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    59th Berlin International Film Festival – Berlinale 2009

    By Ron Holloway | March 29, 2009

    Asked whether the Berlinale has fostered an image as a “political” film festival, Christoph Schlingensief, the German jury member at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival (5-15 February 2009), blurted out: “A competition entry here scarcely stands a chance otherwise.” Schlingensief, a highly motivated political filmmaker in his own right, hit the nail right on the head. You only have to look back at the past Golden Bear winners.

    In 2007, the Grand Prix went to Wang Quan’an’s fiction-documentary Tu ya de hun shi (Tuya’s Marriage) (China). Set in rural Mongolia, Tuya’s Marriage mirrored the plight of nomadic shepherds whose way of life is threatened by the government’s misguided plans to move them to urban shelters. In 2008, it was awarded to José Padilha’s Tropa de elite (The Elite Squad) (Brazil). Set in 1997, when the Pope announced his visit to Brazil, that news triggered a drive by a Special Police Operation Battalion (BOPE) to rid the Rio slums of drug barons, cost what it may. More a fiction-documentary than a crime thriller, The Elite Squad chronicled how brutality, violence, torture, and executions became the order of the day, whether on the side of the law or beyond.

    This year, at the 59th Berlinale, the Golden Bear was awarded to Claudia Llosa’s La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) (Peru/Spain/Germany). The first Peruvian film ever programmed at the Berlinale, The Milk of Sorrow deals with the traumatic scars left on the populace, particularly women, following the bloody massacres perpetrated by the still active “Shining Path” guerrilla movement. According to the findings of a “truth commission” established in 2001, approximately 70,000 people were murdered between 1980 and 2000, when the Maoist “Shining Path” guerrillas had challenged the corrupt Fujimori government in open conflict. In addition, the commission recorded rapes, kidnappings, and other transgressions inflicted upon women and children by both sides. In the film’s opening scene, the violence of these times is mirrored in a plaintive chant sung by an old woman on her deathbed. She sings of her rape as a pregnant mother and of the brutal murder of her husband.

    As the title hints, Claudia Llosa maintains that an undefined illness was passed on from a mother’s breast to her offspring due to this prior rape and abuse under guerrilla terrorists. That the director also happens to be the niece of renown Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa – best known for The War of the End of the World (published in 1981), a germane historical novel questioning the idealization of violence – only added to the film’s political message.

    The Milk of Sorrow stars Magaly Solier, whose stoically detached performance commands respect by her presence alone. Further, the film picks up where Claudia Llosa’s previous Madeinusa (2005) had left off, the latter an internationally awarded debut feature depicting a distorted Catholic religiosity in the Peruvian Andes. The lead role in that film was also played by Magaly Solier. In The Milk of Sorrow Solier plays a vulnerable young Incan woman, whose inordinate fear of rape prompts her to place a potato in her vagina as a “shield” against unwanted intrusion on her body and soul. That scene alone prompted a lively give-and-take at the press conference. There, Llosa and Solier confirmed that the “potato shield” was a common practice among Incan women of the Andes.

    As timely as its political message is, The Milk of Sorrow lacks a dramatic context to lend the metaphorical tale extra depth and meaning. As was true of Tuya’s Marriage and The Elite Squad, a sustained film life beyond the festival circuit is heartening, though doubtful.

    Festival Incest

    Coined by an observant critic at Berlinale, “festival incest” has become a fashionable practice at major European film festivals. The term is generally used to characterize the prevalent practice among affluent festivals of pre-funding productions that will later find their way back to competition slots in the same festival. Take Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow, for instance. The film is one of a handful that found its way to the Berlinale competition by way of the festival-sponsored World Cinema Fund (WCF).

    Founded in 2004, the WCF is a joint funding project supported by the Berlinale and the German Federal Cultural Foundation in cooperation with the Goethe Institute. Its aim is to support filmmakers in developing countries and regions which lack a constructive film industry. The focus is on feature films and feature-length documentaries with a strong cultural identity. With an annual budget of Euro 500,000, the WCF has helped considerably to co-finance quality productions by creative filmmakers from the Near East, Africa, Latin America, Central and Southeast Asia, and the Caucasus. Of the 25 productions earmarked for WCF support over the past five years, nearly all have merited top awards at key international film festivals: Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Rotterdam, San Sebastian, Locarno, Pusan, Almaty, and Sundance.

    Indeed, the WCF record of awarded prizes at the Berlinale is impressive, to say the least. Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (Netherlands/Germany/France) was awarded the Blue Angel Prize for Best European Film at the 2005 Berlinale. Rodrigo Moreno’s El Custodio (The Shadow) (Argentina/Germany) was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize for Particular Innovation at the 2006 Berlinale. Ariel Rotter’s El Otro (The Other) (Argentine/France/Germany) was awarded the Silver Bear – Grand Jury Prize, plus a second Silver Bear for Best Actor (Julio Chavez), at the 2007 Berlinale.

    This year, WCF productions were the major award winners at the Berlinale. Besides the Golden Bear awarded to Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow, another Latin American entry, Adrien Biniez’s Gigante (Uruguay/Argentina/Germany/Netherlands) was handed a bundle of prizes by international juries: Silver Bear – Grand Jury Prize, Alfred Bauer Prize for Particular Innovation, and Best First Feature Award. Not bad – when four of the Berlinale’s top prizes were awarded to the festival’s own WCF films. Viewed from this standpoint, “festival incest” can be both praised and impugned as a sure-fire funding formula that not only works like a charm but also has become a venerated tradition. More or less like rich sports clubs shelling out millions to top athletes in contractual agreements in order to assure a run in the playoffs.

