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February 18, 2006 6:21 AM
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BERLINALE CRITIC'S DIARY: German Films Lead The Way at 2006 Berlin Fest; "Power," "Lenz" Also Worthy

A scene from "Sehnsucht" (Longing), which screened in the Berlinale competition. Photo provided by the festival

When Dieter Kosslick, the head of the Berlin International Film Festival, first announced that fully five of the nineteen films in competition at this year's Berlinale would be German films, the cinema world looked askance. Had Kosslick been overtaken by a sudden access of Teutonic nationalism? Or was he on to something?

Get the latest news, buzz and iPOP photos from the Berlinale in indieWIRE's special Berlin International Film Festival section.

Turns out it was the latter, and my two favorite films at the festival were German. (Both of which, by the way, I found far more cinematically developed than the film that ultimately won the Golden Bear, the heartwarming but thinly dramatized and predictable Bosnian film "Grbavica", which I discussed in my mid-fest diary.) The first was "Der Freie Wille" (Free Will), a powerful drama of a serial rapist who struggles to have a normal life, also discussed in my earlier report. The second was "Sehnsucht" (Longing), an exceptionally well-observed portrait of contemporary small-town German life that manages to feel like something out of the heyday of neo-realism, or even like a documentary, yet is also formally brilliant and sports a spiffy, and funny, Brechtian ending that makes light of everything we've just seen and been through.

In the film, directed by 38-year-old first-time filmmaker Valeska Grisebach, a metalworker and volunteer fireman named Markus is happily married to his childhood sweetheart Ella. He goes away for a weekend for some training with his fireman buddies and wakes up one morning in bed with a waitress named Rose. He has no idea what if anything happened, but he begins to fall in love with Rose even though his feelings for his wife haven't changed a bit. Basically, that's it. But on this slender plot, Grisebach has erected a supremely subtle portrait of the hidden complexities of everyday life. I was also struck by the brilliant acting by the three principals and, when I met one of the film's screenwriters by chance, I discovered to my astonishment that they, like all the secondary characters, were non-professionals as well.

A film I couldn't warm up to at all, or maybe just didn't get, was Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Invisible Waves", also in the competition. Ratanaruang has been hot on the festival circuit since Mon-rak Transistor (2001) and, especially, "Last Life in the Universe" (2003), which clearly enjoyed flaunting its stylish "meaninglessness," but which I kind of liked. The new film contains the usual Ratanaruang mixture of B-film gangster plot, existential guilt, ill-suited lovers who never get it together, and repetitive jokes with props that don't work. To me, it's little more than warmed-over Wong Kar-wai, with about one-quarter of the brilliance. (This film was even shot by Wong's DP, the legendary bon vivant Chris Doyle.)

Another bit of ersatz Wong Kar-wai was provided by Wong's fellow Hong Konger Pang Ho-Cheung in a film called "Isabella." A lifeless story about a corrupt cop from Macao and the girl he sleeps with, who may or may not be his daughter, the level of invention in this film is indicated by its title, which is the name of the girl's dog, whom the girl spends an inordinate amount of time looking for.

The biggest flurry at the festival was caused by Michael Winterbottom's documentary/docudrama "The Road to Guantanamo" (co-directed by Mat Whitecross), which concerns the brutal imprisonment of three young Pakistani men at the infamous U.S. base in Cuba. The excitement lasted long enough to generate a Silver Bear for Direction for Winterbottom and Whitecross, but this uneasy mixture of real talking heads and scenes played with actors doesn't really work as a film. Nevertheless European critics all-too-ready to condemn, in black-and-white terms, America's misbegotten invasion of Iraq loved it. Cooler heads, however, pointed to its obvious one-sidedness and seemingly completely uncritical acceptance of the young men's shaky claims regarding what they were doing in Afghanistan when it was clear a U.S. invasion was imminent. (That said, of course, the Guantanamo prison is nevertheless an outrage that should immediately be shut down.) It's one of those "documentaries" that win prizes because critics agree with the film's point-of-view rather than because it's a good film. (Think Fahrenheit 911.)

Another film in the competition was Iranian director Rafi Pitt's "It's Winter," a poetic, ultra-slight tale about poverty and unemployment in contemporary Iran that unfortunately never comes to life. The wintry landscapes are lovely, but in the absence of an identifiable plot and well-developed characters, viewers' attention is very likely to wander. "Romanzo Criminale" is an over-the-top Italian gangster movie full of the impossibly beautiful people that seem to populate recent Italian films and that always make them feel so artificial. It's also filled with the usual cliches about tough guys and their whores, and some female critics I talked to found it offensive, but amid a competition filled with difficult (and sometimes pretentious) art films, its energy provided this critic, at least, a delicious guilty pleasure. Another film about gangsters was "Find Me Guilty", the latest effort by the amazingly productive Sidney Lumet, whose first film was "12 Angry Men", made in 1957, for God's sake. The new film improbably stars Vin Diesel as a gangster who acts as his own lawyer in a RICO trial. Based on a true story and actual, recorded dialogue, it's often quite funny, but since it is also largely confined to the courtroom, it's terribly static and never quite comes to life.

My favorite of the films stuck at the end of the competition was "The Comedy of Power", directed by another octogenarian, Frenchman Claude Chabrol. One of the most uneven filmmakers in cinema history, this film ends up somewhere in the middle of his oeuvre. Focused on a judge, deliciously played by Isabelle Huppert, who is investigating criminal links between rich businessmen and high government officials, the film is crisply shot in sparkling interiors, as always in a Chabrol film, and sports the machine-gun dialogue and the fey thoughts about the bourgeoisie that the director is famous for. Alas, things in the film don't quite hang together, but it's also quite possible that they really weren't meant to.

A scene from "Lenz," which screened in the Forum section at the recent Berlinale. Photo provided by the festival.

In other sections, I saw three interesting if uneven films. The best of the lot was a strange film (shown in the always weird and wacky Forum section, naturally) made by Swiss filmmaker Thomas Imbach called "Lenz." It purports to be an autobiographical portrait of a filmmaker, obsessed by the seventeenth century German writer of the same name and the famous Buechner novella about him, who is trying desperately to reclaim his family while steadily going insane. There's much here that's reminiscent of Werner Herzog's excellent Grizzly Man, one of my favorite films of 2005. The kink in the works, however, is that the central character, Lenz, who talks to the camera from beginning to end, and the in the process chillingly renders interior states exterior, is actually played by an actor and isn't the director at all. Self-indulgent at times, yes, but also quite mesmerizing.

At the opposite end of the universe was "Milarepa," a glossy movie from Bhutan, made by the producer of The Cup and starring several monk-actors from that film, that details the life of Tibetan Buddhism's most revered saint, the eleventh century monk Milarepa. If a bit slow-moving at times, its stateliness, deep spirituality, gorgeous mountain scenery, and transcendent music should make it a big hit on the festival circuit. The last film I saw, a real diamond in the rough, was Rampage. Though it needs to be cut drastically, this power-packed, sometimes even shocking documentary of life in a ghetto in Miami, shot and directed by Australian filmmaker George Gittoes, has lots of potential and shows an over-exposed side of American life in a dramatically new way.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Before moving to North Carolina in 2004, Peter Brunette was chief critic at indieWIRE. He now reviews festival films for the British trade journal Screen International and is Reynolds Professor of Film Studies at Wake Forest University.

Get the latest news, buzz and iPOP photos from the Berlinale in indieWIRE's special Berlin International Film Festival section.

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