Block at the Berlinale

Mimi Brody, Film Curator at Block Cinema, reports back on the Berlin International Film Festival

Last week I returned from another trip to the annual Berlin Film Festival (Feb. 6-16). The unseasonably warm temperatures there (in the mid-40s on most days) felt practically tropical compared to the arctic vortex I left behind in Chicago.

Also known as the Berlinale, the Berlin Film Festival has been running for over 60 years, and is easily one of the four most important international film festivals (along with Cannes, Venice, and Toronto). The Berlinale features hundreds of films in many different sections, plus the massive European Film Market, where films are bought and sold. The Market and most of the main screening venues are centered around Potsdamer Platz which was the center of Berlin nightlife before it was destroyed by Allied bombs in WWII. Potsdamer Platz, formerly in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, remained a wasteland for decades until it was redeveloped in the 90s. Now almost entirely new, the area has a large concentration of cinemas, venues and hotels that play host to thousands of festival delegates and present hundreds of films from around the world in the span of 10 days. Many cinemas across the city also host screenings and talks.

Of the hundreds of films on offer, I usually see about 4 or 5 films per day. It’s always helpful to solicit suggestions and opinions from trusted colleagues and compare notes. The most frequently asked question at any film festival is some version of “what did you see today?” which is either code for, “did you see anything good I should know about?” or “can you warn me off films that would waste precious time?”

There are also panel discussions, receptions, meetings, and catching up with colleagues. Coffee is key, both to fight off jet lag and to stay awake during multiple film screenings per day. Food is also important, and because sustenance can often come down to grabbing a giant pretzel between films, a welcome addition to this year’s festival was a row of gourmet food trucks which featured everything from traditional spaetzel (a hearty German pasta dish with cheese and onions) to a truck featuring noodle bowls made by two sisters from LA’s Koreatown.

As for films, this year I saw over 30. Highlights for me included AT HOME (STO SPITI), a superb Greek film ostensibly about the economic crisis seen through the eyes of a housekeeper who is betrayed by her wealthy employers. Another high point was Richard Linklater’s long-awaited film, BOYHOOD–an incredible 12 years in the making, Linklater assembled the same cast (including Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and newcomer Ellar Coltrane) about once per year to document the life of its young protagonist from grade school to his first day of college. The result is a stunning portrait of a modern American family.

I also enjoyed JOURNEY TO THE WEST by the Taiwanese master director Tsai Ming-liang. In JOURNEY, Tsai transplants his frequent actor/collaborator Lee Kang-sheng to Marseille, where he revises his role from the 2012 experimental film, Walker. It’s a seemingly simple conceit—dressed in a monk’s robe, Lee’s character moves at a snail’s pace through crowded cities—this time joined by another “walker,” the great French actor Denis Lavant, who was present for the Q&A. The film is a striking depiction of frenetic urban life, and provided a meditative respite from the frenzy of the festival.

Other notable films in the competition included ’71, an anti-war thriller about a young British soldier thrust into the chaos of occupied Belfast, and Alain Resnais’ LIFE OF RILEY (AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER), based on a British play by Alan Ayckbourn about a group of friends grappling with the news that their friend is fatally ill. This latest work by the 91-year old auteur is more refreshingly inventive than those made by filmmakers a fraction of his age. Unfortunately I missed the Golden Bear winner (there are always films that get away), the Chinese feature, BLACK COAL, THIN ICE, a noirish tale of a security guard who falls for a young woman who may be involved in a sinister series of murders. Other well-received films I missed but hope to catch up with sometime this year include PRAIA DO FUTURO by Berlin-based Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz, THOU WAST MILD AND LOVELY and BUTTER ON THE LATCH by American filmmaker Josephine Decker, and BAAL, an early work by Volker Schlöndorff starring Fassbinder and his muse Hannah Schygulla, which screened in the Berlinale Special section.

Contemporary German films were represented by four films in the main competition, but it was the excellent STATIONS OF THE CROSS (KREUZWEG) which stood out. The film centers on Maria, a 14 year-old girl from a suffocatingly zealous family who lives in mortal fear of committing a sin and struggles to resist the not-unwanted advances of an earnest young classmate. The film (which features an impressive performance by the young actress Lea van Acken) unfolds in a series of scenes that mirror the life of Christ.

Virtuousness is not a concern of the young protagonist in Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC VOLUME 1 (the complete uncut version) one of two highly anticipated films I indulged in this year. Von Trier’s latest provocation was mildly entertaining but not as shocking as its marketing campaign would have you believe, and is in need of some editing. I was lucky to catch Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language film, SNOWPIERCER, Korea’s highest-budget film to date. This off-the-rails post-apocalyptic actioner takes place on board a train in which the occupants of the rear compartments, who are forced to live like vermin, overtake the bourgeois passengers. The plot recalls the 1929 silent film, CHINA EXPRESS (which screened at Block in 2013), a little-seen gem of Soviet propaganda about a group of Chinese workers who commandeer a train and rebel against their European oppressors.

Speaking of classic films, one of my favorite sections of the festival is the “Retrospektive” program featuring archival and restored films on a central theme.  While it would be difficult to top last year’s phenomenal series, “The Weimar Touch” focusing on how cinema from the Weimar Republic influenced international filmmaking after 1933, there were plenty of worthwhile things to see. This year’s theme was “Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting Styles 1915-1950” and included several Japanese silents and early sound films by the likes of Naruse and Ozu (the rare THAT NIGHT’S WIFE was a standout) and also masterworks of early German cinema, BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A CITY, and a newly restored version of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. The series also included more obscure German silents including Gerhard Lamprecht’s UNDER THE LANTERN (1928) and Bruno Rahn’s TRAGEDY OF THE STREETS (1927) both tales of women forced into prostitution.

There were also a number of excellent classic films in other sections, including a rare television film THE GAMEKEEPER, by Ken Loach (who received a lifetime achievement award at the festival) and a new digital restoration of Satyijat Ray’s wonderful 1966 film, HERO (NAYAK) about a jaded film star who befriends a young woman journalist. The film scholar who introduced HERO also referenced his earlier masterwork from 1964, CHARULATA (which Block screened in 2012) which also features a complex, highly intelligent and richly drawn female character. Contemporary directors could take a cue from Ray in terms of how women are depicted in their films. Rumor has it that HERO will be re-released in the not-too-far-off future by a US distributor.

Museums and architecture featured prominently this year in films such as the omnibus work, CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE, THE NEW RIJKSMUSEUM, and THE AIRSTRIP by German director Heinz Emigholz, which looks at industrial structures to reflect on capitalism, fascism, war, and the ephemeral nature of public space. The highlight among these films was THE GREAT MUSEUM (DAS GROSSE MUSEUM), a fascinating behind-the-scenes study of Vienna’s Kunsthistorischen Museum and the people who run it, from security personnel to curators and conservators. The Museum is a treasure trove of breathtaking art and artifacts, and the documentary provides insights into the special care that goes into preserving our cultural heritage. THE GREAT MUSEUM is a perfect companion piece to Jem Cohen’s excellent first narrative feature, MUSEUM HOURS, which screened at Block last year and focused on the relationship between a museum guard and a visitor, using art as a catalyst for connecting to others.

I landed back at O’Hare in the middle of a snowstorm, bracing myself once again for the frigid temps, but happy to have seen a number of excellent films that will hopefully make their way to Chicago.

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