based, were placed vertical LED lights which, in the dim winter light, gave the impression of falling raindrops, or snowflakes. 'They're meant to represent our declining expectations,' remarked one friend dryly.
The reasons for this slump is not so hard to fathom: today, Cannes is the one indispensible event in the festival calendar, and most A- and many B-list filmmakers would rather keep their powder dry for a shot at a berth on the Croisette, than fritter it away on Berlin, which struggles to attract the level of international press it did a decade earlier. And of course, fewer press means less buyers; fewer buyers mean less sales; less sales means less coverage—which means fewer blue-chip premieres. And so, the wheel turns.
Meanwhile, following criticism in the German press over the poor standard of the Competition section, the country's State Minister for Culture, Bernd Neumann himself, was obliged to defend embattled artistic director Dieter Kosslick. ('Dieter . . . is a professional, and puts his heart and mind into his job,' Neumann told reporters. 'I stand by him unreservedly.') It's the kind of all-in public statement of support that usually precedes a hanging, but Kosslick is contracted until 2016, and shows no sign of going anywhere, whatever brickbats Die Welt or Der Tagesspiegel might hurl in his direction.
Which is not to say that the Competition altogether lacked for quality. From Chile, Sebastiàn Leilo's Gloria offered an unusually clear-eyed study of female loneliness, via the experiences of the titular heroine—long divorced, and plunging back into the dating game at fifty, negotiating the myriad small humiliations and fleeting pleasures of singles nights, before falling hard for a divorced businessman unable to free himself from his ex-wife (if, indeed, she was an ex at all) and daughters. Sad when it wasn't bittersweet, it took no sides—Gloria's neediness and pride jostled with her tenderness, making some of her actions distinctly unsympathetic—until the final twenty minutes, which vindicated her choices in stunning fashion, and propelled the film from merely Good into truly Great.
The filmmaking—transparent, entirely at the service of the character—recalled the Assayas of Summer Hours, yet was weirdly dismissed by a number of critics; and in the end, the film predictably (though not undeservedly) took out only the Best Actress prize for star Paulina Garcia.
No less impressive was Emir Baigazin's Harmony Lessons, from Kazakhstan: an austere, classically elegant study of a bullied young schoolboy's alienation from his peers, and eventual decent into madness and murder. Almost Bressonian in its controlled mise-en-scene, its lack of music and ascetic visual design (and sharing that filmmaker's moral fascination with Dostoyevsky), it nevertheless trafficked a kind of dreamlike surrealism, as when the boy tortures various insects in his bedroom, exacting precisely the dominion denied him in his daily life—and somehow balanced this tone, so strange and singular, with an often documentary-like account of daily life in the Kazakh wilds.
Constructed around a series of doubles (of objects as well as of characters), and divided into chapters by its schoolroom discussions of famous men (Gandhi, Darwin), it faltered very slightly in its final stretch—it's one of those films whose ending seems to recede, the closer it gets—but even a ten-minute trim would reveal this to be the major work that it is, from a new filmmaker of extraordinary promise. I felt sure it would win the Gold Bear, and was disappointed when it walked away only with a technical prize, for its admittedly superb digital cinematography.
From Germany, Thomas Aslan's Gold offered a minimal take on a venerable genre: the pilgrims-travelling-overland western, most recently seen in Kelly Reichardt's 'Meek's Crossing'. As in that film, the travellers find themselves in the hands of a charlatan, a vainglorious blowhard whose poor leadership costs them dearly; but the trajectory of the narrative here was so numbingly familiar, from so many earlier movies (of course the wagon would lose a wheel . . . of course the water would run out . . .) that it was hard to stay awake, much less to care.
The score, by Earth guitarist Dylan Carlson, was suitably windswept and brooding, his towering, feedback-laden chords reverberating in space, as if hanging suspended in a vast canyon—but even this felt indebted to Neil Young's music for Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. In the end, as every predictable misfortune beset this small band, and their numbers dwindled, one by one, you wondered why anybody had bothered—much less star Nina Hoss, who must have found herself longing for the intellectual rigour of her usual collaborator, director Christian Petzold.
Paradise: Hope, the final part of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's trilogy, after 'Love' and 'Faith', bought the project to an end in what was, for him, an unusually generous fashion: no one died, or was humiliated (much), and the threatened rape of the heroine—an overweight fourteen-year-old, spending the summer at a fat farm—by the institute's much older doctor, a creepy Julian Barnes lookalike, never actually happened; when she passed out from drinking too much, he merely took her out to the woods and smelled her all over instead. In Seidl's cosmos, it seems, this is what passes for hope.
Malgoska Szumowska's In The Name Of . . . offered a radical suggestion: apparently the Catholic clergy might—might, I stress—include some homosexuals—a revelation that seems to have inspired strident protests in her native Poland, and a chorus of DUH's everywhere else. The film was a pious, faintly dishonest snooze. And David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche, a kind of backroads bromance between stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, split the difference between the lyrical, Malick-derived pastoralism of his early movies (George Washington, All the Real Girls) and the broad, stoner comedy of his later ones ('Pineapple Express', 'Your Highness')—to the advantage of neither. Still, it earned this most unpredictable of American filmmakers a Best Director award.
Personally, I would have given it to Bruno Dumont, for Camille Claudel, 1915—and specifically, for the scene in which the asylum-confined sculptress, played by Juliette Binoche, watches her fellow inmates (all of whom, typically for Dumont, were actual mentally-handicapped actors) as they rehearse a play which appears to be Molière's Don Juan. At first she laughs, as they stumble over their lines and break character. But then the reality of her situation breaks over her like a wave, and she begins to weep. All told in a single, devastating shot: a perfect encapsulation of the partnership between an actor and their director.
Of the film which won the main prize, meanwhile, Calin Peter Netzer's Child's Pose, not much need be said. It's not bad, merely another example of procedural Romanian realism in the manner of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Four Months, Three Weeks & Two Days: as in those films, we have a problem—in this case, the death of a teenage boy in a hit-and-run, and the efforts by the driver's bourgeois, chronically interfering mother to help her son evade prison—and we work through it methodically, from A to B to C. But unlike those earlier works, this account felt oddly dutiful; the script (by 'Lazarescu' writer Razvan Radulescu) was good, but the direction seemed flat, perfunctory rather than inspired. In winning the main award, it seemed a further victory for a Romanian New Wave that is, in fact, now some years past its peak. As, outside, the LED snowflakes fell. And our diminished expectations were confirmed.