The Best of Berlinale 2019

The Daily — Feb 20, 2019
Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling in Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen (2019)

The Berlin International Film Festival can be grateful to Juliette Binoche and her jury for making the most of this year’s spare competition lineup. Tasked with presenting eight awards, the jury had just sixteen titles to choose from after Zhang Yimou’s One Second was pulled for “technical reasons.” Before announcing the jury’s decisions, Binoche read a statement, a thinly veiled call to China to release One Second, a work by an “essential voice in international cinema,” adding that “we missed it here at the Berlinale very much.” The jury then proceeded to bestow the Bears, and it’s not all that common to find so many critical favorites on the final list of prizewinners.

Nadav Lapid’s challenging Synonyms has won the festival’s top award, the Golden Bear. In his fierce and fearless onscreen debut, Tom Mercier plays Yoav, an Israeli fresh off his mandatory stint in the military who arrives in Paris not just to start a new life but to create a new self. Relentlessly unpredictable, Yoav drives what IndieWire’s David Ehrlich calls an “astonishing, maddening, brilliant, hilarious, obstinate, and altogether unmissable” film. Lapid, whose 2011 debut feature Policeman won a special jury prize in Locarno and whose The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) was remade last year by Sara Colangelo and Maggie Gyllenhaal, rewardingly frustrates expectations at every turn. Synonyms has “chutzpah to spare,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia for Sight & Sound, “but it is backed up with the necessary aesthetic and philosophical rigor.”

In an outstanding interview at the Notebook, Lapid tells Daniel Kasman that “for me, one of the biggest challenges is to bring at least half of the chaotic aspect of life to the screen. I think that in a way is one of the biggest problems of a big, big majority of movies is that they have intentions, and intentions turn them sterile. We all have intentions, but the question is how to cling to these intentions without losing the truth of the moment, the vivacity and the strangeness of life.”

Lapid tells Kasman that Synonyms, also the top choice for the jury sent to Berlin by the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), “is funny, but it’s not funny. It’s a satire, but the satire is totally realistic.” Angela Schanelec, who’s won the Silver Bear for direction with I Was at Home, But, takes an entirely different approach to both realism and comedy, but what she says about her new film in Marta Bałaga’s interview at Cineuropa could apply to Synonyms as well: “It’s the kind of humor that doesn’t really have a punchline.” As noted last week, by the midpoint of this year’s Berlinale, I Was at Home, But was one of two strong contenders in the competition. The other one, François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, a powerful j’accuse aimed at the Catholic Church for covering up a priest’s sexual abuse of young boys, has won the Grand Jury Prize, essentially a second-place Silver Bear.

Like Synonyms, Wang Xiaoshuai’s three-hour melodrama So Long, My Son screened late in this year’s edition, and it’s won well-deserved best actor and actress Silver Bears for Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei. They portray factory workers Yaojun and Liyun, who have lost their son due to the negligence of his friend, the child of Yaojun and Liyun’s close friends. “Wang’s most ambitious if somewhat unwieldy film,” as Sight & Sound editor Nick James puts it, opens in the 1980s and swerves up and down a timeline that will eventually lead to the present, raising questions along the way that will only be answered at screenwriters Wang and A. Mei’s leisure. “Even though adjoining scenes may have happened years apart,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety, “they are arranged so they’re cresting a similar emotional tide, so rather than the usual cantering, episodic rhythm of the epoch-spanning epic, the runtime flies by with the taut fluidity of traditional three-act structure.”

More Bears:

  • The Berlinale awards a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution, and the jury has smartly decided to recognize cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek’s work on Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, which contrasts the radiance of the Scandinavian summer of 1948 with the darkly haunted winter of 1999.
  • I missed Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, winner of the Alfred Bauer Prize, a Silver Bear awarded to a film that “opens new perspectives.” According to Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter, Helena Zengel is “mightily impressive” as a nine-year-old girl from a broken home “unable to contain her fury at the world.”
  • Working with Maurizio Braucci and director Claudio Giovannesi, journalist Roberto Saviano, best known for writing Gomorrah, has adapted his own novel Piranhas about teenage gangsters in Naples, and the three of them have won the Silver Bear for best screenplay. Geoff Andrew, dispatching back to Sight & Sound, finds that the film grips “like a vice from beginning to end.”

