Letters from Berlin
• A Revolutionary is a Doomed Man
By Adina Glickstein & Rodrigo Garay
• Undine Loves
By Savina Petkova & Debbie Zhou
• Cow Theft and Video Games
By Maja Korbecka and Jakob Åsell
A Revolutionary is a Doomed Man
By Adina Glickstein & Rodrigo Garay
Corresponding from the 70th Berlinale, Adina Glickstein and Rodrigo Garay reflect on Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970) and Orphea (2020).
Our morning viewing of William Klein’s Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (screened as part of the 50th Anniversary Forum) left me restless, agitated by the persistence of precisely the problems the Black Panthers fought half a century ago. Found footage scattered throughout Klein’s film highlights police brutality, the riots at the 1968 DNC, the violence of the U.S. Empire as it intervened in Vietnam. The primary change, it seemed to me, was the conviction, clarity, and resolve with which Cleaver addressed these lingering problems head-on, matter-of-factly diagnosing them with a brazen poise that few today would dare to espouse. His injunction to “kill the pigs,” is offered over verité footage of his exile in Algeria with absolute confidence, a clearheaded assessment of the injustices that inhere fifty years on.
“A Revolutionary is a Doomed Man” reads a First International pamphlet drawing on Nechayev which we learn, in Klein’s film, that the Black Panthers reissued. Doomed revolution offers a through-line between the two films we watched together, Eldridge Cleaver, Black Pantherand Alexander Kluge and Khavn’s Orphea, which otherwise could not be more disparate. Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther had me convinced of the utility – indeed, the necessity – of revolutionary violence, grinning each time a close-up zoned in on Cleaver’s hand clutching the glinting knife he purchased “for friends back in Babylon.”
Orphea, screened in the festival’s Encounters sidebar, doesn’t endorse violence so much as enacting it. Dense accretions of found footage keyed in under deranged performances, equipment peeking through behind the green screen’s background; jumbled multicolored inter-titles spliced between flashing music video interludes and fragments of Khavn’s poetry, spelled out in a typeface dripping like bodily discharge. The only descriptor I can land on is “semioblitz,” an appropriately violent moniker (borrowed from Mark Fisher but popularized by the CCRU) for the sensory onslaught of all these stimuli. Where Klein’s film offered a slick portrait, advertorial or agitprop but inarguably prescient, Kluge and Khavn’s message—if one is to be found—is broadcast in a lunatic fervor.
Here is what I managed to pull out of Orphea: green-screen riffs and archival imagery from the Soviet Union advocating Cosmism—the Communist philosophy of immortality for all—illustrate the titular character’s mission to revive her lost lover from the underworld. Death, Kluge posits, is the ultimate sexual frustration; therein lies its fundamental reprehensibility. He draws in footage from contemporary loss of life to modernize the myth, videos arrayed three or four at a time on a black background. Things start to slant reactionary with the insertion of an infamous photograph, immediately recognizable as my blood pressure spikes: a drowned migrant child washed up to shore. Tragedy instrumentalized for incitement. Certainly, this moment is activating—but in service of what? The claim remains unclear to me.
Two films, two disparate paths to provocation. Klein’s portrait of Cleaver is a tight manifesto, outlining the Panthers’ ten-point program verbatim and imaging Cleaver, seductive, at the center of it all. Though he openly derides the establishment’s fixation on singular charismatic leaders, Cleaver is explicitly framed as one – winkingly, maybe, with a sideways glance towards the scene-satire that launched Klein’s career. Perhaps Kluge shares in this canny recognition, working in an intensified parody of the media landscape that surrounds him. But it stagnates in its absence of forwarding motion, uncritically partisan to the political disorientation that, today, only serves to shore up the injustices it professes to observe.
Signing off, in solidarity.
I’m glad we can both agree on the irony of William Klein’s portrayal of Eldridge Cleaver as a seductive and assertive leader. The tactile quality of the verité sections wonderfully clashes with the self-evident commentary and abrupt type facing of Brechtian propaganda, both theoretically and materially: Cleaver’s magnetic personality is undeniable, and when you devote so much uninterrupted screen time and space in the frame to his smooth-talking (let’s be honest, the introductory shot where Cleaver’s explaining his situation in Algeria is quite a close-up!) it becomes unquestionable as well—at least to the most receptive and credulous audiences.
