Images of Men

in 73rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Lore Kleinert

One year after the beginning of the war, the fate of Ukraine is naturally also in the focus of filmmakers’ work, and I would like to highlight the film by the Polish team Piotr Pawlus and Tomasz Wolski “W.Ukrainie” (Forum): a bitter but at the same time serene look at the destruction of the country and what it triggers among the people. Neither interviews nor voice-over – perhaps that’s why it brings you so close to the people in the scenes of destruction as they argue at the food bank, operate their cell phones or bring food to abandoned dogs in the villages. In Sean Penn’s “Superpower” (Special Gala), the focus is on President Selenskij’s message and its effect not only on Sean Penn; this is a mission, and that’s all you can expect here.  

It’s amazing how some of the films in this year’s competition deal with images of men. In “Shadowless Tower” by Zhang Lu (Competition, China), a melancholic man goes in search of his lost creativity. Gu, formerly a poet, is now a food blogger, his child lives with his sister and his marriage is divorced. The young, unconventional photographer who accompanies him could well show him a way. But although they encounter their respective pasts in the same place, they don’t really meet: he is fixated on the story of his unjustly disowned father, while she remembers her childhood in an orphanage, and neither is able to open up. The Chinese director finds a serene, almost floating rhythm and poetic, multifaceted images for the futility of the search, especially of the man who has settled into not having any more great demands and lives with the accusation of being too polite.

Ralphie, the protagonist in “Manodrome” (Competition) by South African director John Trengrove, on the other hand, has little idea of politeness; he goes to lift weights, has lost his job and is overwhelmed by his girlfriend’s pregnancy. When, through a friend, he becomes acquainted with a sect-like esoteric men’s association that demands and ritually rehearses the reclamation of masculinity, the fuse is set for a violent outburst that one watches with growing suspense. References to “Taxi Driver” are intentional, but unfortunately the film remains too much in clichés and misses the chance to trace the roots of misguided masculinity more precisely and to find suitable images for it. Nevertheless, interesting connections can be made between these two films from countries with very different histories – the fatherlessness, the lack of perspective, the disinterest of society. In one case the explosion, in the other the quiet resignation. 

A juxtaposition of Margarete von Trotta’s story about Max Frisch and Ingeborg Bachmann “Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert” and Celine Song’s debut film “Past Lives” (both Competition) allows us to see how different generations of female filmmakers deal with couples and their history. Von Trotta’s film, a co-production of four countries, tells the story of the love affair between two great writers in flashbacks, and focuses on Bachmann’s trip to the desert after their painful separation. Elaborate images, great emotions, which nevertheless leave a slight uneasiness, because the roles are distributed too clichéd: here the stuffy man, there the brave but sensitive woman, and that in too striking, over-staged images. The emotional desert that Bachmann’s journey is supposed to represent remains hidden, and the film misses the  dialogue with the past of its protagonist.

What one loses when one leaves, on the other hand, Celine Song’s film “Past Lives” deals with in a uniquely understated and accurate way, and her own story plays a role in it without foregrounding itself. Young Na’s first life ends when her parents emigrate to Canada and the girl leaves behind boyfriend Hae Sung in Seoul. Twelve years later, they both find each other on Facebook, but it is another twelve years before they meet in New York. Nora, as she is now called, is married to writer Arthur and made a career as a successful playwright. What happens when paths cross once again, those of the old life and those of the new, is shown in the film in a tender and thoughtful way, about a woman who explores the hole in her soul and the early loss and has no easy answer even for the unlived possibilities.

I would hardly have thought it possible to follow a documentary film in a gynecological hospital for almost three hours and to follow pregnancy consultations, in vitro fertilizations, births and operations in a spellbound manner. Claire Simon’s documentary “Notre Corps” (Forum) ensures after only a few minutes that you no longer look away, so attentively and empathetically does she look with her camera at the women, and likewise at the people who advise and treat them, doing their best without appearing as demigods. Human beings with their delicate, mortal bodies captivate the viewers of this film, and the closeness that the camera creates allows for one’s own empathy at every moment. The director never takes sides, but is present with her own person, and when she is confronted with a cancer diagnosis in the middle of the film and has to undergo chemotherapy, she is as much a part of this great round of women as the viewers are. For all of them, it is a matter of preserving their dignity and physical inviolability in this dependent situation, and Simon sometimes succeeds in creating quiet images reminiscent of paintings by Vermeer. In the director’s concern to take each individual woman and her story seriously, her film becomes a celebration of life, hope and self-evident help.

The vulnerability of bodies – in documentaries dealing with Iran, they are the focus in a completely different way: Mehran Tamadon’s documentary “Where God is Not” (Forum) meticulously reconstructed their experiences of torture in Paris with three opponents of the regime. Trauma and pain re-enacted, tiny cells for many people, a torture bed, a kind of coffin with which the tortured reveal their wounds. Those who go into exile have not left Iran behind. The film “Seven Winters in Tehran” (Perspektive German Films) criticizes sexualized violence against women in Iran, the “right to blood revenge” and legal arbitrariness. It sets memory against forgetting. With letters and diaries of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a student executed in Iran, guiding through the film, Steffi Niederzoll’s film sets a memorial to her. But Jafar Panahi says in “And, towards happy Alleys” (Panorama), after all, protest can save critical filmmakers from worse, and the Berlinale has made that its own this year as well.

Lore Kleinert