It was 106F the day I left Sydney, at the end of a four-month visit with family and friends. By the time I got home to Berlin, on the evening of January 26, it was -4F. The cold was dry and tense and lacerating; you felt hollowed out by it. But far worse were the pavements: thickened with weeks of compacted snow, which had hardened into ice and become a kind of glassy permafrost, treacherous to pedestrians and drivers alike.
A financial crisis in the capital, I learned, had prevented the usual wintertime measures. Streets had gone unsalted and unscraped. Sand had been strewn around to provide some traction, but not nearly enough. Everywhere you looked, all through the day, people were slipping over or skating forward, their arms windmilling uselessly. Hospital admissions, one friend told me, were up 43 per cent, mostly broken limbs and sprained or fractured wrists.
On the festival’s first morning, during the short walk between the Cinemaxx and the Berlinale Palast, in Postdamer Platz, I watched two people go over, first one and then the other. People helped each of them up, but the woman, the second to fall, was badly shaken, and a moment later started crying.
I resolved not to see a metaphor in this. Why would I? In some ways the signs looked good. After a mostly dismal 2009, this year’s Berlinale lineup seemed mysterious but not unpromising, with a number of big names (Zhang Yimou, Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski) scattered among the moment’s bright young-ish things (Semih Kaplanoglu, Noah Baumbach) and rank unknowns. It might be a good festival – provided we managed to live long enough to enjoy it.
Certainly the opening night film was intriguing. After a misguided attempt at cool in 2008, with Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert flick ‘Shine A Light’, and a nod to hometown politics the following year, with Tom Tykwer’s by-the-numbers thriller ‘The International’, Dieter Kosslick seemed to have decided, for the anniversary, to please no one but himself.
‘Tuan Yuan’ (‘Apart Together’) – the new feature from Sixth Generation director Wang Quan’an – was an unexpected choice, to say the least. With its no-name cast, and its determinedly unsexy storyline (a thwarted love story between two elderly former lovers, separated for five decades by the schism between the Chinese communists and the Taiwanese Kuomintang), it smacked far more of a Rotterdam opening than a Berlinale one, and one imagined there were scores of disappointed picture-editors out there, in Germany and beyond, ruing the absence of a photo-op beyond the Jury, shivering glumly on the red carpet.
My inclination, before the screening, was to commend Kosslick for his choice. The burden of opening night is a heavy one for any film to shoulder; and this rebuke to expectations struck me as both admirable and principled. The work, it seemed to say, is all that matters. Afterwards, though, I was less certain. What had looked bold and uncompromising on paper, now seemed merely baffling, even perverse.
Considered, then, strictly as a film (rather than as an event), ‘Tuan Yuan’ was a curiously neutral experience, neither egregiously bad nor memorably good – merely adequate. Shot in cool blues and grays, it was well-acted but never gripping, intimate without being actually moving. It seemed the very acme of nothing-much, precision-engineered to elicit no reaction stronger than a shrug.
What, you wondered, had Herr Kosslick seen in this wan mediocrity? Especially when there was the far more audience-friendly Bollywood extravaganza “My Name Is Khan” screening the following day? I didn’t catch it, but was assured it was replete with the very qualities first-night attendees crave: beautiful actresses, a handsome leading man (Shah Rukh Khan, arguably the biggest movie star on the planet), lavish production values, and a healthy dose of feel-good emotional uplift.
After three days, there was already kvetching from my Fourth Estate colleagues (though considering that the pavements had still not been de-iced, there were rather more of them around to complain than I’d expected). Theirs were the usual discontents: The parties were fewer. The market was slow. There were no good movies. Had they not seen ‘Kawasaki’s Rose’? The latest from prolific Czech director Jan Hrebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky, it was easily the best feature of the first few days, the one undeniable ‘find’ of the festival so far.
I couldn’t say I was surprised. To my mind, Hrebejk has long been the most criminally neglected of major contemporary international filmmakers: a consummate director of actors, with a subtle but undeniable visual sense and an instinctive grasp of structure. Yet despite having produced roughly one film a year for the past decade, and having been nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar (for 2000’s ‘Divided We Fall’), this is the first of his works to premiere at one of the Big Three European festivals. And even then – in another inexplicable programming decision – it wasn’t in Competition, as it should have been, but appeared instead as a “Panorama Special”.
