Thursday, March 3, 2011

Berlin Film Festival Report (Part Two)

The concluding part of Peter Walsh's report from Berlin.

The only major British film in competition was actor-turned-director Ralph Fiennes’ modern dress adaptation of Shakespeare’s late tragedy Coriolanus. My schedule was tight, with barely enough time to see Coriolanus and catch the next screening. Annoyingly, my plans were thwarted by one of those interminable awards ceremonies staged immediately before the screening. The festival was honouring Young European Talent, which was all very admirable, but this unwelcome distraction droned on for a full hour and didn’t put me in the best mood for seeing just over half of Fiennes’ film. I can’t honestly judge the film on that basis, but I can say that it gets off to a disastrous start. It’s not the modern setting that’s the problem, but Fiennes’ decision to mount the piece as an incredibly aggressive, loud and action-packed war movie set, I presume, in 1990s Belgrade and filmed like a hyped-up Paul Greengrass thriller, with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s giddy camerawork attempting to look like raw news reportage. More a disorientating mess than anything else, with Shakespeare’s words barely audible beneath the sound of explosions and special effects, I doubt if the film could ever recover from these early miscalculations. In fairness, though, I should add that the complete Coriolanus was well received by the British press.


Two British films that did impress me were Richard Ayoade’s Submarine and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, both screening in Berlin’s catch-all Panorama section and already boasting great reviews from Sundance. The most surprising and attractive of these two feature directorial debuts is Ayoade’s delightful Submarine. It’s based on Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel about a precocious Swansea teenager who’s often described as a cross between Holden Caulfield and Adrian Mole. Obsessed with dictionary definitions and losing his virginity, Oliver (Craig Roberts) chases classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) whilst trying to save his parents’ crumbling marriage. The witty, self-depreciating Ayoade, who is best known as a comic actor in TV’s The IT Crowd, clearly identifies with his youthful protagonist and shows quite extraordinary skill in telling his story. He’s clearly aware of the American tradition of youth movies (everything from The Graduate to Rushmore), but his main source of inspiration is the French New Wave of the 1960s. Nouvelle vague tropes abound in Submarine, ranging from Jean-Luc Godard-style titles to some lovely references to the music of François Truffaut’s favourite composer, Georges Delerue. It’s refreshing to see a young British director show such appreciation of other cinematic traditions and Ayoade is clearly a talent to watch.


One of Submarine’s incidental pleasures is a very funny turn by Paddy Considine as a new-age motivational speaker and old flame of the hero’s mum. There are few laughs in actor-turned-director Considine’s Tyrannosaur, an expansion to feature length of his 2007 short Dog Altogether. This is a heavy yet surprisingly affecting study of the horrendous consequences of male violence. Peter Mullan plays a tormented soul whose pent-up anger explodes at the slightest provocation. A widower and alcoholic, he prowls around the mean streets of Leeds before taking refuge in a charity shop run by a Christian woman who may offer him some form of redemption. “It’s nice to see Peter Mullan trying something different,” quipped a friend after the screening. One takes the point, but the surprise here is not Mullan’s excellent performance but that of Olivia Colman (mainly known for her comic TV roles), who is astonishing as Mullan’s would-be saviour with a big secret of her own. Tyrannosaur is more than another slice of British miserabilism. Its sense of theatrical contrivance and a shocking plot twist work to its advantage and keep the audience on its toes.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Two of the giants of New German Cinema of the 1970s returned to Berlin this year with documentaries shot in 3D. Many cineastes and critics hate the modern craze for 3D movies, but I was curious to see what such distinctive auteurs as Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and Wim Wenders (Pina) would make of the process. Herzog was given privileged access to the Chauvet Caves in Southern France, which house some of the world’s oldest rock drawings. Given a number of severe restrictions in terms of equipment and personnel, the director decided to build his own small 3D cameras in order to capture a more accurate picture of the art works and their environment. The results are always engaging and frequently stunning. Even without the use of 3D, the project was ideally suited to Herzog, whose sense of wonder at the history of the caves and their contents is matched by his sense of amusement at the oddities of human behaviour. Herzog seems to find eccentrics wherever he points his camera, and highlights here include a scientist who reveals that he was once a circus performer and another who provides a very funny demonstration of how prehistoric man used crude spears to kill horses. “Prehistoric man must have been better at this than you are,” muses Herzog, who even goes on to find a nuclear power station and some radioactive albino alligators nestling in close proximity to the precious caves.


