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February 17, 2011 3:25 AM
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Berlinale 2011 | It's The Pictures That Got Small: Searching For Cinema In "Die ewige Zweite"

Ralph Fiennes' "Coriolanus." Image courtesy The Weinstein Company.

Of the many questions raised by this year's Berlin Film Festival - and we'll get to those in a minute - none seemed more puzzling than this: why did so many of its public spaces - the Cinemaxx bar, the foyer of the Arsenal - carry upon the air the faint but unmistakable scent of semen? At first I thought my senses were deceiving me, but no: a friend from London came to meet me in the bar after a screening, and as he approached I watched him stop, draw upright, then frown, sniffing the air like a startled dachshund.

"That smells like . . ." "Yes." "Like a trash can filled with used tissues." "Yes. I thought it was just me." "What, that just you smelled like spunk?" "No, that I was the only one who noticed it."

We looked around. Was it some kind of cleaning solvent? A vegan buffet? Or had Berlinale audiences been so unexpectedly roused by what they had watched, that they felt no option but to spend their enthusiasm immediately? And if this was the case, what on earth had they been seeing, and where could we get some of it? For such a response synched not at all with our own experiences, to a first week which might most charitably be described as "lackluster".

Talk to people at the Berlinale - not just other journalists, but sales agents, publicists, buyers, even members of the festival staff - and you find a number of terms recurring: "flat", "dull", "dead". As in: the event feels flat. The programme's pretty dull. The market's kind of dead. Some of this may be attributed to the usual kvetching, the reflexive disquiet of people uprooted from their homes and forced into close proximity, and reminded once again of the looped, repetitive nature of their jobs and, by extension, their lives. Years go by fast on the circuit; after a while, and despite one's best attempts to maintain a sense of enthusiasm, a certain despondent sameness creeps in.

Nevertheless, the evidence bears out the complaints. With only a few more days to go, and the market finished, this could hardly be described as a thrilling year - or even a dismal one, for that matter. And if there was little truly bad work on offer, there was equally little to inspire passionate enthusiasm or provoke heated debate. The result was a kind of collective shrug, a prolonged_meh_, extended over six or seven days, as we pondered the curious choices that had been made, and speculated on the possible reasons behind them.

Which brings us, Ouroboros-like, to the first, most common, and therefore most urgent question: what happened, exactly, to the Berlinale? This, I realized a few weeks ago, was my twentieth year attending the festival. (I told you: time goes by quickly.) The first year I came, I found the following directors represented in competition: Martin Scorsese, Eric Rohmer, Istvan Szabo, David Cronenberg, Gillian Armstrong, Andrei Konchalovsky, Barry Levinson, Paul Schrader, Jan Troell. Among others. To compare that line-up to this year's, where the ranking names were Bela Tarr (with a film reportedly passed over for competition slots by both Cannes and Venice) and Miranda July (with a work that had already world-premiered at Sundance), is to apprehend, at a single glance, the true scale of Berlin's decline.

What was "The Prize" doing in Competition? An incident-free, HD-shot study of a little girl and her mother living like outcasts on a beach, it was more suited to the Forum, or Rotterdam. Likewise "Our Grand Misery', a perfectly competent domestic drama from Turkey that would, in any other year, have seemed right at home in Panorama. Or "Come Rain, Come Shine", a wan South Korean breakup movie, with a housebound couple exchanging banalities against the patter of lousy weather against their windows. Watching, I was reminded of Norma Desmond: Berlin's still big: handsomely-funded, well-attended - by locals, if not an increasingly disillusioned international press. It's just the pictures that got small.

But in the absence of stronger films, and bigger names - all of whom, presumably, are bypassing Berlin in the hope of a berth at Cannes - these second-stringers had been bumped up to the major league. Where inevitably they were judged far more harshly than they might have been, had they been allowed to find their proper levels.

A journalist here, Anke Westphal, last year earned the ire of the festival organizers when she wrote in Berliner Zeitung that the Berlinale could no longer be compared in any meaningful sense to the Cannes it once rivaled; the article was headlined "Die ewige Zweite" - "the eternal second". This year, another journalist stepped forward to offer a correction: the festival, he argues, is actually number-three, now locked firmly behind not only Cannes but also Venice in terms of pulling-power and importance. And frankly, it's hard to disagree.

This is not to say that there weren't a few good films to be found in Competition. Somewhat to my surprise, I liked very much Ralph Fiennes' debut, an adaptation of "Coriolanus" that expertly pared back the text - one of Shakespeare's longest - to bare bone and sinew, and afforded Fiennes, in the title role, and Vanessa Redgrave, as Volumnia, the opportunity to display their not-inconsiderable chops. Both rose superbly to the occasion: Fiennes, with a snarling malevolence that found both the scornful egotism and wounded pride in his character:

"Despising, for you, the city, thus I turn my back: There is a world elsewhere."

And Redgrave, grave and remote, with a final speech, pleading with her renegade son to spare Rome, that seemed to stop time itself.

I enjoy "Coriolanus" for the relative plainness of its language; the play was reportedly one of Ted Hughes' favorites, and it's easy to see why - the rough music of Shakespeare's verse here closely matches his own. But Fiennes also directed it shrewdly and well, relocating the action to the modern-day Balkans (the film was shot largely in Belgrade) and utilizing a cable-news approach to establishing action that hinted at the influence of Peter Watkins' magisterial "La Commune" - to my mind, one of the greatest films of the last decade.

