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Best of the Karlovy Vary Fest, from ’45 Years’ to ‘Heil’

Best of the Karlovy Vary Fest, from '45 Years' to 'Heil'

The big big films are not here, first and foremost, so it’s more about catching up on those films that have already appeared at Cannes or Venice or Berlin, and seeing more Czech or eastern European films, perhaps, than one might otherwise have an opportunity for. Likewise, film publications aren’t requiring their critics to file a review one hour following the screening, as is apparently the trend, and the journalists don’t seem to be running around so much, literally. Although no doubt the directors of the KVIFF would like the bigger films (and resulting hoopla), why shouldn’t it be enough to simply present and celebrate some of the world’s best cinema, in a warm and genial atmosphere? Surely a festival, like an art biennial, is about art and curation – and the art of curation — rather than size, muscle or star-power.

One of the things I had hoped to see in Karlovy Vary, but ran out of time for, was the tent encampment in a recreation area outside of town where hundreds of mostly students stay during the festival, at less than $4 a night, and pay absurdly low fees for festival passes. (A student can attend the entire festival for $36!) For my money (and theirs), this is a far greater thing than the red carpet at Cannes, Marion Cotillard notwithstanding. In this spirit, the films below are the best and/or most interesting of the films I was able to see. 

Rarely does one feel that a film is perfect, or nearly so. “45 Years” is such a film, perhaps because, based on a short story by poet David Constantine, it knows what it wants to be, and nothing more, and sets out to be that with subtlety and understatement and two especially fine actors, Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. Directed with great sensitivity by Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”), “45 Years” revolves around the anniversary of Geoff and Kate’s marriage, which seems like one of those very special ones until a few days before their celebration, when Geoff opens a letter having to do with the death of a former lover.

That letter is like a fissure, revealing previous unknowns; through actions and reactions by both Geoff and Kate, separately and together, the fissure threatens to become a crevasse into which they might irrevocably slip. As their anniversary party looms, Geoff does his best to vanquish a grief he thought behind him, but his evident pain is like a drug to Kate, who cannot help but search for clues that could well render the previous 45 years false and empty. Never giving themselves over to the maudlin, and with the precision and tact of a William Trevor short story, Haigh, Courtenay and Rampling build quietly, surely, almost casually to a moment of clear and awful suspense. Devastating. 

A couple of years ago at the Berlinale, Spanish actress Paulina García had a breakout performance in Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria.” I thought of her while watching Alena Mihulová in “Home Care,” the Czech film that had its world premier in Karlovy Vary. Mihulová’s Vlasta is a home-care nurse who spends her life looking after other people with selfless grace and devotion. Those people include a rather strange selection of patients, a not altogether present daughter and her loving but somewhat detached husband Ládí, played by renowned Czech actor Bolek Polívka, who for sheer physical presence was the most notable person I saw in Karlovy Vary. (As one once said of Philippe Noiret, in a just world, this guy would be a movie star, not the usual suspects.)

But this is Mihulová’s show, and she is a wonder of sweet, soulful humanity. Vlasta is so dedicated that when a medical check-up reveals a serious problem, she barely skips a beat, until her illness progresses to a point where she – and those she normally cares for – cannot ignore it. A foray into alternative treatments functions as a path to self-realization for this woman who in a way is just coming into her own. Credit director Slávek Horák for basing his first feature on his mother’s life (so I heard), rather than on his own, and for treating such a “serious” story with so much loving humor. After the premiere in the Hotel Thermal’s grand hall, Mihulová received a prolonged standing ovation from the Czech crowd that was almost as moving as her performance. It was no surprise when she later received the best actress award. 

If Dietrich Brüggemann didn’t know how difficult it was to make a comedy before and during the production of “Heil,” he’s beginning to understand now, as critics weigh in on what they think his neo-Nazi comedy should have been. Even I admit to being slightly surprised at how broad the comedy was; I was expecting something in a more “serious” vein. When it’s now clear that Brüggemann simply wanted to make a silly film about Nazis. (And who can blame him?). At his press conference in Karlovy Vary he invoked the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, and I later had a conversation with the director, in which he talked about Monty Python and other silly geniuses.

Perhaps it is the director’s last and overtly solemn film, “Stations of the Cross,” that set up expectations for a certain kind of gravity. It’s clear now that Brüggemann had a very different direction in mind — an American-style spoof. But of course spoof and silliness do not in fact suggest a lack of seriousness. Moreover, his plotting is seriously complex, setting many plates to spinning and somehow getting them to fall together more or less at once. I don’t have room to explain the various plotlines, but let’s just say it’s about two vying groups of neo-Nazis, one more stupid than the other, and some equally numbskull politicians and intelligence policemen and even anti-fascists, all of whom run rings around each other until they pretty much self-destruct. One reviewer actually castigates Brüggemann for making fun of the anti-fascists, which is rather perfect – it takes a fascist to suggest that anti-fascists are above being made fun of. “Heil” itself is certainly not above criticism, not any more than any of its characters. The more the merrier, Herr Brüggemann, take the piss out of the whole lot. It’s precisely the sort of comedy Germany needs, not that they will necessarily appreciate it. 

