Connecting As We Go Along

in 71st Berlinale – International Film Festival, Berlin

by Robert Horton

The Berlinale Competition jury for FIPRESCI watched 15 films in four days. At some film festivals that might be a heavy slog, but at Berlin 2021 it was a delirious encounter with a very high level of moviemaking—a Stendhal Syndrome packed into a short week. The first film I watched was Maria Speth’s Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Herr Bachman und seine Klasse, 2021), which opens with a series of shots of life before sunrise: people riding the bus, stopping by the Bäckerei for a pastry, walking through the soft light of sodium lamps. The last film I saw was Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Guzen to Sozo, 2021), with its final scene of two women warmly saying goodbye—or are they saying hello? It’s not clear whether this is the end of a brief and unusual encounter, or the beginning of something else. Whatever it is, it’s a wonderful, slightly magical moment.

Between those two remarkable sequences came the Competition. If the quality level was high this year, so the level of ambitiousness and provocation, which guaranteed that no amount of film-festival fatigue would set in. This was not a slate where “business as usual” prevailed, not with something like Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc, 2021) around. Jude’s rollicking, blistering Romanian film blends satirical comedy, a mid-film litany of illustrated dictionary definitions, and (as promised) porn. It’s “of the moment” in a way that made its choice as the Golden Bear winner seem completely natural.

Similarly, Alonso Ruizpalacios’s A Cop Movie (Una película de policías, 2021), from Mexico, and Bence Fliegauf’s Forest—I See You Everywhere (Rengeteg – mindenhol látlak, 2020), from Hungary, took radical chances with form. You wouldn’t think there would be any new variations on mixing up documentary and fiction, but A Cop Movie finds one, tracking two Mexico City officers (a man and woman who begin a romance in their patrol car) and then re-calibrating our experience of their story halfway through. Forest deploys a rigorous style—close-in, handheld—for a series of unrelated encounters marked by bleakness.

The festival’s other Hungarian selection, Dénes Nagy’s Natural Light (Természetes fény, 2020), frames its WWII story through the eyes of a weary soldier, his unit patrolling the occupied USSR in a meaningless battle with local partisans. Crisply shot and commendably acted, the film sometimes seems to be trying on different styles, even if Nagy creates devastating moments along the way. Xavier Beauvois’ Drift Away (Albatros, 2020) suffered from stylistic unevenness as well. Its compelling first half examines a small-town policeman (Jérémie Renier) in Normandy, his daily rounds marked by large and small cases that are often left unresolved; the second half departs entirely from this, following the cop’s sailboat journey in a narrative voyage that seems, somewhat disappointingly, all about resolution.

Elsewhere, the Competition presented films that revolved around scenarios of connection—and yes, perhaps this could be observed in any year’s selection of film-festival movies, but it seemed especially prominent in a pandemic time when connection was at a premium. Sometimes this connection was spurred by circumstances that were literally magical: In our Competition jury’s winning film from Georgia, Alexandre Koberidze’s glorious What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Was sehen wir, wenn wir zum Himmel schauen?, 2021), a connection is long deferred when two potential lovers wake up one morning to find themselves with entirely new bodily forms. In Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman (2021), a little girl’s week in the French countryside is made miraculous when she somehow comes upon her own mother as a child in some sort of parallel universe—strokes of hocus-pocus that are never explained, and do not need to be.

Similar things happened elsewhere in the festival selection. Connections are made via science fiction in Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch, 2021), a German comedy about love-robots, and through recent history in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Memory Box (2021), in which a Canadian girl finally understands her mother while exploring a stash of notebooks and cassette tapes the mother created decades earlier, during the Lebanese War—a similar inter-generational result as Petite Maman, but with physical objects instead of trickery. Among its other attributes, the film is a gratifying celebration of physical media; we feel the hand-written notes and scribbled artworks as palpable human artifacts, handmade messages across time. What will people raised on texts and emails be touching 30 years from now?

Darker connections are made elsewhere. In Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam’s Ballad of a White Cow (Ghasideyeh Gave Sefid, 2020), from Iran, a guilt-ridden judge tries to make amends to the widow of an executed man the judge wrongly convicted. If the film sometimes seemed to follow a familiar pattern for Iranian films about convoluted bureaucracies, it nevertheless makes its case eloquently, kept aloft by co-director Moghaddam’s performance as the widow. In Next Door (Nebenan, 2021), Daniel Brühl’s debut as director, the filmmaker plays a movie star very much like himself (this is a performance quite without vanity!), brought down to earth by an accidental encounter—or is it really accidental?—with a stranger in a bar. The film’s situation may be superficial, but Brühl’s embrace of dark humor leads to some nasty fun.

Hong Sang-soo’s films are frequently about the waywardness of connections, and Introduction (2020) is no exception. The 66-minute film is composed of a small set of scenes, including a two-year gap, between characters who stubbornly slip away from making a definitive connection. It is a film full of the usual charm of this director (the charm factor is increased if you include Hong’s delightful video acceptance of the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay, issued immediately after the awards), although I have to say, as a fan, I found Introduction to be slighter than his previous work.

When we look back at the films of the pandemic era, and the yearning for connection that issues from them, I will probably put Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) very high on the list of reassuring movies from this time. It has three different stories: The first two are timely accounts of power and misunderstanding, the third a heartbreakingly lovely tale of a woman in town for a class reunion, who bumps into an old, significant friend. The afternoon’s encounter that follows is like a self-contained Eric Rohmer picture, developing into something meaningful even as it turns out that the women are mistaken about each other in a fundamental way. The best we can hope for is to make things up as we go along, the film seems to say, but sometimes that is more than enough.

Robert Horton