Karlovy Vary Turns at Least 45
by Dennis West

Maria de Medeiros as "the girl from Pulp Fiction" explores the European film scene in Frédéric Sojcher’s mock doc Hitler in Hollywood

Maria de Medeiros as "the girl from Pulp Fiction" explores the European film scene in Frédéric Sojcher’s mock doc Hitler in Hollywood

In early July of this year, the annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF), which is held in a storied Bohemian spa town, festively touted its forty-fifth edition. When I congratulated Artistic Director Eva Zaoralová on this formidable accomplishment, she reminded me that the festival was actually founded right after World War II, in 1946, when the future powerhouses Cannes and Locarno were also established. In her official statement in this year’s stylishly produced catalog, Zaoralová elaborates: “…the Czechs who had been expelled by the Nazis before the war started returning here, among them individuals who could see in the town’s potential as a well-resourced tourist spa the possibility of it becoming a major film venue. Despite the hasty nationalization of the Czechoslovak film industry, the largely favorable economic climate allowed the dream to become a reality. Thus the first film festival with an international presence, naturally as yet non-competitive, opened in August 1946 concurrently in Karlovy Vary and in nearby Marienbad. We would therefore perhaps be celebrating our 64th anniversary this year if….” Here Zaoralová diplomatically dilutes her speculations into suspension points, since those in the know will well remember the Soviet meddling that for decades forced the KVIFF to share the limelight with the Moscow Film Festival and to take place only in alternate years.

Now the Soviets are long gone, and for sixteen years Karlovy Vary has enjoyed a successful reorganization, which stresses privatization but also draws on the support of the Czech Ministry of Culture. This plan has turned the festival into a particularly hospitable midsummer Category A event and “the place” on the festival circuit to catch up on films from the former Soviet bloc.

To retain its coveted Category A status, the KVIFF must adhere to the statutes of the FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Association), which require that fiction features in the prestigious Official Competition must have been produced after Jan. 1, 2009, and must never have screened in competition at other international festivals. Given the negative impact of the recent recession on movie industries around the world, I had initially assumed that the dozen features in this year’s Official Competition would show a marked decline in quality. I was mistaken, and several of the films proved artistically and socially remarkable.

Certainly the most esthetically original work in the Official Competition—and probably the most fun movie, at least for cinephiles, in the entire festival—was Belgian director Frédéric Sojcher’s Hitler in Hollywood, which was playfully and tongue-in-cheekishly written by film sophisticates Renaud Andris and Lionel Samain. In this well produced biodoc/road movie/investigative mockumentary, the Portuguese actress/singer/director Maria de Medeiros (“the girl from Pulp Fiction,” as she breezily introduces herself) first meets up with the real-life octogenarian French superstar Micheline Presle, then goes looking Europe-wide for the fictional director Luis Aramcheck and one of his supposedly long-lost films, and finally at the very end, after the last credits have rolled, encounters none other than centenarian Portuguese maestro Manoel de Oliveira, cinema’s last living link to the silent era. All this genre bending and self-reflexive fun is in the service of investigating and defending the past and current situation of European cinema vis-à-vis the enormous worldwide socioeconomic power of Hollywood. Sojcher calls in the heavyweights here: directors Wim Wenders, Emir Kusturica, Volker Schlöndorff, Cannes Film Festival President Gilles Jacob, and many other prominent European figures appear as themselves to pointedly comment on the topic. Hitler in Hollywood’s considerable achievement is to explore major socioeconomic and artistic issues in a superbly creative and entertaining manner. In a popular decision, the film captured the coveted FIPRESCI or International Critics Prize.

Family problems proved to be the overarching theme of many of the Official Competition entries. The multigenerational, affluent Spanish family in the ultradark comedyThe Mosquito Net, written and directed by the Catalan Agustí Vila, falls apart when the heterosexual couple suffers a marital crisis, Grandma’s Alzheimer’s prevents her from speaking, Mom beds and rebeds her teenage son’s best male friend, and Junior’s attention-getting habit of collecting stray dogs and cats in the family apartment finally spins out of control. Famed actress Geraldine Chaplin, who silently suffers as the grandmother, labeled the script one of the strongest she had ever read. The grand jury seemed to agree, awarding The Mosquito Net the Grand Prix as best film. I strongly disagree, since genre, tone, and character development never convincingly mesh in this forgettable project.

The best director award went to the veteran Croatian filmmaker Rajko Grlić for his intimate “tragicomic drama” Just Between Us, which is set in a contemporary Zagreb rife with sexual shenanigans. Grlić draws on strong performances and an innovative narrative structure to insightfully track the vast and unsettling social and psychological implications of adultery, which he regards as one of the thorniest issues currently facing our societies. Just Between Us also garnered the nonstatutory Europa Cinemas Prize, which will greatly enhance its exhibition potential in cinemas throughout the continent.

