It was about halfway through “Jew Süss”, Oskar Roehler’s staggeringly awful new drama, that I was reminded of my great-aunt, now dead more than seven years. This was a surprise, for a number of reasons. I don’t think of her often; we were never especially close. In perhaps my favourite memory of her, she’s barely even there: she was asleep on a sofa after a long Christmas lunch at my parents’ house, drunk and disheveled, and wheezing with the emphysema that would wind up killing her about eighteen months later, and me and my sister are taking turns in her wheelchair, spazzing for photographs like South Park’s Timmy, while our mother hisses at us to show some respect.
And except that she lived through the Second World War (“I never really bothered about it,” she told me once), nothing about the film held even the most tenuous connection to her own life. She certainly never saw Viet Harlan’s original 1940 film of “Jew Süss”, or indeed any film with subtitles – and I doubt she ever met anyone more ‘exotic’ than the Greek who ran the corner shop, much less an actual Jewish person. Barely traveled, settled in her assumptions, and almost genetically incurious, she was in many ways the personification of 1950s suburban Australia. Yet there she was, foremost in my mind while Moritz Bleibtraub chewed the scenery – the most wildly miscast Josef Goebbels since Joel Grey – and I could not for the life of me understand why.
Only later, walking out of the cinema, did it occur to me: her most memorable habit. She was consistently, dependably wrong in her estimation of things. That neighbour she trusted implicitly? He’d cheat her. That racehorse that couldn’t lose? It would break a leg and have to be destroyed. Her entire life, it seemed, was a succession of wrong choices, missed points, and false assumptions.
And it struck me suddenly that my dead great-aunt and Dieter Kosslick, the Berlinale’s director, had an awful lot in common.
I have never meet Herr Kosslick, but having now witnessed nine years of his programming, I feel I know him a little. And I therefore feel confident in saying that I have never seen a festival director with less idea of what constitutes a Competition selection. This year’s choices are once again mostly small and inconsequential, films like Rafi Pitt’s flawed, frustrating “The Hunter” and Semih Kaplanoglu’s ponderous “Honey”. They lack the necessary sense of weight or significance. They’re B-sides, not singles.
If I’m picking on Kosslick here, I’m hardly alone. Variety’s wrap kicked him more or less from here to Dresden, citing his refusal to take the necessary risks (“it’s time the Bear let its hair down again -and took some real chances”), and pointing out that the competition was badly unworthy of one of the major film festivals in the world. The liberal daily Der Tagespiele has devoted a daily column more or less solely to mocking his selection. And buyers, sales agents, critics and even some of his own advisers, have all been expressing – often at great length – their frustrations, bemusement and mounting irritation with the festival in general, and the Competition in particular.
That said, a small handful have tried to defend him: Ah, they say, but Dieter does the best he can. His selection committee are useless. And you have to realise: that there are probably about forty titles he’d dearly love to show, but which are holding out for a shot at Cannes. To which I reply: I don’t doubt for a moment that this is true. But poor committee or not – and notwithstanding Cannes – Kosslick does hold certain cards. It’s not necessarily a winning hand, by any means, but nor is it a dismal one. The problem is, he doesn’t appear to know how to play them.
How else to explain the inclusion of “Puzzle”, from Argentina? The tale of a middle-aged mother who discovers a talent for jigsaw puzzles, enters a tournament, flirts with her partner, wins the contest, sleeps with the partner, and returns to her family, it was nothing more or less than what it appeared. The story was utterly straightforward (not “deceptively simple”); the realization was workmanlike (not “boldly unadorned“), and it was forgotten almost as soon as it the end credits rolled. Bafflingly slight, it seemed a creditable Panorama title, no more, and had about as much business being in competition as a Miley Cyrus video.
So why was this uninspired nothing in the official selection, and not Sylvain Chomet’s animation “The Illusionist”, a movie that delighted pretty much everyone who saw it and which would seem, on the surface, an ideal choice for a Berlin Bear? Based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, this was Chomet’s first feature since his acclaimed 2003 breakthrough “The Triplets of Belleville”, and as such, represented one of the Berlinale’s bigger coups. Why, then, was it treated so shabbily?
