Register Wednesday | May 12 | 2021

Strange Cravings

Champagne and pornographers at the Berlin Film Festival

Blooming incongruity: in the middle of Prussian leather-boot Germany, the new improved capital feels young and intensely feminine--like a very pregnant woman, moving slowly, marking time, waiting for something momentous to begin. Living in an area the size of metropolitan Paris, but with less than a third of the population, more than half the residents of Berlin are under thirty-five. It is a green city, with user-friendly lakes and forests twenty minutes by train from the centre; an oasis compared to many European cities.

Yet for those who live here, life is edgy. Since the wall fell in 1989, a building craze funded by pan-German taxpayers and globe-spinning speculators has resulted in award-winning designs, luxury towers and multipurpose hotels-cum-office complexes, and scads of refurbished housing. So far, though, all this activity remains a triumph of hope over need: the vacancy rate is double-digit and unemployment a stubborn 17 percent.

Berlin’s future depends on finance, high tech and culture. Potsdamer Platz, gutted by the war, is once again the officially designated city core, home to the Sony Center and DaimlerCity, to a multiplex movie theatre with 3-D IMAX and a film museum highlighting Berlin’s glorious past. It’s an ideal location for the Berlinale international film festival, held every year in the decidedly non-holiday month of February. At the fifty-fourth edition, the tension between art and business was palpable, almost desperate.

Faced with hundreds of films to choose from, I happily fell into conversation with a man holding a dog-eared program, only to have him denounce a choice I’d already made--John Boorman’s Country of My Skull. My new friend, a professional critic, had panned the film on the city’s largest radio station. (German cinephiles are wary of entertainment value.) Despite his solid, serious reputation, Boorman was forced to defend himself at his press conference against suggestions he’d glossed over the most horrific facts of the hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought into the open so many stories of violence under apartheid. I went anyway, and was surprised to find tears welling up after the first few scenes.

There is no doubt Country of My Skull is a polished star vehicle. The love story between the phenomenal Juliette Binoche and the gorgeous Samuel L. Jackson is as silly and coy as romance on screen usually is, but it is woven into scenes of testimony drawn from documentary accounts of the hearings. And in the middle of raw confession comes a groping attempt at apology. The juxtaposition of hard truth with soft sentiment isn’t completely successful, yet the decision to put them together seems on balance justified. It brings to mind a not too dissimilar quest once pursued by Bertold Brecht.

The Berlinale’s star lineup included Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, who both turned up to talk about their post-middle-age fantasy/comedy Something’s Gotta Give. I’d been warned it was a feel-good older chick flick, but to this older chick, the idea of a woman dumping Keanu Reeves with a doctor’s brain for Jack on Viagra appeared dubious, if not insane. And in Paris! The handsome young doctor had seen all of the older woman’s plays. What more has to give?

My personal quibble with Hollywood paled, however, beside the public outburst of German filmmaker Romuald Karmakar, whose bleak tale, Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder (Night Songs), came under heavy fire during a press conference. It was panned as dark, depressing and (the worst cut of all) typically German. Karmakar remained calm until asked to comment on why audience members had burst into derisive laughter during the screening. He shouted back that watching too many American movies had softened their brains. “It is distorting the language of film!” After that, things only got worse.

Whether the Berlinale jury was affected by such arguments, we’ll never know. But the top awards went almost exclusively to non-American films: the Golden Bear to Gegen die Wand (Head On), directed by Fatih Akin; the Silver Bear to El Abrazo Partido (Lost Embrace) directed by Daniel Burman; and the Silver Bear for best director to Kim Ki-Duk for Samaria (Samaritan Girl). The only prize for Hollywood fare went to South African Charlize Theron, who shared the Silver Bear for best actress for her work in Monster.

There can be no doubt that the leading art form of our time is pulled almost to the breaking point by conflicting demands: truth, light, etc., versus business and box office. Every sector and ilk struggles with compromise--even the counterculture. Case in point: Toronto filmmaker Bruce La Bruce, on hand to launch The Raspberry Reich, a hardcore porno/political satire about terrorism, produced and shot in Berlin. Alas, the attempt at irony was pretty well killed by a cast of non-actors (their compensating talent being an ability to perform sexually for the camera). When I raised the acting question with La Bruce, he hotly condemned the art of impersonation, citing no less a theorist than Bertold himself.

Being absent these several years from Canada, I am drawn to things Canadian. Otherwise, the title of Gary Burns’ new film might have turned me away, suggesting as it does both a lengthy discussion and a trivial subject. A Problem With Fear; Or Laurie’s Anxiety Confronting the Escalator is a hyperkinetic tale of paranoia set in a generic metropolis played by Calgary and Montreal. The film itself seems to quiver with anxiety--it’s a fascinating look at the collusion of personal and public neuroses.

Burns says Canadian reviews were negative. After raves and prizes for The Suburbanators, Kitchen Party and waydowntown, three hits produced in the space of seven years, he may be a victim of his own success--guilty mainly of making a different film, and thereby disappointing fans. What a shame, as this one is a timely gem.

No Canadian films figured in the Official Competition this year, but Robert Lepage’s La Face cachée de la lune (The Far Side of the Moon) was chosen for the Panorama program. I saw a market screening, held in a vast theatre for only a handful of spectators. After the humiliation of shedding tears in public, I didn’t bother holding back chuckles, sniggers and the odd guffaw at this exquisitely crafted character study. Built around the relationship between two brothers (both played by Lepage), the film shows how small frustrations fill a vast gulf of temperamental difference. The effect is moving. Lepage is and always has been a one-man show. La Face cachée de la lune reveals more of the man than we’ve seen before, and such great depths to be known.

Fortunately, a dearth of Canadian content didn’t stop Telefilm Canada from throwing a fine party at a fashionable bistro in Mitte, a splashy, formerly East Berlin neighbourhood. Wending my way through the trays of sumptuous hors d’oeuvres and a staggering range of liquids, past suits on duty, hoboesque youth and glamorous long necks, I spotted an imposing star-quality figure of a man, disguised by context. He turned out to be Montreal filmmaker and former neighbour Peter Wintonick, fresh from a sojourn in India.

A few minutes later I found myself conversing in French with a filmmaker from Quebec City, only to realize he was an anglophone. Nicholas Kinsey specializes in horror films, never gets funding from Telefilm Canada (though he tries), but nevertheless is very successful in securing private investment from Germany. Thus assured that the venerable Berlinale can indeed serve both art and industry, I had no choice but to seek out more champagne.