Past Lives


Héléna Klotz, L’Âge atomique (The Atomic Age), 2011, still from a color film, 67 minutes.

THE BERLINALE’S final week jerked to a close, with most of the Saturday afternoon screenings half-empty due to a citywide transit strike, only to be madly replenished on Sunday’s Audience Day, whose ticketing system favors the general public rather than festival badges. Half-felt tips, bets, and assertions were traded among friends and industry insiders, but no single endorsement resounded. Consensus affirmed that, while not terrible, this year’s festival featured a less-than-spectacular program. There was a discernible lack of gut-punching “Mmph!” moments, a fact that gradually gave even the most seasoned festivalgoer a sense of anxiety. (“Is it just that I’m somehow missing all the good films?”) In this context, few could take the awards very seriously; anyway, the Berlinale’s strongest moments were either out of competition or confined to the Panorama and Forum sections.

One such moment was L’Âge atomique (The Atomic Age), a beautiful vision of platonic love between two teenage outcasts in a dystopic Paris nightscape. The film’s lush sound track of witch house leads me to think that the underlying aesthetic ambition was a cinematicization of that musical genre; director Héléna Klotz seems to have grasped the fundamental romanticism of the sound and matched it with her two New New Romantics, who swim in the bile of present-tense uncertainty.

Another strong point was Matthias Glasner’s Gnade (Mercy). The film’s premise recalls Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) transposed onto the freezing, sunless winter of Hammerfest, Norway, which claims to be the northernmost city on the planet. What makes this psychological drama work is the way suspense is subtly, delicately knitted into the story, in which a young mother runs over a sixteen-year-old girl and gets away with it . . . Or does she? Billy Bob Thornton could learn a lot from Gnade’s script. His second feature, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, a hilarious probing of the 1960s via the culture clash between an old American Southern family and their British marital relatives, manages to fizzle out so flatly that the film would most certainly win Anticlimax of the Year, if such an award were offered.

This was a particularly weak edition for documentary film. One of the few exceptions was Werner Herzog, chair of last year’s jury, who returned for a special screening of his new series of Death Row portraits. Consisting largely of simple one-on-one interviews with prisoners awaiting their final injection, these films reveal that guilt and innocence are far from the black-and-white categories that the American justice system insists on. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that the made-for-TV formatting lends some of the interviews a claustrophobic brevity; one yearns for more of the director’s interjections, which always succeed in mesmerizing the viewer in his feature-length documentaries.

I missed out on Iron Sky, the sci-fi Nazi-UFO B movie that elicited one of the few mass murmurs of interest during the festival. But I saw the real thing (Nazis, not UFOs) in Blut Muss Fliessen (Blood Must Flow), a documentary by Peter Ohlendorf consisting of secret footage shot by an undercover investigative journalist at neo-Nazi skinhead concerts in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Hungary over the past six years. The slightly hysterical Q&A following the screening was almost as fascinating as the material, and again reminded me of Germany’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with the horrors of its past. Similarly, Green Laser, John Greyson’s imaginative, short protest doc about struggles against oppression in the Gaza Strip, was greeted by dead silence from its audience of mostly middle-aged and older Germans, for whom any endorsement of the Palestinian cause implies a latent anti-Semitism. Showing Green Laser before Dagmar Schultz’s Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years was either a major programming blunder or an ingenious act of provocation, depending on your position.

Travis Jeppesen

The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival ran February 9–19.