Wim Wenders says that 3D provided the inspiration for him to make Pina, a lovely tribute to the late, great German choreographer Pina Bausch. Wenders had been a fan of Bausch for years but didn’t think he could do justice to her work until he discovered the wonders of digital 3D technology, which “affords audiences a chance to appreciate the geometry of bodies in motion in a very palpable way.” And sure enough, the sense of depth and space generated by 3D proves crucial to the success of Wenders’ film, most of which is devoted to performances of Bausch’s most famous works, including Café Müller, The Rite of Spring, Vollmond and Kontakthof. The dramatic physicality of Bausch’s pieces works very well on screen and the staging, whether in the confines of a theatre or in the great outdoors, is often spectacularly beautiful. Wenders is not as good a documentarist as Herzog, and his film provides too little background information about his subject. Still, with his last fiction film (2008’s truly awful Palermo Shooting) causing Sight & Sound editor Nick James to suggest that Wenders should retire, the warm response to Pina (including a rave review from the same Nick James in The Observer) suggests that he may have a future as a filmmaker after all.

I’ve never had much faith in film festival juries, and Berlin doesn’t have a good record for awarding the best films. Last year’s winner of the Golden Bear was Honey, a minor Turkish art movie that created little impression beyond the festival. Then there is the case of José Padilha’s dubious Brazilian police drama Elite Squad, which was the inexplicable winner in 2008. Pointedly, Padilha’s follow-up, imaginatively titled Elite Squad 2, turned up at Berlin this year, but it was relegated to the Panorama section despite being a better movie than the original. It’s all the more surprising, then, that this year’s Berlin jury, headed by actress and director Isabella Rossellini, actually got it right when handing out the main prizes. I somehow managed to miss the Golden Bear winner, Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian family drama Nader and Simin, A Separation, but it was a favourite with the critics and by all accounts a very worthy winner.

The Turin Horse

The second main prize, a Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear, went to the great Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr for The Turin Horse, which was the one new masterpiece I saw at Berlin. Tarr’s dauntingly rigorous work, with its minimalist settings and incredibly elaborate long takes, is not to everyone’s taste. Yet he is a true visionary and one of the great stylists of post-war European art cinema. His towering masterwork is 1994’s Sátántangó, a seven-and-a-half hour allegory of social disintegration. The Turin Horse is not quite in that league, but it’s still one of Tarr’s finest and at a mere two-and-half hours, a relatively comfortable watch. It begins with an anecdote about the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was appalled to witness the whipping of a horse whilst visiting Turin. He tried but failed to save the animal, after which the great man was diagnosed with a serious mental illness that made him speechless for the next eleven years of his life.

Tarr’s film is not exactly about Nietzsche or his trauma. It might be seen as a fictional account of the subsequent experiences of that abused horse, which in the film is owned by a farmer and his daughter who live in abject poverty on the Hungarian plains. This is another of Tarr’s allegories in which human existence is pared down to its barest essentials, with man’s battle against nature assuming apocalyptic dimensions. The weather is relentless, with constant wind and rain, and one wonders how Tarr achieved some of his effects without the use of digital technology, which would be anathema to this director. One thinks of Samuel Beckett in terms of the basic dramatic set-up in The Turin Horse, but the film’s real artistry is in its staging, or rather its mise-en-scène. Shot in beautifully austere black and white and in a mere thirty or so shots by regular Tarr collaborator Fred Kelemen, the film is an extraordinary visual experience. It probably has the most elaborate use ever of the moving camera. I thought that much of this was achieved with the use of the Steadicam device, but cinematographer Fred Kelemen has corrected me and said that most of the moving shots were achieved with the use of a dolly.

The Turin Horse is often reminiscent of silent cinema and belongs to a privileged little group of movies — one thinks of Eric von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), of Lev Kuleshov’s Dura Lex (1926), of Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) — which have managed to portray, with absolute credibility and conviction, the gradual erosion of the human soul by a hostile environment.
Peter Walsh
Cinema Manager

The Future has a UK/Irish distributor and will be released here later this year.
Coriolanus has a UK/Irish distributor but no release date at present.
Submarine opens at the IFI on March 18th.
Tyrannosaur is scheduled for release in October.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens at the IFI on March 25th.
Pina opens at the IFI on April 22nd.
Nader and Simin, A Separation has been bought for UK/Irish distribution but has no release date.
The Turin Horse has no UK/Irish distributor at present.

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