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Breathless 2

A Berlinale diary

How should I know what an Arab looks like? "Close to Home" by Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu (Forum)

Smadar and Mirit are two young girls who couldn't be more different in temperament. One plucky and rebellious, the other well-behaved and ambitious. In school and at university they wouldn't be seen dead in each other's company. But they're doing their military service in the Israeli army and have to patrol the streets of Jerusalem together. It is their job to check the papers of every Palestinian who crosses their path. And in the event of an attack, they are under orders to hold on to the ID papers of as many young Arab men as possible.

Mirit does her job obediently, keeping a close eye on the superior interests of the state and on her own advancement, focussing rather less on how humiliating this process is for the Palestinians. Smardar, for her part would rather take refuge at the hairdressers than treat innocent people so patronisingly. "How should I know what an Arab looks like?" Until the next bomb goes off in the pedestrian zone. And the virtuous Mirit falls in love.

Reluctantly the two girls develop a friendship, realising that they rely on one another to avoid becoming careless and irresponsible. But also to avoid getting swept along by the militaristic logic which sees a threat to national security in every teenage emotion.

"Close to Home (Karov la Bayit) is a no-frills story of these two girls who are doing their best not to be swallowed up by Israel's sacrosanct institution, the army. They don't question it though. They just have no idea, at the age of 18, how to guarantee security without sacrificing certain human standards.

It's the old story of a friendship between comrades, of fitting in and asserting oneself, and it is one that has been told often enough with male protagonists. It is of course unusual for European eyes to see women in this role. And the two film makers, Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu are essentially interested in showing that the Israeli army is not just a male myth, but also a female reality. But at the beginning you see what a struggle it is for the two actresses to sound convincing when giving orders.

Thekla Dannenberg

"Karov la bayit - Close to Home" Directed by Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu. With Smadar Sayar, Naama Schnedar, Irit Suki among others. Israel 2006, 90 minutes (Forum).

A message of heteronormativeness-critical tolerance: Pernille Fischer Christensen's "En Soap - A Soap"

There are dull films and there are pointless films. The difference? No idea. But the Danish contribution to the official competition "A soap" is certainly both.

The film takes place in two apartments. Upstairs lives Charlotte (Trine Dyrholm), who after four years has left Kristian (Frank Thiel) and wants to start afresh. Downstairs lives Veronica (David Dencik) who's real name is Ulrik, a pre-op transsexual, shy dog-owner, with a pretty gap in his front teeth. Charlotte knocks on Veronica's door and they start to get to know each other. Then they get to know each other better. They watch the American soaps together that Veronica so loves. Then they get more intimate. And more intimate. Every now and then there are problems, interior and exterior. The mother, for example, who can't except that her Ulrik is Veronica.

Like in Dogma, the hand-held camera wobbles about in natural lighting conditions and produces ugly images. The insipidity of the script makes itself felt throughout. It's all meant well and acted well, without a hint of daring, plodding along under the banner of heteronormativeness-critical tolerance. And then because the director Pernille Fischer Christensen finally did realise how inconsequential the whole thing was, this transsexual soap, she slapped a layer on top and cut in black and white summaries of things past and things to come. But in a cliche and script emergency situation as dire as this, even the meta way brings nothing but death.

The whole thing, we see, is nothing but a soap, a soap, or just a load of soapsuds. Every now and then Charlotte paddles her feet in them.

Ekkehard Knörer

"En Soap - Eine Soap". Director: Pernille Fischer Christensen. With Trine Dyrholm, David Dencik among others. Denmark 2006, 102 minutes (Official Competition)

Sono Sion's "Strange Circus"
(Japan 2005, Forum) sets the pace racing and the mind boggling.

This film seems utterly insane, for a while. It turns inside out and makes wheels spin in unexpected directions and impossible places. In the end, and this is not really giving away too much, it turns out to be remarkably balanced, in its own special way. This, in fact, may be its only defect: that it keeps too clear a head in the hellish turmoil of sex, blood and violent psychodrama it has conjured up.

The title’s promise is fulfilled in the opening pictures. We find ourselves in a strange circus indeed, full of transvestites and artistes, amid infectious music and velvety decor. And let's not forget the guillotine on the stage, waiting for a head to roll. We are, for a second, quite literally asked to enter the stage. We are put in the camera’s place – only to be replaced, a second later, by the movie’s protagonist. Let’s call her Mitsuko, to simplify matters. She will turn out to be a schizoid figure soon enough, identifying, in ways we can’t believe and don't want to imagine, with her mother, whom, to simplify matters, we will call Sayuri.

