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Dismay at the Arthouse

Instead of promoting artistic experimentation, the Berlinale emphasizes moral solace. By Ekkehard Knörer

This year's retrospective was dedicated to the dream women of the 1950s. The other festival series tended to feature nightmare men. In what was probably the competition's most difficult-to-endure film, Matthias Glasner's "Der freie Wille" ("The Free Will"), viewers were compelled to spend nearly three hours in close quarters with a rapist. And to develop an understanding for a man who commits crimes and lacks the capacity to resist doing so. This film divided the audience into those who admired it for casting its gaze where no one wants to look, and those who would prefer not to look there.

If the occasionally excessively ponderous "The Free Will," with its often overlong scenes, is not a great work, then it is nonetheless one of the most striking contributions to this year's rather weak competition, principally owing to its leading actors Sabine Timoteo and Jürgen Vogel. For his artistic contribution as producer, co-author and actor, Jürgen Vogel was awarded a Silver Bear by the jury. At the press conference, he responded to the question: "When is a man a man?" without pointless philosophical circumlocutions: "You are born, you are young, then you grow up. At some point, you are a man."

In the Argentinian film "El Custodio" ("The Minder"), we accompany a virtually mute man at great length. He is little more than the shadow of the politician for whose security he is responsible. We do not see much of the world in this film, for we have access only to what the bodyguard himself experiences. This is for the most part oppressive, and adds up to a world composed of contingencies and fragments, not an actual life. Having renounced tension and variation, Rodrigo Moreno presents this man and his actions without the slightest glamour. With justice, this formally rigorous yet persuasive etude received the Alfred Bauer Prize for innovative film language. In view of the largely dismally conventional competition films, the jury hardly had an alternative.

A woman dominates the latest work by old master Claude Chabrol - which is not to say that it does not also revolve around horrible men. As an examining magistrate, Isabelle Huppert deals with politicians who, as Chabrol takes great pleasure in showing, are corrupt to the very core. "L'Ivresse du pouvoir" (Comedy of Power) portrays the events of the Elf Aquitaine scandal in faithful detail, and was the strongest of the three competition films by the elderly gentlemen of film. In his "A Prairie Home Companion," Robert Altman attempts an homage to Garrison Keillor's live radio show of the same name. After a virtuosic beginning, the film's difficulty quickly manifests itself: Altman is an acute and relentless observer of the world's vain hustle and bustle. Endearing qualities, such as those involved here, quickly lose interest for him. And concerning Sidney Lumet's late work "Find Me Guilty," the less said the better. Celebrated here, and moreover with baleful tenacity and no hint of ambivalence, is a vulgar Mafioso (Vin Diesel is an appallingly limited character actor), and moreover for the honor among thieves that ties him to his criminal compatriots. Here is a film that does not criticize the law, but simply disdains it.

Among the four German competition entries, the greatest expectations were raised by Oskar Roehler's version of French author Michel Houellebecq's misogynistic and cynical novel "Elementarteilchen" (The Elementary Particles). The film revealed itself to be a malodorous, damp firecracker incapable of getting anything right. In his film version, Roehler - supported by Bernd Eichinger - entirely misses the worldview of the original, even granting his sordid masculine protagonist, who figures here as a hero, a happy ending of sorts. And as a film, "The Elementary Particles" is staged in such an inept and unimaginative manner that one involuntarily recalls the bad times of German Zeitgeist comedy. For his performance as the sex-obsessed Bruno, Moritz Bleibtreu received a Silver Bear - a bad joke that in no way falls short of the one that is the film itself. More comprehensible is the Silver Bear awarded to actress Sandra Hüller, for she virtually monopolizes Hans-Christian Schmid's "Requiem" - for the most part in close-ups, and tormented by demons. One can only hope that next time around, she will be as convincing in her dialogue as she is in her facial expressions.

Just how good German film can be was demonstrated in the competition principally by Valeska Grisebach's "Sehnsucht" (Longing), a tragedy set in a Brandenburg village. On location, and using non-professional actors, she narrates the story of the man caught between two women, an individual who does not know quite what is happening to him and lacks the words to say what he might want. The quality of this film is attributable not just to the way Grisebach impels her actors to convincing performances. It is also narrated with an awareness of form that is painfully absent from the majority of competition selections. The oft-praised simplicity of "Longing" is actually anything but that. Behind it stands a refined sense of precision, both with respect both to that which is narrated and to that which is omitted, with regard to the depiction of everyday life and to the dialogue, which is for the most part not at all improvised. Also among the achievements of this new school of German cinema, characterized by such impressive cinematic intelligence, are the Forum contributions "Montag kommen die Fenster" ("Windows on Monday") by Ulrich Köhler, and "Lucy" by Henner Winckler, as well as Thomas Arslan's documentary film on Turkey "Aus der Ferne" ("From Far Away"). The fact that "Longing" was sent away from the awards ceremony empty-handed is the most lamentable aspect of this jury selection, presided over by the Charlotte Rampling.

There are many further reasons for friends of the art of cinema to regard the jury decisions as somewhat catastrophic. For they confirm the course charted by Dieter Kosslick, who organizes the competition, essentially, according to two criteria: proportional representation and politics. Which also means the fatal abandonment of aesthetic perspectives. This ignorance becomes more evident each year, and has rendered the Berlinale increasingly irrelevant as a showcase for exciting film. Kosslick measures his success in numbers, and exults in new records for ticket sales and film marketing. With this forced concentration on artistically rather uninteresting would-be political arthouse cinema, the festival has, in truth, been hollowed out beneath its outwardly thriving surface.

The (dismayingly) political aspect was decisive for the awards selections, and Charlotte Rampling made no secret of this fact at the gala. We hope, she announced right at the start, that our decisions are the right ones in view of the current state of the world. In this spirit, there were Silver Bears for Winterbottom's uncomplicatedly political "The Road to Guantanamo," for Pernille Fischer Christensen's utterly inconsequential "En Soap" ("A Soap"), the story of a Danish transsexual, and for Jafar Panahi's quite respectable but not outstanding contribution "Offside," which deals with the situation of women in Iran. And with a Golden Bear for Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica," set in Sarajevo, which tells the story of a woman who is traumatized by wartime rape, a film has been singled out that, to be sure, addresses an important topic in a vivid and skillful way, but is nevertheless without consequence either for the current situation of world cinema or for its future development.


Further reviews of Berlinale films can be found here.

A complete list of the Berlinale prize winners is here.

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

translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european