About Art and Artists

in 67th Berlin International Film Festival

by Lore Kleinert

Arts and Artists for Freedom. At the beginning of Berlinale’s opening film a blind musician is shot, the guitarist of a Sinti family in the year of 1943. The music goes on and lets the film move to Django Reinhardt. He seems first to be blind opposite the cynical demands of the Nazis, trying to allure him to Germany for making him play his music without its peculiarity while swing music has been banned. Only, Reinhardt’s music opens rooms of freedom again and again, a provocation to power as it pleases the people’s desire to dance freely. Berlinale 2017, as festival director Dieter Kosslick said, wanted to raise the question where there is – after the failure of the great utopian hopes – a space for independence and for creative solutions. How can we develop showcases for new ideas ? What can artists contribute to these ideas; can they even take the place of former utopian concepts? Several movies talk about art and artists very directly, and Etienne Comar’s “Django” adjusted the audience in a subtle way to these questions.

Artistic Space in Troubled Times. For the French filmmaker it was initially the special ability of musicians to create their own artistic space, as well as the freedom that music provides, that led him to his first film as director. “Totalitarian and terrorist regimes often turn to music first”, Comer noted, “The Nazis sought to stop jazz because it blends different cultures.” Though it never feels as if Reinhardt opposed the regime, the film shows him defying the Germans in his own way. Despite a narrative weakness we never lose the sense of Reinhardt’s person, along with his incredible musical abilities. This is thanks to the music and to Reda Kateb’s performance of Django. He shows him not as an ecstatic dreamer but as a man who has to liberate his limitation on a virtuous performance. It is a film about artists living in troubled times, and about the civic responsibility – which is the theme the director wanted to explore.
African Sound of Music. The struggle of the single mother in Alain Gomis’ film “Félicité” for the sake of her son is underlined by a soundtrack which functions as a screenplay in itself. It combines many types of music, from the modern fusion of international and indigenous rock with Arvo Pärt. Congolese singer Véro Tshanda Beya who plays the title role has a striking impact when she sings for her meal in a Kinshasa bar, and her voice becomes a part of the reflection about gender politics and economical failures still holding this part of Africa down. This movie as well explores the space given to those who lead a poor and dependent life, but have a lot of strength to fight all the obstacles they are confronted with. What makes the film special, besides the soundtrack and the songs, is the camera work of Céline Bozon. She lets us see the everyday conditions and conflicts Félicité lives in, in the streets of Kinshasa, sometimes in a dreamlike fashion, but always with a raw and realistic view. Even if the film is too long and drawn-out, it is intensely performed and a fine example for African filmmaking.

European Doubts and new Beginnings. Art plays the leading part in Stanley Tucci’s chamber play about the painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti, “Final Portrait”. Geoffrey Rush shows him as a volatile, eccentric personality for whom success has much to do with endless doubt and self-criticism. He lured the American writer James Lord (who later wrote his biography) into posing for him, 1964. It was planned for two or three days, but became an ordeal of almost three weeks. The movie explores not only the relationship between the painter and his subject, Giacometti’s relation with his brother, his wife, his source of inspiration (a prostitute), but has its focus on the artist’s neurotic state of constantly destroying what he has painted. Thanks to Rush’s performance, it tells a lot about the process of creation and about an artist embedded in his entirely own world. A pity only that the film neglects to explore what Lord’s motives were to hold on – Arnie Hammer as Lord did not match the performance of Rush, and so the movie remains beneath its possibilities.

Art as Renewal of Society. When pictures are mistreated as propaganda, documentaries are able to regain lost confidence and we can observe a worldwide growing acknowledgement of this genre, Berlinale presented 92 documentaries, non-fiction from all continents.  Andres Veiel’s documentary “Beuys” was shown in competition. Not a film about an artist as usual, but a collage made of partly never used paintings and film extracts from the archives. Veiel does not comment this material, but assembles it in a unique way and lets it speak for itself. The artist Beuys who had reclaimed the democratization of the money circulation, changed hatred and spite which he often was confronted with into good humor and a big laugh. His position that everybody could be an artist meant nothing else than everybody’s ability to shape society. Andres Veiel revives the technical skills of Beuys’ times with the possibilities of today’s digital animation in a very playful way that Beuys would have liked a lot. Not a critical view on the artist and his time but the decision for an approach which shows the artist as someone worth to deal with today, as he gave us a new definition of art and the narrowness of museums as its only place.  

“Complexity is a good thing”, said Sally Potter, one of the five female directors in the Berlinale competition. In the discussion about her “light and loving statement on broken England”, the well-made movie “The Party”, she talked about truth taken as central in private and political life, something for which the films about artists and art found a special and remarkable entry.

Lore Kleinert