Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new films with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, we offer an analysis of this year's Berlin International Film Festival. Film critics Shane Danielsen (whose thinkpiece on Berlin's 2012 competition section ran today) and Andrew Grant (covering the festival this year for Filmmaker magazine, and producing the upcoming doc "Cause of Death: Unknown") discuss some of running problems with the festival as well as their favorites from the current lineup.
Shane, in your new dispatch from the festival for Indiewire, you wonder if there's really any point to Berlin–or any other festival, aside from Cannes–having an official competition. If critics think, as you and several others do this year, that Berlin's competition films don't deserve such lofty placement, is it worthwhile to simply ignore them?
SHANE DANIELSEN: Yeah. I think you could. I say that because I'm thinking not only of Berlin. I went to Karlovy Vary for years and the competition was a joke. It's a series of terrible films. The Rotterdam Tigers are appalling. But you could get away with ignoring it were it not for two things: One is this sort of mass delusion that this is important and that if you do ignore it, the feeling that you're missing out on something that's essential. But that also goes back to the programming of the competition. You only feel that guilt when your faith in the programming has the potential to be rewarded–if you believe that the programmers of this festival, or this competition strand, have actually sat down and chosen the best works out there. And I don't think they do. The second element to that is we're obviously in an easier position than a journalist covering the festival whose editors usually demand that they pay attention to whatever the competition is, to the exclusion of anything else. That's often ridiculous. It's unjustified and gives a very partial view of what the festival is actually about.
Andrew, as somebody who lives and works in Berlin, this is a local festival for you. A couple of months ago, various Berlin residents gathered for an intervention of sorts to discuss how to improve the festival. What do you see as some potential solutions?
ANDREW GRANT: With this daylong seminar, a gathering of minds, where nobody showed up because [Berlin director] Dieter Kosslick insisted it was going to be a tribunal… I can understand why he wouldn't show up, but for him to not send anyone to represent the festival, even a lackey, just shows how he doesn't care. Short of his ousting, I don't think there's going to be any kind of fix. Unfortunately, there has to be change from above. The festival has become so fragmented. There was a time when the Competition, Panorama and Forum sections actually meant something. Now, the three sections are so blurred. I cannot tell you how many people I ran into who felt there were plenty of films in Panorama and Forum that should've been in Competition–and films in Competition that had no business being in there.
SD: Absolutely. This was what I said in one of my Indiewire pieces last year. Dieter is a gambler who doesn't know the value of the cards he's holding. He'll put something in competition that's unworthy of it, like this year's "Meteora," and then he'll ignore something like "The Wall," one of the best things I've seen this year. I actually think this year's Competition is slightly stronger than it's been in other years. This year's Panorama is significantly worse than it's been in other years.
Last year, Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse" and Asgar Farhadi's "A Separation" were both in competition. They were popular enough to bury everything else. Do either of you think there's anything in this year's competition with that same staying power?
AG: I think so. There seems to be consensus on just about everything in this year's Competition. With a few exceptions, everyone like "Barbara," "Sister," and "War Witch," which I unfortunately did not see. I think there are more titles that will live on longer than last year. But it seems there are hits and misses and that's it. Nobody's defending the shittier films in Competition.
SD: Who's got a good word to say about "Captive?" It's appalling. I found out today that there were three cuts of that film rejected by Cannes this year; a subsequent cut was rejected by Venice. Finally, it washes up on these shores like the turd that it is. I'm curious about Brillante Mendoza as a filmmaker. I said to a friend after watching "War Witch," which I'm pretty assured is going to win awards, "This is another jungle drama. I'd love to tie Mendoza to a chair and make him watch this to see what another filmmaker can do." There's a lot of that. It's disarming — you think about the festival's reputation in terms of its longevity. You think its competition means more than it does.
Let's say each one of you is the entire jury for this year's competition. What wins the Golden Bear for Best Film?
AG: Having not seen "War Witch," I would give it to "Barbara." Christian Petzold is really growing as a director. Quite a few non-Europeans describe this film as being very cold, but I think this is his warmest film by far. "Yella" was a cold film by design, but in terms of its way of looking back at the state of the DDR, "Barbara" does a much better job than "The Lives of Others."
SD: I would give it to "War Witch." The two most impressive things I've seen are "War Witch" and "The Wall." But I'd give it to "War Witch," in part, because of what I was just saying about Mendoza. The reason I don't like "Captive" and do like "War Witch" so much is because, as a spectator — and as a critic, for whatever that's worth — I'm all about craft. It's old-fashioned, I know, but I have the same impatience with people who don't have the same basic command of craft that I do with artists who can't draw. Once that basic level of craft is established, we can quibble all we like about whether we like "Tabu" or "War Witch" better. I can be assured that, ultimately, there's a level of thought and achievement worth my time. I found that at every stage of "War Witch." It was satisfying in a narrative sense, visually astonishing, and it was emotionally compelling. That's all I ask from a film.