I’m wary of political figures by nature and I believe this film sends ironic warning signs of the Messianic quality of the Black Panthers spokesman all the time (remember when Cleaver is holding hands with the Vietnamese, all dressed in white?) In that regard, I can’t help but recommend Travis Wilkerson’s An injury to one (2002) because of how it echoes (and questions) the work of Santiago Álvarez, the legendary Cuban propagandist. In our times of inbound marketing and surreptitious ideology mass-feeding, perhaps the bluntness of agitprop could help produce an unexpected understanding of the audiovisual language that surrounds us.
Your candid take on the necessity of political action also reminds me of what you said the other day about police brutality against homeless people in the New York metro. In Mexico City, where I’m from, the working class is afraid of the police as well but, at the same time, the spirit of N.W.A’s infamous anthem “Fuck the Police” — to borrow from the most hilarious case of censorship we witnessed during these viewings — is such a slogan that you could almost print it on shirts and mugs, depriving it of meaning.
I guess this somehow drives the point back to Orphea, to my amazement. Green screens, political satire, opera, gender-conscious re-evaluations of Greek mythos and ethos — when put together as loudly as Kluge and Khavn do — don’t seem to mean anything anymore. In service of what, you ask? In service of an immediate release of emotion, I dare to think. Of nullness. This random mixture could perfectly fit in both the dark corners of an underground Wedding gallery or on the cutesy tote bag in which we’re taking the souvenirs of this year’s Berlinale back home: an object to be put on display or to be kept in a closet, to one day be found as a reminder of lost things and happy days of Berlin rain. My memories attached to this film are eventually going to become more meaningful than the film itself.
By Savina Petkova & Debbie Zhou
Reporting from Berlin, Savina Petkova and Debbie Zhou share their thoughts on Christian Petzold’s Competition entry, Undine (2020).
Is there a way to render a fairytale romantic when it isn’t fated to be one? Christian Petzold lends his characters’ possibilities to break away from the conventional time and space bonds, but ultimately, it is love that disrupts myths and patterns. In Undine, he subverts the romantic ideal of the alluring female sea spirit and her chosen one by using tragic tropes to emphasize reciprocal love. Lots of love and water bursting from the screen, yes?
So much. Watching the film here at the Berlinale — where it is playing as part of the Official Competition — is the first time I’ve been able to see a Petzold film on the big screen, and it magnified so many details of his filmmaking style that I’ve appreciated in his previous works, Transit (2018) and Phoenix (2014). Undine (Paula Beer) and Christoph (Franz Rogowski) hug and touch constantly during the movie, and the camera often holds still as Undine splays her hands over his leather jacket, her head in the nook of his neck, his arms around her.
The image that’s imprinted on my mind is of Undine and Christoph’s chance/fate meeting after an aquarium bursts in front of them in a splash of glass and water, to then observe the couple drown into each other even more as the film unfolds.
If anything — that aquarium scene embodies the beauty of how Petzold shoots faces and the way his camera becomes a mediator in creating such intimacy and interaction between bodies. He’s able to create mood, not only through visual language, but also through the direction of his actors, and the use of sound — particularly the silences. When the glass cracks and the couple fall on the ground next to each other — the water was spilling down their faces, their hair and clothes soaked, glass protruding into the skin — they’re not distracted by any of it, and they only gaze at one another. It’s wordless, but in that one moment, the looks in their eyes say everything about their relationship, and where it’s headed.
You mean the inevitability of the myth?
I think the mythological aspect also adds a sense of magic realism and foreshadowing to their romance, too. Before the aquarium bursts, you already hear it bubbling away under the surface: there are the muted underwater sounds as Christoph enters the doorway, and the diver figurine in the tank begins to shake because of some unknowable force. It’s a fated ‘meet-cute’ in a way, and the film plays with that idea of inevitability within a romance.
I’d even give it a capital ‘R’, as it’s very much in the spirit of German Romanticism, which is, after all, a way of bringing back magic into a world that’s lost its own. The narrative can be summarized as a couple meeting to only miss each other, so the tragic potential is also there – divided by death, but united by love. However, the couple’s occupations, as an industrial diver and an urban historicist in present-day Berlin, makes up the harsher, material layer of this story but what opens it up for enchantment is hidden in, as you said, the framing of their first encounter. As in other Petzold films, such as Transit, time, space, and memory are fluid, only in this case, they are more water than anything else.
