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16/02/2006

Breathless 6

A Berlinale diary

Simple tragedy, enchanting satyr play: Valeska Grisebach's wonderful film "Longing" (Competition)

There's been a car accident, the film begins. There's another man there who with the hands of an expert adjusts the victim, who has skidded into a field, into the recovery position. We will come back to the man with his expert hands, but all that we find out about the accident is that the woman is dead, the man has might live or might not, and that it was an attempted suicide.

The man who was helping, Markus (Andreas Müller) is with the auxiliary fire brigade, and a locksmith by trade. He lives in the Brandenburg village of Zühlen, population 200, which happens to be right next to the scene of the accident. Markus has a wife, Ella (Ilka Welz) and a child. He lives with his wife but they don't talk much. He is in a dilemma about whether it was his right to possibly have saved the life of a man who wanted to die. Otherwise we watch him not talking and his hands at work on locks and bars.

And one thing he certainly doesn't talk about are things that happen to him out of the blue. He goes off with his mates to the fire brigade's AGM in another, larger place. They party, drink, we see Markus lost in dance to a Robbie Williams song. Robbie sings "I just wanna feel real love / Feel the home that I live in." Then comes a cut that looks harmless, but it is gutsy, very gutsy, from the loud music to the stillness of the morning. Markus wakes up in a strange bed, a strange woman is sitting at the breakfast table. He has spent the night with her and over breakfast with his friends he finds out that her name is Rose. (Anett Dornbusch).

Anyone who knows how expensive the film rights are to famous music will realise how important Robbie William's song must be for the film's director, Valeska Grisebach. Another line: "Not sure I understand / This role I've been given." And indeed, Markus loves his wife, and he also loves Rosa. That's the sum total of the tragedy. It's that simple – and Grisebach 's film is about exactly that, a simple, a terribly simple tragedy. The camera is right up close on the faces of the characters. None of them know what's happening to them. None of them understand why their lives are going off the rails. They look at each other as if they might be able to read something in each other's faces. And Ella senses that something is wrong before she could even possibly know anything. When he comes back home she makes makes a passing joke, without thinking twice. "Hello stranger." And of course it is a stranger who has returned. She feels it and searches, almost desperately for words to express the huge things she's feeling. "I desire you so much", she says, "I love you". What should she say? Somehow they are not the right words but she doesn't have any better ones. She wields them like something she has never needed before.

In "Sehnsucht", Grisebach worked mostly with non-actors. What she achieves with them is absolutely astounding. They do not act parts, they perform an appropriation. Grisebach makes them struggle to appropriate stories that are not theirs, appropriate feelings that they know if not in exactly the same form, appropriate words which are foreign. And although, and perhaps also because there is always a slight blur, although the players are never quite engulfed in their roles, although they always seem to be a little bewildered at themselves, the whole thing feels right.

Grisebach tells a tragedy which references "Romeo and Juliet" in a small village. But she doesn't inflate, she reduces. At the centre-most point of a convincingly naturalistic exterior she bares a story which is as plausible as it is universal. And it is only so convincingly universal because it is so infinitely plausible, from the use of the spray whipped cream to the wobbly singing of the village choir. The directing, the editing, the camera all testify to a wonderful sense of rhythm. At just the right moment comes balsam for troubled souls, shots of the landscape, trees in the breeze.

And like every good tragedy, the film ends on an enchanting satyr play as epilogue. The story and its possible end are dealt with playfully, through the mouth of a child. A wonderful way to end a wonderful film.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Sehnsucht" (Longing), Directed by Valeska Grisebach, with Ilka Welz, Annett Dornbusch, Andreas Müller. Germany, 2005, 90 min (Competition).


Well-manicured: Pang Ho-cheung's "Isabella" (Competition)

The corrupt cop Ma (Chapman To) is a man who sleeps around on a maniacal scale. One day, he gets his comeuppance. Her name is Yan (Isabella Leong), she's young, she's beautiful and she' his daughter, she says and breaks a beer bottle over his head. It's the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

The time and place in the story of a father who finds a daughter and a daughter who has lost her dog called Isabella are a little over-determined. It is 1999, the year before the Portuguese colony Macao is handed back to China. You don't eat Portuguese, one of Ma's informers says, the atmosphere of separation and mourning heavy in the air. And strongly Portuguese-sounding melancholic music plays almost incessantly throughout the film. Fado in Macao.

