So Far, a Tough Year for the Berlinale

Zhang Yimou’s One Second (2019)

The Berlin International Film Festival is having a rough year. We’re about halfway into the sixty-ninth edition now, and for starters, the opening night film, Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers, has been all but universally panned. The competition, already looking thin, is now down to sixteen films. On Monday, a post on the official social media site in China for Zhang Yimou’s One Second announced that the film would not be seeing its world premiere in Berlin, and the festival has simply passed along the official explanation, “technical difficulties encountered during post-production.” Also on Monday, 160 independent theater owners in Germany, having waited for thousands of journalists to converge on the city even though the competition lineup was set weeks ago, issued a collective call for the removal of the single Netflix title in the running for the Golden Bear, Isabel Coixet’s Elisa & Marcela. Festival director Dieter Kosslick, who’s bidding farewell to the Berlinale with this edition, has refused, although, as Andreas Wiseman reports for Deadline, Kosslick has proposed “a pow-wow between leading festival heads to potentially come up with a unified position on how Netflix films are shown (or not shown) at their festivals.”

Variety’s Patrick Frater has been looking into the “technical reasons” for the cancellation of One Second, the story of a prisoner who escapes from a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution with a reel of film he’s convinced will determine his destiny. Frater seems fairly sure that Zhang Yimou and his producers would have secured the “Dragon Seal” that every film in China must obtain as a sign that it’s cleared the censors. “Once that is granted, the film’s length and dialogue cannot be changed, and additional producers and investors cannot come on board,” explains Frater. Since 2017, China’s Film Industry Promotion Law has required that every Chinese film screened outside of the country must also obtain an exit permit. “It’s not clear that One Second had completed that extra step,” writes Frater. The other two Chinese films in competition, Wang Quan’an’s Öndög, which premiered on Friday, and Wang Xiaoshuai’s three-hour So Long, My Son, slated for Thursday, evidently have.

Frater notes that Lou Ye has said that he spent two years negotiating with censors before his new film, The Shadow Play, could premiere in the Berlinale’s Panorama section. Brushing off pans from the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw and Screen’s Lee Marshall, programmer Shelly Kraicer argues in a thread posted to Twitter that The Shadow Play is “vital, electric cinema. From its opening, a spectacularly staged anti-government riot, to its dedication to exploring the complex psyches of its three main female characters,” played by Song Jia, Ma Sichun, and Michelle Chen, this is “Lou Ye’s richest, bravest film in years.”

As for Öndög, it’s faring better on Screen International’s jury grid than in either’s poll or Reini Urban’s number-crunching tally of ratings from over a thousand critics. For all the cleverness of the opening—the headlights of a police patrol car plow through tall grasses past wild horses before stumbling upon the naked corpse of a murdered woman—and the astonishingly shot sequences of the Mongolian steppe, the transporting play of light in the final scene, and even taking into account the film’s gentle humor, Öndög’s bottom line is that a herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) cannot make it on her own. Only if she succumbs to the persistent overtures from her neighbor, a man (Aorigeletu), will we be assured that the ending will be a happy one. On the other hand, for Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell, Öndög is “a rich new offering from Wang Quan’an, and perhaps one of the most pleasurable entries into his significant filmography.”

The strongest title to premiere in competition so far is, as expected, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But. The German filmmaker often associated with the so-called Berlin School, whose other first-generation directors would include Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan, further pursues the stylistic route taken in her 2016 film The Dreamed Path, in which Laura Davis, writing a primer on Schanelec for the BFI, detects “minimalist strategies derived from Robert Bresson.” There is indeed an overt reference to Bresson in the opening and closing sequences of I Was at Home as animals, the most natural of all actors, hunt, eat, and sleep under the watchful eye of a donkey who recalls the star of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966). But the parallels can only be taken so far. It’s Astrid (Maren Eggert) at the center of I Was at Home, veering toward the verge of a nervous breakdown when her thirteen-year-old son Phillip (Jakob Lassalle) returns after a week’s absence.

At school, Phillip and his classmates rehearse for a production of Hamlet, and their delivery of Shakespeare’s immortal lines sets the tone for a film in which text, bodies, and the spaces they inhabit are distinct and seemingly separate entities. The film departs slightly from this aesthetic principle in a remarkable musical interlude and almost does away with it entirely in one scene in which Astrid excitedly explains to a young filmmaker (Dane Komljen, director of All the Cities of the North) why she believes his latest work is a failure. By placing a woman who is actually dying next to an actress within the same frame, she argues, he has tried to unite the irreconcilable, the truth of imminent death and the untruth of playacting.

Of the competition titles I’ve seen, François Ozon’s By the Grace of God is holding strong in second place so far. It’s a steadily paced dramatization of events that have led up to the currently ongoing trial of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, accused of sexually abusing young boys for decades. As Guy Lodge puts it in Variety, there’s “of-the-moment cinema and then there’s on-the-moment cinema.” We’ve become accustomed in this age of peak TV to having multiple storylines fed to us in a series of switches from the protagonist of one narrative to the protagonist of the next and so on, one “meanwhile” chasing another. Sticking to the chronology of the case, Ozon drills deeply into one story at a time, transitioning from one of Barbarin’s victims to the next until, years on, they find each other and team up to fight for recognition from the Church of Barbarin’s molestations at the very least—but with an eye toward eventually seeing the man defrocked and behind bars.

Among the middling entries are Teona Strugar Mitevska’s God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, an occasionally funny and often thuddingly obvious attack on a religiously sanctioned patriarchy in which a Macedonian woman wins a contest meant for men only, and Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, featuring Stellan Skarsgård as a Norwegian man looking back to 1948 and the idyllic summer he spent with his father in the mountains bordering Sweden. Disappointments would include Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath My Feet, which can’t decide whether it wants to be a psychological thriller about the mutual dependency of two sisters (Valerie Pachner and Pia Hierzegger) or a critique of the ruthlessness of a strain of late capitalism that it doesn’t seem to understand; and, as much as it pains me to file it in this column, Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones, with James Norton as Gareth Jones, the real-life Welsh journalist who broke the news of Stalin’s intentional starvation of Ukrainians in the 1930s. The crime was originally covered up by Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist Walter Duranty, who’s played with delicious malevolence by Peter Sarsgaard. As great as Holland can be, she simply cannot overcome a screenplay that shoots for the heights of Warren Beatty’s Reds but lands as a plodding, beat-for-beat imitation of countless lesser historical epics.

So what’s to look forward to? In the short run, new work from Wang Xiaoshuai and Nadav Lapid. And in the long run, 2020 and the seventieth anniversary edition of the Berlinale led by a new artistic director, Carlo Chatrian. Variety’s Nick Vivarelli reports that he’s bringing along “the core” of his programming team from Locarno, where, as Vivarelli puts it, “Chatrian programmed an increasingly diverse mix of esoteric and more accessible titles, striving to maintain as high a level of quality as possible. He is also on good terms with streaming giants Netflix and Amazon.”

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