Also fine - and equally surprising, given the unpromising word-of-mouth - was Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse", reportedly the Hungarian filmmaker's final work. If so (and I can't help but suspect that reports of Tarr's demise are greatly exaggerated), it's a hell of a farewell: an old-fashioned, capital-A European Art movie in the mold of Tarkovsky, and like that filmmaker, unafraid to grapple with the big themes, as a boorish famer and his silent, mournful wife face extinction in their farmhouse, while outside, across a blasted plain, roars one of the most violent storms ever depicted on film, a perpetual hurricane, devouring not only their meager allotment, but the world entire.

Shot by German filmmaker Fred Keleman, it boasted some of the most stunning monochrome cinematography I've ever seen, each image (and there were only about 27 edits in its 146 minutes) a marvel of weight and texture and chiaroscuro. The opening sequence, a lengthy single shot of a horse dragging a cart and rider along a road amid the storm, is breathtaking, no other word will do. Another, of a woman, viewed from behind as she walks toward a well, had something of the harsh aestheticism, the unfussy compositional elegance, of a photograph by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange.

It sailed, at times, awfully close to self-parody (never more than when one character arrived to deliver a lengthy speech about how the "great and noble and uncorrupted" things have vanished from the world - during which, if you listened closely, you could almost hear Tarr, behind the camera, reminding you that this was, in fact, his final film). But unlike the world it depicted, it pulled back from the brink, as much by dint of its own absolute and unwavering conviction as by the apocalyptic force of the images. (At moments, it reminded me of Soviet nuclear-terror movies like Lopushanky's "Letters From A Dead Man".) By the end, the lights had gone out, the world was done, and the thought of seeing another movie, then or ever, seemed faintly absurd.

Here's a second question: whatever happened to German cinema? Touted, in the late-00s, as being in the midst of a boom, with breakout hits like "Goodbye Lenin!" and "The Lives of Others" and, for festivalgoers, the emergence of the Berlin School, its reputation has faded badly in recent years; the Berlinale's Perspektive Deutsches Kino sidebar is today a mere wisp of a thing, barely a shadow of what it was a decade ago.

The answer is that it's surviving, if not exactly thriving - though you mightn't know it from a Berlinale which chose to consign two of its biggest homegrown names, Christian Petzold and Dominik Graf, to the margins. Together with fellow "Berlin School" figure Christoph Hochhaeusler, they had collaborated on a three-feature project entitled "Dreileben", or "Three Lives," made for German television. Telling three separate stories set around a common incident, the sequence was inspired by a correspondence between the directors in the summer of 2006, later collected and published in the German film journal Revolver.

Yet from the start, the festival's attitude to the project was curious. In terms of international profile, Graf and Petzold are two of the biggest names currently working in this country; both have figured before in competition here. But the Dreileben films barely rated a mention in the press releases; most international visitors had no idea they were screening. They were billed, confusingly, as a "cross-section Forum/Panorama presentation" - a pointless display of programming semantics (or internecine territoriality). And then, as if to further underline the point that these sessions were of secondary importance, they were press-screened at a non-festival venue - the Hackesche Hoefe Kino in Mitte, a sub-standard venue. Where they were shown on DVD, rather than on 35mm prints.

Nevertheless the room, not large, was solidly packed. I watched two of the three before leaving to see a title in the Forum, a decision I quickly came to regret; I'll catch up with the final film, Hochhaeusler's, at the public screening on Saturday - and given the strength of the preceding installments, I can hardly wait.

Beside their shared setting, a small German town menaced by the escape of a convicted murderer, the first two films had remarkably little in common. Petzold's entry - "Beats Being Dead" - traced the arc of a romance between a young male nurse and a wild, too-needful young girl, and the filmmaker, working from his own screenplay, imbued the result with his usual admixture of ambiguity and menace. With Petzold's cinema, there's always a sense of the mystical and uncanny, operating just beneath the surface of things, and this one was no different; its final shot was both inexplicable and resonant, in a manner reminiscent of David Lynch. For me, he's easily the most fascinating German director of his generation.

Graf's entry meanwhile, "Don't Follow Me Around", could hardly have been more different. Chatty where the Petzold was brooding, briskly-paced where the preceding film was measured and contemplative (so much so, it seemed at times almost to play like a trailer for itself), it chronicled a few days in the life of a visiting police psychologist, who arrived in town to track the escapee, but found herself drawn into unfinished business with an old friend. Accumulating details piece-by-piece, it built to a conclusion as satisfying as it was unexpected. Even visually, it surprised us: Petzold had favored his usual sleek surfaces and cool tones, but Michael Wiesweg's cinematography looked degraded and fuzzed-out, with soft colors and light flaring in the frame like a set of 70s Polaroid photographs.

Better still was one of the German films in Competition: Ulrich Koehler's "Sleeping Sickness". Its West African setting seemed to invite comparisons to Claire Denis' "White Material"; in fact, the closest point of reference is the V.S. Naipaul of "In A Free State" - and perhaps Joseph Conrad, whose jaundiced view of colonial responsibility it echoed.

To reveal more would be to ruin its surprises - and this sense of being perpetually off-balance, of trying to pick one's way amid the pieces of its narrative, is one of the primary satisfactions of the film; in fact, its entire structure depends upon it. Suffice it to say that Koehler has an unusual knack - as his previous film, "Windows On Monday", revealed - for depicting a world that's subtly out-of-balance . . . and then, at a single stroke, tipping the action over into nightmare. He does so here, but with more confidence and ambition than ever before. Few directors have managed to make a shot of a car driving down a narrow dirt road, turning a corner, so quietly terrifying. It might not have been the death of cinema, a la Tarr's vision, but it was definitely, as Paul Bowles once wrote, the end of the line.

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