All Relative

Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, The Forbidden Room, 2015, color, sound, 130 minutes.

WITH NEW FILMS from Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, Guy Maddin, Peter Greenaway, Margarethe von Trotta, and brand new documentaries on Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jia Zhang-ke, it would seem that one of the central theses of the sixty-fifth edition of the Berlin International Film Festival is that auteur filmmaking is far from dead. Of course, a close look reveals that some of these filmmaking giants are in better form than others. What’s more, the numerous glances into the margins afforded by the festival’s megalithic program—with several hundred films from all over the globe on offer—reveals that many of today’s and tomorrow’s visionaries are neither coming from nor going to predictable places.

It has traditionally been the Berlinale’s Forum section that illuminates those margins. It is therefore fitting that one of its openers was The Forbidden Room, codirected by Maddin and Evan Johnson. Hilarious, absurd, and lots of fun throughout its 130 minutes, The Forbidden Room is a cinephile’s wettest dream, employing a surrealist collage technique to mash up reconstructions of lost D-movie would-be cult classics.

Another Forum highlight thus far has been Seashore—also a collaboration between two directors, Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon. Seashore’s subtlety marks a decidedly different kind of filmmaking from the wildness of The Forbidden Room: Studious close-ups and long takes relay the story of two teenage friends traveling alone to a family holiday home to carry out a piece of unpleasant business on behalf of one’s father. The filmmakers’ reliance on the visual aspects of cinema, rather than traditional narrative pursuits like intricate plotting, means that much is left out. Yet this only adds to the film’s underlying psychological realism and the tension between the two main characters, one that finally resolves in sexual climax.

Relationship tensions—i.e., love stories—recur more often as a theme in the Berlinale’s main competition. Typical of this is 45 Years from Andrew Haigh, a director obsessed with romantic relationships in all their phases. Known for his depiction of an extended gay hook-up, the 2011 indie sleeper hit Weekend, and the HBO series Looking, Haigh this time turns his gaze on aged hetero couple Kate and Geoff (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay). The couple are on the verge of celebrating their forty-fifth anniversary when Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his first love, who tragically fell to her death into a snowy lake some fifty years prior, has been recovered frozen in ice and perfectly preserved. This news throws both of them into a state—for Geoff one of obsessive nostalgia, for Kate one of intense jealousy—yet all comes together in a too-precious climax. While deploying considerable restraint in displaying his characters’ psychological complexity, 45 Years is perhaps too rote an instance of British social-realist filmmaking.

To be fair, Haigh’s film is no disappointment when measured next to Queen of the Desert, a tragic instance of a legendary director’s collaboration with Hollywood. Of course, you would be excused for not recognizing it as a Herzog film; none of the director’s stylistic tics are visible. Instead, we are treated to a biopic/love story about Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), a British explorer of the Middle East who became one of the West’s earliest experts of the area, known as the “female Lawrence of Arabia.” Revealing how uncertain he is with his material, Herzog reverts to melodrama, producing what may be the twenty-first century’s first major cinematic example of high camp.

On the other hand, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups showed what a film made within the Hollywood system—and even about the Hollywood system—looks like when held to an idiosyncratic director’s own terms. While I intensely disliked his previous two films Tree of Life and To the WonderKnight of Cups demonstrates an apotheosis of his new style. It uses similar devices—a constantly moving camera and a soundscaped collage of voices and music—as it follows its successful screenwriter protagonist (Christian Bale) through a Hollywood wastescape, detached from—nay, dead to—all the tragedies and absurdities surrounding him. A rare and eloquent example of poetry on screen, Knight of Cups’s greatness was further evidenced by the numerous walkouts during the press screening as well as the shouts of derision at the closing credits.

The sixty-fifth Berlin International Film Festival runs February 5–15.