Berlin International Film Festival 2017

Eszter Simor, PhD Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh

At the Berlin International Film Festival 2017, humour made the absurdity of our times bearable. Ildikó Enyedi’s Golden Bear winner offered the most beautiful example of the healing power of laughter. 

 The Festival board has always paid attention to political and social changes. This year, however, their selected films made an even more open statement than usual. At heated press conferences, journalists asked about the invited artists’ political opinions point-blank.

The Mexican actor Diego Luna was interrogated about the Berlin wall, while the American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal claimed that her presence was intended to express support for the „resistance” against her home country’s political leadership.

Aki Kaurismäki, after speaking about how we should treat refugees arriving in Europe with more humanity, ironically declared in his trademark irreverent style: “this is not a political statement.” He warned his audience how anyone can become a refugee any day. Many journalists asked questions about Brexit from the directly affected. English director Danny Boyle explained that his sequel to Trainspotting, T2, was not only shot in the original film’s location in Scotland but also in the Netherlands and Bulgaria to support diversity and highlight the importance of international relations in Europe. Sally Potter, also a director with English origins, was even more straightforward in her answer. She claimed that her new film, The Party, premiering at the Berlinale, was an “absolute political statement about broken England.” Potter argued that people nowadays seem to have forgotten about their own principles. She said her new comedy drew attention to the healing power of humour. The festival’s selection was in line with her thought process: many films depicted – with their stories situated in the present or the past – grave political or social situations through the lens of absurd humour.

Brexit Affair

Sally Potter’s (The) Party opens with a black and white subjective point-of-view shot: a nervous woman holds the viewer at gunpoint. The reason for her actions is only revealed in the last frame. The film, taking place in real time, illustrates every party planner’s worst nightmare. It is the story of how the eponymous event (which is also a play on words on the word’s other meaning as a political organisation) spirals out of control and climaxes in a potentially deadly situation. The film’s crafty structure, containing only 71 minutes of action, is built on delivering an unexpected punchline. The protagonist, Janet

(Kristin Scott Thomas) celebrates the greatest achievement of her life: after a long and arduous campaign, she was elected health minister. She only invited a couple of close friends and colleagues to celebrate. The party goes awry quickly: her husband (Timothy Spall) makes a shocking announcement, which starts an unrelenting chain reaction of startling and even more astonishing revelations.  The situations, built on sleek and witty dialogue, come alive in the performances of a stellar international cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz and Cillian Murphy. The positive impact of international relationships was revealed in even the tiniest detail. For instance, Potter encouraged her Irish actor – Cillian Murphy – to keep his accent. The film articulates the director’s keen observations about our political present in a highly amusing fashion. The characters’ personal failures reflect the cracks in her country’s political system.

Looking at it from the Other Side

Aki Kaurismäki is known for his absurd sense humour. His new film is a comedy about the ongoing refugee crisis. Thanks to this fresh perspective, The Other Side of Hope is an uplifting story of friendship. In the opening scene, a man rises from a black heap. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrives in Finland in a cargo of coal, on a freighter, from Syria. As he is walking in the city, his black face accentuates his feeling of estrangement. He legally asks for refugee status at the police station. (“You are not the first one” – the police officer tells him.) When he recounts his arduous journey, the film respects the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile, the reflected viewpoint also allows space for irony: “How did you get so far?” asks the officer. “Nobody wanted to see me.” Eventually, the state apparatus does not deem Syria dangerous enough and orders Khaled home. As he receives the verdict, the television in the background shows a report about the terrible state of the Syrian war. Our other protagonist, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) leaves his home too. A native Finn, he flees an alcoholic wife. With the money that he wins at an illegal poker game (this hilariously entertaining sequence could stand as a funny short film on its own) he opens a restaurant. A twist of fate sees him hire Khaled, who is now hiding from the police. From this point onwards, the film focuses on the restaurant’s unusual business manoeuvres: how our protagonists try to lure more guests in with insane ideas. The finest feature of the film is that it does not try to lecture the viewer about morals. Indeed, the people who do assist Khaled do so most naturally.

Hungarian Success

This year’s festival was most special for the Hungarian audience, since Ildikó Enyedi’s film, On Body and Soul, was awarded the Golden Bear, the festival’s main prize. Despite not being a comedy, the film is replete with absurd humour, which was a common characteristic among the festival’s most intriguing films. Many reviews drew a parallel between Enyedi’s film and that of Kaurismäki’s. Deadpan humour is the Finnish director’s signature trademark: the characters react to potentially funny situations with poker faces and an utter lack of humour. In Enyedi’s film, two people share the same dream. A man and a woman, both working at a slaughterhouse, meet in their dreams as deer. In their real lives, they struggle with social relationships. The director juxtaposes the brutal claustrophobia of the slaughterhouse cattle, who live in narrow cages, with the unrestrained beauty of the deer; as if the majestic wild animals were the ideal dream versions of the cattle kept only for being slaughtered. As Enyedi asserted at the press conference, she depicted the slaughterhouse cattle’s life and death with brutal naturalism in order to convey strong emotions. The location was inspired by a personal experience: according to the director, hospitals show little respect for the life and death entrusted to them. The crew also revealed that only two trained deer were used in the film-making process. Each had such a strong personality that one was used solely to represent the male character’s alter-ego, and the other was used solely to represent the female’s.