And the International Short Film Jury has chosen to honor Florian Fischer and Johannes Krell’s Umbra, Manuel Abramovich’s Blue Boy, Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca’s Rise, and Irene Moray’s Watermelon Juice.

Forum Favorites

Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, one of two outstanding films premiering in the Forum that I wrote about last week—and the third one’s pretty good, too—has won the prestigious Caligari Award. I didn’t see Die Kinder der Toten, the FIPRESCI jury’s pick. Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska of the New York–based “art and performance enterprise” Nature Theater of Oklahoma have shot a loose adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s 1995 novel The Children of the Dead on Super 8 with nonprofessional actors in Austria—their producer is Ulrich Seidl. At Cineuropa, Carlota Moseguí calls Kinder an “excellent B-series musical black comedy that invites you to reflect on Austria’s Nazi past, as well as on the eruption of modern-day xenophobia.”

I’m sorry to see Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen, one of my favorite films in any of the Berlinale’s strands this year, go home empty-handed. It’s been nearly seven years since Sallitt’s fourth feature, The Unspeakable Act, quietly made its way through the festival circuit. As its reputation as a singular, sensitively observed portrait of a young woman in love with her brother grew, so did anticipation for Sallitt’s follow-up. But as he explains in a statement accompanying the long-awaited premiere of Fourteen, Sallitt was stuck. He’d run out of ideas for a feature that could be completed within a tight schedule for next to no money. So he began developing a project that would be shot in a series of short spurts, each separated by several months, a film about “the entropy of our lives” made “under the sign of Pialat instead of Rohmer.” Fourteen screens once more tonight as part of this week’s series of the Forum’s repeat screenings.

Tracking the dissolution of the close friendship between Mara (Tallie Medel, who also played the lead in The Unspeakable Act) and Jo (Norma Kuhling, primarily known for her television work), Fourteen spans several years, but its leaps forward in time are as initially imperceptible as those in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. There are no title cards or expository lines of dialogue to flag the date, and in general, as Ian Mantgani writes for Little White Lies, Fourteen is “a film that resists histrionics and over-explanation at each of its stages.”

Mara, an aspiring writer, envies the ease with which Jo rolls out confident and clean prose. She envies, too, the way Jo’s tall and lanky body attracts just about any man she’d care to consider—except, crucially for Mara’s ego, at least one. She does not envy, however, the mental health issues that have plagued Jo since she was a teen or the flakiness that makes her an unpredictable and demanding friend. “Whenever Mara and Jo interact, their conversations are both casually nonchalant and screwball sharp,” notes Jamie Dunn, dispatching to Sight & Sound. “Christopher Messina’s camera is prone to linger in dead space when characters leave the frame, as if giving us a moment of quiet to contemplate the verbal pugilism we’ve just witnessed.” Here’s a terrific, unembeddable clip from Fourteen; watch how Jo’s whims disrupt not only Mara’s flow but the camera’s as well.

The gist of the reviews so far is that Fourteen has been worth the wait. “Sallitt’s too-infrequent filmmaking efforts, all self-funded, always feel like they come from another planet of cinema entirely from what is being made in America on either end of the budget scale,” writes Daniel Kasman. As for Tallie Madel, “you feel like you are watching a character perceive, think, and then act upon her thought before your eyes. Even more unusually, sometimes her character seems to be thinking of other things in her life than the scene we are watching before us, creating an off-screen space of thought. In short, she is an always lively and unpredictable presence.” For David Ehrlich, Norma Kuhling comes off “like a would-be movie star who got irrevocably lost somewhere between auditions for Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach,” and Ehrlich adds that her “raw and febrile performance suggests that either of those auteurs would be lucky to work with her.”

With MS Slavic 7, Canadian codirectors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell revisit Audrey Benac, a character they first conjured in Never Eat Alone (2016) and then returned to in the nine-minute short Veslemøy's Song (2018). As Campbell tells Adam Cook, Audrey has evolved “from a stand-in for Sofia to an amalgam of Sofia and I, finally becoming an independent being.” Whether in search of a sense of her own identity or simply driven by a fascination with history as revealed by the records of individual lives, Audrey’s research into her family’s background has led her to twenty-five letters written by Polish poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa (Sofia’s real-life great-grandmother) to novelist, poet, and translator Józef Wittlin when both were living in exile in North America.