    When and where did the practice of festival incest begin in the first place? Most critics credit the Festival de Cannes as the initiator by virtue of its visionary programming and adept scouting teams. A decade ago, when a trade publication statistically noted that practically every film in the festival sidebars (Un Certain Regard, Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, Semaine International de la Critique) had received some kind of French funding, Gallic coin was dubbed a fast track to Cannes participation. The fact that a French coproduction partner may appear on the scene during the final stages of a film’s postproduction, or exactly at the time when the Cannes selection committee is about to announce its decision, only adds to the Cannes mystique. After all, why wouldn’t a cognizant French backer, someone who knows the festival public inside out, bet on a sure thing!

    Once asked for my own opinion as to which festival director first launched a visible beneficial festival policy of production funding, I named Hubert Bals – the late Dutch founder-director of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, who honed cross-cultural film funding to a fine art. Twenty years ago, Hubert Bals put the Rotterdam film festival on firm ground by establishing a fund – subsequently named the Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) in his honor – to support filmmakers from developing countries.

    Over the past two decades, a reported 750 projects have been supported by the HBF, approximately 80% of which were subsequently brought to completion. Annually, the fund distributes Euro 1.2 million to needy filmmakers – or double the funding budget of the WCF at the Berlinale. Dutch festival largesse doesn’t stop there. Later, grateful filmmakers are invited to return to Rotterdam to show the films. The cream of the crop are then selected to contend for the festival’s prestigious Tiger Awards, meaning additional cash purses.

    Under Dieter Kosslick the Berlinale’s WCF generally follows the same policy fostered by Rotterdam’s HBF. However, since scouting is the key to festival film funding, the Berlinale appears to have a distinct advantage over Rotterdam in one respect: WCF codirectors Sonja Heinen and Vincenzo Bugno can rely on a link to knowledgeable heads of worldwide Goethe Institutes. For background information on past WCF funded film (2004-2008), as well as current information on 19 new WCF in-production projects, click www.worldcinemafund@berlinale.de.

    European Film Market

    No doubt about it – the European Film Market (EFM) at the Berlinale has become a powerhouse of timely production turnover on a broad international scale. Last year, 430 companies from 51 countries booked stands in the roomy Martin-Gropius-Bau and adjacent facilities, in addition to 60 companies based in local hotels. Altogether, 1,073 buyers from 54 countries had been registered, an increase of 3% over 2007. Moreover, market screenings totaled just short of 1,100, programmed mostly in the market venues at the Cinemaxx and Cinestar multiplexes near the Potsdamer Platz.

    This year, despite the worldwide economic turndown, the 2009 EFM “still remained stable and saw a healthy international turnover,” according to market director Beki Probst. Altogether, 408 companies from 55 countries booked stands in the Gropius Bau and the new EFM Marriott Offices located on three floors of the nearby Hotel Marriott on Potsdamer Platz. More than 6,300 trade participants were registered, 97 of whom were present for the first time at the EFM. That statistic alone places the EFM at the forefront of film markets, synonymous with Marché du Film at Cannes and the American Film Market (AFM) in Los Angeles. Just as significant were the 522 market premieres among the 700 EFM screenings.

    To help boost lagging interest midway through the market, Beki Probst programmed a trio of EFM Industry Debates for exhibitors, buyers, and participants. Launched together with a local bank and trade publications (Variety, Screen International), the debates drew 600 participants, who argued the pros and cons of the film industry in the grips of the current financial crisis. Further, a new EFM initiative titled Meet the Docs focused on the documentary film as an integral component of the film market service. The European Documentary Network (EDN) helped with the coordination of this event. Last, but not least, the 400-page EFM catalogue issued by the Berlinale office, is packed with contact information on a couple thousand film companies, plus short synopses and credits on market screenings. No wonder the EFM is a favorite hangout for myriad festival directors, film programmers, and the committed cineaste.

    Berlinale Specials

    Altogether, 270,000 tickets were sold for Berlinale attractions – 30,000 more than in 2008. Add on free duckets for press and guests, and the collective festival attendance is said to have approached the 300,000 mark. Even festival director Dieter Kosslick expressed surprise when the Friedrichstadtpalast, a 1800-seat entertainment palace in downtown Berlin converted overnight into a venue for the film festival, drew packed attendance almost every single night.

    Indeed, with heavy TV coverage throughout the festival, the word spread quickly about a red carpet laid out for German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she attended the gala premiere of Hermine Huntgeburth’s Effi Briest (Germany. Starring Julia Jentsch in the title role, this fifth screen adaptation of the Theodor Fontane literary classic took liberties with the all-too-familiar drama of a 17-year-old maiden forced into an unhappy marriage that would eventually lead to infidelity and the tragic death of her lover in a duel. When Fontane’s realist novel was published in 1895, Effi Briest was immediately acclaimed a masterful response to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a literary remonstrance of the moral hubris practised in a constrained 19th-century Junker milieu.

    By cloaking the story in a modern-day emancipatory context, Hermine Huntgeburth drained the literary classic of its heart-rending core. Instead of a tragic ending, with the young adulteress banished from her home and separated from her infant daughter, we see Effi strolling leisurely along Berlin’s fashionable Kudamm boulevard. Nevertheless, the Effi Briest premiere did offer festival director Dieter Kosslick the opportunity to hand its producer, Günter Rohrbach, a well deserved Berlinale Kamera Award. One of the mentors of the New German Cinema movement in the booming 1970s, Rohrbach helped considerably as a TV commissioning producer the careers of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Wolfgang Petersen, and Margarethe von Trotta, among others.

