Continental Drifts

Diao Yi'nan, Bai Ri Yan Huo (Black Coal, Thin Ice), 2014, digital video, color, sound, 106 minutes.

AS OUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY in the States froze their buns off, Berliners were subjected to a freakishly premature arrival of spring this February. I imagine that those who only visit Berlin for the annual Berlin International Film Festival had a tough time gaining their whereabouts, as the city must seem naked without its blanket of snow. And with several hundred films on offer in a program rife with big-name gala premieres on the one hand, and debuts by mysterious unknowns on the other, it seemed that no overarching agenda would emerge for those bound to spend most of the month in the dark. So instead, I decided to drift aimlessly like the wanderers in two of the festival’s boldest cinematic statements, both reinterpretations of works by modernist masters: Brecht’s Baal (1970, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, with Baal played by Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (2014, directed by Bruce LaBruce, with the titular character played by Susanne Sachße).

There were some obvious must-sees. They included premieres of the uncut version of Lars von Trier’s overhyped Nymphomaniac: Volume 1; George Clooney’s Monuments Men, so bad that the press screening had to be interrupted so that one critic could be removed on a stretcher (it will probably win an Academy Award); and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a rather tepid coming-of-age flick whose chief gimmick—the fact that it was filmed over a ten-year period, enabling us to watch the juvenile actors grow up—was sufficient to wow most audience members into overlooking the rather banal, cliché-ridden script (though considering it runs nearly three hours in length, perhaps that’s just my sore ass talking).

The best of the A-list fare was Wes Anderson’s period piece The Grand Budapest Hotel. Based on the writings of Stefan Zweig and set between the two world wars at a Magic Mountain–esque spa hotel in an imaginary European country, this zany fast-paced comedy-adventure features Ralph Fiennes as a concierge who wins and then loses everything. The Grand Budapest Hotel seems like a guaranteed classic, even if the director’s trademark stylistic tics are beginning to feel a bit like a template.

For many, the highlight of this year’s Berlinale was the spotlight on China’s current filmmaking renaissance. The winner of the Golden Bear was Diao Yi’nan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, which takes place in a small unnamed city in northern China in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It follows an alcoholic former detective who becomes obsessed with a young widow who appears to be the sole remaining link between a series of unsolved murders from years earlier. Then there was Zhou Hao’s The Night—far less polished, but brilliant nevertheless; its night scenes shot in rich sepia tones and its script’s ambitious exploration of a trio of societal outsiders recalled the early work of Gus Van Sant. Zhou himself stars as a gay hustler whose intense narcissism serves as a wall between him and those who fall in love with him, including a young female prostitute and a fuck buddy who follows him into prostitution to get closer.

Another great existential drama is Nao Kubota’s Homeland, which takes as its setting the devastation of post-Fukushima rural Japan. A family adjusts to the internment camp–like settings of their assigned temporary housing as one of the estranged adult sons returns alone to the contaminated homestead to resume life—planting crops, harvesting soil—despite warnings from the authorities. More intensely sweet and subtle than any post-apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster, Kubota’s film offers one model for how we might continue when all has seemingly been lost.

The sixty-fourth edition of the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 6–16, 2014.