French Optimism and other Highs and Lows

in 66th Berlin International Film Festival

by Lore Kleinert

The Artistry of French Cinema

Berlinale’s motto was the entitlement to happiness, and the four French movies in competition posed the question, what a good life does mean?, with possibilities of living in Europe and especially in France as measure of achieving it. They were friendly, reflective films taking that were well-structured. André Techiné’s film “Being 17” (Quand on a 17 ans)  tells the story of two very different boys on the verge of adulthood, drawing us close to their wavering world of emotions, without ever showing them up. How they find a way to each other and develop trust offers a deep insight into the problems of young people searching for their sexual and social identities. “Things To Come” (L’Avenir) by  Mia Hansen-Løve shows how the life of a married and not-so-young teacher of philosophy unravels when her husband leaves her and her children. Actress Isabelle Huppert makes the philosophical insights clash with the challenges of real life. With humour and without any sentimentality, the movie circles around the question of going on living. Also Dominik Moll’s film “News From Planet Mars” (Des Nouvelles de la Planète Mars) plays with the topic of collapsing certainties in modern times. Information specialist Philippe Mars (François Damiens), driven to the edge of his vast amount of goodwill by his children and almost everybody else, and he has to learn that, in chaos and anarchy, are more hidden ways to find into a better life than he presumed. And in the road movie “Saint Amour”, by the directors Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, three desolate men find a way back into life via the credo of main actor Gerard Dépardieu – that you have to know a lot of wine routes before knowing much about life itself. This comedy has a lot of affection for its characters, in spite of all their pathetic silliness. Actors with heartbreakingly good skills, important little stories, directorial craftsmanship at its best and a long tradition of filmmaking which is worth referring to – all this is the mystery of these movies, which formed the solid centre of this year’s competition, enriching this section and which stand for optimism on behalf of the worth of European values in difficult times.

Germany now and then

There are a lot of liquids in the German competition film “24 Weeks” (24 Wochen)  by young director Anne Zohra Berrached – rain, showers and amniotic fluids. They have obviously implanted with the purpose of adding significance but not all that necessary, as the conflict of a young couple as they set about delivering their very ill unborn child is impressive enough in itself. Astrid is a successful comedian, played by Julia Jentsch as a woman who is both strong and vulnerable, and who ultimately stands alone with the decision about the life or death of the embryo. Bjarne Mädel, a comedy actor, plays his part as thoughtful father with distinction. This movie provokes a lot of emotions as well as inviting debate about the right to live, which considers – besides the too frequent use of liquids as stylistic devices – a story from real life worth telling. Nobody would expect that of a historical film, but even they do not work if they don’t present their stories truthfully. That I didn’t find in Vincent Perez’ “Alone In Berlin” (Jeder stirbt für sich allein), adapted from Hans Fallada’s novel, which was promoted with €5 million in Germany. It follows the true story of a working class couple in Berlin, who protested with handwritten postcards against Hitler during the war. Despite the outstanding actors, Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, the makeup and scenery dominates, not to speak about the rather clumsy presentation in German-accented English. In my opinion, the movie was sentimental and corny – sob story stuff by a young director who has found no way to an historical truth.

Europe as place of longing and of deception

Europe is a relevant point of reference for the two movies I liked best this year’s Competition section: Mohamed Ben Attia’s first film “Hedi”, co-produced by the Dardenne director brothers, shares their subtle and true approach to a subject. Young Tunesian Hedi (Majd Mastoura, who won the Silver Bear) is trapped in a job he doesn’t like and bound to stumble into an arranged marriage. When he falls in love, he gets the chance to take control of his life, wherever it may lead him. This is a film about the conflicts of a generation without great chances in their own countries, bound to break out of tradition, and an allegory for all who have to find their way to happiness in a globalised world – mostly with Europe as an aspiration. Equally Bosnian director Danis Tanovic proceeds in a both realistic and allegoric way: his satirical movie “Death in Sarajevo” tells intertwining stories on the 100th anniversary of the death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. While an actor rehearses a text of the French philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy, heroically delivered in his hotel room, the European Union seems to be further away than ever. In his allegory, Tanovic fills his Hotel Europe with the expectation of doom and disaster, which can surely not be averted by striking against each other or by delivering turgid speeches. A European film at its best!

My personal high was the longest movie of the festival – but certainly not Lav Diaz’ film about the rebellion against Spanish colonial power in the Philippines  “A Lullaby of the Sorrowful Mystery” (Hele sa hiwagang hapis), which could neither find a rhythm for his story nor valid pictures of the people’s experiences. Despite its great topics of guilt and atonement, I asked myself why this movie was invited to the competition section as it renounces all the skills of filmmaking. Quite the contrary is true for the other very long film, Ulrike Ottinger’s documentary “Chamisso’s Shadow” (Chamissos Schatten), and every one of the 535 minutes is worth watching. Inspired by reports and logbooks of early travelers and captains along the Bering Strait, her journal shows how cultures collide and mingle, how the past and present touch each other. Her camera tells of the beauty of this far away part of the world as well as about the people living there, with great skill and understanding. She is supported by the voices of some of Germany’s best actors, Hans Zischler, Thomas Thieme and Burkhad Klaussner.  A Film with a wonderful rhythm, which casts a spell on anyone who sees it – and an artistic highlight Berlinale 2016 can be proud of.