That the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival should have gone, in the end, to two veterans—Italy's Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, for their prison-set Shakespearian drama Caesar Must Die—should have surprised nobody. Wasn't Mike Leigh, the president of the jury, himself a man of un certain age—and a filmmaker similarly obsessed with the friction between reality and artifice, with modes of performance and what actors (in this case, real-life Italian criminals) might bring from their own lives into their interpretation of a role?
And yet it did surprise. At 76 minutes, the film felt slight. And the action—a group of cons performing 'Julius Caesar' behind the walls of their penitentiary—felt contrived whenever the versifying paused, and the inmates strained to locate parallels between Shakespeare's text and their own experiences. Shot mostly in high-contrast B&W, and slipping between quotidian reality and theatrical 'play' in a way that recalled Peter Watkins' magnificent La Commune (2000), it was an interesting experiment, but no more than that.
It might well have won Best Screenplay; that would have made more sense—who, after all, can compare with the Bard? But that prize went instead to director Nikolaj Arcel and his co-screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg, for the Danish entry A Royal Affair, a mid-18th-century drama about the romance between the British-born Queen Caroline and her husband's idealistic physician, Struensee (played, with moody intensity, by star Mads Mikkelsen), who superseded the insane king to enact a short period of revolutionary reform throughout Denmark.
And Kim Nyguen's War Witch—to my mind, the finest, most surprising and compelling thing in Competition—was rewarded only with a Best Actress prize, for 15-year-old Congolese non-pro Rachel Mwanza, herself a veteran of the very atrocities the film chronicled.
Nor did it go unnoticed (at least by the critical fraternity) that almost all of the films awarded was a German co-production. This is not to suggest any inherent bias on the part of the jury, or any undue influence from the festival; rather, it signifies the country's essential role as a financial partner for filmmakers across Europe. (Think of it, if you like, as an adjunct to the current economic crisis, with well-fed Germany endlessly stumping up for other, less prosperous film cultures.)
The homegrown German films in competition, meanwhile, proved competent rather than exciting – well-crafted, unashamedly adult. There was not this year the jaw-dropping awfulness of, say, Jew Süss: Rise and Fall, Oskar Roehler's wretched 2010 entry, and a film which still haunts anyone unfortunate enough to have sat through it.
Predictably, the standout came from Berlin-based writer-director Christian Petzold. Christine saw Nina Hoss as a doctor in 1980s East Germany, exiled from Berlin to a small country town, spied upon by the Stasi and mistrusted by her new colleagues – and all the while, plotting to be reunited with her lover in the West.
It marked the fifth collaboration between director and actress, following their partnership in films like Yella (2007) and Wolfsburg (2003) and Jerichow (2008); and like all Petzold's films, its approach was cool, measured. It was meticulously composed, elegantly shot; its visual surface, its sound design, was immaculate. And as such the result, at least for some, was more to be admired than adored. (“It was perfect,” remarked one friend afterwards. “So perfect, in fact, that after a while I began to kind of hate it.”)
For me, though, it was mesmerising, and merely confirmed what I already knew: that Petzold, while not perhaps the most commercially-inclined of directors, is the most talented German filmmaker of his generation: a genuine auteur, with a style and a worldview entirely his own. Nevertheless, though heavily tipped to walk away with the top prize, in the end it earned its maker only a Best Director trophy.
Perhaps only genuinely unsurprising award, meanwhile, went to Ira Sachs' drama Keep the Light On, a roman à clef based on the real-life relationship of the filmmaker and his former boyfriend, a publishing exec with a severe crystal meth addiction. The drama, as protracted as their breakup, started well but soon devolved into a repetitive bore; gay-friendly viewers would be better advised to catch Andrew Haigh's recent Weekend, one of the best films of the year, which invests similar material with real wit, actual humour, and a beguiling sexiness.
Compared to Sachs' masterly 40 Shades of Blue (2005), it was a let-down. But the film did pause, in one scene, to show the filmmaker accepting a Teddy Award from the Berlin Film Festival—a kind of deliberate-campaigning approach that yielded distinct rewards, since Sachs left Berlin this time with (you won't believe it) the very same award!
With this in mind, I'd like to take this opportunity to announce my own forthcoming feature, about my experience winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I expect Stockholm will be in touch quite soon . . .
Pictured (from left): Berlinale Jury members Jake Gyllenhaal, Anton Corbijn, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mike Leigh, Francois Ozon, Barbara Sukowa, Asghar Farhadi and Boualem Sansal attend the Closing Ceremony. (C) Getty Images.