Politics and Plaudits in Berlin

The Daily — Mar 3, 2020
Ehsan Mirhosseini in Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil (2020)

Awards night at the Berlin International Film Festival this past weekend was a little glitzier than it has been in past years. Besides a special Silver Bear presented to celebrate the Berlinale’s seventieth anniversary edition, a fresh round of awards were given to four films in the Encounters competition introduced this year by the new team of festival directors, Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek. For all these changes, the international jury, intentionally or not, upheld a Berlinale tradition, namely, the presentation of the Golden Bear as a political statement.

By selecting Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil for the top prize, the jury, presided over by Jeremy Irons, echoed another jury’s decision in 2015, when the Golden Bear went to Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. Like Panahi, Rasoulof has been barred from making films and traveling outside of Iran. When Rasoulof returned home from Cannes in 2017, having won the Un Certain Regard award for A Man of Integrity, authorities confiscated his passport and have been holding on to it ever since. Last July, he was sentenced to a year in prison for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic; fortunately, he was let out on bail.

Rasoulof says that he made There Is No Evil to explore how “autocratic rulers metamorphose people into becoming mere components of their autocratic machines.” Four distinct stories, each turning on a twisty revelation, explore the emotional fallout of Iran’s policy of forcing soldiers to carry out executions. Variety’s Peter Debruge points to a report from Amnesty International claiming that more than half of the world’s executions on record in 2017 occurred in Iran. “The number has since dropped,” notes Debruge, “but the country continues to kill its citizens at alarming rates.”

Besides the Golden Bear, There Is No Evil has also won awards from the independent Ecumenical Jury and the Association of German Art House Cinemas. “Not since [Krzysztof Kieślowski’s] A Short Film About Killing has a filmmaker produced such a thrilling case against capital punishment, an enraging, enthralling, enduring testament to the oppressed,” writes Ed Frankl at the Film Stage. Some, though, will find it difficult to disagree with Screen’s Lee Marshall, who argues that as a whole, the film “can feel loose and uneven.” After the first and most effective of the four somewhat predictable tales, the second, set inside a prison, is a stagey mess. But there’s no denying the sleek beauty of Ashkan Ashkani’s cinematography or the sincerity of the characterizations. “What I can observe from my own story,” Rasoulof tells IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “is that the satisfaction that you receive once you resist oppression and despotism can be higher than the price you have to pay.”

Saturday night’s awards ceremony was peppered with a few other politically charged moments. Accepting the grand jury prize for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, her quietly powerful abortion drama that picked up its first award at Sundance in January and has scored high marks on a number of critics’ ratings grids, Eliza Hittman thanked not only her cast and crew but also the reproductive care providers she worked with while conducting her research.

Hong Sang-soo has won the Silver Bear for best director for his lovely The Woman Who Ran, a film we took a first look at last week. We’ve also surveyed initial reactions to Christian Petzold’s Undine, but there have been quite a few more since. “For twenty-five years,” writes Darren Hughes at Filmmaker, “Petzold has been perfecting his unique brand of genre-adjacent filmmaking that blends the pleasures of classical Hollywood cinema with whip-smart socio-political analysis.” In the case of Undine, “I’m not convinced it works.” Dispatching to Sight & Sound, though, Giovanni Marchini Camia welcomes “two elements heretofore largely if not wholly absent from Petzold’s filmography: fantasy and humor.” And at Slant, Christopher Gray argues that Undine is “a striking change of pace that sacrifices none of the director’s intellect or ambition.”

The Notebook’s Daniel Kasman finds that Paula Beer, who plays opposite Franz Ragowski in this love story, is “a fine actress but fails to have that magical something that gave Petzold’s regular Nina Hoss (Yella, Phoenix) an entrancingly independent and unpredictable singularity.” The jury evidently disagrees, awarding the Silver Bear for best actress to Beer rather than Hoss, who stars in Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s competition entry My Little Sister, a film that’s going home empty-handed.

There were two films from Italy in competition this year, and both have won awards. Elio Germano has won best actor for his portrayal in Hidden Away of Antonio Ligabue, described by director Giorgio Diritti as a “a very peculiar and unique artist.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who finds Hidden Away to be “a lovely-looking and fervent film,” notes that Ligabue’s “fierce, primitive, impassioned studies and sculptures of animals and human portraits made him celebrated in his own day as an authentic unschooled genius.” Germano “tackles—he seems to almost always tackle—the fiendishly difficult role with customary gusto,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety, but Diritti’s “mélange of impressionistic episodes and straightforward biopic recreations make Hidden Away more a record of a performance than a satisfying cinema experience.”

Germano also appears in Bad Tales, the second feature from Fabio and Damiano D’Innocenzo (Boys Cry), who have won the best screenplay award. Bad Tales is “the big discovery” of this year’s competition for the Observer’s Jonathan Romney, and in his review for Screen, he calls this film set over a long hot summer in a suburb of Rome a “strange hybrid—part quasi-abstract mood piece, part tragedy, part sour social comedy.”

With the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution, we come to one of the most talked about, argued over, lauded, and decried projects at the festival. Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges has won for his work on Ilya Khrzhanovsky and Jekaterina Oertel’s DAU. Natasha. This is one of a projected thirteen features to emerge from what A. J. Goldman describes in the New York Times as “an undertaking whose eccentricity and grandeur bordered on folly: a social experiment disguised as an art project, or perhaps the other way around.” Briefly, what began as a biopic based on the life of Soviet scientist Lev Landau grew into a Synecdoche, New York–like world-within-the-world. Hundreds of nonprofessional performers lived and worked in the “Institute for Research in Physics and Technology” as they would have in the mid-twentieth century, and between 2009 and 2011, a crew hovered around them shooting over 700 hours of 35 mm film.