But matters are not simple. The plot that unfolds and refolds in unrelenting graphic detail implicates us into a triangle of love, rape, abuse, violence, revenge and bloodshed. It is the kind of plot one should avoid giving away as much as possible, because the way it unfolds and transmutes strongly affects how we perceive everything we are confronted with. And this schizoid story makes us go places and shoves us around in rooms and corridors that we wish were not real. It makes us shudder, it makes us dread every next image, but for a reason.

This is not gore for gore’s sake, as is often the case in Takashi Miikes films. The psychodrama that is acted out before our eyes is real. Director Sono Sion, whose debut film from 1993 was titled "I am Sono Sion” (after "Strange Circus” you actually start to doubt this) and who allegedly directed gay porn in the past, knows exactly what he's doing. He produces spaces of the imagination that are as outlandish as they are precise, allegorically flipping inside out.

The delirious maelstrom of images, however, which the movie opened with, abates. The second half then offers a reading of the first that makes terrible sense, and which is all the more terrible for its sobriety. We end up in the same place we started or so it seems. There’s a guillotine on the stage waiting for a head to roll. A strange circus, indeed.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Strange Circus - Kimyo na sakasu". Director: Sono Sion. With Miyazaki Masumi, Ishida Issei, Kuwana Rie among others. Japan 2005, 108 Minuten. (Forum)

Eating snow leads to orgasms. The Berlinale has a gentle start with Marc Evans' "Snow Cake" (official competition)

This year's Berlinale lifts off gently and without a bang. "Snow Cake" is an extremely quiet film which gives its protagonists plenty of space and jumps about cautiously with them. Which is just as well as each of them has enough to do just fighting their demons, and they're not ill-equipped for too much closeness. They are, in fact, ideally suited to their living environment which is the endless, snowy expanses of Canada with nothing but a gas station and a diner every hundred miles. It is in one of these that the taciturn Englishman Alex (Alan Rickman) has just met a very loquacious girl who he's just beginning to take to when a truck collides with his car, killing her. Still in shock, Alan sets off to find the girl's mother and give her his sympathy, as one would do in such a situation. But he was not prepared for Linda, no more than the audience could have been prepared for Sigourney Weaver, who with her carefully studied spontaneous movements, her open face and her vital intensity, has finally escaped the "Alien" ship.

Although or perhaps because he's not really capable of dealing with this autistic woman, taking care of her as the neighbours half-heartedly try to, Linda lets Alex into her world. A cautious relationship develops over the next few days which does both of them good. Thanks to Linda's pragmatic but always distanced manner, Alex begins to overcome his feelings of guilt, and Linda gains a temporary substitute for Vivienne. She tolerates Alex and – you never really know – perhaps even likes him. The gentle irony, which shines though Alex's English sense of humour and the wit of the sometimes slightly over astute Linda balance out the film's otherwise weighty subject matter - disability, death and life-long mourning (Alex committed a murder after his son was killed) – which otherwise might have buried the film completely.

While in "Rain Man" the psychic disposition of the protagonist was developed in some detail, here it's simply there. Alex accepts the way Linda is with a very British sense for the eccentric. He is not allowed in the kitchen, and he must align his shoes in an exact row with the others. The dog is fed bananas and eating snow can bring on an orgasm. The tolerance is mutual. With his accent, and above all his past, he is not far from having the status of an extra-terrestrial in the little town. Linda is hardly bothered, she has other standards. Maggie, a third outsider played by a serious and weepy Carrie-Ann Moss, is interested by Alex's secret and rounds the group out perfectly, at least as far as Alex is concerned. Less so for the audience, which is happy to accord him his little affair with her, but could frankly do without it.

Loneliness, emptiness, and wide open spaces stretch between the protagonists in this film, which starts with a view of the sky and ends on a lonely lakeside road. The characters are seldom able to overcome each others' differentness. Sociologist Niklas Luhmann says communication is unlikely. But it is touching, Marc Evans adds, and finds a worthy image to show it. "Push me without using your hands", Linda says to Alex. Scenes like this long, helplessly heart-rending moment make the film well worth watching.

Christoph Mayerl

"Snow Cake". UK/Canada. Directed by Marc Evans. With Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Carrie-Anne Moss. 112 minutes (Official competition). - let's talk european