Writing in Variety last September, I pointed out that there’s a complete body of work there – nine features to date – awaiting discovery by some enterprising programmer or festival. They’re small movies, mostly modern-day domestic dramas, but are distinguished by their humanity, unusual intelligence, and the unadorned elegance of their craftsmanship. “You have to stay small to go deep,” one character says here, and a neater explication of Hrebejk’s philosophy I have yet to find.
This one – about an elderly man, a respected figure from the Communist resistance, whose misdeeds during the Dubcek era are slowly revealed – slipped easily back and forth between various perspectives (and such is Jarchovsky’s skill, every character here was nuanced, contradictory, fully realized), and parceled out its revelations as deliberately and rigorously as a conspiracy thriller. Less hectic than ‘Horem Padem’, more emotionally resonant than ‘Beauty In Trouble’ (as fine as each of those films was), it ranked among the writer and director’s very finest work to date.
On the documentary side, by far the strongest word-of-mouth belonged to Laura Poitras’s “The Oath”, which came to Berlin fresh from its world premiere at Sundance. By way of disclosure, I should add that I became friends with Laura after I saw her previous film, “My Country, My Country” at New Directors/New Films, and buttonholed her after the screening to invite it to Edinburgh.
That said, I don’t see quite as much of her as I’d like, largely on account of her having spent much of the past two years in Yemen, where she’s painstakingly assembled the story she presents here: a character-study, essentially, of one Abu Jandal, AKA Nasser Al-Bahari, the former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, and a onetime committed jihadist, who recruited his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan to the cause of Al Qaeda, only to see the supposedly apolitical Hamdan arrested in November 2001 and charged with “conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism.”
He spent the next seven years imprisoned in Guantanamo, and became a famous for a landmark Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), before finally being released in late 2008. Meanwhile Jandal, still free, retired from the cause (though did not renounce the cause of militant Islam) and became a taxi driver in Sana’a. He now claims to be consumed by guilt over what he did, however inadvertently, to his former friend.
Elusive and charismatic, Jandal is an ideal subject. He resists easy analysis. His eyes are alert, his smile slightly too wide and too ready; his responses always seem to hint at about three levels of what Stephen Colbert would call ‘truthiness’. As such, he’s perfectly suited to a filmmaker like Poitras – fascinated by complexity, mistrustful of easy answers, curious and patient. But the film also works as a piece of cinema: it’s beautifully edited and shot. I can offer it no higher praise than to note that, by thirty minutes in, I’d forgotten my fondness for its maker, and was utterly enthralled by the story being told.
Finally, and by way of comic relief, there was Sharunas Bartas’s latest, ‘Eastern Drift’, screening in Forum. The Lithuanian auteur has long been known, if not exactly loved, for a kind of rarified ultra-minimalism – long takes in grainy B&W, static compositions, chasm-like silences; imagine, if you can, Bela Tarr without the belly-laughs. Or a less talented Fred Kelemen.
But in what might be the most surprising volte-face since the Soviet-German Pact, he here reinvents himself as an international man of mystery, via a “seedy underworld thriller”, complete with conventional montage, extreme close-ups, and a bevy of naked girls, all of whom seem wildly eager to fuck the film’s brooding anti-hero. Which might have been okay, had Bartas not taken the spectacularly ill-advised decision to cast himself in the lead.
He’s a handsome guy, no doubt about it, but a truly terrible actor – unblinking, expressionless, monotonal. Watching it, I was uncomfortably reminded of something from my own past – a semester I did at university, many years ago, when I’d entertained a vague notion that I wanted to act. I’d just read Bresson’s ‘Notes on the Cinematographer’, and thought I’d underplay everything – none of that cheap emotion for me! I was so restrained! so subtle! Until I watched it back on videotape, whereupon I realized what my fellow students had understood at once: that I was in fact just stupefyingly boring and more than a little ludicrous. I decided, thereafter, to deny the world my gift; believe me when I say that we are all better for it. Bartas, seemingly intent on becoming the Baltic Viggo Mortensen, has not yet had the same revelation.
The film, though, was at least memorably awful. Martin Amis once commented that there was an entire school of fiction – glossy, violent thrillers, mostly – that could be summed up in a single sentence: “Towards dawn, he entered her again.” ‘Eastern Drift’ was like that. And for the record, he did.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Sydney, Australia, Shane Danielsen is the former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He now lives in Berlin.
CORRECTION: Shane Danielsen is the author of this article. The byline was incorrectly listed and has been updated. We apologize for the error.