Since his rather showy debut "You Shoot, I Shoot" (2001), director Pang Ho-cheung has been hyped as the next big thing in Hongkong film. He's also the author of a best-selling novel which Johnnie To brought to the Berlinale as a film called "Fulltime Killer". And "Isabella" clearly demonstrates Pang Ho-cheung's many strengths. What he has not learned is how to dose the medicine. "Isabella" is full of beautiful images, but far too many too beautiful ones.

There is one wonderful scene where Yan and Ma transport their belongs in huge bags in rhythmical synch through Macao by night. And indeed throughout the film the passageways and kitchens, the steps and walls shimmer in a picturesque blur, but this still doesn't make him Wong Kar-wei. Added to which the camera in the hands of Charlie Lam has an unfortunate tendency to favour effect over effective and it films out of the fridge, out of the oven through flickering flames and always from behind the sofa where really the wall should be.

Between the pursuit of corruption and flashbacks to private histories, Pang throws in a green numbers against a black background which countdown to the handover of Macao. And yet the connection between private and political always seems conjectural. This makes "Isabella" a likeable film from start to finish but it soon feels like little more than a stylistic exercise in melancholy.

Slightly dull but well-manicured. On the superficial side, but fabulously elegant.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Isabella". Director: Pang Ho-cheung. Starring Chapman To, Isabella Leong, J. J. Jia, Derek Tsang, Meme Tian et al., China 2006, 91 min (Competition)


Hair-raising: Mani Haghighi's "Kargaran mashghool-e karand – Men at Work" (Forum)

Four apparently wealthy men in their fifties return from a day's skiing, telling stories about Indian drivers, stories about peeing. One of them sees a rock in a bend in the mountain road, a great spot to take a pee. He points it out to the others, who are fascinated by the solitary rock, pointing up into the sky. They cook up the daft plan of toppling the rock down into the valley. The four of them get to work but the rock won't budge. They can't move it - with the help muscle power, a passing donkey or the car. The rock stays put.

And mysterious. Happily, the rock remains an unreadable symbol, one the film "Men at Work" has no interest in clarifying. The stone resists all attempts at interpretation, just as it refuses to budge when pushed. It towers over them, silently, functioning only as an absurd source of attraction. It feels as if the whole of Iranian society drives by during the film. One car after the next, one blaring "California Dreaming". Everybody knows each other. It doesn't take long to figure out this all has precious little to do with realism. Yet it is entertaining, especially the comic, hair-raising chance meeting between the sexes. The men hardly cut a fine figure, to say the least. And when was the last time you saw an Iranian film where a woman swings a chainsaw with such gusto?

One of the men is almost driven crazy by the stone's resistance. Another wounds his knee trying to push it over. A third is in the midst of an argument with his much younger wife. As the film progresses we learn much about the upper echelons of Iranian society and its ribald humour. Yet ultimately the four heroes just seem snivelling and infantile. "Men at Work" shows them in a half-critical, half-sympathetic light. They are like children, they just want to play. But their honour is wounded by the rock.

"Men at Work" is an often humorous exercise in fearless absurdity. The middle-of nowhere setting in the mountains remains permanently rooted in the developing cartography of interpersonal relationships which are resolved high up on a rock, in the bend of the winding road. The script was based on an idea by Abbas Kiarostami, whose work always had a comic element that was often wilfully overlooked in the West and which stems from a close observation of absurdities that are certainly not purely Iranian.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Kargaran mashghool-e karand - Men at Work". Directed by Mani Haghighi. With Attila Pesyani, Mahmoud Kalari, Ahmad Hamed, Omid Rohani, Fatemeh Motamed Arya, among others. Iran 2006, 75 Minutes (Forum).
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