Denied a Competition berth (why? to make room for the singular genius of Pernille Fischer Christensen?), it was consigned instead to the purgatory that is the ‘Berlinale Specials’ section. Which are special, not in the VIP use of the word, but rather, in the ‘half-off, everything must go’ sense, being essentially a dumping ground for films that, for one reason or another, don’t fit the tenor of the other sections: not ‘good’ enough for Competition (hah!), not gay enough for Panorama, not young enough for Generations, not weird enough for Forum.
Not only was it shut out of Competition, but for reasons no one seemed able to explain, it was given neither a press preview, nor a slot on the festival’s main screens at Potsdamer Platz. Instead, it was consigned to the Urania and International – and had a mere two showings, instead of the customary four. Were I Chomet, I would be feeling rather badly treated.
The film, however, should survive this lousy mismanagement: it fairly glitters with affection and good humour – as well as visual beauty: Edinburgh looks magical throughout – and while perhaps a little thin at times, provided the kind of delight, the pure pleasure in images, that this year’s Berlinale badly lacked.
The rest of the Competition ticked along more or less as expected. Jasmila Zbanic’s “On The Path” was reliably dull, I was told (having seen her first film, “Grbavica”, I chose not to bother); and Thomas Vinterberg’s “Submarino” was basically just a Susanne Bier film with slightly higher production values. Grueling, yet at the same time utterly uninvolving, it was in every respect a typical slice of Danish socio-realism – from its blue-grey visual palette, to its array of ugly, blighted misfits. How many times can the Danes make this movie, anyway?
It was easy to dismiss Burhan Qurbani’s “Shahada” – really, do we need a Muslim “Crash”? – but it was also a victim of the festival’s programming. For all its slick visual surface, the film is just a graduation piece from a very young first-time filmmaker: to advance it into Competition, as Kosslick did, is to subject it to a degree of scrutiny that the work simply cannot sustain. It’s unfair both on the movie – which would have stood tall amid the wasteland of this year’s Perspektive Deutsch Kino section, where it rightfully belonged – and on the filmmaker, whose career will doubtless suffer from a critical drubbing he might, with lesser expectations placed upon him, have avoided.
Zhang Yimou’s Chinese mainland remake of the Coen Brothers’ ‘Blood Simple’ began with a moody title sequence that promised a moody, elegant noir in the mold of his own “Ju Dou” – only to detour, almost immediately, into broad slapstick and farce. Weirdly, it also seemed to miss some of the convulsions of plot, the twists and reversals, that made the original so gripping – though in fairness, this might have been a result of the half-hour reportedly shorn from its running-time for international audiences.
Only Koji Wakamatu’s “Caterpillar” excited any real controversy, being defended and denounced with equal passion. To its supporters, it was a bold indictment of war and its human cost; to its detractors, a lurid and borderline-offensive mess. I couldn’t decide, and didn’t want to – the film at least left me with much to contemplate. Which is rather more than could be said for most of its rivals.
“Jew Süss: Film Ohne Gewissen”, though, must be singled out for special consideration. Roehler’s previous film, an adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s novel “The Elementary Particles”, was not only thoroughly wretched in its own right, it missed the point of the book so completely, you suspected that the director either had not actually read it, or else held some bizarre grudge against its author.
This one, though, is far worse. As a director, Roehler falls at every hurdle, being apparently incapable of staging action, composing images, or directing actors. Many shots here involve tableaux-like clusters of characters, shot from slightly above, that look as if they’re onstage, over-acting in some terrible play. The dialogue is atrocious, the execution of several scenes flat-out inept. It plays, as one colleague noted, like Tarantino’s second-unit outtakes from “Inglourious Basterds”.
Worst of all, Roehler drags everyone down with him; watching, I felt intensely embarrassed for the cast – in particular, the talented Martina Gedeck, who has never been worse.
Still, Roehler at least achieved something hitherto inconceivable, making Harlan’s original film – long considered one of the most repulsively caricatured examples of anti-Semitism ever to deform the screen – appear a masterpiece of subtlety and sophistication by comparison.
So what will win? No one knows – and given the strident unpredictability of recent Gold Bears (the aforementioned “Grbavica”, the African musical “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha”, Claudia Llosa’s potato-in-my-vagina flick “The Milk of Sorrow”), it’s probably futile to speculate. Still, given that the jury is chaired by the formidable Werner Herzog – a man not exactly renowned for his willingness to conform to expectations – I would love it if he declared that his jury refused to anoint a winner. Someone needs to say, this is not good enough.
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 and was just named a senior programmer for the Taormina Film Festival.