The 70th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival (or Berlinale, as it is better known) was one of consequence—and not only for its milestone anniversary. The first installment programmed under the leadership of new Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian (formerly of the highly esteemed Locarno Film Festival), the 70th Berlinale welcomed a greater number of truly “A”-list international auteurs to a Competition that had languished in recent years under previous management; and it introduced a new competitive section, Encounters, which promised something of Locarno’s more artistically adventurous spirit. If, on paper, other sections, such as the venerable Forum, itself in year fifty, would prove works in progress—with Chatrian’s team suddenly more in tune and competitive with the most formally forward-looking of the Berlinale’s sections—this year’s version was always going to be about the new leadership; until, that is, fears surrounding the spread of the Coronavirus led Chinese buyers to stay home.
Despite a decreased economic presence at the festival, the Chinese diaspora did produce one of the absolute highlights of this year’s Competition: Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang’s (Goodbye Dragon Inn, Stray Dogs) first film in seven years, Days. Billed as containing no dialogue—the exceedingly few lines that the film does contain untranslated speech—Days is perhaps the most Warholian of the great director’s films, emptying this film of faces and especially bodies, exterior and interior landscapes and settings of all but the most minimal of narratives. Built around now middle-aged Tsai axiom Lee Kang-sheng and male sex-worker Anong Houngheangsy—the director’s latest is also his closest to the works of his disciple, and OKCMOA collection artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul—Days explores the quotidian in a small number of predominately static, sequence-shot set-ups that alternatively watch our two leads (mostly separately) looking out impassively and silently onto a rain-soaked landscape; deliberately prepping for a meal in a spare, tiled interior; providing a thorough massage with copious amounts of baby oil; and even sleeping, in true Warhol or Weerasethakul fashion. Where the frame loses its activity, and a seemingly blank wall becomes the site of a moving shadow play of wind-disturbed branches, the spectator increases theirs in this object of heightened viewer attention.
Tsai’s formally radical reinvention of narrative form, which follows his own experimentation in the gallery-based moving image, possesses meaning beyond its bench-marking of the artist’s evolution. Days is not only counter-cinema, but also counter-culture, a call for attention again—to the big, barely moving image—as opposed to cellular, screen-centric distraction. Tsai demands that we look and listen, that we subject ourselves to his image, his sound environments, even to his stories, minimal though they might be. In the egocentric, information-domination iPhone world that we all occupy every day, cinema can be, and with Days, is both a break from our world outside the theater’s four walls, and a glimpse into another—governed as the theatrical experience can and should still be by a code of conduct that prohibits the distraction of cell phones, talking, etc. The experience of the Berlinale (and OKCMOA’s Film Program, for that matter) imposes the discipline that most of us lack—a discipline that increasingly provides a dividing line from the experience of watching films in a cinema, and watching anything else (but especially television) at home.
If Tsai’s film helps us more fully approach what cinema can mean in our distraction-filled world, a trio of other leading art-house auteurs were there to remind Berlinale viewers of the pleasures inherent in the feature-length film object—that the moving image in its traditional theatrical format, descending from Classical Hollywood, somehow represents an ideal form of narrative expression for the formally and stylistically idiosyncratic film director. First to premiere—all in Competition, in another sign of the new regime’s greater success in attracting top-tier auteurs—was The Salt of Tears by seventy-one year-old French filmmaker, and genre-onto-himself, Philippe Garrel. (Garrel, as a reminder to OKCMOA viewers, was the subject of an original series in the Noble Theater in January 2018, which included L’enfant secret and Regular Lovers, among other highlights.) The Salt of Tears finds the director in familiar, caught between multiple lovers territory, in this case moving along with Logann Antuofermo’s extremely unsympathetic Luc as he pursues the young and inexperienced Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), rekindles an old flame with Geneviève (Lover for a Day’s memorable Louise Chevillotte), and meets his non-exclusive match with Betsy (Souheila Yacoub). Though very much out-of-step with the cancellation-culture politics and progressive mores of our moment, The Salt of Tears nonetheless achieves a real power through the performances that Garrel elicits from his young trio of heroines. Amamra is especially nuanced in her portrayal of Djemila, with Garrel and his cinematographer Renato Berta lovingly capturing her anguished, subtly expressive negotiations of first love in their luminous black-and-white. Her face and those of her romantic rivals are the substance of this first-rate late Garrel, one of the more entertaining entries in this year’s Competition.