Khrzhanovsky spent much of his time in Berlin defending himself against accusations that he took advantage of and perhaps even abused his actors. The storyline of DAU. Natasha is easy enough to follow: Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya), who both loathes and loves fellow canteen waitress Olga (Olga Shkabarnya), sleeps with French scientist Luc (Luc Bigé) after a night of raucous partying, and is then interrogated by KGB general Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), who forces her to become an informant: “We are going to be very good friends.”

It’s the relentless bouts of drinking and arguing and wailing and floundering drunken sex that make the film a tough watch, and by all accounts, only Azhippo’s torturous humiliation of Natasha is simulated. “Khrzhanovsky’s fearless and uncompromising film is an attempt to put both participant and viewer in the psychological vice of a totalitarian regime,” writes Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage, and in Variety, Guy Lodge suggests that it’s a “testament to DAU. Natasha’s acrid, aggravating power that we end up as desperate as its protagonist to escape the institute.” But for those who couldn’t get enough, the six-hour DAU. Degeneratsia screened in the Berlinale Special program.

The aforementioned seventieth anniversary Silver Bear has gone to Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s comedy Delete History, in which three French neighbors team up to take on the tech giants that are ruining their lives. In the Hollywood Reporter, Boyd van Hoeij finds the film to be all at once “a dramedy that dips into yellow-vest sentiment in suburban France; a farce about the digital world that surrounds us and seems to command us more than actually help us; and an all-round, utterly depressing movie about the world we live in today.”

Other Juries, Other Awards

Irradiated, an essayistic rumination on twentieth-century war crimes and atrocities by Rithy Panh (S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, The Missing Picture), has won the Berlinale’s documentary award. With its screen divided into a triptych, Irradiated is “devastatingly successful at creating a choral experience of man’s inhumanity to man,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety, “but the use of so much specifically appalling imagery in service of such a broad agenda does force one to inquire: to what end?” In Screen, Jonathan Romney suggests that “the relentlessness of Panh’s approach may be self-defeating,” but for IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, the film is “a gruesomely effective defense against historical forgetting.”

Colombian director Camilo Restrepo’s Los conductos, winner of the GWFF best first feature award, is loosely based on the real-life experiences of lead performer Luis Felipe Lozano, who escaped a religious cult that was also a ruthless criminal operation. “In a swift seventy minutes, the lugubriously solemn film punctures one’s psyche as it interrogates a society’s moral corrosion that has normalized violence as the lone avenue to salvation for the marginalized,” writes Carlos Aguilar at the Film Stage. Writing for Vague Visages, Ben Flanagan finds Los conductos “stirring in its sheer simplicity.”

Los conductos premiered in the Encounters competition, where C. W. Winter and Anders Edström’s eight-hour The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) has won the award for best film. Writing for Perlentaucher (and in German), Jochen Werner appreciates the opportunity to spend a full day with the forty-seven residents of a village in the mountains of Kyoto Prefecture and is especially taken with the sound design.

The Encounters special jury award has gone to Sandra Wollner’s deeply disturbing The Trouble with Being Born, in which an android meant to replace a man’s ten-year-old daughter is lost, reluctantly adopted by an elderly woman, and given a new identity. For Jessica Kiang in Variety, the film “inspires nothing but strange feelings, from unnerving horror to shocked admiration to visceral disgust to that specific type of disorienting nausea that comes from the fractional delay between your eye processing a well-composed image, and your brain comprehending the implications of the actions so coolly depicted.” At Slant, Chris Barsanti finds that “rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.”

Cristi Puiu has won best director for Malmkrog, which we considered last week. Film Comment has now posted Jordan Cronk’s interview with Puiu, and there are recent reviews from Ela Bittencourt in the Notebook and Ben Flanagan at Slant. A special mention has gone to Matías Piñeiro for Isabella, another of the director’s studies of the women in Shakespeare’s comedies, in this case, Measure for Measure. For Carlos Aguilar at the Film Stage, Isabella is “an initially puzzling but ultimately rewarding fragmented narrative.”

Well over a dozen awards and special mentions have gone to films screening in the Generation program, the section curated for younger viewers, and it’s especially delightful to see that the children’s jury has embraced Sweet Thing, the latest feature from Alexandre Rockwell, probably best known for 1992’s In the Soup. Shot on “glimmering black-and-white 16 mm and about a broken family living on society’s edge,” writes Daniel Kasman, Sweet Thing “feels at once a throwback and refreshing conduit to that era of American indie cinema’s hard-scabrous qualities.”

The Caligari Prize, presented each year to a film in the Forum section, has gone to Victoria from Belgian codirectors Sofie Benoot, Liesbeth De Ceulaer, and Isabelle Tollenaere. The blend of fiction and nonfiction focuses on a young father who moves his family from Los Angeles to California City. “Thoughtfully and unhurriedly, the directorial trio follows these new settlers, capturing their inward and outward journey with compassion and buoyancy,” writes Jan Lumholdt at Cineuropa.

A good number of the films launched in Berlin will now roll on to festivals such as True/False and New Directors/New Films. And for lists of further favorites, see Jordan Cronk, Mischa Hedinger, Daniel Kasman, Kevin B. Lee, Chiara Marañón, and the staffs at IndieWire and Screen.

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