New Work by Eduardo Williams, James Benning, and Cao Fei Will Premiere in Berlin

On Film / The Daily — Jan 22, 2019
Rita Azevedo Gomes’s The Portuguese Woman (2018)

The political turmoil of May 1968 brought an early end to the Cannes Film Festival that summer, and the rupture would be echoed two years later in Berlin. Michael Verhoeven’s film o.k. ignited controversy for its anti–Vietnam War stance, and when word got around that it might be removed from the lineup, the jury resigned, the competition was canceled, and several filmmakers withdrew their work from other sections. While the 1970 edition of the Berlin International Film Festival wasn’t ever officially called off, it fizzled out in the wake of this brouhaha. A year later, in an effort to rejuvenate the city’s main cinematic event, the Berlinale invited the Friends of the German Cinematheque, founded by Ulrich and Erika Gregor, to stage the first International Forum of New Cinema as counterprogramming within the larger festival, an extension of what the Gregors had done once before in 1969.

Over the following thirty years, the Gregors, who can still be spotted in the front row during Forum press preview screenings, introduced Berliners to the early work of such filmmakers as Chantal Akerman, Jim Jarmusch, Béla Tarr, Aki Kaurismäki, Ken Loach, Nagisa Oshima, Wong Kar-wai, and Claire Denis. Christoph Terhechte, who took over the directorship of the Forum in 2001, stepped down last summer, and introducing this year’s program, the interim directors—Milena Gregor, Birgit Kohler, and Stefanie Schulte, with support from Anna Hoffmann—have noted that the written word is a theme running through many of their selections. Thomas Heise, whose Material, a meditative documentary on the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, was a major Forum highlight in 2009, has a new essay film, and Kohler suggests that it could well serve as the “backbone” of this year’s program. Heimat Is a Space in Time is a collage of letters, photographs, footage, and recordings that trace not only the history of his own family—Heise is the son of philosophy professor Wolfgang Heise—but also the history of Germany from the First World War to the present.

Other world premieres we can look forward to include Fourteen, Dan Sallitt’s first feature since 2012’s The Unspeakable Act; Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s MS Slavic 7, in which a young woman discovers letters that her great-grandmother wrote to a fellow Polish poet; Earth, a new documentary from Nikolaus Geyrhalter; and another from Heinz Emigholz, Years of Construction. Another highlight will surely be Rita Azevedo Gomes’s The Portuguese Woman, which premiered at the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina last fall. It’s a loose adaptation of a story by Robert Musil with musical interludes sung by Ingrid Caven. “The often intentional static nature of the actors turns them into powerful tableaux vivants, while the doors to mysterious background spaces gape discreetly, in the manner of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s hidden, out-of-focus details,” writes Marina Richter for Cineuropa.

With the main program sewn up, the lineup for Forum Expanded has followed today, featuring thirty long and short films, seventeen installations, and a performance. New films by Billy Woodberry, one of the leading directors of the L.A. Rebellion, Deborah Stratman, James Benning, Kevin Jerome Everson, and multimedia artist Cao Fei will see their world premieres next month. Forum Expanded will also present a new work by Eduardo Williams (The Human Surge), Parsi, coauthored by poet, literary editor, and publisher Mariano Blatt.

The Panorama section is also now complete, and in the final round of additions we find Casey Affleck’s debut as a narrative feature director, Light of My Life, starring himself, Elisabeth Moss, and newcomer Anna Pniowsky in a “post-apocalyptic family drama.” In all, the program features forty-five films, including thirty-four world premieres such as Tremors, Jayro Bustamante’s follow-up to Ixcanul; a handful of Sundance titles like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, starring Honor Swinton Byrne and her mother, Tilda Swinton; and a few titles from other festivals, including Lou Ye’s The Shadow Play, in which a young police officer’s investigation reveals how fortunes have been made in China since the introduction of economic reforms three decades ago.

The independent Berlin Critics’ Week program is now set as well. Among the highlights will be Nathan Silver’s The Great Pretender, “one of modern American cinema’s great not-quite-romances,” according to Chuck Bowen at Slant. And Andrea Bussmann’s Fausto, shot on Mexico’s Oaxacan coast, is “a direct, rigorous, and largely theoretical adaptation of Goethe’s Faust that wholeheartedly adopts that text’s anti-empiricist ideals,” as Josh Cabrita and Adam Cook write in the introduction to their interview with Bussmann for Cinema Scope.

Let’s mention one more event independent of the Berlinale but taking place during this year’s edition. On February 14, Ilka Brombach and Tina Kaiser will present—in German—a collection of essays they’ve edited, Über Christian Petzold (On Christian Petzold), and Petzold will be on hand to take questions. Director Dominik Graf, who’s contributed an essay, will introduce the presentation which will be followed by a screening of Pilots, Petzold’s 1995 graduation film. The event will take place at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB), where Petzold studied under Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky, and if the origins of the movement in German cinema often referred to as the Berlin School can be traced back to a single geographical spot, the DFFB is it.

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