Before getting into the day's movies, I realize that I haven't been saying much about the general atmo around here. The talk in the hallways, on the walks between the Berlinale Palast and the Hyatt where the press conferences are held (short walks; the buildings are right across from each other) and in the theaters while waiting for the lights to go down (doors open half an hour prior and there's often quite an earnest but polite race for the best seats) has, of course, been dominated by the films themselves. The big race, the Competition. People will bring up films they've caught in the Forum, Panorama and Retrospective programs, but the films in the Competition are the one guaranteed common-ground sort of conversation piece. "What's your favorite?" or "What are you favoring?" are variations of the most heard "how ya doin'?" substitute.
And then, a series of topics come up again and again: looming war, the stars, death and immigration. The relationships between any two or all of these motifs are many and intriguing. Death and immigration are themes shared by a notable number of films. There's death by disease (My Life Without Me), there's death by choosing not to fight a disease or by choosing not to fight, period (I'll leave out titles to keep from spilling spoilers), and there's death while immigrating. The trials and tribulations of immigrants have been the direct subject matter of no less than three films in the Competition (In This World, Distant Lights, reviewed below, and Spare Parts, reviewed soon). Besides "Towards Tolerance", festival director Dieter Kosslick and his selection committee have definitely made a more specific and no less urgent political statement here.
What's been notable about the stars is that they've been hanging around in Berlin longer this year than they usually do. Normally, the routine is to fly in, do the photo shoots, press conferences and interviews, red carpet, maybe a post-party and fly out. But several have been hanging around for days this time and Dustin Hoffman has made the biggest splash not only for partying all over town late into the night but also for delivering a speech Monday night at a gala organized by Unicef, "Cinema for Peace." Christopher Lee, Roger Moore, Faye Dunaway and George Clooney were also on hand.
I was not, but the papers the next day were chattering about Hoffman's speech and one of them, Der Tagesspiegel, a major one that looks like it's going to win the Great Berlin Newspaper War and actually survive, printed the text in full. The gist is common to what a lot of visitors from Hollywood have had to say: I love my country, but it is way, way on the wrong foot with this whole Iraq thing. "The Vietnam War, too, began with a lie," is the pull-quote that popped up most often throughout the German mediascape. Hoffman's argument, though, is more spelled out than all that and is quite good but its most noteworthy aspect is that is very gut-level and emotional and he evidently delivered his comments with such intensity - I mean, you can just imagine - that many politicians, mind you, have been saying it was the best speech they'd heard in years.
And then there was death itself, the real thing. A star of sorts for Europeans and certainly beloved by European stars, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, producer extraordinaire, died of a heart attack on Tuesday afternoon. Amazing how many actors and directors in the press conferences that followed talked about when they'd last seen him and how shaken they were. The man had contacts far and wide. Daniel Auteuil was hit so hard he didn't show up at his at all, but more on that tomorrow.
The cumulative effect of His Brother (Son Frère) is somehow greater than the experience of actually watching it. I suppose that's a variation on "the sum is greater than its parts," but not really; the parts are fine. But it can be aggravating to sit through all of them strung together. It's only afterwards that certain shots linger in the mind and the overall arch of what's revealed about the characters when can be appreciated. The charm, intelligence and eloquence of director Patrice Chéreau on display at the press conference afterwards doesn't hurt, either. But to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't want to sit through His Brother again.
Eric Caravaca (Luc), director Patrice Chéreau, Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick and Bruno Todeschini (Thomas)
Chéreau won the Golden Bear in 2001 for Intimacy and this new film has a bit in common with it. Sex is dealt with frankly but without eroticism, which isn't to say the scenes aren't beautiful in their way - just not sexy. There are two main characters and everyone outside that axis is peripheral. And the two main characters aren't happy. But His Brother has less story going on. I don't see a Bear of any color for Chéreau this year.
Late winter, early spring. Luc (Eric Caravaca) is a gay school teacher in Paris. He gets a call from his older brother, Thomas (Bruno Todeschini). Can he come over? Yes, sure. It's the first time they've seen each other in a while. Thomas does not look well, and sure enough, pacing and sweating, he tells his little brother he's got some strange blood disease, very rare. The platelets are freaking and the doctors aren't quite sure what to do about it.
From here on in, we jump back and forth between this time of year - we don't know which year - to late summer, early fall, when Thomas's disease has progressed beyond the point that the doctors can do much of anything anymore. But he can live for years; he'll just have to be enormously careful. Guess what happens. But that is only half the point. The other half is all about how these two brothers, once very close, have grown apart over the years and how they come together very quickly again.
But along the way, we have many, many long shots, all hand-held and casually composed, in which not much happens other than us staring at Thomas feeling really, really bad. Some of these are beautiful; he's shaven for an operation, for example. The light hits Thomas's thin naked body just right as two pairs of womens' hands shave off all his body hair. Someone even asked Chéreau if he had specific paintings in mind as he composed this shot, but while Chéreau said he once considered painting the highest art and might even still and that he even thought in the hospital, looking at the seriously ill, "if you can detach yourself emotionally, you see paintings everywhere," no.
