End of an Era: The 2019 Berlin International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton

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The last Berlin International Film Festival with Dieter Kosslick at the helm proved somewhat anticlimactic. For some time, both local German talent and a sizable swath of the international press have been demonstrably impatient with Kosslick, who has headed the festival since 2001, and viewed his regime as regressive. Even though notable films continue to be screened during the festival, Kosslick received a considerable amount of criticism for the tepid nature of the competition entries.

In 2017, seventy-nine directors, many of them well-respected figures such as Maren Ade, Volker Schlöndorff, and Christian Petzold, signed a letter calling for “transparency” and a “restructuring” of the festival—“a new start”—once Kosslick exits.

The festival has more or less responded to this plea by appointing a new team that will, beginning in 2019, split the duties of festival director. Carlo Chatrian, the affable head of the Locarno Film Festival who has to many festivalgoers’ minds successfully combined crowd-pleasing films and rarefied art cinema during his years at the prestigious Swiss event, will serve as the artistic director responsible for programming. Mariette Rissenbeek, a woman with deep roots in the German film industry, has been appointed the executive director—more or less the CEO. Without being cynical, the idea seems to be that gender equity and artistic integrity have been instituted with fell swoop.

At a time when Berlin has become an unwieldy behemoth—in some respects beleaguered by instead of benefiting from—screening many more films than Cannes or Venice, it’s clear that some sort of process of reassessment is in order. Despite the justly maligned competition slate (as well as the variable nature of the eclectic films assembled in the Panorama section), the one bright spot at Berlin remains the Forum sidebar. Somewhat insulated from the brouhaha that always surrounds the competition films, the Forum selections resemble the prototypically “offbeat” films often showcased at festivals such as Locarno and Rotterdam.

Clara (Zoe Kazan) and John Peter (Jay Baruchel) in Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers.

True to form, Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers, the Berlinale’s opening night film, was a cringe-inducing embarrassment. From one vantage point, it is manifestly unfair to judge a festival by its opening night gambit; it’s quite common for many prestigious festivals to begin with a whimper and showcase a mediocre film. In addition, because of other commitments, I regretted missing competition films that turned out to be among the festival’s most acclaimed entries—e.g., Synonymes by the well-regarded Israeli director Nadav Lapid (which ended up winning the Golden Bear) and Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to sigh and admit that The Kindness of Strangers, a well-intentioned but inept co-production by a Danish director working with a clunky script that might have been translated from the Esperanto, sums up the sort of lame offerings that have plagued the competition during Kosslick’s tenure. Zoe Kazan plays Clara, a woman who flees her nearly psychotic husband (the adjective “abusive” is not quite adequate) in upstate New York and arrives, kids in tow, in New York City. Homeless and desperate, the waif-like Clara receives the sort of redemption that is meted out to characters in maniacally schematic movies. Her travails are often reinforced with a shaky Dogme 95–style camera and the script offers the most saccharine solution imaginable to Clara’s plight. She is welcomed into an incongruously welcoming surrogate family, a brood headed by restaurant owner Bill Nighy, who mugs with a twinkle in his eye and a transparently phony Russian accent. Andrea Riseborough, a benevolent nurse cum social worker, also comes to the heroine’s rescue and Kazan ultimately finds solace in the arms of a dreamy reformed ex-con played by Tahar Rahim. A film marred by a surfeit of bogus kindness can be as dispiriting as a relentlessly pessimistic melodrama.

Bernard Verley as disgraced priest, Bernard Preynat, in François Ozon’s By the Grace of God.

François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, a much-praised competition entry, was at least competently made and intelligently scripted. Known for films laced with seemingly obligatory kinkiness, (his previous, and quite ludicrous, outing Double Lover featured the female protagonist mounting her lover with a strap-on dildo), By the Grace of God is dutifully earnest and slightly plodding. Already dubbed a French variant of Spotlight by a gaggle of reviewers, the narrative is triggered by the decision of Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a respectable Lyon banker, to take on the Catholic Church for tolerating the behavior of Bernard Preynat, the parish priest who abused him as a child. The Catholic hierarchy’s obliviousness to abuse in its midst is personified by the high-handed attitude of the Lyon archbishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who feigns empathy but does little to alleviate the trauma suffered by Alexandre and his fellow victims. Before long, Alexandre’s candor and willingness to speak to the press encourages other victims to come forward with their stories and form a support group. Many of the dramatic machinations involve tensions between Alexandre, who still remains a devout but troubled Catholic, and his more secular allies.

