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Rootin’ Teutons
The 54th Berlin International Film Festival

As measured in glitz at least, the Berlinale is one of the big three European film festivals, with Cannes and Venice, and for 10 days last month it was the focus of the German media. Returning to my hotel at the end of a day of movies and talking about movies, I’d turn on the TV to find myself caught in a Berlinale time loop, with three cable stations offering reruns of the day’s press conferences.

Beside the red carpet that led to the Berlinale Palast in Potsdamer Platz, the main showcase for films in the official competition, a video screen the size of a billboard ran constant footage of the festival’s celebrity guests. This year, the opening-night film was Cold Mountain, but stars Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, both expected on opening night, were no-shows, so it was fortunate for festival director Dieter Kosslick that he had also lined up, out of Competition, Something’s Gotta Give, and that Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton duly arrived to brighten the festival’s first days with the gleam of white Hollywood teeth. Barely visible in that inane film, Frances McDormand either declined or was not asked to help plug it, even though she was in Berlin to lead the seven-member jury, which included director Samira Makhmalbaf and actress (and lately first-time director) Valeria Bruni Tedeschi.

After the first six days, the Competition program had panned out so lackluster that one festival watcher was giving odds on whether the jurors would vote to call it off. John Boorman’s South Africa–set Country of My Skull was considered the biggest disappointment, though Boorman got off easy compared with Romuald Karmakar, director of the first of the Competition’s two German films to unreel, Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder/Nightsongs. After the press screening of his heavy melodrama broke down in derisive laughter, Karmakar gave a press conference in which he accused critics of being brainwashed by Hollywood.

No doubt he had a point, though it must be said that brains have been washed more effectively by other American films than those in this year’s competition, which included Monster, The Missing, The Final Cut (a science-fiction effort starring Robin Williams), and — by far the best of them — Richard Linklater’s just-finished Before Sunset, which takes place in Paris and reunites the lovers of his 1995 Before Sunrise. It’s nine years after their one-night encounter, and Ethan Hawke’s character has just published his first novel; meanwhile, Julie Delpy’s has had a bumpy love life. For a while, I wanted to walk out of the first public screening of this talky film; I was restrained by the awareness that the director and the stars were sitting four rows behind me. Eventually, I got past Hawke’s hipster mannerisms and the jejune nature of much of the dialogue and came to admire the film’s wit and delicacy. It easily eclipsed the two other romantic comedies in Competition: Taiwanese actress/director Sylvia Chang’s mild 20:30:40 and Stéphane Vuillet’s feverish button pusher 25 degrés en hiver/25 Degrees in Winter.

High expectations attended entries by three veteran directors, all programmed near the end of the competition: Theo Angelopoulos’s To livadi pou dikrizi/The Weeping Meadow, Eric Rohmer’s Triple Agent, and Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss. Angelopoulos’s three-hour white elephant got a polite but reserved press, the Rohmer was unjustly dismissed, and the Loach was justly admired, but by the end of the program, no obvious favorite had emerged, and whatever the jurors’ decision, it was bound to be controversial. McDormand’s announcement that they had awarded the Golden Bear to the second German entry, Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand/Head On, provoked as much jubilation as head scratching. It was the first time a German film had taken the top honor in its native country since 1986 (when Reinhard Hauff’s Stammheim won), whence the jubilation; on the other hand, an informal survey of festival attendees and published reviews confirmed my opinion that Akin’s film, though energetic and sincere, was inferior to at least one or two of its rivals. I suspect the prize was either a compromise among jurors who couldn’t agree about the films they cared more for or else an idealistic bid to support some perceived new cinema, even if it’s still just a glimmer.

Both light-hearted and blood-soaked, Gegen die Wand concerns two emotionally disturbed Turks in Hamburg who enter into a marriage of convenience and find themselves bonding. Mistaking excess for essence, Akin fills the film with techno music, full-throttle sex, and sudden self-mutilation, cultivating an incoherence that, though diverting, pays off with fewer rewards the more irresistible the narrative’s push for closure becomes. Perhaps McDormand’s jury responded to the very roughness and uncertainty that kept Akin from delivering the kind of finely drawn characterizations and trenchant social criticism offered by Ken Loach in his comedy drama of outsiders in love, Ae Fond Kiss. Set in Glasgow, Loach’s film concerns a young Pakistani man who hopes to open a nightclub, a young Irishwoman who teaches music at a high school, and the obstacles that stand in the way of their liaison, chiefly the conservatism of the man’s parents. The outline may be familiar, but the details are fresh, and the direction is skillful.

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Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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