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19/02/2007

Giving mediocrity a chance

This was certainly no banner year for the Berlinale. There were a handful of creditable, daring, self-assured films. Only these will be mentioned here. By Ekkehard Knörer

To begin with, one (last) word about "Bordertown", the competition film with which Jennifer Lopez goes in search of human rights credibility along the US-Mexican border. A laughable film, that was even clear to the critics who were ready to buy Sharon Stone in the role of the embittered housewife in "When a Man Falls in the Forest," otherwise the most abysmal of the competition entries. There can only be two reasons for the film's acceptance by the Berlin competition. The first is that those responsible were actually convinced it was worthy of the event. In that case, they lack even the remotest conception of the art of cinema. Or else they were aware of the baseness of this shoddy product, yet genuinely believed that the end (decrying horrific injustices) sanctifies any and every means. In that case, they have nothing but disdain for film as a medium.

But there's no need to choose between these alternatives. The cumulative effect of this year's competition makes it seem likely that both are the case. In its sixth year under Dieter Kosslick's direction, the Berlinale served up has-been superstars and a lobby for German private equity funds. With conspicuous enthusiasm it gave mediocrity a chance, flinging itself into the breach for boredom, lack of inspiration and conventionality. It displayed a yen for sleaze and for the big Hollywood productions that appeared in German cinemas during the festival. In the face of this disastrous situation, effected with utter single-mindedness through the years, one can only note in astonishment that even if there were no masterpieces, there were at least a handful of creditable, daring, self-assured films to be seen during the competition.

Li Yu's "Lost in Beijing" - which was threatened by censorship and screened at the press preview, perhaps only fortuitously, in a (virtually) uncensored version (with potential consequences for the director) - is something of a muddle. A considerable proportion of its potential effectiveness is lost somewhere between atmospheric impressions of contemporary Beijing and an only partially persuasive, cobbled-together story involving a "love rectangle." The hand-held camera (set on auto focus and so always a bit late coming into focus) which races feverishly through these scenes in tandem with the actors may well be a maladroit rather than an artful strategy for displaying inner and social restiveness. And yet the film possesses an infectious urgency. It has something to show us and something to say, and this alone makes it stand out against many other films, some just well-meant, others just well-made.

Jacques Rivette is always in a class by himself. This year, he arrives with the rubble, so to speak, of a large-scale project that had proved unfinanceable. But what rubble! In "Don't Touch the Axe," Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu fence verbally in a way that remains faithful to Honore de Balzac's novella "La Duchesse de Langeais," in captivating rooms. Needless to say, this is hardly a film for those who want to be swept away by this or that cinematographic crudity, and who know very well that cinema is made of 'great pictures,' and not of the most precise blend of words, images and thoughts. Even the critics streamed from the hall, or else snored obliviously.

Either scandalously neglected or else derided in the most ignorant fashion was "In Memory of Myself," Saverio Costanzo's ambitious meditation on the meaning of human life, and on whether it could be discovered in a cloister. Costanzo thinks almost exclusively in nightmarish images and sounds. Yet he never stoops to mere effect or simplistic riddle-solving, and thereby maintains to the very end the tension which bestows upon the viewer - in a way that is as astonishing as it is convincing - two forms of freedom. And even if few of those present had the eyes to perceive it, this was nonetheless a highpoint of the competition.

In "The Witnesses," Andre Techine too sweeps past the (doubtless ever-present) screenplay cliches with verve and sovereignty of form – and in a way that is slightly amazing given the disappointing level of his recent productions. There was a time when France produced such films by the dozen. Today, we have to be grateful when original ideas are not placed in the service of sheer confections (just think of Francois Ozon's "Angel"). That leaves Christian Petzold's "Yella". We might entertain doubts about the ultimate plausibility of intermingling, without mediation, genre elements and an incisively framed critique of capitalism. But the degree of formal mastery Petzold has in the meantime attained is beyond doubt. No one else creates images that are simultaneously so razor-sharp and so profoundly enigmatic, which at the same time seduce and menace, casting a spell over the world without transfiguring it to the slightest degree. If I had been on the jury, or had been able to make my voice heard, this would have been my Golden Bear.

*

Of course things turned out very differently: all the bears at a glance here.

See all our Berlinale film reviews here.

Ekkehard Knörer is a freelance film critic and editor of the online film magazine Jump Cut.
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