“A letter is a monologue in which you present your idealized and most articulate self, not necessarily the most honest version of yourself,” Campbell tells Cook. “It feels like a plea. You write it and send it off, saying, ‘See what is inside of me!’ It is an incredibly vulnerable thing.” And as Bohdanowicz and Campbell emphasize in the way Audrey handles each carefully preserved envelope and its contents—and fights for her right to—letter-writing is also a precious and dying art.

Two sequences stand out in Callisto McNulty’s Delphine and Carole, an absorbing clips-and-interviews documentary focusing on the collaboration between actress Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad, Jeanne Dielman) and video artist Carole Roussopoulos that began in the 1970s and eventually led to the founding in 1982 of a vital feminist institution, the Simone de Beauvoir Audiovisual Center. In one, the collective they initiated, Les Insoumuses, hauled video equipment to a church where sex workers, protesting for better working conditions, were taking refuge out of fear that their going public with their demands would lead to their arrests. While the protestors were initially reluctant to speak on camera, once persuaded, they drew throngs of Parisians eager to hear them out. The second riveting clip is from Seyrig and Roussopoulos’s 1976 video SCUM Manifesto, based on the tract by radical feminist Valerie Solanas. As Seyrig reads the text out loud on one side of a table, Roussopoulos types it out on another, while in between them, a live broadcast of the evening news adds a third layer of commentary. For Daniel Kasman, Delphine and Carole is a testament to “the power of cinema, and particularly how cheap, mobile and flexible filmmaking—video then, digital now—can be used as an expressive tool for advocacy, documentary, and change.”

And comedy. Peter Parlow has shot his short feature The Plagiarists, written by James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir, on Betacam SP tapes found on eBay using vintage 80s-era video cameras to create precisely the sort of “indie” entertainment it’s poking fun at. The Sundance of the 1990s is mentioned outright, but within the first few minutes, I was transported to the SXSW of the early 2000s. Lucy Kaminsky and Eamon Monaghan play an amusingly irritating young couple whose car breaks down, forcing them to spend the night in the home of a—perhaps suspiciously?—friendly man in his fifties. Something happens that winter night, but the couple doesn’t realize it until the following summer. That’s all you should know going in, and given how often The Plagiarists was recommended throughout this festival’s run, I’m fairly confident you’ll get the chance to catch it one way or another eventually. That said, if you must read more, turn to Daniel Kasman, Jessica Kiang (Variety), and Keith Uhlich (Hollywood Reporter).

Panorama, Generation, Perspectives

Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees, premiering in the Panorama section, has won the Glashütte original documentary award. Four filmmakers have banded together as the Sudanese Film Club to open a movie theater despite Islamic fundamentalist opposition to cinema. “What Talking About Trees reveals is both the loss of a country’s cultural history and the impossibility of reviving it,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. The film is “a quiet and contemplative look at artists forced to face the reality that their work can no longer exist where they live.”

Generation, the section programmed for younger views, hands out a slew of awards selected by four juries, but one entry that hasn’t won one needs mentioning. There’s something about Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin that seems rattlingly off for the first while, but once you’ve tuned into the alternate reality of this high school comedy, you realize that you’re watching a Heathers for our time. It’s one of Little White Lies’ eight “under-the-radar gems” from this year’s Berlinale, and as Jamie Dunn writes, the “sexual politics are fierce and the atmosphere uncanny, while Reeder’s dazzling use of languorous dissolves, synth score and neon lighting creates an intoxicating hyperreality where young women have magical powers and their strength seems to emanate from the elan of ’80s pop songs.”

The first feature award can go to a directorial debut in any of the Berlinale’s programs, so it’s a pleasant surprise that this year’s jury has recognized a work from the often-sidelined Perspektive Deutsches Kino section. In Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay’s Oray, a second-generation Muslim living in Germany utters the word “talaq” (“separation”) three times in an argument with his wife, the initiating incident that, as Cineuropa’s Vladan Petkovic notes, “leads to a subtle exploration of numerous issues related to immigrant Muslim communities in Europe.” For those in the area, the Filmmuseum Potsdam is currently screening a series of new German films from the Perspectives program through Saturday.

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