316: The Berlinale

Archival Spaces 316

Berlinale Competition

Uploaded 3 March 2023

The 73rd Berlinale took place between 16 – 26 February. I attended for the first time since 2019 because the COVID pandemic had kept me away. The largest film festival in the world, after Cannes and Venice, the Berlinale presents approximately 450 films in various programs, including the Competition, Encounters, Berlin Specials, Panorama, Generation (Kids), Forum, Retrospective, Homage, and Perspective German Cinema. In past years I’ve focused on the retrospective, which made up the archival portion of the festival. However, under festival directors Mariëtte Rissenbeck and Carlo Chatrien there has been a marked deemphasis on historical programming – past festival retrospectives under the aegis of the Deutsche Kinemathek not only discovered film historical terra incognita but published ground-breaking catalogs – in favor of reprising audience favorites. As a result, I turned my attention to the Competition, which featured 19 films from eleven countries. The highlights:

Bai Ta Zhi Guang (The Shadowless Tower, Zhang Lu)

Bai Ta Zhi Guang (The Shadowless Tower, Zhang Lu) begins in a cemetery, as a Chinese family visits the grave of the grandmother. We see an image of Confucian piety, but as the narrative reveals, it is an illusion. The father is not the father, the mother not the mother, rather the attached brother is the father to the little girl, and the absent, divorced mother lies dying in hospital; the family was estranged from the grandfather because he had been possibly unjustly accused of molesting a woman and sent to prison. Soon the brother discovers his father is alive while beginning a relationship with a young woman who was herself adopted as an orphan. All seemingly struggle to make ends meet. The story is revealed in quiet, contemplative images, shot in one of the few remaining old quarters of Beijing, Chinese modernity has taken its toll on traditional family relationships, their economic security, and the city itself.

Tótem (Lila Avilés)

Tótem (Lila Avilés) brings an extended family in Mexico City together to celebrate the 40th birthday of a young painter who is near death from cancer. As the painter’s sisters, parents, brothers, and various children gather in the hours before the party, emotions run high vacillating between hope and despair; worrying about the family’s overwhelming debt due to hospital bills, shielding the children from the inevitable, drinking too much to dull the pain, all the while putting on a brave face for the celebrant. The film’s final images are of the empty house which we assume had to be sold to cover the debts, but also reveal the break-up of the family. The female director who is particularly sensitive to the children’s performances won the Ecumenical Jury Prize.

Le grand chariot (Phillippe Garrel)
Roter Himmel (Christian Petzold)

Le grand chariot (The Plough, Phillippe Garrel) visualizes a different kind of dissolution as a family of French puppeteers attempt to stay faithful to their archaic craft, as first the mother (before the film begins), then the father and grandmother die, while the brother decides to become a stage actor, the troupe’s only non-relative descends into madness after deciding to return to painting, and the remaining sisters are defeated by dwindling audiences and a storm that destroys their theater. With an on-again-off-again voiceover reminiscent of the French New Wave, the film’s pacing is deliberately slow, unspooling like time itself in an age when puppets rather than video games could spark the imagination of children. Veteran director Garrel won the Silver Bear for direction. 

Christian Petzold’s Roter Himmel (Afire) begins with two friends traveling to a family vacation home on the Baltic German coast, one a writer, the other preparing a portfolio for an art school application. There they unexpectedly meet another house guest, a young woman who becomes the object of the writer’s aggression – he’s worried about his latest novel – while the budding art student falls in love with a local lifeguard. When wildfires break out, leading to tragedy for the gay couple, the writer must reassess not only his failed novel but his relationship with the woman.

Suzume (Makato Shinkai)

Possibly a first for the Berlinale Competition, the Japanese animé, Suzume (Makato Shinkai), looks and feels like a Miyazaki film. The story of a 17-year-old girl who lost her mother when she was a small child and now lives with her aunt. Mixing realism and mythological fantasy as Miyazaki had, the film follows Suzume who falls in love with a beautiful young man, one of the gatekeepers to the doors of a nether world, where a giant worm periodically breaks to the surface to cause havoc through massive earthquakes. As the pair chase from one gate to the next, Susume realizes that she had passed through a portal as a child during the earthquake that killed her mother.  

Blackberry (Matt Johnson)

Just how quickly modernity’s technological advancement can upend even digital innovations is illustrated in the Canadian feature, Blackberry (Matt Johnson). Initially engineered by a group of super nerds more interested in endlessly rewatching Star Wars, the Blackberry smartphone’s rise to a 45% share of the market is organized by an unscrupulous salesman before the iPhone and the SEC – the CEO had back-dated stock options –  kill the product literally overnight. Told as a rise-and-fall farce, the film’s rapid pacing matches the relentless competition that has characterized the digital world.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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