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Faith/Off, By Andrei Kartashov
It takes some audacity to make an adaptation of the New Testament. To parallel the story of a modern teenage girl to the life of Jesus takes even more. Dietrich Brüggemann's Stations Of The Cross (Kreuzweg, Germany) borrows its title from a traditional genre of Roman Catholic iconography that depicts Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, then his crucifixion and burial, in 14 episodes. Brüggemann's film contains the same number of scenes, and follows trials and tribulations of an extremely religious and boldly named Maria who belongs to a traditional Catholic society, abused at home for not being chaste enough and bullied at school for being too chaste. In the first scene she gives a vow to sacrifice her life for the sake of her sick little brother's well-being. She will succeed (this is hardly a spoiler since we all know the ending of the Gospels).
Having borrowed the structure from iconography, Brüggemann also adopts from cinematic tradition when it comes to imagery and mise-en-scène. The stillness of camera and the implacable lengthiness of shots are, with little doubt, influenced by Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose name has become synonymous with spiritual cinema. Like in Dreyer's œuvre, every sequence consists of only one shot, further developing a resemblance to painting. However, if the great Dane was building theodicy with visual rigour, Brüggemann is polemicizing.
From its first scene where a young priest delivers a monologue on satanic temptations, Stations Of The Cross looks like an angry satire of religious fundamentalism – a rather toothless one too, since it's easy to make fun of bigots – before making a twist in the penultimate chapter where we witness an authentic miracle. Christian zealots are the new Pharisees? Perhaps, but this effort to keep a foot in both celestial and earthly worlds, and simultaneously criticise fanaticism and glorifying God with his inscrutable ways, results in the film's failure to stand on the ground at all. When in the last shot the always still camera suddenly starts moving, and in an intricate pirouette pans to the blue sky, it is still hard to be convinced that someone is actually there.
Academy Award-nominated screenwriter James Schamus, best known for his work with Ang Lee, took the stage during the special session "Once Upon a Time: How to Start a Film" for Berlinale Talents on Sunday to discuss why working with Lee is always one of his greatest challenges. Apparently, the Taiwanese-born American director always asks Schamus the "most annoying single question" that a director could ask his screenwriter. And that question is: "Why?"
"Once you get into a story, it's pretty much the last thing you want to do, to ask that kind of question, because we're involved with the characters and where they're going, with plotting, and it becomes a bit of an engineering problem", Schamus said. "But really it is an incredible mandate to feel as if there is some reason why we're doing what we're doing. Yes, so it is annoying."
Schamus, who is the head of this year's Berlinale's International Jury, attended the event along with fellow jurors, French filmmaker Michel Gondry and American actress and screenwriter Greta Gerwig. Schamus is inarguably one of the most significant people in Lee's film career. He wrote the script of Lee's 1993 Golden Bear Winner The Wedding Banquet, as well as screenplays for Lee's 2007 sensual thriller Lust, Caution and the 2000 wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Schamus also produced Lee's 2005 epic romance Brokeback Mountain, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
"A lot of Hollywood is immigrated culture", Schamus said, when asked about what it is like to work with Lee, whose cultural background is very different from his. "But it was interesting especially when we went over to England to make Sense And Sensibility ... constantly people would be asking you: 'Wow, how did this Chinese guy make a Jane Austin movie?' There really were two responses. One was, 'Well, white guys make movies like FLOWER DRUM SONG,' or whatever. And the other one was very simple: 'He's really good.'"
Among the films on which he worked with Lee, Lust, Caution remains Schamus' favorite. When asked by one of the Talents participants why the film focused on "sexual romance over politics", Schamus said he disagrees with the assumption completely. "Sex is the politics", he said. "That Chinese woman's character doing that, saying the things that came out of her mouth – that kind of radical concept of female sexuality that opposes every political, patriarchal order that is being pushed down on her... to me that's the essence of the movie."
52 TUESDAYS (Australia), running in Berlinale Generation, opens with a medium shot of Billie, a 16-year old Australian girl, shooting the gender transition of her mother and also her own internal process, where sexual experimentation and a strange three-way relationship with friends gives way to a path to independence and maturity. There is dexterity and intention in her video, something deeply personal and almost dangerous for a girl her age, but done with courage and determination. The film is both a testimonial art project and a coming of age experience.
Ironically, the limits of 52 TUESDAYS are exactly the opposite of the experimental film made by its protagonist. We don't see the whole final result; we catch a glimpses of Billie's project. This very personal style of filmmaking, obviously a merit of Hyde's, is completely drowned in the context of a light comedy, a film about the 52 week period in which Billie's mother becomes a man. Not to say that everything is a complete comedic meltdown: the intentions of the film-inside-the-film work perfectly, and even the transitions from day to day shows us snapshots of different world events (reminiscent of Godard's late video essays) in a recount of the 52 Tuesdays the mother and daughter spend together.
There is some diligence in Hyde's treatment of such a controversial topic, but you can only sugar coat something so far before it's over sweet, and difficult to swallow. The film crosses the line between a sort of experimental intellectual comedy-drama (Miranda July comes to mind) and just a halfhearted film that lacks ambition. With such a delicate topic, you either show all your cards or none.
Maybe Hyde should have re-examined her thinking in the experimental film-inside-the-film to find a more unique angle. Until then, crowd-pleaser comedies will come and go, and so too will this film.
Maximilian Leo and his production partner Jonas Katzenstein met at a festival five years ago and soon after began developing the script for MY BROTHER'S KEEPER. The first film screening at Berlinale Talents, it was met by a warm welcome from a room full of this year's crop.
