Shane Danielsen casts his critical eye over the films in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, including a surprising masterpiece – for those lucky enough to have witnessed it.
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17 Feb 2012 - 12:00 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 9:30 PM

The films in competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival appeared, on the face of it, a mixed bunch, There were a handful of familiar names – among them, France's Benoit Jacquot, whose opening night selection, Farewell My Queen, a from-the-sidelines look at the French Revolution that was part Rosenkrantz & Gildernstern Are Dead, part Downton Abbey, started shakily, but gained power and assurance as it proceeded, and built to a quietly devastating climax.

There was China's Wang Quan'an (who won the Golden Bear here in 2006 with Tula's Marriage), and Berlin regulars Christian Petzold and Hans-Christian Schmid – and even a pair of grizzled veterans, in the form of Italy's Taviani brothers, now 82 and 80 years of age, whose prison-set Shakespearian drama, Caesar Must Die, while not equalling the achievement of earlier classics like Padre Padrone or The Night of the Shooting Stars, was still livelier and better than anyone had expected.

Otherwise, it was mostly a collection of first-timers and second-stringers: Indonesia's Edwin, with the thoroughly unremarkable Postcards From The Zoo; the ironically-named Brilliante Mendoza, from the Philippines; Hungary's Benedek Fliegauf, with a third-rate gypsy-drama, Just The Wind. And Billy Bob Thronton, whose latest directorial effort, Jayne Mansfield's Car, was at least appropriately titled, being something of a wreck itself.

There was no reason, in all of this, to suspect that cinema was about to change, that some line was about to be drawn in the sand. But according to some critics, that's precisely what happened.

The film in question hailed from Portugal. The director was Miguel Gomes, whose previous feature, Our Beloved Month of August, premiered in Cannes in 2008 to hugely favourable reviews from "serious" film publications like Cahiers du Cinema and CinemaScope, and a kind of bemused shrug from the rest of the world. It was a good, not great film – slightly self-indulgent, a little too in love with its own cleverness. But it displayed a refined aesthetic sense and a fully-developed worldview: Gomes clearly had something he wanted to say (notably, about the friction between documentary and fiction, and the usefulness of various modes of storytelling), and possessed the skill necessary to do it, if not quite the discipline required to make it stick.

He returned this year with Tabu, a B&W drama set between Portugal and Africa, which was, like its predecessor, divided into discrete chapters, their titles harking back (as the film's own title implied) to F.W. Murnau's 1931 classic of the same name. The first section, 'A Lost Paradise', followed the travails of two women in Lisbon, neighbours, one of whom believes her maid is using witchcraft against her. The acting was expressionless, the conversations deliberately banal and inconclusive. All in all, it seemed like a self-consciously 'experimental' work, destined to be championed by a few and ignored by the many.

But it was the second section, simply titled 'Paradise', which shifted the earth. Flashing back four decades, it described the early life of one of those two women, as a privileged colonial expat in an African colony, when she fell in love. There was no dialogue, only voiceover, read by the Italian then-lover of the woman in question, and taken, supposedly, from his memoirs and letters.

Whereupon the mood, theoretical to that point, turned abruptly, swoonily romantic.

Afterwards, praise ran hot among the critical fraternity: "There was the old cinema," said one Canadian critic, a man not exactly known for hyperbole, "and this is the New Cinema. It's as simple as that." Which is obviously a big call: how many ruptures in an artform, after all, can one claim to have witnessed? How many people were at the premiere of The Rites of Spring, or the Salon des Refusés? Or the 100 Club when the Sex Pistols played? These moments come along only rarely.

Consider this, therefore, a confession: Cinema was reborn, transformed utterly – and I missed it. Not out of any particular dislike for the film I was watching, which seemed at the very least interesting; rather, because of a more banal reason: a scheduling clash.

Thus, even as Tabu was shrugging off the affectations of its first part, and transforming into the impassioned and singular love-poem it would become, I'd already walked out of it, and was heading across town, to Alexanderplatz, to catch a film that was screening, for no discernible reason, outside of the competition: the Austrian drama The Wall, directed by Julian Roman Pösler, and starring Martina Gedeck, one of Germany's most respected actresses, best known internationally for her performances in The Lives of Others and The Baader Meinhof Complex.

Based on an acclaimed 1962 novel by Marien Haushofer, it spun a quietly horrifying tale, as a woman (Gedeck) visiting friends in the countryside is left alone while they drive off to get supplies. Weirdly, they do not return that night. Eventually she falls asleep – and then wakes the next morning to find herself imprisoned behind an invisible, impenetrable wall, separating her from the everyday world. A world which seems, anyway, to have come to a sudden and unexplained end.

Oddly, as with the second part of Tabu, the story was told entirely in voiceover, as the unnamed woman reads from her journal, years (we come to realise) after this initial incident. Gedeck was almost never offscreen: her voice, her presence, carried the entire film. But to his credit, Pösler found a visual language appropriate to her internal state: a series of breathtaking, occasionally terrifying images of the natural world, to whose mysteries and occasional terrors she gradually becomes aware, rather like the narrator of an Annie Dillard text.

I have no particular regrets. Gomes's Tabu will doubtless enjoy a long and storied festival life; I'll catch it further down the line. But a work as modest and singular as The Wall, by a director as unfashionable as Pösler, might well sink without trace. Considering that it was by some margin the best thing I saw at this year's Berlinale, it deserves much better.

Shane Danielsen is a former artistic director of the Edinburgh Film Festival.