Member of the international jury Audrey Tautou arrives for the screening of the movie Nobody Wants the Night, in Berlin. PHOTO: Reuters
When director of the Berlin Film Festival Dieter Kosslick explained the inclusion of more works by and about women in this year’s festival programme, he bracketed their films under one sentence: “Strong women in extreme situations.” Although this may have sounded like a joke, he was serious.
Juliette Binoche starred as an arctic explorer, Josephine Peary, in the opening night film Nobody Wants the Night and Nicole Kidman played an explorer, Gertrude Bell, in Queen of the Desert. It seems the festival programmers felt that by having strong female characters battling extreme conditions geographically, they would be championing gender equality.
(Left) Iranian film director Jafar Panahi won the top Golden Bear prize for Taxi. (Right) Panahi’s niece Hana Saeidi cried as she collected the award on his behalf. PHOTO: REUTERS
Nobody Wants the Night is made by a woman, Isabel Coixet, but it’s hard to imagine the film would have opened a prestigious film festival like the Berlinale had Binoche not been the leading actor. While otherwise dependable in everything she does, Binoche acts very strangely here as Peary, who headed to Greenland in pursuit of her husband Robert, who is in search of the North Pole. Peary finds accommodation with Allaka (Rinko Kikuchi), an Inuit woman who has been impregnated by Robert and is waiting for him to return. It’s a ripe set-up, but ultimately turns into a plodding bore.
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan attend the premiere of Fifty Shades of Grey at the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany. PHOTO: REUTERS
The same can be said about Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert. Bell plays the multifaceted role of a writer, a traveller, an archaeologist and even a political officer. She was responsible for the formation of large parts of the Middle East, specifically Iraq. So, it’s a shame that Herzog restricts a life as rich as this to just two love affairs. To add to this, the legendary film-maker who has crafted great portraits on power-hungry madmen just cannot direct romance. The less said of Bell’s ‘romantic’ scenes with British diplomat Henry Cadogan (James Franco), the better.
Luckily, two other pictures screened on the second day were powerful enough to supplant the memories of Herzog’s film. Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Taxi and Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years were the festival’s standouts. Taxi is a profound meta-comedy and Panahi’s third film since Iran’s government imposed a suspension on his work. He nevertheless continues to make movies, not caring about the ban and seems to have a wonderful time doing so. In Taxi, he plays a taxi driver, whose cab serves as a production company and every passenger is a new project. When Panahi smiles into the camera, he seems to tell us, “It’s okay, I’m still working.” It’s a little marvel of a film and it is very satisfying that the jury awarded the film a Golden Bear, the festival’s top prize. Panahi’s niece, Hana Saeidi, accepted the award on his behalf, unable to hold back her tears as she held the Bear.
The Bear also went to actors Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay for their wholly complete performances in 45 Years. Andrew Haigh’s screenplay of a long — and not always easy — marriage, asks, ‘What if one is not married to the love of his or her life?’ This is a story of courtships, compassion and ultimately about compromises and will end up in many top 10 lists this year.
Actress Lily James attends the premiere of Cinderella. PHOTO: AFP
Then came the third day of the Berlinale: a proper jolt to the senses. It was time for a Berlin-set film to appear in the line-up and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, about four young men who meet a Spanish girl in a nightclub, get drunk and rob a bank, was an ideal choice. It’s a simple story, but here’s the trick: the film is one wondrous, 140-minute take. Unlike Birdman, this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, Victoria isn’t cut together to look like one, uninterrupted shot. It actually is. Sturla Brandt Grøvlen’s cinematography rightly won the Outstanding Artistic Contribution award.
Another film where the camera was constantly in motion was Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. But this time around, the technical trickery was just irritating. While Schipper had an actual story to tell, Malick just came off as pretentious. Although the cast includes Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and a host of pretty actresses (including Freida Pinto), the star power does little to hold up the film. There’s a whiff of a plot as Bale is a hurting writer drowning his sorrows with manifold adulterous liaisons, but the audience suffers more than him.
However, the great thing about the Berlin Film Festival is that one bad film is followed by several fantastic ones. And so Knight of Cups was followed by an absolute knockout — Patricio Guzman’s The Pearl Button, the only documentary in the competition. It talks of the atrocities committed by Chilean dictator Pinochet and Guzman speaks to the indigenous populations of Patagonia as well as to scientists, trying to make sense of his country’s troubled history.
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay won Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively, for 45 Years. PHOTO: AFP
The one good thing to come out of the whole ‘strong women’ slogan this year was that the jury, led by director Darren Aronofsky, felt compelled to award the Bear for Best Director to Malgorzata Szumowska. Her Polish film Body is a drily funny film about a father and daughter coming to terms with the loss of the mother. Body has the best opening scene of all competing entries in this category: an apparently dead body hanging from a tree is cut down by the police and when it lands on the ground with a thud, the ‘corpse’ just stands up and wanders off the crime scene. It’s a sublime slice of dark humour.
Speaking of timing, the most topical film in the competition was Grand Jury Prize winner El Club, dealing with the subject of organised religion, in particular the Catholic church. A handful of excommunicated priests live together in an isolated coastal village, under the leadership of an ex-nun (now here’s a strong woman living in an extreme situation). They pray, eat and sing together and train race dogs. These are bad people, but the reason for their banishment from the church (either homosexuality or paedophilia) isn’t clear. The dogs serve as a potent metaphor in this devastating moral tale, appearing more human than the priests.
With this film, Pablo Larrain asserts himself as one of the brightest voices in World Cinema today and the jury wouldn’t have been amiss to give him the Golden Bear. But this just proves that this year’s line-up featured very strong competitors. While festivals like Cannes or Venice get the lion’s share of celebrities, the real stars at this year’s Berlin Film Festival were the films.
Lights, camera… Berlin!
• The Berlin International Film Festival, known as the Berlinale, is one of the film industry’s most prestigious annual events. The festival was started by the Western allies after the Second World War as a ‘showcase for the free world’.
• Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca opened the first Berlinale in 1951. Although the film had premiered in 1940, many Germans had been unable to watch it until after the war ended.
• The festival’s Golden Bear — the highest prize awarded for the best film — pays tribute to the heraldic animal of Berlin, featured on the coat of arms and flag of Berlin.
• In 1970, German director Michael Verhoeven unveiled O.K. — a film about a Vietnamese girl who is raped and shot by four US soldiers — at the festival. American director and Berlinale jury president George Stevens threatened to quit and later, the entire jury resigned without bestowing any prizes.
• In 1979, the Soviet delegation, including representatives from across Eastern Europe and two members of the jury, walked out when The Deer Hunter — about a group of Russian-American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War — was screened.
Schayan Riaz is a Germany-based writer who tweets @schayanriaz
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 1st, 2015.