By David Hudson
December 25, 2005 - 9:43 AM PST
What follows are snippets from previews and full first impressions of the 55th Berlin International Film Festival, that is, the 2005 edition of the Berlinale. For a (very) brief overview of the festival's history, click here.
Preview: February 2
As he swooped into a press conference on Tuesday morning where a couple of hundred journalists were already anxiously leafing through the book-thick press release announcing the titles of all 343 films to be screened at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, all the names of all the members of all the juries, all the stats, cross-collated in all the nifty ways databases make possible, festival director Dieter Kosslick was, naturally, wearing a red scarf. As with Berlin's former mayor, Social Democrat Walter Momper, it's practically a trademark. But Kosslick was also sporting the most photogenic of recent additions to the Berlinale lineup: a t-shirt.
Yes, the Berlinale is making its first forays into merchandizing. Baby steps, actually. You'll be able to buy the shirt; there's also a mug and, for the kids, a teddy bear. Wearing the shirt.
It's an appropriately symbolic move, in a way. Because even though you can say of the Berlinale that it really is all about the films more emphatically than you can say that of a few other festivals, there's one story here that simply yells, "Lede!": The European Film Market is exploding. Anthony Kaufman had a good piece on this in indieWIRE a couple of weeks ago, but in short, now that the American Film Market has shifted to November from February, all winter festivals, and especially the Berlinale, are seeing a boost in market activity. Berlin's stats (referring to my book-thick release): 165 companies are represented this year, an increase of 38 percent over last year, peddling 530 films, an increase of 33 percent over 2004.
Because it's growing exponentially, the EFM needs new digs. 2005 will be, as EFM director Beki Probst put it, a "year of transition," but by 2006, the dealmaking will carry on in what Kosslick quite rightly calls one of Germany's most aesthetically intriguing buildings, the Martin-Gropius-Bau.
As it happens, the venue is currently hosting the Stanley Kubrick exhibition (through April 11) and Kubrick will be a considerable presence (so to speak) at this year's Berlinale. The
Retrospective this year - "Settings - Locations - Scenes. Production Design & Film" - will feature a good handful of Kubrick's works; Ken Adam, who designed Barry Lyndon and Dr Strangelove, will be interviewed live on stage on Valentine's Day and, on Wednesday, February 16, Kubrick's widow, Christiane, and her brother, Jan Harlan will be interviewed under the rubric, "Stanley Kubrick: Creating a World." Retrospective highlights are many this year, but I've got to mention the restored versions of Battleship Potemkin and Fritz Lang's Spione; naturally, there'll be live discussions related to these as well.
[I'll snip here. The preview went on to cover various programs and a local theater employee strike; if you're interested, the entry is here.]
Arriving at Potsdamer Platz this morning, the first thing I noticed is that Franka Potente's hair is red again. Not the shock of red sprinting towards orange you're thinking, but more of a slick, glistening, purplish red, and there it was, up on the giant screen erected in front of the Berlinale Palast, where most of the films in competition are screened. That's not her in that shot, by the way; I whipped out my camera only in time to catch a journalist posing the last question in a quick press conference I'd somehow missed word of: the International Jury - which, to put it politely, is not exactly overloaded with heavyweights this year - struggling to answer vague inquiries as to what they'll be looking for in the 22 films in the running (at the last minute, Fateless, cinematographer Lájos Koltai's directorial debut, based on a novel by Imre Kertész, who also wrote the screenplay, nabbed the spot suddenly vacated by Chris Terrio's Heights).
As for the opening film of the 55th Berlinale, Régis Wargnier's Man to Man, it is two seemingly contradictory things at once. On the hand, in terms of sheer filmmaking prowess, it is, if you can believe it, not up to the standards of the opening films of the two previous years, Cold Mountain (2004) and Chicago (2003). On the other hand, though, it's a far more appropriate opener for this particular festival than either.
It's not just that Man to Man echos the themes of this year's selection across all sections (Competition, Forum, Panarama, etc.), namely, politics and Africa (sex is rumored to be a running motif as well, but we'll see soon enough; there's certainly no sexual energy in Man to Man, at any rate). It's more that the film has "noble project" written all over it, more fitting to the serious wintertime festival as opposed to those affairs of summer by the beach, and its selection could be read as a conscious step away from the Hollywood-by-way-of-Miramax openers past (that is, if festival director Dieter Kosslick hadn't admitted that he would like to have opened with The Aviator but its German distributor was too anxious to get it in theaters in time for the Oscar nominations). Instead, this year opens with a film anxious to make a statement, and for the first hour or so, it's difficult not to worry that we're slipping into similar territory as last year's disastrous competitor, John Boorman's Country of My Skull. Here we have another European filmmaker venturing to Africa and picking up a chapter of its history to illustrate the hideous consequences of European racism. But of course, noble intentions aren't always enough.
Fortunately, Man to Man picks up after that first hour as complications kick in and the story runs along more than one thin, predictable line at once. Briefly: 1870. Three Scottish anthropologists are determined to fill in the gaps of Darwin's recently published theory of the origin of the species by discovering the "missing link" between apes and humans. Based on anthropometry, the now-discredited idea that the size and shape of the skull determines intelligence, they decide pygmies must be it. That's where our story begins: One of them, Jamie Dodd (Joseph Fiennes), captures two pygmies, a man and a woman, and even as early as the ship voyage back home, he begins to suspect that there may be more to them than most dumb animals.
Until that inevitable emotional bond takes hold, though, we're still in Skull territory: fine actors, in particular Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas as the all-business-minded shipper, struggling with stilted dialogue and Wargnier's point-blank, standardized and quaintly old-fashioned direction (it's hard, for example, not to capture the beauty of a 19th century sailing ship, yet somehow, Wargnier manages) to find their way into a world that simply isn't there in any tangible sense.
But. Once the pygmies - the only truly riveting presences on screen, played by newcomers Lomama Boseki and Cécile Bayiha - get to Scotland and escape the anthropologists' make-shift lab, things pick up considerably and we leave Skull territory for the one mapped out by, among other films, Hugh Hudson's Greystoke, where much of the drama is played out on the faces of Victorians who cannot come to terms with the true nobility of nature they've stumbled upon in their voracious conquests (and too often, its overly romanticized mystery as well), which neither their science nor their religion has prepared them for.
It's in this confrontation of extremes (and by no means is it an exaggeration, as Iain Glen, who studied up intensively for his role as the most staunchly Victorian of the three scientists, pointed out after the screening) that what Fiennes called the film's "resonance in these days of rising fundamentalism" is most plainly (albeit perhaps too plainly) illustrated. Again, noble stuff. Not great filmmaking, but there are worse ways of getting warmed up.
Preview, Man to Man.Rwanda, Asylum and Thumbsucker.
Provincia, Changing Times, Europe.
Sophie Scholl, Paradise, Mitterand, Tickets.
Blade, Ghosts, Fateless.
Blue, Aquatic, Wayward Cloud, Charming Girl, Sun, Heart Skipped, Peacock, Accused.
The Awards and the Aftermath
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lives and writes in Berlin.
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