Last year, Chéreau suddenly found himself without a project on his hands. An American film fell through - probably the Napoleon project he's wanted to do for years with Al Pacino - and he had nothing to do. He got together with some producer-types, among them agnes b., also known as a gallerist and fashion designer, and they convinced him that he could put a movie together, script to final cut, in six months. He didn't believe them. But then they all worked like madmen and pulled it off. His Brother is that film. Sometimes, these little quickies turn out well; sometimes they show how quickly they were thrown together. I'm afraid His Brother does just that.
Hans-Christian Schmid is a young German director with a lot of hopes for German cinema resting on his shoulders. His breakthrough came in 1996 with Nach Fünf im Urwald (never widely distributed outside Germany, but evidently known as both After Five in the Forest Primeval and It's a Jungle Out There), the film that put Franka Potente on the local map before she bust out running around the world. Then came 23 (1998), based on the true story of Karl Koch, a hacker associated with the legendary Chaos Computer Club, found hanging from his belt strung up in a tree in a park in Berlin: a mystery that still has not been solved. And then, Crazy (2000), based on a runaway bestseller by the very young Benjamin Lebert.
All of these films are well-crafted and finely hued, probably story-boarded and so on. Three years after Crazy, Schmid has swerved off in a whole new direction - for him. He's landed in territory that, at least within the narrow context of this year's Berlinale, where everybody else is already poking around. Distant Lights (Lichter) is shot by Polish cinematographer Bogumil Godfrejow with a hand-held camera - you could almost say a violently hand-held camera - and it's about immigration.
But while In This World follows the fate of two people halfway around the world, Lights follows many, many fates - there are five interwoven tales in all - within one specific area, the German-Polish border. One town, really, that has become two towns, Frankfurt-an-der-Oder on the German side and Slubice on the Polish side. We have refugees passing through, or trying to, we have a translator at a border post, another who has to resort to prostitution to make ends meet, a Polish taxi driver and his family, a loser trying to get his mattress shop off the ground in Frankfurt and boyfriends and girlfriends and waiters and strangers and on and on.
Distant Lights: Producer, screenwriter, Ivan Schvedoff (plays an illegal Ukranian immigrant), August Diehl (an architect), Maria Simon (a translator) and Hans-Christian Schmid
Shall I state the obvious? Ok. Some of the stories work better than others. Some have found the film to be deeply depressing, but Schmid insists it's an ultimately optimistic film. We can split the difference, I think, and pretty safely bet that some of these people are eventually going to get their lives as together as most people have them and others aren't. All in all, it's a worthy, occasionally engaging snapshot in time, snapped in a present between the fall of the Wall and Poland's joining the EU in the near future, probably within a year. After that, the whole story moves east to the Ukrainian border.
Chinese Odyssey 2002
No Competition film on Tuesday evening, so I caught Jeff Lau's Chinese Odyssey 2002, figuring it'd be just the thing to wind down with after all that heaviocity. The quote from Lau circulated to the press was certainly inviting:
I like making waves, turning things inside out, upside down, creating a general sense of chaos. I also like being something of an enigma; I don't like people seeing through me and knowing how I play my cards. Since the 1990s, I've made comic movies in the genre which most people call "nonsense comedies." But in truth, there's not much that's nonsensical about the absurd elements in my films. On the contrary, I think they are perfectly logical. When something seems wrong to me, I want to draw attention to it and make fun of it. I like making people laugh. Ideally, they'll laugh till they cry and then suddenly realize why the joke is so funny. I have fun making my films. It's my belief that if I have fun, you will, too.
Sounds like just the thing. Was it? Yes and no. It starts out great. Ming Dynasty. The young Emperor (Chang Chen and his sister (Faye Wong) have had enough of the palace and attempt an escape. She makes it, he doesn't. She disguises herself as a man and shows up at an eatery run by Li Yilong (Tony Leung/Leung Chiu-Wai), a wandering bully who so terrifies the locals that all the men are afraid to date his sister, Phoenix (Vicky Zhao Wei). The three of them hit off immediately. Their meeting, in fact, has one of the best gags. Leaping and twirling, we freeze the frame with Li Yilong in mid-air, eyes set on the Princess he thinks is a fellow wanderer and recalling in voice-over the exact distance between him and him/her, and then, finish the shot, cut to the Princess leaping and twirling, freeze-frame, same dramatic voice-over, finish, cut to an innocent bystander, freeze-frame, voice-over, "I don't remember anything about this moment." And, action.
Lots of visual gags. Lots of exaggeration of classic kung fu genre staples, played for laughs. Lots of transgender playfulness. But then, about halfway in, when the Emperor escapes and makes his move on Phoenix, it gets, well, really, really silly. When the Emperor pops up wearing a 'fro straight out of Undercover Brother, you know things have gone too far.
Still, all in all. When it comes out on DVD and it's late and you're exhausted, you could do a lot worse.