    A few days later, crowds lined up early at the Friedrichstadtpalast to procure a ticket for another Berlinale Special: Kai Wessel’s Hilde (Germany). A homage to the late Hildegard Knef (1925-2003), Germany’s first postwar screen personality, Hilde stars pop-idol Heike Makatsch as the legendary singer-actress-writer. Although a runner at the box office, the biopic lacks stylistic finesse to hold its own as probing statement on the times. Inspired by Hildegard Knef’s bestselling autobiography, Der geschenke Gaul (The Gift Horse), published in 1970, Kai Wessel’s Hilde speaks primarily to the book’s readers. A key sequence sketches one of the scandals of postwar German cinema. In Willi Forst’s Die Sünderin (The Sinner) (West Germany, 1950), a woman prostitutes herself to save a painter from going blind. The melodrama required that Knef appear naked in a key scene. All hell broke loose in the press when The Sinner wagered its German premiere.

    Known in the United States as Hildegarde Neff, where she was hailed in the press as the “thinking man’s Marlene Dietrich,” Hildegard Knef emigrated to the United States and carved out a remarkable stage career as a singer-actress. From 1954 to 1965, she is credited as playing Ninotchka a record 675 times in Cole Porter’s musical comedy Silk Stockings. By comparison, in Kai Wessel’s Hilde, Heike Makatsch can only hint of the charisma accorded the real-life Hildegard Knef. Not surprising, for she faced a formidable task in interpreting Knef’s fabled career – once described by Ella Fitzgerald as “the world’s greatest singer without a voice.”

    German Specials Platform

    This year’s Berlinale Specials section also served as a popular platform to highlight the cream of current German film production. When one notes that the German film productions in 2008 had recorded a high of 33.9 million admissions – or a 26.6% box office share (the highest mark since 1991) – Dieter Kosslick need not be clairvoyant to play this trump card as a major festival attraction. Altogether, he booked 50 German films for the 2009 Berlinale, offering slots in the sidebar German Cinema section for both commercial hits (Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex) and festival award winners (Andreas Dresen’s Cloud 9).

    Besides the strong audience turnout for Effi Briest and Hilde, other new German productions programmed as Berlinale Specials also proved worthy seat fillers. Florian Gallenberger’s John Rabe, topbilling popular stage-and-screen star Ulrich Tukur, told the true story of an heroic deed by a Schindler-like Hamburg businessman. In 1937, during the appalling Rape of Nanking by invading Japanese troops, John Rabe saved thousands of Chinese civilians by opening the doors of the company’s compound during the bombing of the capital.

    In Rudolf Thome’s Pink Hannah Herzsprung, Germany’s current “shooting star,” plays a young poetess whose love poems get her entangled in trysts of her ill-chosen making. Another light-handed melodrama shot in a typical rambling mold, Pink marks Thome’s 32nd low-budgeted, produced-and-directed production, 23 of which he has scripted himself.

    A pair of historically relevant documentaries were also programmed among the Berlinale Specials.

    Detlef Gumm and Hans-Georg Ullrich’s Berlin – Ecke Bundesplatz (Berlin – Corner Bundesplatz), a chronicle of ordinary people living in an old quarter of West Berlin, was screened in its entirety as a 5-part, 450-minute long-term observational documentary. Launched 24 years ago, Berlin – Corner Bundesplatz took the pulse of the times via the destines of its protagonists: a single mother on welfare, a school dropout sinking into drugs, a conman lawyer convicted of fraud, a retired civil servant trying to piece his life together after the death of his wife. These, and other stories, mesh into a must-see urban kaleidoscope on the human condition. To celebrate the completion of the series, five new episodes in the Berlin – Corner Bundesplatz cycle were screened appropriately in the Cosima Kino venue on the Bundesplatz itself, followed by a gathering of the respective families in a local restaurant. A warming moment in Berlinale history, to say the least.

    Finally, cinematographers/codirectors Michael Ballhaus and Ciro Cappellari chronicle in their off-the-shoulder documentary In Berlin the myriad changes that have taken place in the German capital since the fall of the wall 20 years ago. Among the VIPs declaring their love for the city are Governing Mayor Klaus Wowereit, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Polit-Talkshow Moderator Maybritt Illner, and writer Peter Schneider, along with resident artists interviewed about their works-in-progress.

    However, it’s their casual conversation with everyday people – a film student, a kiosk vendor, a techno-club owner – that goes even further to take the pulse of “New Berlin” and explain its present fascination for attracting internationally renown artists and intellectuals to the city. Guaranteed a long life on the festival circuit, In Berlin is one of those “city films” in the mold of Walther Ruttmann’s legendary Sinfonie einer Grossstadt (Symphony of a Great City) (Germany, 1927). In this case, cameraman Michael Ballhaus’s declaration of love for the city of his birth.

    Spilt Milk

    Asked if he regretted losing an aspired entry for the competition, Dieter Kosslick named Gus Van Sant’s Milk (USA) In fact, his ire was raised when he discovered that the film had been screened outside the production country within days after its Beverly Hills premiere on October 31, 2008. For, according to FIAPF rules, the International Federation of Film Producers Associations could scratch Milk from Berlinale Bear consideration on the grounds of international “over-exposure.” Well aware of the dilemma, Dieter Kosslick is reported to have pulled out all the stops to get producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen to premiere Milk at the Berlinale instead. To no avail.

    Instead, Gus Van Sant’s Milk was programmed in the Panorama, together with Robert Epstein’s vintage documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (USA, 1984), as a double-bill “celebration presentation” of a high-water-mark in Berlinale history that happened 15 years ago. Had Kosslick succeeded, it is quite likely that Milk would have been amply rewarded with festival kudos by a friendly jury headed by British actress Tilda Swinton.

