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Past Article

Berlinale 04: Competition
By David Hudson
January 2, 2005 - 1:55 PM PST

Nightsongs, Head On, Sunset, Maria, Final, Samaria, Weeping.

February 10, 11 and 12.

Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder Things have definitely picked up in the three days, so let's get right to it.

The two German entries might be an interesting way into the batch. While they're both love stories of sorts, Die Nacht singt ihre Leider (Nightsongs) and Gegen die Wand (Head On) couldn't be more different, and for that matter, neither could their directors. Romuald Karmakar, 39, never met his Iranian father; his mother is French and he attended a German school in Athens. In the 80s, he embraced punk and the underground cinema scene in Munich and played Hitler in his first Super-8 film in 1985. Ten years later, the breakthrough, Der Totmacher, a 110-minute interrogration of serial murderer Fritz Haarmann by a psychology professor. Based entirely on the actual protocol.

I'm getting into all this to lay the groundwork for the wildly split reception of his film, Nightsongs. Karmakar does not make films for easy consumption and the screening was downright bizarre in that many journalists - those that didn't walk out, at any rate - spent an hour and a half laughing at this film and then arguing with Karmakar at the most aggressive and angry press conference of the year. I'm talking about both sides; Karmakar must have sensed the animosity in the room because he came right out swinging and it didn't take long for the shouting to begin.

First, the film itself. It's based on a play by the renowned Norwegian writer Jon Fosse. It's hard to know what the snickering journalists expected, really; they wouldn't even have had look Fosse up to be forewarned that he's no Neil Simon, but simply might have kept the title in mind: literally, "The Night Sings Its Songs," as a married couple repeats lines again and again, as lines and whole conversations return like refrains in varying contexts. The husband is played by Frank Giering, an actor Karmakar calls one of the best in Germany right now, and I'd rush to agree. As his wife, Anne Ratte-Polle gave me the creeps, but then, she's supposed to.

Karmakar was asked what he thought about the walkouts and the laughter. He brushed off the first as to be expected to a certain degree, whereas for the second, it's not his role to tell you which lines are meant to elicit laughter (and clearly, many are) and which not. In general, he sees a crisis in current cinema. To the great pleasure of the journalists who defended the film - many of them among oldest in the pack, interestingly enough, veterans who reminded the crowd that Fassbinder and Godard were initially scoffed at as well - Karmakar noted that journalists see way too many American films these days (a comment he later clarified: too many Hollywood films; there are, of course, some very fine American filmmakers). The overall numbing effect, which seeps into the narrative form of German television and film as well, is to limit any openness to any different sort of cinema. It's bad enough that the public expects to be spoon-fed; far worse, the supposedly discerning eyes of the critics have forgotten how to discern.

As for my own opinion, the one word that comes to mind to apply to Nightsongs is unfortunately so run-to-the-ground it's lost nearly all its meaning, but I would call it "interesting" in the fullest sense of the word. While Fassbinder comes to the mind of others, I kept thinking of Alain Resnais. Nightsongs is no Last Year at Marienbad by any means, but if the very thought of the comparison intrigues you, check this one out if and when you get the chance.

Fatih Akin is part of the second generation of Turks in Germany who've forged a new identity and culture, complete with its own music, media, fashion and so on, neither completely Turkish nor German, though Akin himself would rush to add that in terms of citizenship, he is, absolutely, a German. Now 31, his breakthrough came in 1998 with Kurz und schmerzlos (Short Sharp Shock); many worried that he was going commercial with Solino in 2002, but Gegen die Wand is his follow-up and what an exhilarating return to what even he calls the "Fatih Akin film" it is.

Gegen die Wand

Gegen die Wand (Head On)

This is one of the most alive and lively films in Competition, thanks evidently to Akin's semi-improvisational approach and thanks most definitely to the two leads, Birol Ünel as Cahit and newcomer Sibel Kekilli, who plays a girl from a conservative Turkish family in Hamburg. She wants out, she wants sex, she wants to get high, to do what she wants whenever she wants. Whenever she's tried to get out, her brother finds her and beats her.

Cahit's situation: Depressed and depressing and yet in a ferociously amusing way. Until he rams his car into a wall. At the hospital, he meets Sibil; she's just slashed her wrists. And she has an idea: If he marries her, she'll clean his place and stay out of his way and her family will leave her alone. A marriage of convenience for both, in other words. They'll live their own lives and most certainly will not fall in love. Well. Yes, it happens, but it's the journey not the destination (which isn't as predictable as it might seem at first) that makes this a favorite with press who hooted and cheered as Akin and his cast entered the press conference. Two German films, two directors, two receptions, night and day.

The Before Sunset Team The same could be said for the American films that have screened these past few days. I have to admit, as something of a Richard Linklater fan, Before Sunrise, which won a Silver Bear nine years ago, is the one feature of his I haven't seen. Meant to catch it before the festival since I knew Before Sunset was coming and just never got the chance. But that does mean, for what it's worth, that I can tell you whether Sunset stands on its own. It does. Gloriously.

