Tormented Childhood

in 64th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Hauvick Habechian


If there was an omnipresent theme at this year’s Berlinale, it was tormented childhood: children who pay the price for the rashness, neglect and fighting of adults. Dieter Kosslick flagged this in a pre-festival interview, saying that this year’s program was going to be full of children. In a dozen films, children and adolescents are situated at the heart of political and social interaction, moral and economic meltdown. Many films expressed concerns about the future: about humanity as a whole in light of current circumstances (war, rejection of values, deterioration of living conditions). This was expressed through the attention given to children who suffer abandonment, homelessness and poor education, even in countries where human rights laws exist. The trend is understandable, since a child is a helpless human being who can convey the idea of powerlessness.

A large number of movies in competition featured children; even if they played supporting or minor roles, their presence was meaningful. Childhood is a theme in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (the opening film which won the Jury Grand Prize), Benjamin Naishtat’s History of Fear (one of the weakest films in competition), Sudabeh Mortezai’s Macondo, Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross, Lou Ye’s Blind Massage, Claudia Llosa’s Aloft, Edward Berger’s Jack, and especially in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which won the Silver Bear for best director. These movies look at childhood as a phase during which people are shaped, where every detail contributes to the formation of identity, morals and core self.

Half of the aforementioned films will fall into oblivion sooner or later, but this is not the case with Boyhood, which is based on an exceptional experience. Linklater (Fast Food Nation, Before Sunset) follows a boy (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of eight until twenty, navigating him through a decade of American politics, from the collapse of the Twin Towers to the global efforts to bring Obama into the White House. Linklater started shooting the film in 2002, witnessing the stages of intellectual, psychological and physical growth of his young protagonist.

The film kicks off with a scene with the boy’s mother, who is keen on teaching him life’s essentials, and ends with the protagonist leaving behind his teen years and having his life prospects in front of him. The film is set in Texas and is relatively long (164 minutes), but this gives it a sense of place; the movie has an unusual dose of realism. The film won the admiration of critics, despite the fact that children in the US tend have good care taken of them, by their parents and the community.

Another film dealing with being a victim of childhood was Stations of the Cross, one of the strongest contenders to win the Golden Bear and a movie bound to raise controversy on release. Bruggemann’s fourth film is the story of a fundamentalist Catholic family which drives one of its daughters, Maria (Lea van Acken), to a life of suffering, oppression, piety and continuous prayer through the practice of harsh religious rites, as well as refraining from anything which might tempt one into sin. Fed on these ideas, the girl is led to believe that sacrifice for the sake of Jesus is the noblest path she can take and the only choice that would give meaning to her life.

You can imagine what happens next — and the film does end in tragedy, pain and death. With utter absurdity, blind faith overcomes the chaste and innocent daughter. But Maria is the victim of the radical ideology she’s been brainwashed with, one that regards music as evil, pleasure as sin, and life as merely a sacrifice for the crucified. The film is divided by the number of stations that Christ crossed on his way to the Calvary, all portrayed by Bruggemann with a coldness that is at times reminiscent of Ulrich Seidl and at other times of Michael Haneke. The camera moves only when it is utterly necessary, and the film is frugal in emotions and resources, which gives the movie greater impetus. Strangely, the film won the prize of the Ecumenical Jury — perhaps a way for those in charge of this award to express their rejection of an obsolete faith.

The third notable child of the Berlinale was the title character of Jack, played by the gentle Ivo Pietzcker. The movie gained attention for its cinematic style, which is close to that of the Dardenne brothers. The film’s social concerns are obvious and its approach is straightforward and harsh. Jack is ten years old and raised by a single mother who doesn’t care much for him, working during the day and going out at night. Jack is responsible for himself and his brother Manuel, which gives him a sense of pride. After an incident in which he gets the blame, Jack is placed in a boarding school, where he suffers from loneliness and exclusion. He badly wants his mother and only feels comfortable and at ease in her arms, although she finds excuses to keep him away from her.

Jack is the spiritual brother of Ramasan, the protagonist of the film Macondo. Ramasan lives in a refugee camp in Vienna. This boy will find out, day after day, what it means to be a Chechen in a country like Austria. He is the son of a man who was killed on the frontline of war with Russia. Left only with a working mother who lacks time to take care of him, the boy is thrown into educational and emotional neglect. What we follow are his constant attempts to determine his relationship with his surroundings and to amend what can be amended. However, despite the fact that he strives to develop a personal sense of responsibility, dignity and ethics, he falls into the world of theft and his consequences. In the new reality he finds himself in, he is incapable of answering the questions he asks himself.

Edited by Lesley Chow