And there’s so much ambiguity happening in this movie — so much that it has seemed to divide the critics in terms of, ‘what exactly is Undine doing?’ and ‘what does it actually mean?’ I think part of this film’s beauty is the way that it doesn’t spell out something as explicitly, like say, a film like Transit — which was more politically overt about the blur between past and present ways of seeing the refugee crisis, and what it means for those who are stateless or in ‘transit’. There’s a lot to try and unlock in this puzzle of a movie, and its symbols are perhaps more difficult to access too; for example — what interpretation was Petzold putting on the mythological figure of Undine? Undine was traditionally a sexualized female water creature, without a human soul, whose purpose is to allure a human man — but the risk, for the man, is that if he leaves her — she’ll kill him. It’s something that Undine says very early on in the film when her to-be ex-boyfriend breaks up with her — which was, by the way, such a cutthroat way of opening the film and bringing the audience right into her emotional headspace.
Is there something about that reworking of the myth that aligns with his emphasis on modern Berlin architecture too? I think that was something in particular that I’ve been grappling with a lot now, even if I was very struck by it during the movie. Because is there a connection between Undine’s work as a historian, the details of how the city has become shaped and designed in such intricate detail post-WWII — to the core romance, its development, and the ending? Is there a reason that the fate of these two lovers ends up being what it is? Petzold’s films work so interestingly in this space between Germany’s past, present, and future, and I think that this time, his additional layer of a re-interpretation on a myth, actually complicates and perhaps confuses this question or query.
In a way, Undine is also about belonging, yet condensed to a couple, especially when the screen seems too small to behold their loving looks, keeping them in the same frame as long as possible, often obscuring each other’s faces. Actually, in our interview, Petzold spoke of his reversal of the siren myth that’s based on male projection: a man concedes to a love he cannot return only because of a woman’s alluring beauty. Here, the love between the main couple feels so strong and singular because the film aligns (as the title suggests) with the heroine’s initiative, rather than keeping her merely a fetishized object. That’s also the premise of the novel Undine Leaves by Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann. What I’d add here is that his reworking of the myth has more to do with the notion that repetitions – scenes replayed as flashbacks, Undine practicing her history talk three times, or how the film obsessively returns to its locations again and again– shape our lives and loves, and breaking from patterns might be the only way to be with someone and belong.
I took a moment to appreciate the fact that we, being in Berlin, were watching a film that takes its time to explain the city’s urban planning and its name meaning ‘dry place in the marsh’, in long, repeated talks that might seem at first alienating and function as a stoppage to the narrative unfolding, but for us, then and there, encapsulated the singular experience of its first screening. In a way, this is also doing away with patterns, of viewing in that case, underneath its jargon, Undine’s talk reminded me of Freud’s comparison of the psyche as a city where past, present, and potentiality coexist like the city’s own history and ruins. Freud had Rome in mind, but I think Petzold uses Berlin in a similar way without taking cameras to the streets but paying close attention to historically accurate models. Last but not least, the Berlinale Palast where our screening took place, also overlooks a lake.
Cow Theft and Video Games
By Maja Korbecka and Jakob Åsell
Halfway through the fest, Maja Korbecka and Jakob Åsell write to each other about some of the most intriguing films they’ve seen.
I am writing to you from the office at Potsdamer Platz, trying to calm down after all the excitement of attending Jia Zhangke’s masterclass at Berlinale Talents. The running between venues left me wearing annoyingly rain-drenched shoes that will be my companions for the rest of the day. I hope you had more luck avoiding the downpour. However, it is all worth it, because once a film starts we are transported to a completely different space and time.
This time I landed in the Philippines in the 90s with Death of Nintendo (2020), screened as part of the festival’s Generation Kplus sidebar. I was quickly immersed in the story. I joined the main characters hanging out in front of a convenience store, playing video games, and planning to sneak out to the cemetery in the middle of the night to hunt for ghouls. The pop energy is all over Death of Nintendo but it would not be so immersive without Valerie Castillo Martinez’s brilliant script. She crafts one of the most amazing girl characters in teen films, very mature and critical of the world and people around her. She seemingly does not interfere much in the plot, observing others, and controlling her actions. However soon it is evident that she is the one driving the action forward, in contrast to the three often indecisive boys.
I cannot say the same thing about Time to Hunt (Sanyangeui sigan, 2020). While this Berlinale Special Gala offering struck me as a well-balanced mix of sci-fi slasher horror and action films, it is completely devoid of female characters, except for several minutes where the mother of one of the characters makes an appearance. In testosterone-filled Korean action cinema women are often relegated to such stereotypes. Male characters are free to explore a very wide range of different identities and emotions on screen, especially when it comes to showing weakness and vulnerability, which makes them more relatable. The characters are living in a post-apocalyptic world characterized by violence and monstrous transformations neoliberalism, so familiar it slaps you in the face. In fact, the screening of Time to Hunt delivered also pain in its utter physicality when the sound volume of gunshots and explosions was way beyond the level a regular person can stand. Maybe the film was supposed to violate our ears for us to emphasize more with the main characters, whose bodies are massacred throughout the film.
