Berlinale 2010

Giving an overview of the Berlinale is like summarizing the world. It simply has everything you could possibly think of that’s in any way connected with current cinema.

French filmmakers Olivier Ducastel (left) and Jacques Martineau, whose film L’arbre et la forêt was screened in the Panorama section of the 2010 Berlinale.
Photo courtesy of BerlinaleOlivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau charmed Berlinale audiences in 2005 with the politically incorrect holiday comedy/family drama Crustacés et coquillages. This year, they are bringing L’arbre et la forêt to the festival.

Giving an overview of the Berlinale 2010 is like summarizing the world. It simply has everything you could possibly think of that’s in any way connected with current cinema. Nothing is sacred – not even food, as the annual Culinary Cinema series shows. And from discovering deliciously mysterious experimental films to swooning at the feet of Shahrukh Khan, the king of Bollywood, you can indulge in pleasures of every kind.

Red carpet

Shahrukh Khan’s My Name is Khan will not be up for judgment by the jury – headed this year by the German auteur Werner Herzog – but just like Martin Scorsese’s new thriller Shutter Island (with Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Kingsley), it’s sure to also draw in crowds for the films in the Berlinale’s official “Competition” section.The selection here is eclectic, as usual. It runs from Hollywood-compatible Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (expect Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan on the red carpet) to new works by two former Golden Bear winners, Jasmila Zbanic’s Na Putu (On the Path) and Wang Quan’an’s Tuan Yuan (Apart Together), which opens the festival. Quite the departure from star-powered features and festival favorites, Shahada is a true debut film: Burhan Qurbani’s observations of the lives of three young Berlin Muslims.

The arthousey American entries include Noah Baumbach’s midlife-crisis film Greenberg, Nicole Holofcener’s comedy Please Give and Lisa Chodolenko’s The Kids Are All Right, in which two kids conceived by artificial insemination introduce their biological father to their family. These are complemented by films from two European directing mainstays: Thomas Vinterberg (with Submarino, featuring the very talented Danish actor Jakob Cedergren) and Michael Winterbottom, who brings his Western thriller The Killer Inside Me. Oskar Roehler will, we’re sure, gladly deliver the missing bit of controversy when he shows his latest effort: in Jud Süß, Tobias Moretti plays the actor Ferdinand Marian, star of the infamous, virulently antisemitic Nazi propaganda film from 1940.

Old friends

Most Berlinale-goers plan their schedules according to the ’old friends-new discoveries’ principle. Frenchmen Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, who charmed audiences in 2005 with the politically incorrect holiday comedy/family drama Crustacés et coquillages. This year, they are bringing L’arbre et la forêt, about a tree farmer who harbors a deep secret. Stay on afterward for the filmmaker Q&A that follows many screenings – Ducastel and Martineau always make insightful and highly entertaining comments about their work.

The experimental filmmaker James Benning is another old acquaintance; this time he’s not coming with a film, exactly, but the video installation Tulare Road and a performance that involves revisiting his 1992 film North on Evers. Both should, like all of Benning’s work, rearrange the way you see the world. Since the Berlinale is turning a respectable 60, and the “Forum” section became a hothouse for alternative filmmaking exactly 40 years ago, there will be plenty of backward glances. And that’s beyond the annual “Retrospective”, which this year takes the shape of a magical Berlinale history tour.

From vintage Kurosawa to jury president Herzog’s debut (Lebenszeichen / Signs of Life; 1960) to the much-discussed 2000 Golden Bear winner Magnolia, the renowned British film critic David Thomson has put together a remarkable and personal program. The German/ English bilingual companion reader with photos and essays should be required reading for any film student.

Location scouting

As the Berlinale has sprouted many offshoots, Potsdamer Platz has quickly become too small to hold it all. Hebbel am Ufer is now home to the Talent Campus, a series of seminars and workshops for young filmmakers. Many of these are open to the public.

