PRINT May 2013


the 2013 Berlinale

Thomas Arslan, Gold, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 113 minutes. Emily Meyer (Nina Hoss).

A FILM FESTIVAL is a unique kind of heterotopia, a marketplace that challenges its denizens to transform profusion and plenty into constellations that provide a coherent experience. Faced with four hundred films screened over ten days in February, accredited visitors at this year’s Berlinale had as ever to decide which sectors of the spectacle they would inhabit—in essence, to decide which of many possible festivals they would attend and, in the process, create. One chose from among features, documentaries, and short films in the main sections, Competition, Forum, Panorama, and Perspektive Deutsches Kino, as well as from among sundry special screenings. For those with more historical agendas, there was also a retrospective, “The Weimar Touch,” dedicated to the legacy of classical German cinema. (Organized by Deutsche Kinemathek artistic director Rainer Rother, the survey traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in April.) Festival-pass holders eager to remain abreast of current German feature and documentary production could view the forty-four films in the program “German Cinema—LOLA@Berlinale,” closed screenings of titles under consideration for this year’s German Film Prize.

But despite the superabundance, the 2013 Berlinale had barely begun before it was being declared a washout. Various commentators, who would in the end be proved dead wrong, complained that the competition program was thin, the entries lightweight. As in years past, but with higher levels of impatience and displeasure, domestic journalists (a notice by Tobias Kniebe of the Süddeutsche Zeitung set a snarky tone) compared festival director Dieter Kosslick unfavorably with the Venice Film Festival’s Alberto Barbera and Cannes’s Gilles Jacob, faulting the Berlinale’s competition program for its content-oriented populism, politically driven selection policy, desperate pursuit of stars and Hollywood presences, and lack of formal daring and cinephilic allure. In these exchanges, with their obligatory dismissiveness and impatience, a key point of reference was the lack of German films in the lineup.

Indeed, the fare was decidedly thin in this regard. (To be sure, a quick sampling of the energetic entries in the particularly rich program of Perspektive Deutsches Kino would have necessitated second thoughts.) Only two German features found their way into the competition, Thomas Arslan’s Gold and Pia Marais’s Layla Fourie (both 2013). The latter was in fact an international coproduction, a Politthriller shot in Johannesburg and grounded in the fallout and paranoia of a postapartheid nation. For Marais, a South African national who has lived for many years in Berlin, where she made her two previous features, the film marked a homecoming; nonetheless, few really viewed the endeavor as a German entry.

As the festival unfolded, the sorry state of German cinema became a favored topic of discussion. Similar laments had surfaced at last year’s festival. Filmmaker Doris Dörrie, ever the partisan of feel-good movies and a plier of new age harmonies, had distinguished between esoteric films made for museums and festivals, and features that actually please the people who go to the movies. This self-advertisement takes us back to her screwball comedy Männer (Men), whose appearance in 1985 was seen by many as a panacea, an antidote to what both critics and politicians decried as a moribund New German Cinema that reduced its audiences to hunger artists. As director Dominik Graf would elaborate in a polemic written shortly before last year’s German Film Awards, the schematic alternative seems to be loveless films made about emptiness in an empty way (mainly by directors who have attended film academies) and films that celebrate mindlessness in a mindless manner; in other words, either a stern art-house cinema of relevance and authenticity or a would-be popular genre cinema that, in a mercenary and desperate way, aims for the lowest common denominator.

For all their formal precision and sophistication, Berlin School films by the likes of Arslan, Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec, Maren Ade, and Christoph Hochhäusler (among others), argued Graf, on the whole made “an irritatingly monotone impression. Too much art, too much good intention?” What German cinema needs, he submitted, is more spontaneity, immediacy, and, yes, bad taste. Many online cinephiles for this very reason venerate the excesses and outré effusions of directors like Alfred Vohrer, Eckhart Schmidt, Klaus Lemke, and Will Tremper. At this year’s festival, a particularly fierce attack on the Berliner Schule in the online journal Artechock ignited further reflection on the relationship between a cinema of authors and a popular film culture. Dietrich Brüggemann, the director of several indie features and a frequent writer for the (now defunct) film journal Schnitt, let out all the stops. Why is there such an unbridgeable gap between German films that are “deadly serious and incredibly heavy” and ones that “simply reek of utter mindlessness?” The opposition is strong, and it is also false. Three works screened at the Berlinale, in quite different ways and with quite divergent consequences, made this apparent.

