Kosslick's Twin Triumphs

in 53rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Derek Malcolm

Dieter Kosslick’s second Berlinale produced two especially good things — a competition which was the best for some years and the Talent Campus initiative which proved by its success that it is possible for film festivals to do something else other than merely showing films. 500 students from all over the world were invited to the Campus, courtesy of sponsors who included the heavily criticised British Film Council. And if nothing else, they found it intriguing to meet each other and compare notes in what is often a very isolated, money-oriented profession.

Of course, there was something else too. A whole bevy of the great and the good in the film world came to talk to them and the sessions were never patronising. The pitfalls of film-making were securely laid out by the producers, directors, technicians and actors who took part. No student could possibly have come away without feeling that they knew a bit more than when they arrived in Berlin. There was only one small lack. No critic was asked to speak to them — and they should surely know a little of how the press works and how to make the most of their opportunities with the media, and the written media in particular.

But to the competition. As one of those asked by Screen International to hand out stars for the competition entries, I counted no less than nine films which could be accounted genuinely good if only two I found excellent. That about summed it up. There were plenty of very watchable films but not many one would like to call masterpieces. But then masterpieces are in short supply today and besides it is very difficult to discern them immediately. You need to be able to look back from a less close distance.

My two excellent candidates were not those about which everybody thought the same way. Some found Stephen Daldry’s The Hours well made and well acted by decidedly middlebrow. Some thought the whole mythologizing of Virginia Woolf had gone too far. But, while I dreaded watching The Hours before I went in, suspecting Oscar and Golden Globe ridden hyperbole, I left admiring the deft way Daldry and David Hare had managed to adapt the book by Michael Cunningham which looked as if no one could do it satisfactorily. The performances were fine even if one ignored the likely accuracy or not of Nicole Kidman’s heavily publicised false nose. But, just as importantly, the whole film matched them.

The other competition entry which struck me as outstanding was Spike Jonze’s Adaptation which not only had a brilliant double performance from Nicolas Cage, an actor I don’t always appreciate, but was marvellous about the whole difficult process of writing for the screen and the desperate nature of satisfying those who want you to be popular and financially viable as well. Jonze is clearly an imaginative and audacious new director on the otherwise rather flabby American scene, and one can easily forgive the film’s flaws because of the risks it takes successfully.

Before the Berlinale started, the presence of three German films in the competition seemed likely to be excessive. Who would have thought, then, that two of them would be among the best of the rest? But Hans-Christian Schmid’s Distant Lights, very accurately set on the Polish-German border and dealing with the flotsam who arrive and depart or those who actually live there in a highly observant yet sympathetic way, was well worth its Fipresci prize.

As President of that particular jury I would just as happily have given Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin the prize not only because comedies never seem to be seriously considered (even though they are even more difficult to make than effective dramas) but also because this portrait of a family surviving the fall of the Berlin Wall by pretending it never happened for the sake of their mother was pertinent as well as funny.

There were, of course, disappointments as well as surprises. I disliked Spike Lee’s 25th Hour not because it was badly made but because its portrait of a drug-dealer on his way to prison relapsed into errant sentimentalism at the end after telling me nothing I wanted to know about New York and its seedier denizens. George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was also disappointingly fractured—trying to be too clever with what was a good story had it been told straighter. And both Claude Chabrol and Steven Soderbergh came up with dull pieces which didn’t work in The Flower of Evil and Solaris.

The first looked as if Chabrol was half asleep telling his story and the second made Tarkovsky’s problematical precursor look like a solid masterpiece. Nor did I like Zhang Yimou’s expensive and expansive Hero much. If he was trying to add another dimension to the martial arts picture, like Ang Lee managed with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he succeeded only in making me feel that King Hu’s A Touch of Zen was a thousand times better as far as imaginative film-making was concerned.

The other pleasures certainly included Moussa Sene Absa’s uneven but lively Madame Brouette, from Senegal, Li Yang’s impressively downbeat Blind Shaft from China, Slovenia’s creditable Spare Parts from Damjan Kozole and Yoji Yamada’s realist and socially conscious Samurai epic, The Twilight Samurai, from Japan. I also liked Michael Winterbottom’s In This World which proved that you can make a digital movie that looks good rather than simply saying something important untidily. And Rolf de Heer, a director who never stops trying to subvert the norms of Australian cinema, was at least partially successful with his Alexandra’s Project, in which a woman strikes back at her self-satisfied husband in the only way she knows how.

In all, this was a good competition less full of mediocre films from known directors who have done better than is often the case at Berlin. Of course the real film buffs might say that nothing there could compete with the Murnau and Ozu retrospectives shown at the Berlinale this year. But it was probably inevitable that, compared with the great classics of the past like Sunrise and Tokyo Story, even The Hours and Adaptation looked like small beer.