Berlinale 2017 Diary #1
Berlin, BABYLON, Politics, DJANGO.
On Tuesday evening, Christoph Hochhäusler sat down in front of a modestly sized audience—students, mostly—at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB) for a casual conversation with Thomas Arslan, whose Bright Nights (Helle Nächte) premieres in Competition at the Berlinale on Monday. Little was said about Bright Nights other than that it was shot in Norway—and hence off-topic. Because the discussion, peppered with clips from Arslan's Dealer (1999), Der schöne Tag (2001) and In the Shadows (Im Schatten, 2010), focussed on how Arslan goes about filming Berlin. And that's why I had to be there.
In the Shadows is not only a cracking good genre movie with something on its mind—as it happens, Christoph Huber once wrote for Cinema Scope that the film's "socioeconomic allegory suggests a kinship to the astonishing death-of-finance finale of Christoph Hochhäusler’s remarkable The City Below [also 2010]"—it's also one of the better portraits of Berlin as it's actually lived in (though I might add: minus the past seven years of accelerating gentrification). The stakeouts, clandestine meetings and so forth take place in sprawling parking lots, nondescript cafés, generic hotel rooms, anonymous hallways. Surfaces are linoleum, carpeting, sheetrock. Nothing is polished up or grunged down to make the city look the way it yearns to be seen: cool. Or, as former mayor Klaus Wowereit put it in 2004, "Berlin ist arm, aber sexy." ("Berlin is poor, but sexy.") Nonetheless, In the Shadows somehow comes off looking spectacular.
And as Hochhäusler pointed out Tuesday evening, all of Arslan's Berlin films are "topographically true." When two down-on-their-luck friends in Dealer walk down a street, turn a corner and one of them ducks into a doorway to avoid being seen by a guy he owes money to, those two streets really do cross in that specific neighborhood. You can map a wordless chase on foot in Der schöne Tag on an actual map.
Contrast In the Shadows with Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, 1998), shot (and marketed) at a time when Berlin was sure it was the future crossroads of a New Europe, Germany's own answer to Cool Britannia. Go ahead and prefer one or the other, but Tykwer's approach to the city in a film with a video game narrative and music video reveries is just as valid. The fragmentation of style (animated sequences, sped up flash forwards and so on) is applied to geography as well. "For those who know Berlin," writes Brigitta Wagner in Berlin Replayed, "Lola's runs create a series of impossible spatial relations between Mitte (East), Kreuzberg (West), Friedrichshain (East), and Charlottenburg (West)."
When Lola turns a corner, you have no idea where Scotty will beam her next. Brigitta Wagner:
Tykwer's extreme cinephilic formalism both maps urban space, rendering it visible and structuring its unique relations between shots, and remembers Berlin's film history, its previous spatial interpretations. What might be called the film's spatial attitude or behavior (Einstellung), a particular means of framing the world, of reconstituting it for the camera and future screens, is crucial to the way Lola rennt imagines a New Cinematic Berlin, a city of youth, dynamism, and forward motion. Hardly a film that turns its back on Germany, it performs and reinterprets urban space for the postwall generation.
Yesterday, Tykwer, two other directors, Henk Handloegten and Achim von Borries, and a slew of production companies—X-Filme, Sky, ARD, Beta Film—staged a swanky reception for the press as they unveiled a five-and-a-half minute sizzle reel: Babylon Berlin, Germany's biggest TV series yet, a "lavish historical drama [that] explores not only the glorious roaring 20s heyday of the German capital, but also the dark underbelly of the original sin city in all its brutal debauchery," as Ed Meza puts it in Variety. Sixteen 45-minute episodes over two seasons, premiering on Sky in October and on ARD, one of Germany's publicly funded broadcasters, in 2018. And sales all across Europe, we learned, are swift.
The stars were there, the producers were there, all three directors were there, but it was pretty much Tykwer's show. He's the one with the experience of working on a grand scale with a big budget and two other directors—namely, Lana and Lilly Wachowski on Cloud Atlas (2012) and, for Netflix, Sense8. And, as everyone in the room understood, he's the one with the looks and the voice to represent.