    Be that as it may, and given this year’s circumstances, one wonders how Hollywood produced films will fare in the future at the Berlinale. Box-office hits released in the U.S. towards the end of year will perforce travel rapidly around the globe as attractive holiday fare, to say nothing of instant DVD consumption, pirated or otherwise. The rub is whether a prime Hollywood production needs Berlinale exposure in the first place. For that matter, the question could be extended to ask whether A-festivals in general still count as choice launching pads for international release. And whether the arcane FIAPF rules should be changed to accommodate the coming era of internet downloading, digital projection, and satellite distribution. So far as the Berlinale is concerned, the answers to these questions appear mute so long as large-scale “cross-European” (aka “Euro-pudding”) film productions can be had for the asking.

    This year, for instance, Dieter Kosslick opened the Berlinale with Tom Tykwer’s The International (Germany/USA). More an action film than a polit-thriller or sky-caper, The International stars British-bred Clive Owen and Naomi Watts in a Le Carré-like tale of world-bank double-dealing played out largely against a backdrop of post-wall Berlin. Neither Owen as an Interpol agent, nor Watts as a Manhattan DA, are able to breathe life into a threadbare story that meanders from Berlin and Luxembourg to Milan and Istanbul.

    Still, Tykwer, abetted by his ace cinematographer Frank Griebe, has secured a reputation as a visual craftsman. The shootout in a reconstructed Guggenheim Museum is worth waiting for, if only because the set was built to scale on a backlot of the Babelsberg Studios in nearby Potsdam. My guess is that Tom Tykwer has now passed muster to work in the future in Hollywood, following in the footsteps of Wolfgang Petersen and Roland Emmerich. Both of these German directors had also effectively used the Berlin film festival as a sure launching pad to success.

    Each year, and for as long as I can remember, the Berlinale can boast of discovering and rewarding directorial talent. Take Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (USA), for example.Awarded a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay (Oren Moverman, Alessandro Camon), The Messenger was by far the most important film seen at the Berlinale, if not the best. The story of two Iraq War army veterans assigned to bring the bad news of husbands and sons killed in action to the relatives of the dead, the pair (Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster) are ill suited to each other’s company in temperament and military code. Their arduous mission as messengers of bad news comes across as a labyrinthine odyssey into the self, along the lines of American cult director Hal Ashby’s similar The Last Detail (USA, 1973) and Coming Home (USA, 1978). Despite some bumps in the narrative line, The Messenger is nonetheless a thought-provoking feature debut that deserves extensive festival programming and arthouse distribution.

    Another Berlinale discovery was Adrian Biniez’s Gigante (Uruguay/Argentina/Germany/Netherlands), a feature debut supported by the aforementioned World Cinema Fund and the Hubert Bals Fund. Set in suburban Montevideo, Gigante is the story of a shy, middle-aged giant who works the night shift as a security guard in a supermarket. Although his job is keeping an eye of employees at the supermarket, he takes a heartthrob interest in a younger cleaning woman and follows her home and to the movies in his off-hours. Soon the lumbering giant is living two lives, his own and the woman’s. The day of awakening comes when workers at the supermarket are laid off, including the cleaning woman. A minimalist film composed mostly of looks and gestures, thus stripped to the bone of superfluous dialogue, Gigante introduces a talented Uruguayan writer-director who also scored the music for the film.

    German New Wave

    A leading Autor in the German New Wave, Hans-Christian Schmid is the moralist of the movement. Born in Altötting, a Bavarian pilgrimage locale, Hans-Christian Schmid capped his studies at the Munich Film Academy with the documentary Die Mechanik des Wunders (The Mechanism of Miracles) (1992), depicting how belief and enterprise go hand-in-hand in his home town. Years later, he returned to this strict religious milieu to make Requiem (2006), the story of a young epileptic whose penchant for hearing voices is misinterpreted as possession by the devil. Based on an actual incident that occurred in an isolated Catholic community at the beginning of the 1970s, Sandra Hüller’s performance as the suffering girl merited her a Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2006 Berlinale.

    Even more impressive as a statement on social conditions in eastern Germany at the Polish border after the fall of the Berlin wall, Hans-Christian Schmid’s Lichter (Distant Lights) (2003) sketched the fates of five “losers” in an interlocking narrative that never loses sight of the tragicomic no matter how bitter it is for the protagonists to face the truth. Distant Lights was awarded the International Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize at the 2003 Berlin. “I feel a great sympathy for people who fight so hard for their happiness,” Schmid said in an interview.

    Perhaps this is the reason why he returned to the border with his Polish cameraman Bogumil Godfrejow to shoot the documentary Die wundersame Welt der Waschkraft (The Wondrous World of Laundry). Programmed at the Berlinale in the International Forum of New Cinema, The Wondrous World of Laundry chronicles the daily chores of Polish laundry women as they labor in shifts to wash, clean, and press the linen transported daily in trucks from Berlin luxury hotels. With the focus primarily on the needs of the women to assure a steady income in the household, albeit with sacrifices on the family, we know from the start where the director’s sympathies lie.

    Cinematographer Bogumil Godfrejow also collaborated on Hans-Christian Schmid’s Sturm (Storm), one of the two German competition entries at the Berlinale Set in Den Haag, where the International Criminal Tribunal holds court, Storm depicts the moral dilemmas placed on the conscience of a woman prosecutor, Hannah Maynard (Kerry Fox), assigned to investigate the guilt of a former Yugoslav commander accused of the rape and murder of Bosnian women and civilians. Since the alleged crimes took place in a small town of today’s Srpska Republic, a stronghold of Serb nationalists, Hannah is required to find a reliable eyewitness to confront the indicted commander in court. In the end, she succeeds – but at a cost.

