Berlin 2014: a programmer’s picks

A family drama filmed over 12 years and an understated debut about a Chechen boy living in Vienna catch programmer Geoff Andrew’s eye at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

Geoff Andrew

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo)

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo)

As I wrote in my report on last year’s Cannes, at film festivals I invariably look at the movies in three different ways: as a programmer, a critic and a cinephile. Inevitably, those aspects of the viewing experience overlap somewhat, so what follows reflects both my own personal feelings and thoughts and occasional comments on how others responded to the films in question.

It makes sense to start with the prizewinners. Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo), which won both the Golden Bear for best film and the best actor prize (for Liao Fan) is an atmospheric policier set in a wintry northern Chinese coal-mining town. Though it’s no masterpiece, it went down very well in Berlin, partly, one suspects, because its fairly familiar noir narrative – about a down-at-heel ex-cop falling for the mysterious beauty who’s the prime suspect in an investigation into a series of gruesome murders – felt pleasingly pacy and to-the-point, screened as it was after a bunch of films notable for their enigmatic ellipses and poetic pretensions.

The other main prizewinner – Boyhood, which won Richard Linklater the Best Director gong – was a clear favourite in Berlin, and certainly its serio-comic look at family life as experienced by the young son is very deftly observed. What makes the film special is that Linklater shot the film over a dozen years or so, using the same actors, so we not only get to see how Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and (playing the estranged adults’ kids) Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater change year by year, but we’re given the impression we somehow come to know them.

Boyhood

Boyhood

With its 164-minute running time, the film doesn’t have an especially strong narrative thrust, but the characters are likeable enough and the movie sufficiently eventful for that never to feel like a problem. Indeed, it adds to the impression of verisimilitude.

Sadly, I didn’t see Wes Anderson’s well-received The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I did catch another film that found widespread favour: Yann Demange’s ’71, starring Jack O’Connell as a British soldier who finds himself alone and at serious risk on the wrong side of Belfast’s Falls Road one long dark, dangerous night in 1971. For me, the movie works better as a taut, suspenseful thriller than as a probing study of war in general or the Troubles in particular, but that may be to its advantage.

The same can probably be said for another crowd pleaser, In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten), by Norway’s Hans Petter Moland. Likewise a dark, violent film with an episodic, propulsively linear narrative, but set mainly in snowy wastes instead of a city’s mean streets, this stylish crime movie, centred on Stellan Skarsgård as a snowplough driver determined to avenge his son’s murder, won friends with its colourful characterisations and black, absurdist humour. A tad more conventional than Moland’s earlier A Somewhat Gentle Man, it’s still quirky enough to feel fresh and engaging.

A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann)

A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann)

One would like to say the same for Yannis Economides’ Stratos (To Mikro Psari), about a ruthless hitman with a perverse sense of honour, though its repetitive dialogue and protracted pacing do test the patience a little, even though they’re important elements in a film which is partly a caustic reflection on the greed, apathy and cynicism that led to Greece’s current parlous situation.

It might be argued that a similar metaphorical purpose underlines the endless cat-and-mouse shenanigans in the northern Chinese desert that drive Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land (Wu Ren Qu), but the heavily generic characterisation, unashamedly loud, violent set-pieces and slick sub-Leone compositions meant that the film was very much at odds with the kind of work one expects to find in the Berlin Competition.

The Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter)

The Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter)

Most of the rest of the Competition was artier in tone, and some of it frankly rather underwhelming. Three films by Latin American directors – Celina Murga’s The Third Side of the River (La tercera orilla), Karim Ainouz’s Futuro Beach (Praia do futuro) and Benjamin Naishtat’s History of Fear (Historia del miedo) – felt a little slight in terms of story, while another – Claudia Llosa’s Aloft, shot in snowbound Manitoba  – was for some punters too mystificatory, portentous and overwrought to engage the emotions.

Meanwhile, a third Chinese film, Lou Ye’s Blind Massage (Tui Na), made ambitious use of a cast combining sightless and sighted actors, though a script that veered between bloody melodrama and gentle musings on love and beauty failed to arouse great interest.

Though it’s in some ways less exhilaratingly audacious than his previous two films, Alain Resnais’ Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter) is a pleasant enough adaptation of a play by the director’s friend and favourite Alan Ayckbourn; quite how the brazen artifice of an emphatically studio-bound, French-spoken account of Yorkshire life will go down in the UK remains to be seen.

The Stations of the Cross (Kruezweg)

The Stations of the Cross (Kruezweg)

Two of three competing German films felt very much directed at the home-grown market: Dominic Graf’s Beloved Sisters (Die geliebten Schwestern) focuses at length on the complicated love life rather than on the artistic and historical significance of poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, while Feo Adalag’s Inbetween Worlds (Zwischen Welten) foregrounds the relationship of a German soldier serving in Afghanistan with his translator. Both are perfectly decent if hardly remarkable movies; their virtues are quiet rather than conspicuous.

One German film that impressed me rather more was Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg), which won the Berlinale’s best script prize. Certainly, it’s a strong story well acted and beautifully told: 14 single-shot scenes chronicle the seemingly inexorable progress of a 14-year-old girl – trying to live by the strict Catholic tenets espoused by her priest and her mother – towards a needlessly premature death. Inevitably, perhaps, the film proved divisive, but I was far from alone in being for the most part deeply engrossed and affected by the mix of sharp satire, social comment and humanist drama. Stylistically too, it’s enormously impressive.

Macondo

Macondo

Formal considerations were rather less to the fore in another of my favourites. Macondo, the first feature by the Iranian-Austrian Sudabeh Mortezai, is a modest, unflashy but utterly assured slice of realism about an 11-year-old Chechen boy living with his mother and sisters in a Viennese suburb populated mainly by refugees. There’s not a great deal of plot, but so richly detailed and resonant is Mortezai’s account of the boy, his predicament and his milieu that she ensures his moral, psychological and physical welfare are of urgent concern soon after the film starts.

Sadly, it went unrewarded in Berlin – I for one certainly felt it should get some recognition – but it’s well worth catching if you get the opportunity. Hopefully it’ll turn up in the UK. Watch this space!

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