In his description of the absurd body, contemporary English philosopher Simon Critchley explains how human beings experience an existentialist gap between being and having a body. Absurd humour highlights a “lack of fit” between our human desire for rationality and the world’s irrationality (Wartenberg, 2008, pp. 114-115). Being and having a body emphasises the absurd existential experience through closeness and distance, simultaneous identification with and alienation from our “corporeal housing” (Critchley, 2002, p. 60). This reflected understanding allows irony to happen by presupposing a critical position and creating a space of ambiguity. The film is not a Freudian dream analysis about our repressed desires; but it investigates the relationship between dream and reality, the possibility of a dream becoming reality. In this regard, the film is similar to Enyedi’s previous and also critically acclaimed film, which was recognised at the Cannes film festival. In My 20th Century, made in 1989, the viewpoint at the end suggests that the film was the shared dream of the two twin protagonists. Can a shared dream, a collective consciousness, become reality? – Enyedi asks the question again.

The other Hungarian feature film premiering at the Berlinale was also critically acclaimed. Török Ferenc’s film, titled 1945, a result of unusually hard work, was shot over an incredible twelve years. Török is depicting a tragic historical event – as a parable for today’s crises struck Europe – where a majority commits crimes against a minority. The film is less interested in the individual hardships. Instead, it asks questions about the common responsibility of society as a whole.

Tale about the Holocaust

The healing power of humour was the topic of Sam Garbarski’s comedy, Bye Bye Germany… (Es war einmal in Deutschland…) Its original title (which translates as Once Upon a Time in Germany…) suggests a fairy tale. This promise is intriguing, because the story takes place in 1946, after the end of the Second World War. Having survived the concentration camps, a small Jewish community decides not to emigrate, but to begin a new life in Frankfurt. A film reflecting on the difficulties of a minority’s integration could not be timelier. The story builds on real events. After the Second World War, four thousand Jewish people decided to stay in Germany. According to the caption shown at the end of the film, they could not explain this decision, not even to their children. Why did they stay? Out of defiance or opportunism? The film tries to answer these questions. That is why the narrative is innovative; the film is not about the Jewish community who emigrated abroad (as most of the films that depict the post-war era), but about those who stayed. Similarly interesting is the slightly anachronistic period drama’s light-hearted style: the film sees Germany confront its past through an original lens.

David (Moritz Bleibtreu), the sole Holocaust survivor of the textile merchant Bermann family, sets up a new business. Teaming up with four fellow salesmen, he starts selling imported bedlinen to the Germans. Exclaiming that “Hitler is dead, but we are still alive” the merchants, using various tricks and taking advantage of German guilt, cheat their customers out of their money. In scenes of theatrical farce, they swindle gullible housewives. The merchants’ comical performances are balanced by flashbacks to their harrowing, recent memories. The film investigates the topic of guilt from the perspective of both the perpetrators and the victims. Bermann is suspected of Nazi collaboration and his past is revealed in smoothly inserted flashbacks during numerous visits with an American interrogation officer. The script is credited to both the director Sam Garbarski and the Swiss-German author Michel Bergmann. The film is an adaptation of Bergmann’s Teilacher trilogy about a Jewish community who survived the Holocaust and became salesmen after the end of the war, which was inspired by the real-life story of the author’s own family. In the film, Bergmann’s flashbacks reveal how his sense of humour and adept performance skills allowed him to become an SS officer’s favourite (Christian Kmiotek). As his court jester, he enjoyed various privileges and even had a chance to meet Hitler (his original mission being to teach the Fuhrer how to tell jokes). His sense of humour ensured his survival. Thanks to his impressive storytelling style – in Moritz Bleibtreu’s excellent performance (Run Lola Run, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Munich) – it is difficult to take him seriously, as the viewer is unsure how much the tale is embellished. His interrogator (Antje Traue) does not believe him. She also is battling with guilt. Having managed to flee Germany on time, she returns after the war to assist in the punishment of the Nazis through her work. German humour, reinvigorated this year with Toni Erdmann, surfaces in this film with a hint of melancholy. The story being rather unbelievable, it draws the viewer’s attention to its special point of view. It is a new attempt to process Nazism through humour.

Silent Comedy

Absurd humour was also a striking feature in Mr Long (Ryu san). Setting up the story in a violent gangster world, director Sabu, a maverick filmmaker in his home country of Japan, quickly transforms Mr Long from crime film into a dark family comedy. According to the Variety review’s imaginative description, in the film, Charlie Chaplin meets Takashi Miike. And indeed, the slapstick humour typical of early silent films – and Mr Long recalls Chaplin’s The Kid  (1921) – merges in a surprisingly smooth combination with the Japanese film trend of bizarrely stylised violence (Takashi Miike directed Sukiyaki Western Django featuring Tarantino).