Hovering between docudrama and fictionalized melodrama, the film uses the actual misdeeds of Preynat and Barbarin as dramatic fodder while the roster of victims are composite characters. During the festival, a smidgen of suspense was injected in the proceedings by dint of the fact that Barbarin’s trial was scheduled for March, some weeks after the Berlin premiere. This nominal open-endedness was eclipsed less than a month later by the news that Barbarin was found guilty of covering up numerous cases of sexual abuse.

Fortunately, Berlin’s somewhat amorphous Panorama section proved much more rewarding. While Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, which had premiered earlier in the year at Sundance, could not be termed a discovery (Hogg, who has chronicled the escapades of well-heeled Brits in such notable films as Unrelated, Archipelago, and Exhibition has become a festival staple), the film’s effortless stylistic and narrative prowess was undeniably refreshing.

Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, a film student with her difficult romantic interest, Anthony (Tom Burke), in The Souvenir.

Taking its title from the Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting housed in London Wallace Collection, the film depicts, sometimes elliptically and occasionally with lyricism and dry humor, the moral education of a young woman named Julie (played by Tilda Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne) as she navigates professional and romantic hurdles in London during the Thatcher era.

Like Rousseau’s heroine of the same named who inspired Fragonard’s painting of a young woman carving her lover’s name in a tree, Julie’s quandary is bound up with a quest for authenticity. In the film’s opening scenes, she earnestly pitches a film school project, a grittily realistic movie about life in Sunderland, a working-class city once primarily known for its shipbuilding industry. Yet, for Julie, who spends much of her spare time hobnobbing with the smart set in Knightsbridge, the working class is little more than an abstraction. Her purely cerebral fealty to kitchen-sink realism probably explains her emotional and physical attraction to Anthony (Tom Burke), a dissolute, if witty, junkie. Abjuring literal-minded realism, Anthony, a wastrel who claims he works at the Foreign Office but appears to do little but craft pithy witticisms, prefers the more florid cinematic style on display in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s work. Anthony’s belief that Powell and Pressburger, known for highly stylized films, exemplify a heightened brand of realism that transcends mere naturalism gives one an inkling of Hogg’s own aesthetic credo. (She has explicitly referenced Powell and Pressburger films such as Gone to Earth, The Red Shoes, and A Canterbury Tale as some of her chief cinematic influences.)

Obliquely autobiographical, The Souvenir is something like a revisionist Bildungsroman that updates the conventions of Romantic literary philosophers such as Rousseau. Julie eventually changes course and begins to make experimental films that reflect her own sensibility instead of a derivative notion of “committed” art. She also must, with the help of her mother (played by Tilda Swinton herself ) critically assess the wreckage generated by her self-destructive boyfriend. Enhancing the proceedings with a soundtrack that ranges from Verdi to Joe Jackson, Hogg handles Julie’s emotional crisis with a restraint that prevents The Souvenir from being merely a dissection of rich people’s problems.

Thomas Heise’s Heimat is a Place in Time.

Thomas Heise’s Heimat is a Place in Time.

Frank Beauvais’s experimental essay film, Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, is made up of clips from 400 different films.

Frank Beauvais’s experimental essay film, Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, is made up of clips from 400 different films.

If the competition fare and Panorama could be deemed catch-all sections peppered with some worthwhile entries, the films of the Forum, whether artistically successful or not, represented truly independent filmmaking. The highlights ranged from Thomas Heise’s epic essay film, Heimat is a Space in Time, to Fourteen, veteran American indie filmmaker Dan Sallitt’s ode to female friendship. Frank Beauvais’s Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (which was also the opening night selection of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “The Art of the Real”) probably best personified the Forum’s devotion to defiantly nonmainstream cinema. A found footage film that functions as a paean to crazed cinephilia, Just Don’t Think is also a confessional cry of despair. Assembling brief clips from more than four hundred films, Beauvais’s uncompromisingly downbeat voice-over narration provides a disjunctive counterpoint to the avalanche of film excerpts as it recounts a romantic breakup, the death of the director’s father, and the carnage of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Although it’s nearly impossible to identify the footage culled from a host of B-movies, documentaries, horror films, and contemporary French fare, it’s clear that they all have a quasi-talismanic power for Beauvais. Like the best films screened at Berlin, a festival clearly in a period of transition, Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is formally innovative and attuned to the absurdities and incongruities of modern life.

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

Richard Porton, a Cineaste editor, is author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination, due soon in a revised second edition.

Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3