Another of that section’s directors who met very high expectations was Christian Petzold, the auteur of such OKCMOA favorites as Phoenix and last year’s Transit. Reuniting the latter’s leads, Paula Beer (as the eponymous heroine) and Franz Rogowski (Christoph), Undine moves into the realm of fairy tale as, following a break up that references her identity, Beer’s mythological water nymph finds love with the industrial diver Christoph, as the two stare face-to-face as a pub’s fish tank crashes around them. Evocative of their identities, Undine is exceptional in its modulation of textures, making enticing use of its green hued underwater photography in particular. In this sense, Petzold as always recalls Classical Hollywood genre filmmaking (fantasy, in this instance), while bringing his deliberate sense of pace and judicious use of startle effects that confirm his unique storytelling idiom. Add to this a rather complex unpacking of a pair of palimpsests—Berlin’s urban geography, as seen through Undine’s lectures and tours on the ever-changing German capital, and her romantic past—and Petzold has himself created a highly accomplished new work that will deepen over time, that will grow as its thematic echoes continue to emerge, even as its many mysteries persevere.
Rounding out this year’s Competition highlights, at least for this writer, was OKCMOA regular Hong Sang-soo’s (Right Now, Wrong Then; Claire’s Camera) typically brilliant variation on his retold narrative structure, The Woman Who Ran. Built around Hong muse Kim Min-hee’s return home while her husband is away on a business trip, Hong identifies yet another variation on his retold formula by having Kim’s Gam-hee meet, and thus retell her own story to two friends and a third romantic rival, whom she bumps into at an independent cinema. Constructed in conversations that unfold predominately over a series of exceptionally long takes, Hong finds humor in these interactions, as he does in the other small details of his mise-en-scène, as when a controversial stray cat shows up in the midst of an argument between neighbors—and occasions the festival’s funniest shot, a sudden zoom toward the impervious animal. He also displays his same sense of humor towards his cinema’s duplicative qualities with Gam-hee sitting through the same film twice in The Woman Who Ran’s final act. It is to Hong’s enduring credit that his eternally similar features always find a new way of communicating the same essential dialogue. For this writer, there is no more endearing director working today (and much to my pleasure, Hong was awarded the Competition’s best director prize).
Outside these formidable four entries into the 2020 Competition, notable offerings could be found in the new Encounters section with Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog, a three-plus-hour, dialogue-dominated examination of Christian theology and European values that brings together the uniquely occluded framing of the director’s Aurora and the verbose ruminations of his more recent masterpiece Sieranevada (which played in a special screening at OKCMOA a couple years back). Punctuated by a narrative rupture about midway through its lengthy run time, Malmkrog seems to elaborate on its first half subjects in a mirrored second part, in a fashion that might be described as resurrectional, if one is to affirm that the theological position of one of the film’s interlocutors. However, if this endurance test, which is read as much as it is watched for the non-native speaker, does seem to be your taste, I would caution that it may struggle to find American distribution, as did the director’s superior Sieranevada, one of the finer films of the previous decade.
American filmmakers offered more conventional pleasures—or pleasure at all, for most viewers—whether it was the Panorama section’s Sundance retread, The Assistant, whose Berlin premiere corresponded with the legal reckoning of Harvey Weinstein, who happened to have inspired this day-in-the-life fictionalization of the inner-workings of something like the Weinstein Company (with the abusive studio head smartly left off screen). Or Retrospective focus King Vidor (The Crowd, Stella Dallas), whose 1935 The Wedding Night was an especially memorable personal discovery of this year’s Berlinale—with its steamy melodrama, starring peak Gary Cooper, transformed into the sort of tragedy that was more acceptable after the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934. Seen on my final day of the festival along with Days, its conceptual opposite, The Wedding Night brings to bear cinema’s classical past, of that time when the art was not, like the extraordinary Days, negotiating the distractions of the digital age, but instead reigned without serious competitor as the world’s most popular narrative visual art, as the object of the global audience’s absorption.