    She finds herself compromised by her own lawyer husband, whose client is the European Union. And, of course, his overriding interest in this legal thriller is to move beyond the case to open the door for Serbia’s eventual entry into the EU. Shot in English, Storm is one of those cross-European productions that requires at least a history lesson to unravel the relevant details behind the travesties of the Bosnian War (1992-95), particularly the charge of genocide that happened more than a decade ago within the time scale of this film. In this respect, Goran Duric, the name of the accused commander in the film, might easily be construed as General Ratko Mladic, who has yet to be turned over to the Tribunal by Serb authorities. Storm, for all its dramatic immediacy, comes to life only when the key witness, a rape victim placed by Romanian actress Annamaria Marinca, arrives in Den Haag to tell her story. The case may be lost, but humanity triumphs.

    Maren Ade’s Alle Anderen (Everything Else), the other German entry in the Berlinale competition, introduces a talented 33-year-old women filmmaker directing her second feature. Although at her press conference she effectively sidestepped the question as to whether Everything Else contained something autobiographical, Maren Ade did concede that the film spoke to a common predicament afflicting her generation – namely, drifting, indecision, reluctance to discard illusions, fear to accept failure. Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger) are a young couple on an extended holiday in Sardinia. Since they can stay as long as they wish in the villa of Chris’s well-to-do parents, their only problem is how to spend their time when not arguing, playing one-upmanship, or simply musing over what to prepare for dinner.

    Meanwhile, Chris, an architect with a sure hand for quirky dreamhouse design, has hopes of winning an architectural contest to fund his lingering creative ambitions. Supported by Gitti, who still believes in his talent, he finds himself unable to tell her the truth when he doesn’t even place fourth in the contest. The showdown to test their fragile relationship happens when an uninvited couple happens on the scene. He, a brazen loudmouth, who knows the tricks of artistic funding. She, a flighty giggler, who proudly sprouts her pregnancy. Put on the defensive, Gitti rises to the occasion, while Chris retreats into his shell. And that’s the whole film. Save that Birgit Minichmayr was awarded a Silver Bear for Best Actress in Alle Anderen. A stage actress with an impish comic presence on the screen, Minichmayr is the shooting star in the German New Wave.

    State of the Nation

    Officially titled Deutschland ’09 – 13 kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation (Germany ’09 – 13 Short Films About the State of the Nation) received top billing at the Berlinale in an out-of-competition slot by virtue of its participating directors. But the reason for its making is what caught the eye. According to Tom Tykwer, the mentor of the series, Germany ’09 – 13 Short Films About the State of the Nation stands as an intentional link to the legendary Deutschland im Herbst (German in Autumn) (West Germany, 1977) omnibus film, a collective directorial statement on the country’s political unrest following the suicide of RAF terrorists in the Stuttgart-Stammheim prison.

    There is a big difference between the two, however. In Germany in Autumn the filmmakers – among them, Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schloendorff, Bernhard Sinkel – spoke unequivocally about the hysteria that had gripped West Germany in the wake of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. One could feel in each episode that the whole was meant to serve as a healing process. By contrast, the filmmakers in Germany ’09 were allowed to say anything they wished about present-day Germany, so long as their statements were kept under 12 minutes in length.

    Among those accepting the challenge were some prominent German New Wave directors who had already spoken on the state of the nation in past feature films: Fatih Akin (Gegen die Wand / Head On), Wolfgang Becker (Good Bye Lenin), Romuald Karmakar (Der Totmacher / The Death Maker), Dominik Graf (Der Felsen / A Map of the Heart), Hans Weingartner (Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei / The Edukators), and Dani Levy (Mein Führer). But given a free pass to say anything they wished, most of the directors dodged saying anything politically relevant. A pity.

    The one feasible exception was Fatih Akin’s Der Name Murat Kurnaz (The Name Murat Kurnaz) – although here, too, his verbose statement on the state of the nation generally fell flat. Akin’s aim was to reenact an interview that Kurnaz, a Bremen born Turkish-German citizen, had given to a Süddeutsche Zeitung journalist upon his release from Guantánamo after five years of detention. That interview eventually led to the 2007 publication of his autobiographical Fünf Jahre meines Lebens (Five Years of My Life), in which a finger is pointed as much at German politician Frank-Walther Steinmeier (today Germany’s Foreign Minister) as at the American government. For those familiar with the book, or at least with the original newspaper interview, the short film The Name Murat Kurnaz seems redundant, if not pretentious. For Fatih Akin could have easily gone directly to the source, Kurnaz himself, instead of hiring an actor (Denis Moschitto) to render the salient passages on Gitmo torture taken directly from the Süddeutsche Zeitung interview.

    The best episode in the series was a polit-comedy: Dani Levy’s Joshua. It begins with the two-year-old son of the director lifted into the air by his father for a cart wheel-swing. Suddenly, Joshua slips out of Dani’s hands and flies off into space, with his surprised father in hot pursuit. As for Joshua himself, he’s having the time of his life – especially when he lands on a desk smack in front of a surprised Chancellor Angela Merkel!

    Auteur Cinema

    A familiar face at the Berlinale, Polish master Andrzej Wadja competed this year with Tatarak (Sweet Rush) (Poland), based on a short story by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980), renown for his writings in the Polish underground during the Nazi Occupation. Sweet Rush was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize. Divided into two parts, the first half comes across as a moving monologue tribute by Polish stage-and-screen actress Krystyna Janda to her recently deceased husband, cinematographer Edward Klosinski. Then the scene shifts to Wajda’s screen adaptation of Iwaszkiewicz’s Sweet Rush, the story of a middle-aged woman (Janda) faced with guilt when a young admirer drowns in a river while trying to collect for her a bundle of sweet-scented wetland grass.

