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DAILY DISPATCH FROM BERLIN: Mining for Meaning In More Berlinale Films: “Vendetta,” “Container,” “Do

DAILY DISPATCH FROM BERLIN: Mining for Meaning In More Berlinale Films: "Vendetta," "Container," "Do

In a time of intense international strife, journalists and critics are especially sensitive to movies with messages, trying to decode the intentions of provocative directors. Films ranging from perhaps the seemingly smallest, like Lukas Moodysson‘s latest, “Container,” to the largest, James McTeigue‘s “V For Vendetta,” had festivalgoers buzzing this past week at the Berlinale. As did a pair of documentaries: Tomer Heymann‘s “Paper Dolls” and Katharina Otto-Bernstein‘s “Absolute Wilson.”

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

The Message of “Vendetta”?

In the case of McTeigue’s “Vendetta,” perhaps to protect the size of their potential box office, those behind the big studio movie seem to be trying to distance themselves from any overt messages the film might have. That could be a tough order, given the timeliness of the movie and its connections to current event. In the movie, set in the future in London, control of the country has been seized by a dictator in a time of subway bombings, avian flu, and poisoned water. The years of peril have been driven by fear of “the other,” or as the film says, those who are different (“immigrants, homos, Muslims and terrorists”) can be dangerous.

“I hope for discussion, that’s the purpose of the film,” director McTeigue, seated next to the film’s powerful producer Joel Silver, explained at a press conference this week. “Hopefully you can go see the film as a piece of Saturday night entertainment,” he said, calling his movie, “a popcorn film.” Continuing, he said regarding his potential audience for the movie, “I’d prefer them to see it as a piece of entertainment — I think there will be a lively discussion.”

After the press conference, a group of journalists informally tried to make sense of the dichotomy of McTeigue taking such liberties to modernize Alan Moore’s 25 year old graphic novel that Moore removed his own name from the film altogether, with the fact that the director was trying to pitch his provocative film as a popcorn flick. An Australian interviewer quipped that in the presence of producer Silver, the director was pushing the company line, yet in more intimate settings would elaborate on the movie’s message.

Discovering “Container”

In the case of Moodysson’s “Container,” probably few will ever have a chance to see the movie in a theater on a Saturday night, and when the film screened in Berlin over the weekend, many spent very little time noshing on popcorn before heading for the exits. Yet, the film stirred numerous discussions. “Those of you that didn’t like ‘A Hole in My Heart‘ because it was ‘strange’ should watch out for this film — it is even more strange,” Moodysson warned in press notes for the movie. Introducing the film’s first screening in person, with perhaps more than a hundred people waiting outside unable to get into the large overcrowded theater, the director seemed a bit intimidated by the size of the movie screen. “This is a very small film,” he said.

“I am a girl in a boy’s body, but I am not a boy,” says the voice of Hollywood actress Jena Malone, the only sound heard in the film, short of some sort of tone or feedback near the film’s end 74 minutes later. Malone voices a character who seems conflicted by her identity, along the way dropping the names of such pop culture figures as Paris Hilton and the Olsen twins. Coupled with the continual narration is a steady stream of black-and-white images of a man, sometimes dressed in drag, and a woman, sometimes in a similar blond wig, pictured moving about amidst trash and rubble, cavorting at times in a dilapidated Eastern European hospital.

“‘Container’ is a film about the little darling that lives inside all of us,” writes Moodysson in the film’s press notes, “Like Jesus lived inside Mary. Or like Mary lived inside Jesus.” His description is part of a letter that seems written in the director’s voice, but is attributed to the inexplicable pen name: “Shannon Antschel.”

Asked, during a Q & A session, to explain his reasons for making the experimental film, Moodysson said, “All films are experiments.” Comparing his previous work to this new film, he said, “I just have to speak with difference voices. “Then I had to speak with a different voice, now I speak with this one.” Another audience member, a self-proclaimed fan of Moodysson’s first feature “Fucking Amal” (which debuted at the Berlinale in 1998), also asked about the direction of the filmmaker’s career. ” I could go back…this time I did not make ‘Fucking Amal’, I made something else.”