Visually the film is striking, but its tonally unsettling. Deadpan dialogue and lengthy pauses that are so often the mark of black comedy are present, but the depravity of its central characters makes laughter an unnerving response.
Brothers Gregor (Sebastian Zimmler) and Pietschi (Robert Finster) share very little in common but meet up annually to go sailing. When Pietschi disappears Gregor's curiosity leads him to a sexually violent relationship with Jule (Nadja Bobyleva). Trying to fill a void, Gregor moves beyond his safety zone with dangerous results.
Interspersed throughout the film are abstracted memories of Pietschi; photographs and home video break up the aesthetic in a way that suggests memory is often a burden. The result is a trifle self-indulgent but it works well enough against Leo's alternating seedy red wash and heavy blue colour palette.
Following the screening Leo and Katzenstein were enthusiastically welcomed to the stage. Proud to have their film presented at the Berlinale – one of sixty-two in this year's programme to be made by past years' Talents – the pair grinned as they answered questions about their rewarding journey from idea to big screen.
The questions were clearly from young filmmakers: "How long did it take from script to screen?", "Where was it shot?" and "How much did production come in at?". Their "quick and fast" production moved from first draft to screen in just three years, was shot in Cologne and had a budget of 800,000 Euros.
On one side of Potsdamer Street people crowd in front of the hotel to see George Clooney walking out of the building. The red carpet nearby leads to Berlinale Palast, which hosts prominent international premieres. But arguably, the biggest event of the first Sunday of the festival is the one being held down the street at the Berlin Philharmonic, which replaced glamour and novelty with something even more spectacular, the restored version of the classic film, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI, Germany).
Can anyone possibly say anything new about this film that's considered the most influential in German cinematography and a milestone in the horror genre? Well, you might say that it wouldn't have been that successful upon its release in 1920 if John Zorn, composer of the score for the Berlinale's premiere of the newly restored version, had composed the music at the time. Motion pictures had just started to acquire the ability to scare the wits out of viewers. I can imagine that the reaction to THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI must have been strong in 1920, and if Zorn had been the pianist during those early screenings, the movie might have been banned so as not to cause panic attacks or destroy viewers' nervous systems.
After a brief introduction, Zorn stepped onto the stage and sat in front of the organ, just as a silent-film musician would have done at the beginning of the 20th century – only Zorn removed his shoes. What's more, an early 20th century organist wouldn't have been surrounded by giant speakers and wouldn't have had four keyboards at his disposal, in order to play different motifs at the same time. Zorn made use of the organ, which was a key to the success of CALIGARI's modern score. Even in that score's peaceful moments, when the gentler tones took the lead, there was always something underneath, ready to explode in the viewers' ears when the story unfolding on the screen grew more dramatic. The tension of CALIGARI, perhaps harder to appreciate after almost a century of cinematic progress, is woken up, like Cesare the Somnambulist, bring the audience to the edge of their seats once again.
Zorn's music fits the story perfectly – bizarre and enhancing the peculiarity of the picture. Out of key, piercing, and raising anxiety, it sounds like a church tune performed by a devilish choir. The score emphasizes the film's best feature from the point of view of a modern movie-goer, that is, its artificiality. Zorn's music filled the characters' eyes with exaggerated terror, again bringing life to the grotesque setting of trees and houses cut out of cardboard. The shards of sound are drilled into the viewers' perception like the blade of Dr. Caligari's mysterious, murderous sleepwalker.
Benjamin Heisenberg, German director of internationally acclaimed dramas SLEEPER (SCHLÄFER, 2005) and THE ROBBER (DER RÄUBER, 2010), presents his latest feature film SUPEREGOS (ÜBER-ICH UND DU, Germany) in this year's Berlinale Panorama. SUPEREGOS is a dramatic buddy-movie with strong elements of irony and farce, a departure from Heisenberg's usual, more serious approach.
Nick Gutlicht (Georg Friedrich) is a middle-aged used book dealer, who owes money to local gangsters. He accidentally becomes a chaperon to the elderly theoretical psychologist Curt Ledig (André Wilms), who is torn with guilt over his involvement in the Nazi-regime. Although these two resist friendship at the start, each holds the key to solving the other's problems, a realization that dawns on them gradually. The protagonists seem completely different at first. Nick is relatively young and comes from a working-class family. He doesn't read books, he just sells them. He is also an escapist, unwilling to think about his debts. Curt is an elderly middle-class intellectual, observant and smart but unhealthily fixated on traumas from his past. But as the story progresses, Nick begins to show a fear of being in the kitchen, which is one of Curt's phobias; he also develops an eye twitch just like Curt's. Similarly, Curt becomes more motivated to break through the constraints of his life. Heisenberg presents those similarities visually, but the characters also state them verbally, which is unnecessary.
It's not hard to conclude that Curt and Nick represent two types of German identity: one that is old, traumatized and guilt-ridden due to its National Socialist past and one that is young, future-oriented and money-driven. Ultimately, they are two sides of the same coin, an idea that's cleverly indicated with a rich array of symbols including a white cat that keeps finding ways to sneak into Nick's presence and a paper cat on a shelf in Curt's office.
The plot revolves around these two "egos," and the film bears a strong sociopolitical message, but its style is unpretentious, ironic and visually pleasing, and Heisenberg leaves the end somewhat open. He suggests to the audience that in today's Germany, psychological issues that force people to behave in certain ways may never be resolved, and certain moral discussions will never be concluded because what really matters to most people is plain old criminally derived money.