    Both episodes can be inferred as a warm personal embrace of an actress long associated with Wajda’s career since Czowiek z marmuru (Man of Mable) (Poland, 1976) and Czowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron) (Poland, 1981), the latter awarded the Golden Palm at the 1981 Cannes festival. During his press conference, Andrzej Wajda talked at some length about his next project: a biopic about Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarnocz movement in Poland and Nobel Peace Prize winner. In fact, Man of Iron was directly inspired by the Solidarity leader, in which Walesa makes a brief appearance. According to Wajda, he wants to set the record straight about the past Polish president, “who has recently been subjected to rumors and lies about his historic contribution to modern-day Poland.” Knowing Andrzej Wajda, the Lech Walesa tribute might well be the epitome of an illustrious career.

    Theo Angelopoulos’s I skoni tou chronou (The Dust of Time) (Greece/Italy/Germany/Russia) is the second part of the director’s planned trilogy on 20th century Greece. Since it bears a direct link to his prior Trilogia: To livadi pou dakris (Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow) (Greece, 2003), programmed at the 2004 Berlinale, the extended project as it now stands runs a collective five hours of viewing time. No doubt, too, when the trilogy is completed, it will go down in film history not only as Theo Angelopoulos’s opus magnum, but also the most expensive Greek production ever made, albeit with cross-European support. In The Weeping Meadow, covering the years 1919 to 1949, the focus is on a young couple, who return home from Odessa as refugee children. Later, as adults, they must fight for their right to marry, only to be caught up in the country’s bitter economic and social upheaval. Eleni’s life is shattered when she witnesses the death of her twin sons, who had taken different sides in the ensuing Civil War. A film of stunning, choreographed images (cameraman Andreas Sinanos), most of the film was shot on a sprawling outdoor set constructed on the dry bed of a lake that gradually fills with water as the seasons change.

    In The Dust of Time Theo Angelopoulos and his cinematographer Andreas Sinanos pick up where they left off in The Weeping Meadow. The next 50 years covers the time period from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Narrated in overlapping temporal time levels, the story is anchored to the desire of a Greek-American film director (Willem Dafoe) – simply named “A.” (read, of course, “Angelopoulos”) – to make a film about his parents, Spyros (Michel Piccoli) and Eleni (Irene Jacob), Greek émigrés who were separated by events following the Second World War. A.’s project also touches upon Eleni’s close friendship with Jacob (Bruno Ganz), a German Jew whom Eleni had met while in exile in Tashkent.

    The Dust of Time opens with the death of Stalin in 1953, followed immediately by a symbolic downfall of the Personality Cult: scores of Stalin busts are dumped into a memorial graveyard. Spyros, as a young man, leaves New York to travel to Tashkent. There, he finds Eleni, the love of his life. Although their reunion is short, it is blessed with the subsequent birth of their son, the film director A. Arrested by Soviet authorities, Eleni is deported to Siberia. The couple is separated. A long, painful odyssey for both Eleni and Spyros begins. Years later, the couple reunited, they decide to return to Greece. But first they pay a visit to their son, now living in Berlin. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the fall of the Berlin wall is celebrated. One of the important films seen at Berlin, The Dust of Time requires some attention to comprehend all the salient facts surrounding the forced emigration of Greek communists to Central Asia and the eventual deportation of some to Siberia. Without this information, the viewing experience can be a tedious trek through a socialist time warp.

    Forum Sidebar

    While cruising the Forum press screenings in a Cinemaxx venue between visits to the Berlinale Palast for competition screenings, I had the good fortune to catch Peter Lom’s Letters to the President (Canada/Iran). It was the best documentary seen at the Berlinale. Picture hundreds of people pushing through crowds to approach the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on one of his populist trips through the country. They all want to be sure that their “letters to the president” will be passed on, perhaps read by the president himself, and hopefully answered on their behalf. After all, everybody in the crowd knows of someone who did receive a personal answer. Many letter-writers are seeking an economic loan. Others are seeking spiritual counseling. Nearly all express hope for the return of the Shia messiah – the mahdi – to dispense peace and justice in the world.

    How Peter Lom got permission to accompany President Ahmadinejad on four of these three-day tours across Iran, is a mystery he himself cannot answer. (Oliver Stone is still waiting for interview clearance.) But what he brought back is an entirely different portrait of the Iranian leader then one sees in the media – Ahmadinejad comes across as a charismatic manipulator along the lines of Louisiana’s legendary Huey Long. To Lom’s credit, he also somehow got permission to interview letter-writers and to follow their penned requests all the way to the Presidential Letter Writing Center to see how they were answered. Here, he records how literally millions of letters are sorted out and prepared for appropriate response of one kind or another. The workers at the Center are dedicated Ahmadinejad admirers. To be sure, Peter Lom was a suspicious intruder in Iranian public affairs.

    As I know from my own visit to Iran, when I was invited to serve as a documentary jury member by the Iranian Board of Education, I was subjected to numerous security checks and had to present in advance a copy of my lecture prepared for a festival roundtable. Although an untypical documentary, Letters to the President nevertheless does something quite extraordinary: it takes the pulse of the people. Once you see the film, you can appreciate what the messianic return of the Shia Mahdi means to an entire nation. – with or without President Ahmadinejad as its head.

    Another remarkable Forum entry was Reha Erdem’s Hayat var (My Only Sunshine) (Turkey/Greece/Bulgaria). Reha Erdem burst upon the scene as a stylist to keep an eye on when his Bes vakit (Times and Winds) (Turkey, 2006) was hailed by critics at festivals in Rome and Toronto. A meditative portrait of life in a Turkish village on the Aegean coast, Times and Winds questioned feudal customs that permits harsh treatment handed out by fathers to sons, simply because this is the way it has always been in the past. Erdem’s sure hand with nonprofessionals, together with the film’s narrative power drawn from metaphors rather than dialogue, made him a filmmaker to watch.