Echoing silent film tradition, the majority of the film’s events take place quietly; the story unfolds in pictures and almost entirely without dialogues. The title’s protagonist, Mr Long, a Taiwanese assassin, is brutal in his business but timid in his private life. In the film’s bloody opening scene, evoking the style of Takashi Miike, thugs fall in a swift montage around the knife-wielding Mr Long. His Tokyo mission to kill a Japanese gang leader goes awry. The droll stunt almost costs him his life and he is forced to flee, but he eventually finds refuge in a shantytown in the Tokyo suburbs. Fortunately, a shy little boy (Runyin Bai) comes to his rescue, bringing food and clothes to the injured man. At this point, the film transforms into a family drama-comedy. The viewer now follows the story of how the timid assassin befriends the little boy and becomes an integral member of the shanty town’s community. Mr Long turns out to be a skilled cook, preparing enticing meals – which appear in aesthetically pleasing images shot by the cameraman Kôichi Furuya – with the humility of a zen master. His clownish neighbours, unaware of his actual profession, also assist by setting up a noodle cart for him to show his cooking talents. His new friends naturally accept the man’s silent behaviour; it makes sense that the Taiwanese man, stuck in Japan, simply does not speak their language (the film is a coproduction between Japan, Hong-Kong and Taiwan). Thanks to Chang Chen’s impressive performance in the lead role (who worked together with directors like Wong Kar-Wai (The Grandmaster), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Assassin)) the viewer is able to understand every movement of the tongue-tied Mr Long’s face. One of the main sources of the film’s humour is that the man can keep his poker face in virtually any situation. While the opening scene pulls the viewer in by depicting brutal stylised violence, the softness of emotions in the portrayal of friendship brings tears to our eyes by the end of the film – even if we feel the absurdity of the “even an assassin can have a second chance” cliché.

Vengeful Comedians

Spanish director Fernando Trueba created a sequel to his 1998 film, The Girl of Your Dreams (La niña de tus ojos) nineteen years after the original. The heroine of the previous film, Macarena Granada, is a Spanish actress (played by Penélope Cruz), with whom Goebbels falls in love when the Spanish crew travels to Nazi Germany. The new film, The Queen of Spain (La reina de España), picks up Macarena’s story in the 1950’s. By this time, she has made a career in Hollywood, has been divorced multiple times, is still breathtakingly beautiful (still played by Penélope Cruz) and now returns to Franco’s Spain to shoot a musical about Isabella I of Castile.

The film is a tribute to the seventh art, replete with jokes aimed at cinephiles. At the film in the film shooting, contemporary directors appear in cameo roles (for example the producer is played by Mexican director, Arturo Ripstein). The film also evokes stars of the classic period: the cowboyish elderly director, John Scott, instructing the shooting only by his presence and wearing an eye-patch on one of his eyes, is a parody of John Ford (played by Clive Revill). Loaded with nostalgia and armed with the enthusiasm of a true cinema fan, Trueba brings Hollywood’s most successful era to Spain. The film summarises the epilogue in a technicolour montage, inserting Penelope Cruz’s Magdalena into the films of 50’s Hollywood. The director character in Trueba’s previous film (Antonio Resines) was arrested because of his leftist views, and in this sequel, he has to do hard labour building a basilica ordered by Franco. His colleagues organise a rescue mission to free him: dressed as 15th-century knights, they cover up the mission as a scene in the film being shot. The Queen of Spain is characterised by a light, sentimental tone and thanks to its spectacular costumes, the romantic setting and the still breath-taking Penélope Cruz, the viewer forgives the foolish story and the actors’ tiring goofiness.

Austrian actor Georg Friedrich was awarded a Silver Bear for his performance in Bright Nights (Helle Nächte). Friedrich appeared numerous times in films by celebrated Austrian directors like Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf) and Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export, Dog Days). Bright Nights, directed by Thomas Arslan (Gold), is about an emotionally isolated man (Friedrich), who tries to bond with his neglected teenage son on a trip to Norway. Georg Friedrich also played a role in another competition film in Berlin, Wild Mouse, created in a German-Austrian coproduction. The director of the film, Josef Hader, is a well known actor (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe), comedian and writer in Austria. Wild Mouse is not only his directorial debut, but he is also the film’s scriptwriter and protagonist. He plays an Austrian music critic who gets fired from the newspaper he has been working for 25 years because the paper can no longer afford his salary: young up-and-comers write the articles for much less money. The vain and arrogant culture snob, taking great pride in his job, is unable to process the news and starts a vengeful crusade against his boss: first, he only keys his car, but later more dangerous emotions are fired up in him. His shame also prevents him from confessing his firing to his wife, so he pretends to go to work every morning, while actually spending his time at the Prater with an unemployed former school mate (played by Georg Friedrich). Being a stand-up comedian, Hader is skilled at performing small, witty stories. Therefore in the film, his characters are tailored to deliver gags, not to go through extensive character development. While his protagonist is a victim of his own midlife crisis, in the background the televisions and radios exclusively report on the refugee crisis, which stands in contrast to the Viennese middle class’ petty problems. In his stand-up comedy shows, Hader often pokes fun of the upper classes’ snobbery, so it is fitting that in his directorial debut, this self-ironic humour, making fun of his own environment, would get centre stage.

Eszter Simor, PhD Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh