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Breathless 7

A Berlinale diary

Football as patriarchy pure: Jafar Panahi's "Offside" (Competition)

The eternal truths of football: The ball is round. The game lasts 90 minutes. Women are not allowed in the stadium. At least in Iran. The irritating thing is that there is no law against it. There are simply well-meaning men who think their behaviour in the stadium is unacceptable for women. What to do with women who couldn't care less about what the men think seems to be a grey zone. So in "Offside" Jafar Panahi dresses a couple of women up as men and sends them to the World Championships qualification match against Bahrain. In doing so he investigates the country's patriarchal structures, and gives an insight into the rules of the game in totalitarian regimes.

Of course "Offside" is fiction. But it does its best to stick close to reality. We see the real game, and the real jubilation on the street when it is over. The female fans are not played by professional actors, and neither are the soldiers who take them into custody during the game. The women are taken to an enclosed rectangle just outside the stadium wall. The noise wafts over from inside, and just few steps away a fence affords a view onto the field. Egged on by the women, one of the soldiers comments live on the game.

The women are held hostage by the soldiers in front of the wall. But that does not mean the power relationships are clear. The women refuse to accept the fact that they are not permitted to see the game. They revolt, they bicker, they clown about and deny they have infringed a law. The film investigates with playful precision the relationships between the sexes in a divided society. One of the women swears like a fishwife, using just those words from which the women are supposed to be protected. The fact that the guards are conscripts themselves makes the borders even more unclear.

"Offside" uses the simplest possible cinematic means, and looks every bit like a documentary. No stylistic will thrusts its way between the semi-documentary reality and its image. Panahi's work has been called neo-realism for good reason, as it has nothing to do with either dramatic tension nor allegory. Beyond the obvious quality of the title which describes the role of women in a society dominated by men, the film avoids parallels and sticks to the facts. The characters are negotiating far-reaching rights without having to stand up for anything other than themselves.

The end is a question of taste. When the Iranian team wins and qualifies for the World Cup in Germany, the film is taken with moments of celebratory ardour, in which Iran comes across as an all-encompassing, if closed, society. When the credits go up a song plays, not the national anthem, true, but a traditional song in praise of Iran, about the nation's resistance against Western oppression. A moment, certainly. Just a moment, nothing more. And yet the film itself seems all too taken with this jubilant rejoicing.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Offside". Directed by Jafar Panahi. Starring Sima Mobarak Shahi, Safar Samandar, Shayesteh Irani, M. Kheyrabadi, Ida Sadeghi. Iran 2005, 88 min (Competition)

Charmant-Killman: Claude Chabrol's "Comedy of Power - L'Ivresse du Pouvoir" (Competition)

It might be a coincidence that "Isabella" (more here) was the film which immediately preceded "L'Ivresse du Pouvoir" at the festival. But one thing is sure, the 8th day at the Berlinale belonged to one Isabelle only: Madame Huppert. The whole film in centred round her, everyone else depends on her or brushes up against her. Then there's Odile Barski who delivered a script with a dialogue that fits the characters like a second skin. And in third place is Claude Chabrol, whose wicked humour makes an impeccable job of this study of power and its consequences.

You think of champagne all the way through this film although not a drop of it is drunk. Isabelle Huppert plays the public prosecutor Jeanne Charmant-Killman as a delicate, feminine creature who seems to have nothing to do with the mountain of files on her desk. But as soon as she removes her red leather gloves, sits down in her chair, summons the first in a long line of high-flying suspects from the world of politics and finance, makes her opening gambit, and then kicks in with a psychological broadside, you realise how icy and professional this lawyer with the ambivalent name can be.

One of Isabelle Huppert's secrets is that she managed to look exhausted and highly charged at the same time, so you're always expecting the next volt. The long working hours are taking their toll and her marriage is on the rocks. And then there's her nephew who lives for the moment and earns most of his money playing poker, showing that there are other ways to live. Her relationship with him oscillates between chumminess and love affair, without ever touching the boundaries.

So it's all about power, getting drunk on it, becoming unhinged when it's gone. Right at start Chabrol shows us how quickly one can travel between the two states. Before the credits are even over we see a man, who minutes before was an all-powerful company chairman, standing before prison guards and being told undress. As his trousers fall, we read: "a film by Claude Chabrol". Chabrol makes no secret of the fact that his inspiration was the Elf Aquitaine scandal. The oil company with its intimate ties to the French government had spent millions of dollars on political favours and bribes. Ironically Chabrol wants it to be understood that the film is purely fictional. But there are countless references, from names to skin diseases that relate to acutal people and events. But you don't have the opportunity to dwell on this too long because you're too preoccupied keeping up with the exquisite slanging matches, which Jeanne engages in with her shady suspects, her husband and her female rival.

As Jeanne finally digs her way to the real fat cats, the ex-ENA string pullers, she comes up against an impenetrable wall. Orders come from above that she is to be taken off the case. Having become increasingly intoxicated by her own influence, this helps her safely back to earth. And we are given the benefit of watching her narrow lips deliver the deadly blow to her boss: "Keep my bonus", she says with Siberian frostiness, "and buy yourself a pair of balls."

Christoph Mayerl

"L'Ivresse du Pouvoir - Comedy of Power". Directed by Claude Chabrol. Starring Isabelle Huppert, François Berleand, Patrick Bruel, Thomas Chabrol, Yves Verhoeven et al., France/Germany 2005, 110 min (Competition)

The end of history: Amir Muhammad's "The Last Communist" (Forum)

It's clear from the start that "The Last Communist" is not you're average history lesson. In Sitiawan in Malaysia, the birthplace of communist leader Chin Peng (more here), a street seller talks about how business is doing, who his customers are, and why this is a good place for selling drinks. You also learn that the city was called Sitiawan or "dead elephant" because it was here that long ago, two of the giant beasts collided so heavily that the both died on the spot.

Gradually Amir Muhammad tracks down the legendary leader of the Malaysian Communist Party, city by city, person by person, from the past to present and his exile in Thailand. He talked to over 80 people on the way. But Chin Peng was not one of them. "Politicians are boring", the director explains cheekily, he prefers to concentrate on what really matters, the ordinary people. Like the communist fighter who lost an arm and a leg and is determined not to be a burden on anybody. Or the one-time sympathiser who still raves about the beautiful communist and about the reward he received from the British chief of police for turning her in. The communists in Malaysia have never stopped fighting: first the British, then the Japanese, then the British again and finally their own independent government. The few of them who survived to see the peace agreement, now live in exile in villages in Thailand, clearly segregated according to creed and ethnicity.

As the retired communists sing the old propaganda songs in broken voices, you sense how thoroughly the ideology failed because of the people; how total, total failure is. The end of history, here is it, right up close. The flame of the revolution is just strong enough to cook the rice for the day. One of the bloodiest battles in the British Commonwealth frays off into individual biographies, trickles down into everyday problems and gout. And Amir Muhammad takes all his protagonists seriously. He lets them talk and simply hears out their explanations of why they sacrificed their entire lives for a socialist Malaysia which no one seemed to want after a while.

Apart from that Amir Muhammad respects nothing and no one. And particularly not the propaganda songs that were deployed by the English and the communists alike to educate and indoctrinate the illiterate rural population. Muhammad turns them into little slapstick musical interludes where the Grim Reaper sings about the dangers of malaria or four merry women dance around Communism all dressed in red. Despite the hilarious hodge-podge of material, the film is never in danger of being ridiculous. And this is not only a result of its courage but also its tremendous sensitivity. I mean imagine the German equivalent: a young documentary film maker describes the terror of the German Autumn, by getting fidgety policemen to sing texts by Ulrike Meinhof. It's a recipe for disaster.

But Amir Muhammad pulls it off. It must be the mixture of grand Utopian designs and the everyday banality, deadly serious belief and oblivious silliness. Which is about as contradictory and distorted as the decades of fighting against colonialism, nationalism and communism must seem in eyes of rural Malays.

Christoph Mayerl

"The Last Communist". Directed by Amir Muhammad. Malaysia 2005, 90 min (Forum) - let's talk european