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14/02/2006

Breathless 4

A Berlinale diary

Blow up the parliament: James McTeigue's "V for Vendetta" (Competition)

People are flocking to see James McTeigue's "V for Vendetta", because of Natalie Portman of course, who had her head shaved for the role. But also because the Wachowski brothers ("Matrix") wrote the screenplay based on the legendary DC comic series from the 1980s.

The place: fascist England. The time: the start of the 21st century. Chancellor Sutler has brought the country into line and rules it with his evil henchmen the finger-men, the "Storm Saxons" and the television, which plays 24/7 in every room. The dictator came to power through a sham attack with biological weapons attack, which he tested on politically undesirable persons in secret prisons. The sole survivor of this torture is V, who returns as a masked avenger, liberator and terrorist to lead the English people from its bondage. On his way he encounters young Evey (Natalie Portman) who becomes his comrade in arms, his lover and ultimately his victim.

For the whole film Hugo Weaving as V wears the mask of Guy Fawkes, the Catholic plotter who attempted to blow up the English parliament 400 years ago. Fawkes was drawn and quartered, and ever since straw effigies of him are burned in Britain on November 5 to the tune: "Remember, remember the Fifth of November / Gun Powder Treason and Plot. / I see no reason why Gun Powder Treason / Should ever be forgot." A strange ritual celebrating both the plotter and his death.

McTeigue's film is equally gay and gruesome. In his day, comic strip inventor Allan Moore shaped the story to the Thatcher era. Now the danger comes from a regime that thrives on the fear of terror, although the bird flu also plays a small cameo part! Nazis, the war on terror, Shakespeare, a critique of ideology, the Count of Monte Cristo, Zorro: the filmmakers put it all together in an upbeat but not insouciant way. Images of the most recent terrorist attacks flash across the television screen, and finally to Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" Westminster Parliament goes up in an awesome display of fireworks, forming a gigantic V in the sky. Daring indeed. At the press conference an Iranian journalist asked worriedly if the film might not give the wrong message.

Thekla Dannenberg


"V for Vendetta". Directed by James McTeigue. With Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt and others. USA/Germany, 2005. 120 minutes (Competition / not competing).


Loving a rapist. Matthias Glasner's "The Free Will" (Competition)

How do you show a rape? Or a rapist? Matthias Glasner told a Berlinale press conference that he had spent six years thinking about this question. He had a concept when he started shooting the film, but once on location with the camera in his hand, he rapidly abandoned it. What you now see is, of course, far too much and it's almost unbearable. Theo Soer (Jürgen Vogel) forces himself on top of a girl and the camera compels us to be there by being there itself. The perspective is not that of the rapist, and certainly not that of the victim: it is that of a witness unable to look away.

Matthias Glasner decided in "Der Freie Wille" (The Free Will) to tell this story, and without compromise. It is the story of a man who does something unforgivable and wants nothing more than never to do it again. He is freed after nine years and is allowed back into the world. It is, as is always the case in such situations, a wager on whether a criminal one could never be tempted to forgive, can be reformed.

And yet one learns, by following him back into the world, to feel hope with him. He meets a young woman who is reluctant at first. We see him through his eyes first, but then the perspective changes. One of the unreasonable demands "Der Freie Wille" makes on us is just that: we are made to look at a rapist through the eyes of a lover. And it must be said that one of the film's strengths is that it does not manipulate you, it avoids underhand methods, like using music to win over emotions.

Matthias Glasner has made this film with the most minimal of means. In the role of cameraman, with a tiny crew, he tried to get as close to the actors as possible. And they never try to do things the easy way either. Never before has Jürgen Vogel been so withdrawn, so trapped in his body, so subtle in his gestures. Sabine Timoteo who plays Netti, the woman who's in love with him, understands like no other German actress, how to hint at emotions in fleeting expressions, without acting them out. A smile which appears momentarily and then disappears again. And even when she's falling apart, you feel no gap between her acting and what she's acting.

Although Matthias Glasner manages to avoid all the traps which are lying in wait – like a narrative decision here or there, or the use of some or other religious symbol - "Der Freie Wille" is still not a truly great film. The feeling abides that the content dominates over the form. The problem is not a lack of restraint in the way he tells the story. But he fails to find a means to show the moment that cannot be told in a story like this, which would transcend the concept of directness and reduction, reflectively.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Der freie Wille".(The Free Will) Directed by Matthias Glasner. Starring Jürgen Vogel, Sabine Timoteo, Andre Hennicke et.al., Germany, 2006, 163 min (Competition)


Inexcusable: Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Invisible Waves" (Competition)

Christopher Doyle is personally responsible for destroying Asian cinema. After a series of bearable displays of hand-held camera expertise, the Australian-born camera man has now become famous for his beautiful images. "Beautiful" that is, as in "it's so beautifully green here" or "why not let the camera pan over the little wall and we'll squeeze in the character somehow" beautiful. Or "beautiful" as in "then another tracking shot back to the edge of the room" or "then we can get the aquarium nicely into the picture" beautiful. Or "beautiful" as in "this shot through the dark will definitely look good" or "the back-lit cracks in the wall look really dramatic" beautiful.

In "2046" Doyle was responsible for the once interesting director Wong Kar-wei's making an unbearably pretentious film. Just imagine the result when he gets together with Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who has never had anything to say but loves ladling on the meaning. Only when you sit in front of this (what feels like a three-hour) film it is much worse that anyone could possibly imagine.

The plot, just to do things properly, because it could interest no one: Koji, a cook and a killer and a Japanese man in Hongkong, kills the wife of his boss. He travels by boat to Thailand and on the way meets a woman with a baby who he then meets again at the end as the girlfriend of the boss who he wants to kill. On this journey to Thailand he is being followed by someone or other. Koji dies in Phuket, but then he doesn't. He travels back again and then the whole thing comes to an end, far too late. One of the last things the hero says, in the broken English that everyone in the film seems to speak is "It's got to end somehow, no". As if self-irony ever saved a terrible film!

Having nothing to say is one thing. It happens. But to fall in love with the utter pointlessness of everything you're doing, dressing up anything in front of the camera as prettily as possibly for the sake of decoration only, having things happen because you find them somehow amusing, adding an ambient soundtrack and casting everything in a permanent half-light to make it nice and "atmospheric" – all this constitutes the unforgivable.

Christopher Doyle's camera is never about resolving a scene in the sense of creating a relationship between figure and space, in the sense of an interest in possible realities. All he wants is born-dead "beautiful" images, in which the fore and background relate to each other in some form of pattern, and that's it. In the place of a well thought-out shot, you get some vague idea which he just happened to have and a camera pan that is utterly meaningless. Instead of filmic space you get the underwateryness of an image concept that has no more than a random connection with the story or characters.

In a nutshell then: not one of those involved in this film once showed even a minimal interest in either the reality of the world or the possibility of film. "Invisible Waves" is therefore not only mind-numbingly dull, it is also cinema at its most despicable.

Ekkehard Knörer


"Invisible Waves"
. Directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Starring Asano Tadanobu, Gang Hye Jung, Eric Tsang, Maria Cordero et.al., Netherlands, Thailand, Hongkong 2005, 115 min (Competition)

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