Retrospectives are easily overlooked at any film festival, especially one the size of the Berlinale. Buyers and exhibitors are hunched over their concentrated sequence of meetings, parties and screenings; producers and directors are showcasing new work and perpetuating the illusion of a functioning career. Actors see the festival as a paid holiday and/or contractual nuisance.
And in Berlin, many audiences were distracted by a combination of collecting bragging rights on upcoming features, the access to other countries’ output and a momentary sense of intimacy with The Talent. (You might expect the ranks of starstruck fans to be winnowed by the bitter cold snap that seized Berlin, but there they were, hunched and indomitable, their ordeal apparently justified by a four-second glimpse of Léa Seydoux as she flitted between a limousine and the hotel lobby.)
However, I’ve always believed the point of a film festival was simply to provide an alternative to the dominant screen culture. And where better to find this than in the retrospectives? In fact, most of the real treasures of this year’s Berlinale seemed to be found in the past.
The memorably titled “The Red Dream Factory,” focused on the output of a German-Russian film studio, Mezhrabpom-Film, who together with its German office, Prometheus Film, crafted some truly extraordinary work. Jakow Protasanow’s 1924 Soviet SF classic “Aelita” I had seen – but not the animated shorts made in the USSR between 1926 and 1932, a cross between Constructivist abstraction and Krusty the Klown’s “Worker & Parasite.” Or the gorgeous 1927 silent “The Girl With the Hat Box.“
All in all, this strand, comprising 30 programs and over 40 sound and silent films, expertly assembled by curator Rainer Rother, did precisely what a retrospective should: it made you fall in love with something you never knew existed.
The other retrospective was a tribute to Studio Babelsberg, this year celebrating its centenary, in which, alongside some acknowledged classics – von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel,” Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” and, er, Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader” (?) – lurked a number of gems from the former DDR.
Among them: Konrad Wolf’s flawed but lavish biopic “Goya,” a co-production with the USSR that was three years in the making, from 1969 to 1971; and Wolfgang Staudte’s 1946 Trümmerfilm “Die Mörder sind unter uns” (“The Murderers Are Among Us”), made even as the dust was still settling in Hitler’s ruined capital. And above all, Kurt Maetzig’s 1965 drama “Das Kaninchen bin ich” (“The Rabbit Is Me”), one of my favorite postwar German films, as well as an historical document of considerable interest.
A study of personal hypocrisy and institutional corruption, as young Maria (the lovely Angelika Waller) takes up with the married judge who sentenced her brother to prison for sedition, it was banned at the 11th Plenum of the Socialist Unity Party in December of that year, and went unseen until 1990. For a time, all banned East German movies were colloquially known as “rabbit films” in solidarity.
Watching it, you have to wonder how the film ever got made. It was based on a novel by Manfred Bieler that had already been banned when Maetzig began shooting. And its disenchanted, coolly cynical tone, coupled with an unusual degree of sexual frankness – a definite no-no in the prudish DDR – all but ensured it would face difficulties with the authorities.
In fact, it might have fared better were it not for the vagaries of international realpolitik: two years earlier, East German General Secretary Walter Ulbricht had chosen to align himself with the USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev, and departed from Stalinist market-control to implement the Neues Ökonomisches System (‘New Economic System’), accompanied by a slight liberalization in the arts. But October 1964 saw Khrushchev deposed by Brezhnev, and a subsequent crackdown; suddenly, Ulbricht had to reinforce his authority. Hence that 11th Plenum, at which a total of twelve films were banned.
Sadly, the director, still alive at 101, did not attend the screening; but the print was ravishing, and there were wry chuckles in the audience at the sight of various Berlin locations – Linienstrasse, in Mitte, Friedrichstrasse bahnhof – looking as shabby and evocative they did in the first years of the DDR.
Not that all of Berlin’s many retrospectives were entirely successful. For the Meryl Streep Homage, few would deny her achievements in “Sophie’s Choice”and “Silkwood” – but to program “A Prairie Home Companion” and “The Bridges of Madison County?” Instead of, say, Karel Reisz’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” or Jonathan Demme’s superb “Manchurian Candidate” remake (a performance which, in this primary season, seems especially timely)? It smacked less of carelessness than active perversity.
Likewise, the In Memoriam tribute to recently deceased Greek master Theo Angelopoulos was celebrated with a special screening of 2004’s borderline-parodic “The Weeping Meadow.” This is a little like paying tribute to Paul McCartney by playing “Silly Love Songs.” Could we not have seen an indisputably great work instead, like “The Traveling Players” or “Landscape in the Mist?” Or, better still, one of the now-lesser-known films, like “The Hunters” or “Alexander the Great?”
Granted, it was a last-minute addition; Angelopoulos only died January 24. But still.
And then, in Forum, there was a genuine coups. Not the wholly predictable Japanese mini-retro, this year dedicated to Shochiku journeyman Kawashima Yuzo (while I share Christoph Terhechte’s passion for that country, this annual open door to Japanese off-cuts is lazy programming), but a small sidebar dedicated to Cambodian films from the 1970s – unseen in their home country for decades, and never before shown in Europe.
With titles like “The Snake Man” (young woman mates with giant snake, spawns hundreds of babies, one of which grows into a handsome man who falls in love with the stepdaughter of his mother) and “12 sisters” (twelve beautiful sisters escape a man-eating witch, who then, taking the form of an attractive woman, bewitches the king and persuades him to put out their eyes and banish them to a cave, where they survive by devouring their own offspring), they were nothing if not lively: a welcome riposte to the po-faced worthiness of the rest of the Forum, and too much else in the festival.