The Sky Over Berlin

in 74th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by György Báron

“Berlinale is the most political film festival in the world,” said Maryam Moghaddam, co-director of the Iranian film My Favourite Cake (Keyke Mahboobe Man), which won the FIPRESCI and Ecumenical Jury Prize, speaking to Variety. This year’s Berlinale was even more politically charged than before. This was a consequence of the world situation on the one hand and of German domestic politics, on the other. Before the festival had even begun, the two festival directors had sent an open letter to the five leaders of the far-right AfD, who had been invited earlier, declaring them undesirable. There, they explained that the AfD’s views were contrary to democracy and the festival’s core values of a free and tolerant society. Half a hundred filmmakers—including Wim Wenders, Fatih Akin, Vicky Krieps, and Cannes director Thierry Frémaux—who marched on the red carpet at the Opening gala, signed the declaration with a “Movies unite, hate divides” sign. At the Closing ceremony, many wore a different kind of badge, reading “Ceasefire – now!”, which, like the speeches of several award winners, referred not to the conflict in Ukraine, but to that in Gaza. The festival management later issued a statement distancing itself from the pro-Palestine speeches, describing them as one-sided and inappropriate. The second anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine was commemorated on stage by the distinguished Ukrainian writer-poet Oksana Zabuzhsko, a member of the jury. 

When she spoke about the politicisation of the festival, Moghaddam could not have known about all this; she was probably referring to the calvary of My Favourite Cake. Both she and co-director Behtash Sanaeeha were not allowed to attend the Berlinale, their passports were confiscated and they were prosecuted. The only reason why the authorities could not confiscate the film was that the final copy was already in France, so that it could be sent to Berlin, where the awards were received by the two main actors and one of the producers. But My Favourite Cake is not a political film in the least. If there is a story that is far from political, this is it, except in ideological regimes where even the most innocent tale can be politicised. 

My Favourite Cake is a delightfully pure love story about the romance of two retirees over seventy. The opening shots are of lively ladies sipping tea and chatting about illness, family, the past, as is the custom anywhere in the world. Mahin, a merry widow, thinks it’s not time to say goodbye to life: on the contrary, it’s time to start again. She meets an old, lonely taxi driver at the pensioner’s canteen, invites him to dinner, and a strong attraction develops between them. What could be offensive? “We’ve crossed all red lines,” says co-director Sanaeeha, “The women don’t wear hijabs, drink alcohol and dance.” Even over seventy, this is not allowed, even though nothing is further from the retired heroine than flirtatiousness or frivolity. And the serious consequences of all this can be seen in a street-set scene where a young girl is being pushed into a jeep by a bunch of morality police because her unruly hair is sticking out from under the obligatory headscarf. 

The festival’s much heralded opening film, Small Things Like These by Tim Mielant, deals with the scandal of child abuse in church institutions. The abuses that went on unabated for decades in the convent of the Magdalene Sisters once shocked the Irish public, and an excellent film was made about it twenty years ago (Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters from 2002). This is a pale version of that, the current adaptation is a clear disappointment. Many felt that it was only made for the opening ceremony to lure the Oscar-nominated lead actor for Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy, and another world star, Matt Damon, who produced the film. 

After a disappointing opening, there was a glimmer of hope on the first day of the race, thanks to the Mexican Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film The Kitchen (La Cocina). The film is a free adaptation of Arnold Wesker’s drama of the same name. The director and his cinematographer use sensitive, flexible camera movements to give a dynamic cinematic language to the largely single-scene story of kitchen rebellion. On the one hand, the original play’s “kitchen sink realism” is enhanced by the fast close-ups, while on the other—and this is what is really new in the film version—the sociodrama is imbued with spiritual-mystical content. It evoked the magical realism of Marquez and Llosa, which pervades Latin American literature with such inimitable naturalness, and which we have most recently admired in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018): the effortless passage between documentary reality and mystical imagination.  

In the official competition field, apart from the more traditional My Favourite Cake and the more radical The Kitchen, only Matthias Glasner’s three-hour family saga Dying (Sterben) brought real intellectual excitement. The fate of three generations is traced in this precise, serene work in the tradition of the German realist novel: grandparents slowly leaving life, their two adult children, their complex relationships and their grandchildren. The real subject of this unusually long but never dull narrative is time, in whose relentless drift the waves of generations pile up, as they approach the shore. Lars Eidinger, who has been seen in the most important series of recent years, Babylon Berlin, is excellent this time as Tom, the successful conductor.   

Also familiar from Babylon Berlin is Liv Lisa Fries, star of From Hilde, with Love (In liebe eure Hilde), another German competition title. The young heroine of this story, based on real events, is a Communist resistance fighter who was executed by the Nazis. Flashbacks of joyful moments of youth alternate with dark images of death row. The film, with its kitschy effects, is worthy of our attention only because it is an instructive example of a country’s cinema confronting, not for the first time, its recent history.  