The Culinary Cinema series will set up its mirrored tent at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, while the Friedrichstadtpalast will be hosting the premiere of the reconstructed original cut of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, complete with live orchestral accompaniment. The old Brandenburg Gate is even getting a new dress: a “curtain” made from recycled film stock, festival billboards and other cinemarelated materials. And each day, the Berlinale plans to stop in at a different Kiez- Kino, including Steglitz’s Adria, Kreuzberg’s Moviemento and Weißensee’s Toni & Tonino. Regular movie-goers will appreciate this show of support for Berlin’s venerable art houses.

New discoveries

Still, all this looking into the past cannot obscure the fact that the Berlinale was and is an incredible source of new films and somehow, maybe because many of these films will not make it to a regular release, it always seems like it’s you – yes, you personally – who has discovered a particular masterpiece.

In the “Panorama” section, Lucy Walker’s Waste Land pulls together several topics that seem to dominate this year’s arthouse crop. This documentary shadows the artist Vik Muniz as he returns to his native Brazil to work with recyclable material pickers at Rio de Janeiro’s largest landfill; it raises the question of how to have a meaningful life in a world of glaring injustice, inequality and dire need. Another – Jean-François Caissy’s La belle visite – lavishly records the monotony of life in a motel-turnedretirement- home in rural Quebec. As introspective but more ambitious is Berliner Philip Scheffner’s exploration of birds and military bases: Der Tag des Spatzen is a baffling meditation on Afghanistan from the perspective of the German pacifism his generation (Scheffner was born in 1966) was indoctrinated with. Despite never confronting the issues head-on, he opens a multitude of Pandora’s boxes.

Two other documentary films in the Forum feel oddly related. Laura Poitras’ The Oath follows Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard Abu Jandal around Yemen, while also chronicling the trial of Jandal’s brother-in-law at Guantánamo Bay. It’s a film that never shies away from psychological, political or moral complexities – qualities that might cause serious controversies when it goes stateside.

While Jandal struggles with having become a pariah to his former Al-Qaida comrades, Black Bus’s two Israeli protagonists experience a similar sense of estrangement. The young women are trying to rebuild their lives after having courageously dropped out of the ultra-conservative, orthodox Hasidic community they were born into. Director Anat Yuta Zuria might not revolutionize documentary filmmaking, but she has the great merit to uncover an insular, misogynistic, oppressive world rarely shown on camera, and does it in a most compelling and moving way.

Dancing on the border between documentary and fiction is the Italian La bocca del lupo (Pietro Marcello). It contrasts documentary footage from the golden age of industrialism with the present industrial wasteland; voiceovers like stories told by ghosts emerge and, very slowly, everything congeals into an intimate portrait of an unusual couple. It is a portrayal of people on the extreme fringes of society in which the viewer’s pleasure comes from the discovery of what the film is actually about.

The Forum has a rich tradition of Asian cinema, from Korea (this year’s Our Fantastic 21st Century by Ryu Hyung-ki, about a young girl who tries to scrounge the money together for plastic surgery, has a depressing pull) to China, represented this time by Yang Rui’s poetic Fān Shān (Crossing the Mountain). Both this and Indian director Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s much more accessible, but no less memorable, Paltadacho Munis (The Man Beyond the Bridge) introduce their audiences to culturesmand languages never before featured on film screens: the former is in Wa, the latter in Konkani. In Beyond the Bridge, a widowed plantation guard gets involved in local politics when a temple is built in his forest and, at the same time, his loneliness isinvaded by a mysterious wild woman.

Ever since the Bush era, American independent films have had a hard time in German art houses, whose intellectual patrons tend to throw the baby out with the bath water by rejecting American culture as a whole. It seems the Berlinale has caught that bug – only the Competition contains more than a couple American entries – but one gem shows there’s still hope: Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s second feature.

Like Crossing the Mountain and Beyond the Bridge, it focuses on a remote,almost entirely closed-off community, as a young girl tries desperately to keep her family alive and together when they reach the end of their financial tether. In a place where to survive you need to have your own vegetable patch, meth lab, or at least know how to shoot and dress a squirrel, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) trusts only herself but realizes she can’t do without help from the (often hostile) neighbors. Se tin a world of archaic logic where people speak a language that sounds like some sort of ancient Shakespearean code (and stretches the limits of even native speakers) and filmed in the bleached-out colors of despair, Winter’s Bone is a testament to the strength of people who have only one thing left – their dignity.