“I don’t want to explain things,” Moodysson stated, taking the questions in stride, but appearing increasingly frustrated. “The process of interpretation should take place there,” he said, pointing to the screen, “And not here.” Later he added, “I think the world is very chaotic, for this case I couldn’t do the usual things that you do when you make a film.”

Another audience member charged the director with creating a negative portrayal of a trans character. The filmmaker quickly avoided discussing the subject, saying, “I don’t want to defend myself in any way, it is up to us to have different opinions.” Then later, though, Moodysson returned to the charge on his own, saying, “It is the biggest compliment to compare them to Jesus Christ…the Virgin Mary…to say the person inside you is Jesus…”

The deepest explanation that the director offered, near the end of the Q & A was that, “On one level this film is about filmmaking,” and he advised, “One way (to watch it) is to close your eyes and hear, (and then) close your ears and watch.” He added, “There are 3 or 4 films happening at same time — one is voiceover and one is image, that can be difficult.”

As the Q & A began to wind down, one audience member asked the film’s producer Lars Jonsson, from Memfis Film, for some insight. He said plainly, “I thought it was time for (Lukas) to have total editorial freedom, I have never seen him so happy.”

Two Docs: “Paper Dolls” and “Absolute Wilson”

Of the documentaries that screened at the Berlinale this past week, two in particular seemed to have buyers and audiences alike buzzing. Tomer Heymann’s “Paper Dolls,” which opened the Berlinale Panorama section’s Dokumente section and “Absolute Wilson,” an exploration of the striking work of the avant garde artist, theater director and choreographer Robert Wilson.

Opening to the sound of a stirring rendition of “Que Sera, Sera,” Heymann’s “Dolls” looks at the lives of a small group of transvestites from the Philippines who take care of aging orthodox Jews in Israel. The filmmaker, who directed the documentary “It Kinda Scares Me” in 2001, explained that he had submitted a cut of the movie to the Berlinale’s Panorama section one year ago. Cutting from the original 275 hours of footage took longer than expected, so the film arrived this year. “We didn’t decide (in advance) what kind of movie to make,” Heymann explained, saying that when the film was ready, he finally decided to bring it to the festival.

Despite the critical success of such striking theater work as “A Letter For Queen Victoria” and “Einstein On the Beach,” projects by artist Robert Wilson do not typically reach mainstream consciousness, but particularly in Berlin, where he often works, has passionate fans. Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s “Absolute Wilson” digs into the life and work of Wilson, a passionate artist whose vibrantly visual work — sometimes in partnership with musicians like Lou Reed, Philip Glass, David Byrne or Tom Waits — leaves an indelible impression on anyone who makes the effort to seek it out.

Filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein spent years gathering aging video footage of Wilson’s theater work, images that would have otherwise been lost, since few high-quality recordings of his performances have ever been made. ” That tragedy of lost work, never to be seen, pervades the doc and is best captured in the detailed look the doc offers of Wilson’s, the never produced, “The Civil Wars,” a twelve hour opus that was to be staged during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Despite raising money to develop it with David Bowie in a lead role, a final million dollars was never found and the piece was canceled. Only a few parts from it have ever been presented and Wilson said this week in Berlin that he will never stage it again, and its moment has passed.

“My life is a part of the work,” explained Wilson, a seemingly solitary figure who spends much of his time on the road, always working. Talking with the audience in Berlin he added, “It is the work and it’s all one body, it is like a river…”

“My work will not last beyond my lifetime.” he said simply. Next up is a new theater piece, set to debut in Berlin for the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament. It’s called, “Stop and Drop.”

ABOUT THE WRITER: Eugene Hernandez is the Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief of indieWIRE.

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

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