“The role of a film festival—said the Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Martin Scorsese at his Berlin press conference—is the attention to a new voice, individual voice, individual artist… something that maybe a film that you saw once and you’ll remember for the rest of your life, always discovering something new in art, in cinema as art… what’s fashionable dies in a day.” Well, little of this was achieved at this year’s Berlinale. Scorsese went on to say: “A film festival has the opportunity to introduce to the world different points of view making the world closer and smaller, people knowing each other and knowing each other’s cultures.” In this respect, the programme was more satisfying: most of the films offered an enticing journey to distant, exotic lands and foreign cultures. Shambala took us to Nepal, following a pregnant woman’s wanderings in the snow-capped mountains, and introducing us to local rituals, folklore and traditions. In Pepe, which won the Best Director award, the title character, a hippo, took us alternately to Namibia and Colombia. In a true story set between two distant continents, the talking hippo is the link between the two. Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar once brought exotic animals to his zoo. After Escobar’s death, the hippos were released, much to the horror of the local fishermen, who mistook the huge-mouthed, hitherto unknown creatures that had suddenly emerged from the river for monsters. With no natural enemies in the area, they have now become more numerous. Their story is told by founding father Pepe, in his own hippo language. 

Four years ago, the most exciting film at the Berlinale, Gunda, was about a mother pig and her growing pups. This time director Victor Kossakovsky told the story of the stones. His lyrical film essay, Architecton, is a meditation on the philosophical difference between decaying concrete and enduring stone buildings. After a while, the artistic images become empty and repetitive, as a bearded architect forms a circle of stones in a rain-soaked garden, which seems to have a mystical meaning, but it is not clear what. In Black Tea, we travel from Ivory Coast to the Far East, following the beautiful African heroine as she abandons her fiancé at his wedding, running all the way to China to fall in love with the owner of a tea house. Who Do I Belong To (Mé el Aïn) is set in a small Tunisian town. Two of the family’s three children join ISIS, one unexpectedly returns home, while the fate of the other is unknown. The closed community of the village lives its daily life in the shadow of the looming terror. Isabelle Huppert, the French heroine of the Silver Bear-winning A Traveler’s Needs (Yeohaengjaui Pilyo), turns up in Korea. It’s not clear exactly what has driven her to the far-flung country, where she teaches a language to students while trying to adapt to local customs.  In the informative, but not very original Dahomey, which, to no small surprise, won the Golden Bear, the cinematic journey takes us from Paris to Benin. This time we follow not people or animals, but art treasures: the hour-long film describes in minute detail the action of the former French colonialists in returning some of the ancient African treasures they had taken. 

Compared to the exotic cinema trips that dominate the programme, the train journey of two high school heroines of Langue Étrangère from Paris to Leipzig and back is only a short excursion. The families of the French and German correspondents represent different cultures, right and left, tolerant and intolerant. The two friends also see the world and their futures differently: one is a staunch antifa activist, the other aspires to a professional career. 

These three films have a strong connection with France, but French cinema, which has seen better days, has long been in a state of decline, as their Berlinale screenings showed. The two best-known directors of the competition were French: the eternal provocateur Bruno Dumont and the sympathetically gentle, contemplative Olivier Assayas. Both came to the German capital with some of their most exuberant work to date. Dumont’s The Life of Jesus (La vie de Jésus) and Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Jeannette, l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc) were both to be loved or loathed—I liked them both myself—but while in those he took provocation seriously, in his latest work, The Empire (L’Empire) it is impossible to decide whether he is joking or serious about a tale even crazier than usual for him. His film, a Silver Bear winner, is either a fantasy or a fantasy parody, but it’s usually a bad sign if you can’t tell the difference between the two. In a fictional French village, aliens arrive and a strange baby is born. It’s as if two imaginary worlds are at war, perhaps one good and one not. The spaceship of the good (or bad) takes the form of a Gothic cathedral, its nave a prancing monarch in clown boots, grinning and dancing, in the riffing of Fabrice Luchini, the former hero of Rohmer films. 

Eric Rohmer also brings to mind another French competition film, Olivier Assayas’ Suspended Time (Hors du temps). Time has been stopped by COVID. Two middle-aged brothers, director Etienne and music writer Paul, retire with their significant others to their childhood home. As in most of Assayas’s works, personalism and nostalgia play a major role. Interspersed with flashbacks, the film—and in this it follows the Rohmerian pattern—is based on pleasant chatter and cultured ‘nice talk’, but it lacks the sensibility of Rohmer. Perhaps the reason is that, while Rohmer’s camera remains a cool, external observer, Assayas is deeply immersed in his own personal history, losing control of his story and drowning in nostalgic self-pity. His autobiography is especially of interest to a Hungarian critic, because it contains several references to the director’s Hungarian ties: the heritage of his grandmother and mother. 

And speaking of the Hungarian connection, let’s return to Scorsese, who brought a brand new documentary film with him to Berlin, Made in England, about his favourite British filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. If the most French contemporary director, Olivier Assayas is half-Hungarian, one of the most celebrated classic English filmmakers, the Miskolc-born Imre Pressburger, is fully Hungarian. If there was a great work at the Berlinale, it was a gift from Scorsese, about Pressburger, Powell, and the miracle of cinema.  


György Báron
Edited by Savina Petkova