The New Guide to Hell

in 66th Berlin International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

The Berlinale has always given a nod to the younger generation and films suitable for young audiences has been an increasing part of the program here, particularly in the Generation and Generation Expanded section. Also, short films by new and talented hopefuls have easily assimilated themselves alongside the features. In this year’s Generation K Plus section, the German-Vietnamese feature entry Fortune Favors the Brave (ENTE GUT! Mädchen allein zu Haus) concerns two young Vietnamese girls who are suddenly left to fend for themselves, but this involuntary freedom causes them to worry about being discovered by the authorities. With engaging direction and naturalized acting, it makes for a quality account of vulnerable children.

However, it was one memorable film in the Panorama section which caused an instant ripple and stayed long in the memory after its screening. Shelley is a Danish-Swedish production by Iranian born director Ali Abbasi. The eerie premise has shots of a beautiful and secluded landscape where conventionally appearing but strange acting married couple Louise and Kasper live in isolation by a lake and in close contact with nature. They forego all the modern appliances (no electricity or mobile phone reception, only one telephone) to live a retro-traditional eco-friendly lifestyle. A young Romanian called Elena has come to Denmark for a year to earn enough money to enjoy a better life when she goes back home. Her POV shots from the back seat of the car as she is being driven down a long desolate road to the wooden house, where she will be a home helper for the married couple, introduces a disturbing trajectory.

Occasionally Elena is allowed to use the house telephone to call her young son who is growing up with her parents. Louise, meanwhile, is very weak and traumatized; she has just suffered a miscarriage and can no longer have children. One day she offers a pact with Elena to act as a surrogate mother and give birth to Louise’s child, for which she will be handsomely paid. Elena agrees but the embryo that has been placed in her womb begins to grow far too quickly and therefore tensions ensue between the two women with dark forces start to take over the atmosphere and the lives of the three-four people. After the birth, a real and original slant on horror is created by the director in this renowned genre format. Though the title alludes to the classic book and later horror film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Dir.Kenneth Branagh, 1994) and a certain nod to The Exorcist (Dir. William Friedkin, 1973), the isolation and dark atmosphere is akin to the very possible imminent human self-destruction that is found in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1985), where humans and nature are enveloped by an inexorable evil, only in Shelley the almost complicit passivity means there is no reaching out to a divine power.

After publishing several short stories in Persian, Ali Abbasi travelled to Europe in 2002 and studied architecture at the Royal Academy of Science in Stockholm. In 2007 he began to study film directing at the National Film School of Denmark. He graduated in 2011 and has since made three short films. Shelley is his first feature.

A world removed from the supernatural horror of Shelley, the German entry 24 Weeks (24 Wochen) played in the main competition. In contrast to the remote regions of Denmark, it brings us to a typical German town, but the subsequent horrors are a realization of everyone’s fears as parents. Astrid and Mark are a successful entertainment duo. She is a stand-up comedian of a very humorous and risqué adult nature and he is her manager. They are also very content, have a nine-year-old daughter and are expecting their second child. Astrid’s widowed mother is very fussy but also always on hand to help, so giving even greater security to her life.

Bad news comes suddenly in that they learn their child will not be born healthy. Bravely, they are optimistic of facing this problem but reality kicks in and closer to the date Astrid begins to look at the future of their unborn child as well as her family and career, the latter more complicated as she is in the eye of the public and media. Highly charged levels of trauma induced soul-searching subsequently follows Astrid and her family as she has to make some very hard decisions regarding her unborn child, something which either way will affect the rest of her life.

The direction and acting in this very engaging melodrama is top class and never sentimental or implausible, while also managing to avoid any artistic choice of fly-on-the-wall documentary like realism in its depiction. Director Anne Zohra Berrached’s second feature comes after Two Mothers (Zwei Mutter) which screened in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section of the Berlinale in 2013 and, like that film, it centers on the female protagonist, her moral dilemmas and subsequent decisions.

Also in the main competition this year, Midnight Special was paradoxically one of those high-profile films deemed too commercial so not appropriate for an award so played out of competition. Director Jeff Nichols is also a director whose debut film (Shotgun Stories (2007) had played at the Berlinale. This, his fourth film and using Michael Shannon as protagonist for a third time, was of particularly interest as it was the first time the independent director had made a film backed by major studio funding. While retaining the acting style typical of many new and young directors these days, namely the long takes focusing on characters thoughts and sparse dialogue as a (presumed) aim of building up tension and suspense, along with no use of famous actors, the conspicuous change is in the special effects which underline the bigger budget.

As for the film, it disappoints really. It’s like a Stephen King made for TV spectacle on the supernatural and American paranoia, with a nod back to the 1950s anti-Communist propaganda, only here it is the paranoia within. Sure, the boy has extraordinary powers and is the most interesting aspect of the film and it’s understandable why archconservative American are on his tail, but is still creates a feeling of “So What?” and the feeling that this has been done better before. Also, on this occasion, the blending of family saga and science fiction seems to jar. What will be interesting though is to see how Jeff Nichols follows this and if more financial backing will lead him into mediocrity or the loss of carte blanche.

Steven Yates