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Critic's Notebook: Why You Should Care About the Berlin Film Festival

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 7, 2014 at 8:56AM

While the Berlinale may not carry the same obvious clout as Sundance or Cannes, it deserves just as much scrutiny — if not more so — for the broad statement it provides on global cinema today.
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Berlinale

While hordes of Americans rush to see animated blocks in "The Lego Movie" at the multiplex this weekend, across the Atlantic, audiences are experiencing a different assemblage of moving pieces: The 64th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival, aka the Berlinale, kicked off Thursday and continues through February 16. That information might not excite anyone who isn't already scrambling around Potsdamer Platz with packed screening plans over the next 10 days. However, while the Berlinale may not carry the same obvious clout as Sundance or Cannes, it deserves just as much scrutiny — if not more so — for the broad statement it provides on global cinema today.

Ironically, many of the industry veterans at the festival will be happy if they get to see one new movie in the expansive lineup. Concurrent with the Berlinale's main programming (which includes its prominent Competition section as well as two major sidebars, special screenings and retrospectives), the European Film Market provides thousands of distributors, sales agents, programmers and others with sufficient excuses to pack their schedules with meetings and parties where countless deals go down.

Unfinished movies are often bought for distribution at EFM based on a handful of finished ingredients. For example, as Mike Fleming recently pointed out in Deadline, Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho's widely anticipated post-apocalyptic thriller "Snowpiercer" (which stars, among others, Chris Pine and John Hurt) was picked up by The Weinstein Company two years ago out of EFM after the company saw some sample footage and surveyed the script. The completed movie screens at the festival this weekend ahead of its U.S. release. Whether or not it was worth the gamble for Harvey Weinstein, who has reportedly given up on a battle with the director over his two-and-a-half hour cut and negotiated a smaller release, remains to be seen.

Buyers in Berlin: Bad Movies? Bad Economy? Both?
The European Film Market in Berlin. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

"This is the hard part about the kind of buying that is now taking place in Berlin," Fleming writes. Indeed, tracking the various sales unfolding at the marketplace only yields a list of potentially interesting titles with virtually no guarantees of quality until further down the line. So while hordes of distributors pretend they have crystal balls at EFM, fewer people in Berlin scrutinize the fully completed movies screening nearby.

But this gulf between the EFM and the festival programming actually helps to illustrate the realities of contemporary cinema: in one side of the arena, a marketplace filled with gambles and commercial aspirations; on the other, a dense, almost impermeable selection of movies from all around the world, some great, others terrible, and plenty in between.

While the festival has been criticized in the past for its intangible programming strategies and unevenness, those same ingredients now work in its favor. Neither a gloomy picture or a blindly optimistic one, the Berlinale offers a sweeping, intricate overview of new movies and the infrastructure that sustains them. As a result of its timing (after Sundance, ahead of Cannes), volume (around 400 films in its various sections) and exposure (nearly 4,000 journalists attend and some 300,000 tickets are sold), the festival now reflects the sheer scale, variety and interest in filmmaking around the world today.

As usual, any general survey of its lineup reveals a grab bag of different possibilities. There are Sundance carryovers (Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," screening in competition; Ira Sachs' "Love Is Strange" and the Terrence Malick-produced "The Better Angels" in the Panorama section), major auteur filmmakers with new work (the 91-year-old Alain Resnais, with his adaptation of the stage play "Life of Riley"; Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel) and countless first-time filmmakers in competition in addition to the less-exposed regions of the program.

It's hard to pinpoint one kind of movie that tends to gain momentum out of Berlin since so many different ones have launched here: In the last few years, movies ranging from Sebastian Lelio's crowd-pleaser "Gloria," Asgar Farhadi's Oscar-winning "A Separation" and Bela Tarr's alleged final masterpiece "The Turin Horse" have launched their successful runs in the Berlinale Palast.

But the lineup has also offered a starting point for sleeper hits of the festival circuit happened upon by cinephiles, who spread a markedly different kind of hype than the sort you'll find on the tip of buyers' tongues, for movies like "The Strange Little Cat" last year and "Everybody In Our Family" in 2012 (neither of them, to date, have received U.S. distribution).

Grand Budapest Hotel

The first 24 hours of screenings at this year's Berlinale provided an immediate indication of similar range. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" opened the festival to a shower of praise, confirming Anderson's ongoing vitality as a distinct voice seemingly able to function more freely each time out. Meanwhile, the Panorama section opened with a disappointing Vietnamese science fiction feature, "Nuoc 2030," which takes the promising concept of a near-future in which global warming has caused most of the country to become submerged in water and explores it with an uninspired plot involving the plight of a local fisherman and his wife.

But for every letdown at Berlinale, another more interesting selection appears. By this morning, festival attendees were already buzzing about competition entry "Jack," the remarkably tense and unsentimental look at a feisty German 10-year-old (Ivo Pietzcker, a genuine discovery) who undergoes a discomfiting adventure after escaping from his foster home to track down his single mother.

Capably borrowing from the Dardenne brothers' playbook of depicting individualistic kids in peril, the movie derives its strength from Pietzcker's ferocious performance, while director Edward Berger constantly keeps his camera trained on the boy from his height. Berger, who has worked in television for years but remains a relative unknown quantity in world cinema, makes a substantial impression. The remarkably contained drama finds the somber young hero living on the streets and tragically fighting for the luxury of hugging his mother against irrational odds, with no one except his naive younger brother to share his troubles.

And that's just the second competition movie to screen so far. The Berlinale jury is set to have a good time sifting through this varied portrait of current cinema, which seems more overpopulated each year, and particularly in need of the representational lens that film festivals can provide.

The jury itself demonstrates the sheer range of forces involved in recent cinema and the different kinds of attention they provoke. "It's easier to do this than to make a movie," juror Michel Gondry said during the group's opening press conference on Thursday. His fellow juror Greta Gerwig fielded a question about her colleague Josephine Decker, whose two movies "Butter on the Latch" and "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" mark early discoveries from the festival's Forum section. "I'm always excited about new filmmakers who have done things we haven't seen before," she said. Christoph Waltz was asked to compare his festival experience with his previous jury duty at Cannes.

James Schamus in Berlin.
Peter Knegt James Schamus in Berlin.

The jury's president, longtime producer, teacher and recently deposed Focus Features CEO James Schamus, sat at the center of the group, embodying its paradoxes: Schamus spent over a decade fighting to release smarter movies through the specialty division of a studio, only to find himself unceremoniously dismissed last year when parent company Universal decided it wanted to release more obviously commercial fare. But at Berlinale, Schamus remained the man in charge, prompting one journalist to ask him if he might become "the big daddy" of the jury family by the festival's end. "That question is so wrong on so many levels," the characteristically bow tie-wearing Schamus said with a grin, but it had an oddly valid implication: Only at a festival filled with a complex vision of international cinema could one of the great contemporary dilettantes from the modern independent scene continue his reign. "The thing that brings us together is movies," Schamus told the room, "and by that I mean James Bond movies and Bela Tarr movies."

It remains to be seen if that assertion of open-mindedness will find an outlet in the lineup until its very end. With so much left to screen, Berlinale remains a question mark — but that very sense of the unknown is exactly what makes it valuable. Overwhelming and frustratingly unpredictable, the festival can't provide an easy route to cinematic gratification, but any number of its pathways hold promise. Whether or not the rest of the world will notice them is a different story.

This article is related to: Reviews, Festivals, Berlin 2014, Berlin International Film Festival, Snowpiercer, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Jack





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