Linklater was quoted in some story that ran before the premiere as saying something along these lines: If you liked these people in the first film, you'll love them in this one; if you didn't like them, you'll hate this film. Well, it took me about half an hour or so to decide whether I liked Jesse and Celine. First off, I'm not exactly big on Ethan Hawke. His whole faux Beat-n-Bohème thing rubs me the wrong way and the film opens with Jesse giving a reading in a bookstore in Paris. Of course it's Shakespeare and Company. And Celine's on an activist kick these days, so Julie Delpy gets to say admirable things about what American consumerism is doing to the planet and so on and the whole time you're trying to decide whether all this they're saying is supposed to be as superficial as it sounds. Probably, but to varying degrees for Hawke, Delpy and Linklater, all three of whom have been trading ideas about this sequel almost since the wrap party for Sunrise.

But they won me over, all three. Linklater keeps the compositions simple and straightforward, throwing an enormous weight on his two actors and both hold up exceedingly well. By the time we reach the last scene, I, like most of the theater evidently, was practically floating. In the last shot, Delpy gives us a look that had us all and snap! to the credits, eliciting whoops and thunderous applause. Though a few critics have dissented, this is one of the best reviewed films so far in the program.

If you followed Sundance at all, you already know that Joshua Marston's Maria, llena eres de gracia (Maria Full of Grace) is one of the most talked about indies this year. I don't have much to add to the praise it's already won other than that from the moment Maria agrees to become a "mule," smuggling heroine from Columbia to the US, there's a palpable sense of dread and fear that's hard to shake. Marston, clearly a hard and thorough worker, said at the press conference that it was actually relatively easy to research the lives of many real "mules"; what was more difficult was getting into the head of a 17-year-old girl. But Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays Maria, and the other female actors (the festival sparkles with great female performances this year, and this is just the second mentioned so far from a first-timer) helped tremendously in rehearsal. Two noteworthy notes: The bodies of 400 mules have been repatriated in the last 20 years; Don Fernando, the "Columbian Mayor of Queens" in the film is played by a man who does precisely that and countless other favors for Columbians in New York in reality.

I'm trying to think of one kind thing to say about The Final Cut and can only come up with: Nice set design and, yes, that Tak Fujimoto sure can take pretty pictures. Otherwise, the anticipated first feature from the supposedly hot young director Omar Naim is just plain all-round bad. Poor Robin Williams. Though I still keep my tiny flame of hope for his career alive, others have been down on him, sometimes unfairly, for too long now. This won't help. I'll fan my embers and wait for Terry Gilliam's Brothers Grimm.

Kim Ki-Duk

Press conferences are also broadcast live on large screens in front of the Berlinale Palast. Here, Kim Ki-Duk declares he hopes he wins nothing.

At his press conference, Kim Ki-Duk emphasized that Samaria (Samaritan Girl) stands in direct opposition in nearly every way to Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring. The criticism that Asia is under-represented in this year's program has been voiced often enough, but if there were to be only one or two slots left for Asia to fill, tapping Kim Ki-Duk to fill one seems a fashionable choice if nothing else. But taken out of the context of his other work, it's hard to say that Samaria should have been the film to carry the light from those far shores to Berlin. All in all, I was more impressed by the contrast in the personalities of the famously iconoclastic director and his lead actress, Kwak Ji-Min. Just as one example, when Kim Ki-Duk said he hoped his film wouldn't win any prizes (if it did, it'd be a sign that he was becoming too conventional), the girl who'd been so shy up to that point leaned into the microphone and interrupted: "I want to win a prize."

The grand tradition of cinema from Rumsfeldian Old Europe is alive and well. I've seen it with my own eyes in two very different films, Cédric Kahn's Feux Rouges (Red Lights) and Theo Angelopoulos's Trilogia: To livadi pou dakrisi (Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow).

Red Lights is a wonderfully nostalgic pleasure, a French thriller that does everything an American thriller wouldn't. Scenes Americans would tighten or toss altogether are precisely the scenes Kahn chooses to linger on. Kahn remembers when thrillers could not only thrill but do a few other things at the same time as well. Make us wonder how and why we've become so dependent on automobiles, for example, and what's more, have us count the ways cars have made our lives more miserable, not less. Or how the telephone can be used to deliver just one tantalizing bit of information that calls for nothing other than yet another phone call. Based on a novel by George Simenon, with effective use of music by Claude Debussy, Lights is an hommage not so much to any particular filmmaker but to an entire period it's oddly hard to date but would lie three or four decades back. And in France.

Weeping Meadow

Every single shot of Weeping Meadow is an admirable piece of work. Angelopoulos would wait for weeks for the sun to go away so he could capture it with its washed-out colors, its off-whites and blacks. And for all the work put into it, every single shot gets its due and much, much more. Dramaturgically speaking, you're going to have to make some mental notes that last a while if you're going to connect the dots. I'm not sure, if I were Greek, I'd be all that thrilled that Angelopoulos has set out to capture the definitive history of modern Greece on film with his proposed trilogy, but as far as the first installment goes, it's unarguably picturesque for all its horrors. Forging tragedy into pretty tableaus, though, seems troublesome in ways I'll want to contemplate at some point... after this festival wraps.

next >>>

Preview, Daybreak, Intimate Strangers.
Witnesses, Country of My Skull, The Missing.
Beautiful Country, Hands, Embrace, Primo, Next Life.
Nightsongs, Head On, Sunset, Maria, Final, Samaria, Weeping.
Kiss, Triple Agent, 20:30:40, 25 Degrees, Bears and Postscript.

back to past articles


David Hudson
lives and writes in Berlin.

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January 16, 2007. Djinn: A Taxi Driver Dreams of Perth by Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 12, 2007. Clint Eastwood: Flags and Letters From the "Good War" by Jeff Shannon

view past articles

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