Berlin International Film Festival 2015
by Richard Porton

Visitors to the Berlin International Film Festival (usually referred to as the Berlinale) spend most of their time at the Postdamer Platz, the blandest, most Americanized neighborhood in an increasingly multicultural capital. Corporate homogenization, exemplified by the Sony Center, where many of the screenings take place, is partially offset by some of the more audacious offerings attended by an eager public and a large swath of the international press. This year’s Golden Bear winner—Jafar Panahi’s Taxi—represented as much of a good-will gesture lobbed in the direction of the international cinephile community as an aesthetic commendation. 

Something of a bittersweet comedy (Scott Foundas in Variety invoked the adjective “Chaplinesque,” while Woody Allen is explicitly referenced in the film), Taxi is the third Panahi work shot clandestinely since the regime imposed a twenty-year ban on his filmmaking activities. Considerably more crowd pleasing than Panahi’s previous underground features, This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, the film is in the tradition of vehicular narratives pioneered by Iranian directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Rakhshan Beni-E’temad. The moving vehicle functions as a refuge from the state’s tentacles and Panahi, a furtive director impersonating a taxi driver, becomes a puckish Everyman whose ragtag assortment of passengers allow him to wittily puncture official hypocrisy. 

The range of passengers in Jafar Panahi’s taxi allow us a glimpse of various layers of Iranian society. 

With a camera mounted on a dashboard, Taxi captures a cross-section of Tehran, including bickering residents who dispute the value of capital punishment as well as good-natured hucksters trying to make a living in the black-market economy. (Panahi’s banter with a man peddling illicit DVDs confirms how a cinephilic culture persists in Iran despite considerable obstacles.) As is true with the films of Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the line between fiction and nonfiction is playfully blurred. Although the encounters have an improvisatory feel, it’s impossible to believe that Panahi hasn’t choreographed these seemingly offhand collisions between passengers from diverse backgrounds. This is particularly true toward the end of the film, at a juncture when Panahi’s niece, a budding filmmaker, appears on the scene. Facing many of the same impediments imposed by state censorship that have shackled her uncle, she emerges as the film’s moral center—an aesthetic decision that is far from accidental or unplanned. Despite Taxi’s tangible pleasures, however, one yearns for the broader scope of Panahi films such as Crimson Gold and Offside, personal works that deploy allegory in a less self-referential manner. 

Other Berlinale competition films were an inevitably mixed bag. Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s The Club, which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, focused on a group of pedophile Catholic priests, sequestered in a rural region of Chile, with a mixture of revved-up polemical outrage and scattershot symbol mongering. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years proved more restrained and, despite the conventional trappings of the “well-made film,” gave its protagonists more room to breathe. Films, whether Hollywood or art house, often depict older characters with barely disguised condescension; they’re either cloyingly cute or off their rockers. Eschewing cutesiness, 45 Years focuses on a crisis that threatens the stability of an aging couple’s relationship on the eve of their forty-fifth anniversary. The bucolic life of Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) in rural Norfolk is threatened when Kate learns of the death of one of Geoff’s former, nearly forgotten, girlfriends. The recriminations and final reconciliation that follow are noteworthy for bypassing the usual melodramatic detours that usually accompany these sorts of revelations in movies. There’s also a great deal of pleasure to be derived from Courtenay and Rampling’s measured, rueful performances. 

After 45 years, Geoff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling ) face a crisis in their marriage. 