On the other hand, The Assistant (2019) was permeated with silent terror. This Panorama entry is told from the perspective of a young woman who aspires to become a producer but, as a beginner in the industry, she works as an assistant of the studio’s boss. The atmosphere is familiar to anyone who still remembers their first days working at the office, hiding in the corner to quickly devour the lunch and avoid boss’ remarks. In this case, the environment is extreme, because The Assistant takes place in the headquarters of a film production company that has more complex inner rules and regulations than most workplaces. The time seems disrupted, extended beyond the length of one day because at the office time is not your own anymore. The film explores the horrors of sexism, psychological violence, sexual harassment, gender inequality, and hierarchy that makes you cringe.
As I write this I am waiting for the meeting with Louis Henderson and The Living and the Dead Ensemble. You know how I felt about the film, and it’s possible I might one day turn into The Critic Lady Erika Balsom was writing about. How are you? What have you seen at the 70th Berlinale?
Stealing cows & finding your place in a world that’s changing
I hope your shoes have dried by the time you read this. I’m writing to you from Mokkabar in Kreuzberg, a very old school café/bar with candlelight and slow jazz. In front of me, a stylish young couple wearing dark polo shirts are having a passionate discussion, I’m guessing it’s about art. It’s late and the smokers outside are hiding from the rain. Writing in a place like this feels very cliché and very Berlin. But it’s comforting to know that some places embrace their own romantic stereotypes. Reinforcing their old identity in a world that’s changing.
I found this theme of searching for your place in times of change to be a joint undertone in the films I’ve seen so far during my cinephilic odyssey through this year’s Berlinale. Surprisingly, two of them are also about cow theft.
Teboho Edkins’ hybrid documentary gem Days of Cannibalism (2020), a co-production from France, Netherlands, South Africa screened in the Panorama Dokumente section, explores the slow, sometimes weirdly funny, a clash between the cattle-herding Basotho people and the Chinese entrepreneurs who are new in the barren mountains of Lesotho. Cultural and language barriers make for a hotbed of dry comedy as this observational comment on the consequences of a globalized world, somehow puts us in a courtroom with locals who are charged with stealing cows.
The jump from contemporary Africa to 19th century Oregon and Kelly Reichart’s highly anticipated latest feature and Competition entry First Cow (2019) is surprisingly short. Both films involving Chinese pioneers seeking a fortune in unexplored territory, old western themes in new packaging, and cow-related criminal activity, I sense a very particular taste among the festival programmers.
Orion Lee plays a Chinese immigrant who becomes a partner in crime with a talented baker, played by John Magaro in the Oregon Territory, circa 1820. As bar brawls and robbers hide behind every corner, these mild men, unfit for the wild west find baking “oily cakes” to be a possible ticket out of a place where they don’t fit in. But the stakes are high as the secret ingredient is stolen milk from the only cow in the remote trading post. While I didn’t feel very passionate about this cute little tale, the warm bromance at its heart did paint a tiny smile on this critic’s face.
While lacking cows, the portrait of friendship and identity search in an era with new rules very much applies to the film I’ve enjoyed the most so far – The Swedish (yeah, I know…) documentary film Always Amber (Alltid Amber, 2020) by Hannah Reinikainen and Lia Hietala, here at their feature film debut. Just like Days of Cannibalism, this Panorama Dokumente entry by my fellow countrymen extracts both empathy and laughter from sudden hard cuts to comedic compositions. A case in point, the brilliant wide shot of the non-binary teenager Amber waiting for her hair dye to dry outside her apartment building, sitting barely dressed and shaking like a leaf on a plastic chair in the Stockholm winter, wearing a plastic bag from a low-price store on her head. Even though the issue of transgender surgery, which 17-year-old Amber is considering, is far from my own life – through its honest approach, Always Amber effectively took me back to the angst and confusion during the transformative years where you’re shaping your adult identity.
At the heart of these films is the theme of assimilation or adaptation to new rules of the time, and question how much of yourself you are willing to compromise. Do you adapt in order to survive, or put up a fight? Who will change first: you, or the world you live in? Sitting in this time machine of a Berlin café, the only thing I know for certain is that I hope it’s exactly the same when I return to Berlin in the future.
Until next time!