I didn’t fully engage with Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent,” largely due to its structure — two intertwined stories set forty years apart in the Amazon. The first story, based on real-life German scientist Theodor Koch-Grunberg’s experiences in the jungle, is compelling; the second, this time inspired by the follow-up journey of American botanist Richard Evans Schultes four decades later, is less so. And yet the Colombian film is entirely memorable, thanks in large part to David Gallego’s stunning black-and-white photography and the exquisite performances of two native actors, Antonio Bolivar and Nilbio Torres, who play the shaman Karamakate, young and old. Unfortunately, Guerra goes all “Apocalypse Now” and then “2001”/”Tree of Life” on us near the end, almost ruining what he has up to then created by turning to scenes of in-bred horror and hallucinogenic imagery. If only he’d toned it down instead. Still, “Serpent” left a lasting impression on me, and a desire to see it again.

Another film that may not completely add up is Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales.” But this piece of fanciful trivia from the director of “Gommorrah,” based on 17th-century fairy tales by Giambattista Basile, is a transient delight. (Not everyone at TOH agrees!) Shot in English, and starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, among several others including the ubiquitous Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher in a cameo, the film is set in three neighboring kingdoms, with plots too many and too fun to reveal.

In general the scene is wacky, a little tacky and joyously violent. (As in the tales of Grimm, potential pain and death wait around every corner.) Sumptuous and sensuous in color and texture, “Tales” appears to be enriched with art historical references, Bosch or some Italian version thereof. If Garrone doesn’t know how to end his tales, or if in fact there is no real ending (as I assume), it matters little, no more than it does in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It’s all about the getting there, and I enjoyed every bit of it. For one thing, how often do you get to see a black-gowned Salma Hayek in a white room chomping down on the big red heart of a sea monster?

A number of the films at Karlovy Vary reflect the dynamic social tensions facing the world in general and Europe specifically. I didn’t quite buy the explosive, somewhat schizophrenic young mother in “A Blast,” especially after Greek director Syllas Tzoumerkas (“Homeland”) told his audience that he and writer Youla Boudali started with the breakdown she suffers and built her character from there. (I don’t believe that good characters can be created backwards.) Regardless, that this breakdown is precipitated by debt and mismanagement of the family business leaves little doubt that the filmmakers believe that such aggresive and irrational behavior is a possible result of the problems currently besetting Greece. Whether it’s believable or not, the role handed to actress Angeliki Papoulia is a meaty one, and she makes the most of it. 
A similar violence born of socio-political failures is integral to Jonas Carpignano’s “Mediterranea,” which follows a pair of African immigrants on the perilous journey from Burkino Faso to the not altogether welcoming shores of Italy. The older Ayiva has an easier time than the younger Abas, primarily because he’s willing to work harder and to accept certain degradations in order to make it stick. But when an immigrant is killed by Italians, both men engage in a night of rioting. Carpignano, whose father is an ethnic Italian and mother is black, lived among a group of immigrants, including the primary actor Koudous Seihorn (a real find), and the film is a direct re-creation of their actual experiences. The power of fictional film to illuminate a politically sensitive situation, and the people involved – on both sides – is on full view here. “Mediterranea” doesn’t reach too far, aiming simply to immerse us in a world most of us leave to the daily newspaper or evening news. There were better films made last year, but few more important.
There is no such volatility in Laura Bispuri’s “Sworn Virgin,” which stars Alba Rohrwacher as a rural Albanian woman who lives as a man for 14 years before deciding to undo her decision. Her original choice was made possible by an Albanian tradition whereby a woman can become a man by committing to a life without sex; she takes a man’s name and is treated fully as a man in a society still very much divided in terms of gender roles. (Women were not allowed to carry a gun, for instance.) Moving back and forth between her life as a young person in the Albanian mountains, and her current self in the city to which she’s come, we follow her slow metamorphosis back into a woman. The message appears to be that contemporary life allows for differences once unthinkable, that now she can carry her lipstick or gun as she chooses, without swearing off anything. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed “Sworn Virgin,” but at the same time I can’t forget it, thanks largely to this talented actress. When she finally allows herself to let go and smile, I felt a sense of relief I didn’t know I needed. 
I sat through about two thirds of Guy Maddin’s “The Forbidden Room” on my last afternoon in Karlovy Vary before deciding that I had other things to do. I didn’t leave because I hated it, or was made angry by it, or was particularly put off, I left because I could. That’s to say, the film allowed me to – I rarely walk out of a movie or don’t finish a book but in this case Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson didn’t seem to care whether I stayed or left and came back some other time. Which is all right by me. The day was a glorious one, I picked up a warm vanilla oplatky wafer, helped save a little boy from being run over by one of the KVIFF BMWs when the boy lost his balloon and turned into the street to get it without looking, and wandered down to the Grandhotel Pupp for one last free lunch. Certainly as valid as one more scene in that submarine with Udo Kier et al and that logger, staving off asphyxia by eating oxygen-rich flapjacks. Though just about now, that sounds pretty good.

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