Several other features stood out in the Official Competition. Georgian-born director Dmitri Mamulia’s debut feature Another Sky is a poetic and moving record of internal immigration and cultural dislocation: an Uzbek father and his young son leave the poor pastoral life of the arid Central Asian steppes to go to Moscow, where the father searches for his wife while also attempting to make ends meet as a down-and-out Gastarbeiter. The grand jury fittingly awarded Another Sky a special mention. Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman continues his exploration of the Argentine family in his Brother and Sister, a comic examination of a dysfunctional relationship linking aging siblings; diva Graciela Borges excels in portraying a domineering, self-centered, and uncomprehending sister. In her emotionally powerful elegy Mourning for Anna, the Quebecois writer and director Catherine Martin uses stationary camera set-ups and long takes in a Canadian frozen winter landscape to plumb the ways in which human beings attempt to continue living and heal the pain while mourning loved ones.

The KVIFF also sponsored an Official Competition of documentary films. The finest feature I saw in this program was Katka, which was written and directed by Helena Trestíková, a leading figure in the Czech documentary scene. She has made a name for herself directing documentaries exploring social problems or human relationships. Both of these concerns come together in her recent “trilogy of observational studies of people who, due to unlucky circumstances, find themselves at the end of their tether or on the margins of society,” as a special English-language issue of the Czech film journal Film a doba succinctly put it. Katka is the most recent work in this trilogy. This observational study follows the life of a young drug addict over a fourteen-year period as she relies on precarious relationships with two different men and on a variety of criminal activities to sustain her habit, which she can never kick, even when awaiting the birth of a daughter. This powerful documentary raises perhaps disturbing moral and ethical issues concerning a filmmaker’s relation to her human subjects. Such issues have not prevented an impressive outpouring of interest by the Czech moviegoing public, 100,000 of whom have reportedly turned out thus far to see Katka in cinemas. And at the festival, an extra screening had to be added because of overwhelming interest.

This year Karlovy Vary awarded two Crystal Globes for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema. One went to the extraordinarily prolific Czech actor/director Juraj Herz (born 1934), who seems particularly well known for unnerving his audiences in a variety of genres, including Gothic horror, psychological films, and detective movies. Herz certainly unnerved this festival participant when in an interview he responded in the following manner to a question concerning his current desire to make a black comedy about a ten-year-old boy who is sent to a concentration camp: “Do you know why I am here to receive awards? They put us on the ramp to go to Auschwitz. It was clear to me what it meant…. And then—all of a sudden—they gave us a piece of bread and chased us back to the carriage for Ravensbrück. After the war I found out that it only happened once during the whole war that they ran out of gas in Auschwitz so they could not receive any more people. It was that precise week when I was supposed to arrive. So I feel I owe that film to myself.”

The second Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution went to Russian movie mogul Nikita Mikhalkov (born 1945), whose three-hour, overstuffed World War II mega-epic Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus was routinely characterized by critics I encountered as an economic, ideological, and artistic disaster. The filmmaker remained unperturbed by this critical reaction and tellingly had this to share at his press conference: “I don’t now want to understand the people, I want the people to understand me. To understand people is like McDonald’s. It’s like fast food. It’s bad for your health.”

My wanderings through the many noncompetitive festival programs uncovered numerous recently produced gems, such as October, written and directed by the Peruvian Vega brothers, Daniel and Diego. This minimalist, black-humored, debut fiction feature sketches a realist portrait of a sour-faced, unmarried, and unpopular forty-something Limeño moneylender whose life suddenly changes when a wee baby is anonymously and inexplicably dropped off at his house. Or writer-director Mona Achache’s French fiction feature The Hedgehog, which imaginatively combines fairy-tale qualities with a precocious eleven-year-old Parisian’s point of view to examine longstanding French stereotypes and social conventions.

But perhaps the most memorable of these gems was the last fiction feature I saw at the festival, the Portuguese The Strange Case of Angélica. In this daring and haunting work, a young man, a cultured and spiritual Jewish photographer, succumbs to a delusion—that a recently deceased, beautiful young woman he is commissioned to photograph somehow comes back to life for him in a photo—and he ends up hopelessly ensnared in a romantic, otherworldly enchantment. This one-of-a-kind narrative metaphysically explores one of the director’s key themes—frustrated loves. The writer-director of this film is Manoel de Oliveira, who at 102 years of age continues to turn out a challenging new feature every year. Maria de Medeiros has reason to be optimistic. With great auteurs like her countryman Oliveira, European cinema endures.

Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste and Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.