While Taxi and 45 Years gave Berlin’s competition some heft, Wim Wenders’s 3-D melodrama, Everything Will be Fine, was a baffling example of how a once-major director can betray his own talent. Focusing on a writer played by James Franco, who is accidentally responsible for the death of a child and spends twelve years ruminating on the consequences, this misbegotten venture apparently aspires to evoke the stylistic flair of Fifties specialists in melodrama such as Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli but ends up being merely ponderous. Shot in Quebec, apparently for no other reason than taking advantage of a tax-shelter deal, the narrative is irritatingly woolly. Rachel McAdams, an Anglo-Canadian, playing Franco’s long-suffering girlfriend, struggles to perfect a French Canadian accent while her character reacts petulantly when her heartthrob is distracted by his fateful deed. Meanwhile, Charlotte Gainsbourg, portraying the mother of the child Franco kills, inhabits a thoroughly different universe of discourse; her troubled mom evinces the same tics that Gainsbourg employed in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Nymphomaniac and seems like an unlikely interloper in the snowy Quebec countryside. Franco, alas, is the film’s morose cynosure. A caricature of a novelist whose literary pretensions appear to outweigh his talent, his character encapsulates the film’s weaknesses. Despite a meditative pose, all of his attempts at serious thought prove thoroughly vacuous. 

Like Cannes’s Director’s Fortnight, Berlin’s Forum sidebar aspires to complement, and to a certain extent offer an antidote, to more mainstream competition fare. Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, one of the higher profile entries in this year’s Forum, reinvented melodramatic motifs more successfully than Everything Will be Fine. Perry’s script channels the spirit of female-centric Robert Altman vehicles, particularly Images and 3 Women, and regards his protagonist’s plight with much of the same detached astringency evident in The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip. Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), emotionally drained after a difficult break-up and her father’s death, retreats to her best friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) country house. With Perry’s favorite cinematographer Sean Price Williams zeroing in on Catherine’s anguish with extreme close-ups, cracking up has rarely seemed so harrowing. Instead of being supportive, Virginia turns out to be a champion “underminer”; her unguarded remarks fuse sympathy with barely concealed hostility. Flashbacks give us a glimpse of the hipster boyfriend that’s the source of Catherine’s anguish—and who inspires Virginia’s jealous bile. Even though Queen of Earth occasionally feels like more of a cinematic exercise than a believable portrait of madness, there’s something bracing about a feel-bad movie that doesn’t try to mollify its audience. 

Catherine’s (Elisabeth Moss) visit to a close friend proves more harrowing than she expected.

Another Forum title, documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Over the Years, challenged viewers in a slightly subtler manner. A film about deindustrialization and its discontents, Geyrhalter dispenses with the usual clichés about globalization and instead, in a maneuver that has been compared to Boyhood, examines the impact of the shuttering of a factory in Northern Austria near the Czech border on a handful of workers over a ten-year period. In contrast to Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, which skewered factory farming with an almost God-like detachment, Over The Years features intimate portraits of quietly heroic individuals who endure economic catastrophe with both stoicism and humor. Geyrhalter conveys their plight with a bold frontality in which the subjects, almost captive in tableaux that resemble photorealist portraits, talk directly to the camera. 

The Panorama section, something like a middlebrow wedge between the populist competition films and the more rarefied films in the Forum, is always a veritable cinematic grab bag. Many of the entries, such as Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? and Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby, were straight-from-Sundance indies. Garbus’s Nina Simone bio-doc, while compelling and replete with memorable anecdotes, is an ultraconventional documentary destined for imminent cable broadcast. Silva’s acerbic jab at smug Park Slope hipsters is intermittently amusing, but soon builds to a gratuitous plot twist that is more contrived than edgy. Panorama’s mainstream art-house fare was well represented by a film like Icelandic director Dagur Kári’s Virgin Mountain, a reasonably well-made, if utterly unsurprising, character study of an overweight but good-hearted bachelor who finds temporary solace in a fraught relationship with an equally alienated young woman. 

Less flashy than Cannes, and more mainstream than Rotterdam, Berlin has become an essential festival by showcasing important, high-profile films such as Taxi and at least finding room for, if at times burying, more esoteric titles in the Forum. Foraging for Berlinale gems can sometimes be an arduous process. Still, the few rewarding days on the Postsdamer Platz temper the frustration engendered by slogging through the mediocre films that plague the rosters of even the most enlightened festivals. 

Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.

For more information on the Berlin International Film Festival, click here.

Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3, Summer 2015