    This said, My Only Sunshine does not disappoint. Set on an isolated island in the Bosporos, My Only Sunshine is a coming-of-age story about a schoolgirl, 14-year old Hayat (in Turkish the name means “life”), whose father makes a meagre living smuggling and supplying sailors on passing ships with alcohol and prostitutes. At home, she must take care of a wheezy, cranky grandfather suffering from a chronic pulmonary ailment. As fate would have it, the father is caught in the act by the police on a Bosporos patrol, and now the girl now has to fend for herself. Despite being liked by friends and acquaintances, her secluded penniless existence allows her little room to breathe. The film ends open-ended.

    “Like all big cities, Istanbul is harsh,” Reha Erdem said in an interview. “Above all, when viewed from the water, it is a brutal city that can completely enslave you, one that can intoxicate with its beauty one minute and plunge you into melancholy the next, delivering a resounding slap of indifference.” My Only Sunshine deserves a long life on the festival circuit. Shot in eye-catching cinemascope, it’s when the camera nears the towering hulls of passing freight ships that shivers can run up and down your back. A tour-de-force for cinematographer Florent Herry.

    Potluck Programming

    Look closely at the Berlinale lineup, and you wonder how on earth certain films ended up in the wrong sidebar sections. Of course, there were known instances in the recent past when the Panorama’s Wieland Speck and the Forum’s Christoph Terhechte put in their bids for the same choice film production. Filmmakers, too, have voiced their individual slot preferences, bartering their wares up to the last minute to get the best play date.

    But lately the Berlinale selection committee is coming under fire for omitting top quality Russian and CentEast productions from the festival’s main program, to say nothing of the competition itself. Instead, these films get booked by Cannes and Venice, Rotterdam and Locarno, Karlovy Vary and San Sebastian – where they invariably win prizes. Berlin, at the crossroads between East and West, is left holding the bag.

    One could blame the Berlinale’s near-sighted scouting team. Yet it’s hard to imagine any festival outbidding Cannes for a new film by Alexander Sokurov or Alexei Gherman. Particularly when Cannes’s délégée général Thierry Frémaux need only phone sales agent Raisa Fomina or film critic Andrei Plakhov in Moscow to ascertain the latest on current Russian film production. Where the Berlinale can certainly be blamed is its fetish for “potluck programming,” as one informed source put it.

    Take the 14plus section, for instance. The so-called “youth” section for audiences aged 14 and over. Here, you could see Aida Begic’s Snijeg (Snow) (Bosnia Herzegovina/ Germany/France/Iran), the Grand Prize winner in the International Week of the Critics at the 2008 Cannes film festival. Anything but a youth film, Snow was apparently slotted in 14plus because one person in this tragic story of a Bosnian village peopled mostly by wives of murdered husbands happened to be a young boy.

    Potluck programming also relegated George Ovashvili’s Gagma napiri (The Other Bank) (Georgia/Kazakhstan), a poignant political statement on the status quo in Georgia today, to the festival’s kplus section – in other words, a film as much for children as for a youth audience. The events described in The Other Bank are anything but kid-stuff. It chronicles the painful odyssey of a 12-year-old lad, an Abchasian refugee living with his mother in Tbilisi, as he journeys with pennies in his pocket but determination in his heart to find his father in the devastated village of his birth. Along the way, Tedo (Tedo Bekhauri) encounters events that, taken together, describe in no uncertain terms the disasters of the recent Georgian Abchasian conflict. How this young nonprofessional actor handles these challenges makes for rewarding viewing. But it’s not for kids.

    When I asked George Ovashvili why The Other Bank had to be programmed in this section, he answered on a note of regret: “I simply made a mistake. When I received invitations from both Rotterdam and Berlin, I chose Berlin – not knowing that the film would be shown principally to children and youth audiences. I didn’t know until I arrived here.”


    Golden Bear
    La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) (Peru), dir Claudia Llosa
    Silver Bear, Grand Jury Prize – ex aequo
    Gigante (Uruguay/Germany/Argentina/Netherlands), dir Adrian Biniez
    Alle Anderen (Everyone Else) (Germany), dir Maren Ade
    Silver Bear, Best Director
    Asghar Farhadi, Darbareye Elly (About Elly) (Iran)
    Silver Bear, Best Actress
    Birgit Minichmayr, Alle Anderen (Everyone Else) (Germany), dir Maren Ade
    Silver Bear, Best Actor
    Sotigui Kouyate, London River (Algeria/France/UK), dir Rachid Bouchareb
    Silver Bear, Best Screenplay
    Oren Moverman, Alessandro Camon, The Messenger (USA), dir Oren Moverman
    Silver Bear, Outstanding Artistic Contribution (Music)
    Gabor Erdelyi, Tamas Szekely, Katalin Varga (UK/Romania/Hungary), dir Peter Strickland
    Alfred Bauer Prize, Film of Particular Innovation – ex aequo
    Gigante (Uruguay/Germany/Argentina/Netherlands), dir Adrian Biniez
    Tatarak (Sweet Rush) (Poland), Andrzej Wajda

    Best First Feature Award
    Gigante (Uruguay/Germany/Argentina/Netherlands), dir Adrian Biniez
    Special Mention – Generation Program
    Flickan (The Girl) (Sweden), dir Fredrik Edfeldt