So how does Babylon Berlin look? Difficult to say. The trailer's meant to dazzle, of course, so it's impossible to get a feel for the actual pace or level of engagement we can expect from the storytelling. But yes, the production values are high, the murders will be gruesome, the humping will be vigorous, and the politics—the story's based on the novels of Volker Kutscher set in the years when Germany slipped from a global financial crisis into fascism—ominous.
Which presents a fine segue into "Lost in Politics," the conference that launched the third Berlin Critics' Week last night. If there was a single overriding theme—a big if, considering that there were two introductions and six participants on the panel—it was set early on with a quote, one that J. Hoberman has called Jean-Luc Godard's "mantra" during the Dziga Vertov Group years: "The problem is not to make political films but to make films politically."
Political films did indeed come under considerable fire throughout the evening. In his opening remarks, critic Nino Klingler argued that "topics" too often supplant aesthetic innovation, resulting in plaidoyers that comfort rather than provoke audiences. It took a good half hour or so for the panel to find its groove, but when it did, Athina Rachel Tsangari emerged at its MVP, particularly as she sparred with philosopher Alexander García Düttmann.
Tsangari cited two films in particular as works that manage to be "about" political issues—Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor (genocide) and Roberto Minervini's The Other Side (marginalization)—while at the same time, "transcending" form in such a way that these issues are actively complicated within the contexts of their lived-in worlds.
I think I can appreciate the argument while at the same time going on all in for a documentary screening in the Panorama section at the Berlinale that couldn't be more topical—and unabashedly straightforward about it, too. Fernando León de Aranoa's Politics, Instructions Manual (Política, manual de instrucciones) tracks the rise of the Podemos party in Spain following protests in 2011 against austerity measures being imposed on the country—primarily by Germany, by the way; Angela Merkel may argue that it's the European Central Bank that sets policy in the eurozone, but few would argue that she and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, aren't the real movers and shakers.
You don't need to know the first thing about Spanish politics walking into Politics, Instructions Manual; fulfilling the promise of its title, the film is a crash course and, for those like me, a campaign junkie whose preferred mode of procrastination is to revisit clips from The War Room, a genuine thriller. I see that the Guardian is running something of a postscript today, Sam Jones's report on this weekend's party congress: "Podemos is facing a profound political and philosophical dilemma. Others might call it a civil war."
Would that Django, officially opening this year's Berlinale and the Competition, were half—a quarter!—as engaging. For his directorial debut, Etienne Comar's done himself no favors in choosing to tell the story of legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Biopics are tough enough, being necessarily as narratively messy as the lives they're based on, but especially when nearly every dramatic beat has already been beaten to death.
The free-spirited artist (here, Reda Kateb), a bit of a self-consumed scoundrel but basically a mensch, cares nothing for politics and little about much else other than his art, but you know, Nazis. And what sharply sculpted features these diabolically uniformed officers sport! Despite Django's ethnicity—Romani, or as the subtitles would have it, gypsy—they want him to depart occupied Paris for a tour of Germany, culminating in a concert in Berlin to be attended by Goebbels and maybe even the Führer himself.
Though Django has a mean manager in his mother (Bim Bam Merstein) and a devoted wife (Beata Palya), his main ally in the cat-and-mouse that follows is Louise (Cécile de France), just blonde and well-heeled enough to be able to play the Nazis for what she and the Resistance need. There is zero suspense in all of this, but there are plenty of musical reprieves from the thudding boredom as Django and his loyal band play grand concert halls in Paris and tiny bars tucked away in the French Alps. Little wonder that Comar stretches them for all they're worth.
More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 2/5), Peter Debruge (Variety), David Ehrlich (IndieWire, B-), Ed Frankl (Film Stage, B-), Kenji Fujishima (House Next Door), Giovani Marchini Camia (Notebook), Jordan Mintzer (Hollywood Reporter), Christina Newland (Sight & Sound), Paul O’Callaghan (Exberliner), Bénédicte Prot (Cineuropa) and Jonathan Romney (Screen).