    Golden Bear, Short Film
    Please Say Something (Ireland), dir David O’Reilly
    Jury Prize, Short Film
    Jade (UK), dir David Elliott
    Berlinale Short Film Nominee for European Film Awards 2009
    Die Leiden des Herrn Karpf. Der Geburtstag (The Suffering of Mr. Karpf: The Birthday) (Germany), dir Lola Randl
    DAAD Short Film Award
    Illusion (Cuba), dir Susana Barriga
    Special Mentions
    Vu (Belgian), dir Leila Albayaty
    contre – jour (Germany), dir Christoph Girardet, Matthias Müller


    Generation Kplus Jury
    Crystal Bear, Best Feature Film
    C’est pas moi, je le jure! (It’s Not Me, I Swear!) (Canada), dir Philippe Falardeau
    Special Mention
    Max Pinlig (Max Embarrassing) (Denmark), dir Lotte Svendsen
    Crystal Bear, Best Short Film
    Ulybka Buddy (Buddha’s Smile) (Russia), dir Bair Dyshenov
    Special Mention
    Oh, My God! (Norway), dir Anne Sewitsky

    Generation 14plus Jury
    Crystal Bear, Best Feature Film
    My Suicide (USA), dir David Lee Miller
    Special Mention
    Mary and Max (Australia), dir Adam Elliot
    Crystal Bear, Best Short Film
    Aphrodite’s Farm (New Zealand), dir Adam Strange
    Special Mention
    Slavar (Slaves) (Sweden/Norway/Denmark), dir David Aronowitsch, Hanna Heilborn

    International Jury Generation Kplus – Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk
    Grand Prix, Best Feature Film
    C’est pas moi, je le jure! (It’s Not Me, I Swear!) (Canada), dir Philippe Falardeau
    Special Mention
    Flickan (The Girl) (Sweden), dir Fredrik Edfeldt
    Special Prize, Best Short Film
    Oh, My God! (Norway), dir Anne Sewitsky
    Special Mention
    Jerrycan (Australia), dir Julius Avery .


    FIPRESCI (International Critics) Jury
    La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) (Peru), dir Claudia Llosa
    Nord (North) (Norway), dir Rune Denstrad Langlo
    Ai no mukidashi (Love Exposure) (Japan), dir Sono Sion

    Ecumenical Jury
    Lille Soldat (Little Soldier) (Denmark), dir Annette K. Olesen
    Special Mentions
    London River (Algeria/France/UK), dir Rachid Bouchareb
    My One And Only (USA), dir Richard Loncraine
    Welcome (France), dir Philippe Lioret
    Treeless Mountain (Republic of Korea/USA)), dir So Yung Kim

    Prize of Guild of German Art House Cinemas
    Sturm (Storm) (Germany/Denmark/Netherlands), dir Hans-Christian Schmid

    C.I.C.A.E. Jury (International Confederation of Art House Cinemas)
    Ander (Spain), dir Roberto Caston
    Cea mai fericita fata din lume (The Happiest Girl in the World) (Romania/Netherlands), dir Radu Jude

    Label Europa Cinemas – Panorama – ex aequo
    Nord (North) (Norway), dir Rune Denstrad Langlo
    Welcome (France), dir Philippe Lioret

    Amnesty International Award – Panorama
    Sturm (Storm) (Germany/Denmark/Netherlands), dir Hans-Christian Schmid

    Peace Film Award – Generation
    The Messenger (USA), dir Oren Moverman

    NETPAC (Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema) Prize – Forum – ex aequo
    Eoddeon gaien nal (The Day After) (Republic of Korea), dir Lee Suk-Gyung
    Ma dai fu de zhen suo (Doctor Ma’s Country Clinic) (China), dir Cong Feng

    Caligari Prize – Forum
    Ai no mukidashi (Love Exposure) (Japan), dir Sono Sion

    Dialogue en Perspective Award – Perspektive Deutsches Kino
    Gitti, dir Anna Deutsch
    Special Mention
    Polar, dir Michael Koch
    Actors Awards
    Franziska Petri in Für Miriam (For Miriam), dir Lars-Gunnar Lotz
    Jacob Matschenz in Fliegen (Fly), dir Piotr J. Lewandowski

    Femina Film Prize – Panorama
    Silke Fischer for production design in Alle Anderen (Everyone Else), dir Maren Ade

    Panorama Awards

    Teddy Awards
    Best Feature Film – Panorama
    Rabioso sol, rabioso cielo (Raging Sun, Raging Sky) (Mexico), dir Julián Hernández
    Best Essay – Panorama
    Fig Trees (Canada), dir John Greyson
    Best Short – Forum
    A Horse Is Not a Metaphor (USA), dir Barbara Hammer

    Berliner Morgenpost Readers Award – Competition
    Sturm (Storm) (Germany/Denmark/Netherlands), dir Hans-Christian Schmid
    Tagesspiegel Readers Award – Forum
    Hayat var (My Only Sunshine) (Turkey/Greece/Bulgaria), dir Reha Erdem
    Panorama Audience Award
    The Yes Men Fix the World (USA), dir Mike Bonanno, Andy Bichlbaum, Kurt Engfehr
    Siegessäule Readers Award – Panorama
    City Of Borders (USA), dir Yun Suh

    Berlinale Talent Campus Awards
    Volkswagen Score Competition
    Atanas Valkov (Poland)
    Berlin Today Award
    Supriyo Sen (India) for Wagah
    Special Mention
    Gina Abatemarco (USA) for My Super Sea Wall

    Honorary Golden Bear
    Maurice Jarre (France), composer
    Berlinale Camera Awards
    Günter Rohrbach (Germany), producer
    Claude Chabrol (France), director
    Manoel Oliveira (Portugal), director


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