THE FIRST OF THESE, and the sole identifiably German film in the competition, Arslan’s Gold, was ravaged. “Welcome to a world of tortuous boredom and intense pain,” cracked Brüggemann. The production offers the tale of a motley collection of German migrants, their bodies and fortunes at risk, wending their way through the Canadian wilderness in search of Alaskan gold. Although some of the obligatory trappings of the western (a crooked guide, bounty hunters, broken wagon wheels, frontier villages) are on display, the film spares us dramatic climaxes save an attempted lynching, the grisly amputation of a leg, and the requisite showdown on an empty street. The images that linger are of mounted figures seen from behind riding through never-ending forests, occasionally encountering a bewildered wanderer or a Native American. There are no wild animals, although we do see a bear trap. Gold’s spareness was for its assailants unendurable, but for its few defenders mesmerizing in its psychedelic intensity.

No film at this year’s Berlinale received as much scorn and abuse from the critics. The press screening was a virtual squirmfest and concluded with boos and hisses. Above all, the film became a target for critical dismay about the Berlin School in general. Here, argued critics, we find an exemplary case of all that is misbegotten and unbearable about a cinema that taxes its audiences and denies viewers everything that makes films riveting and enjoyable. Stilted dialogue, lack of warmth and affect, systematic undernarration, and unrelenting earnestness that gives rise to inadvertent risibility; here, in nuce, were all the negative attributes of the Berlin School that Graf enumerated several years ago in his now famous e-mail exchange with Petzold and Hochhäusler.

And yet there was something disingenuous, even perverse, about this overreaction. Among the titles left unmentioned in unfavorable comparisons of Gold with other westerns were Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1966). Ever since a retrospective of his work was presented at the Munich Film Festival in 1998, Hellman has enjoyed cult status in Germany. And his so-called antiwesterns, with their existential minimalism, lack of motivation and plotting, and Kafkaesque absurdism, enjoy high esteem among German cineastes. (A DVD of the two films was recently released in Germany.) Seen through the prism of Hellman’s work, Arslan’s undertaking, with its endless panoramas and phantasmagoric feverishness, its unpopulated landscapes and flat characters, is an evocative exercise in plot abstinence and an emptiness so radical that it gains an alluring indeterminacy. Why, however, do German critics praise these very same attributes in The Shooting, even in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), and yet deride them in Gold?

THE SECOND FILM that enacted the false dichotomy between the deadly boring and the blithely insipid was Sandra Prechtel’s Panorama entry, Roland Klick: The Heart Is a Hungry Hunter (2013). The documentary portrait opens onto a frenetic Mario Adorf somewhere in a barren desert, running down the tracks after a departing train. Few people attending the film’s Cine-Star premiere could have identified the source of this clip, Klick’s legendary sort-of-western Deadlock (1970). The tableau is galvanizing in its sweaty physicality (precisely the kind of role for which the swarthy and heavy-set Adorf would become famous) but also suggestive in the way the scene essentializes Klick’s own destiny. Here was a filmmaker who arose out of the Munich scene in the 1960s, made some well-regarded features about losers and lowlifes (beyond Deadlock, his key titles are Jimmy Orpheus [1966], Supermarkt [1974], and White Star [1983]), and refused to align himself with the New German Cinema. He was a self-styled auteur who revered Hollywood professionals but would himself never make the leap to the mainstream. (The kiss of death came when producer Bernd Eichinger replaced him as the director of the blockbuster-to-be Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, known in the anglophone world as Christiane F. [1981].) Klick indeed missed the train; the lasting success augured by his early career never materialized.

To consider Klick is to contemplate a subterranean history of German cinema and to recall the lesser-known Oberhausen Declaration, of 1965, signed by, among others, Peter Nestler, Rudolf Thome, Klaus Lemke, and Jean-Marie Straub. This unlikely collective, given its members’ diverse approaches and personalities, castigated a German film that fetishized a circumscribed mode of realism which, by dint of its know-it-all progressive politics and socially critical schoolmasterliness, sanded off the rough edges of reality. The Young German Film of Alexander Kluge and the initial Oberhausen signatories, they insisted, was not the only game in town and surely did not have a monopoly on the medium’s creative and expressive potential.

Klick did not make films, he made cinema. And the calling of his cinema was to be sensual, not to make sense. His galvanizing work (three shorts and eight features made between 1962 and 1988) is hot, not cold; it knows nothing of the New German Cinema’s distanciation and self-reflection. His signature style, in the appraisal of Rudolf Worschech (coeditor of the prominent German journal epd Film), blends “exactness of observation, occasionally disjunctive editing, a disdain for the extraneous, the portrayal of characters through their actions and not their words, an emphasis on the physical and on action.” Jimmy Orpheus and Supermarkt have no sociopolitical ax to grind. In these films, action means enactment; audiovisual immediacy and not intellectual elaboration. Politics enters into the mix for Klick only insofar as cinema functions in the public sphere and interacts with audiences of diverse sensibilities. A director must communicate with spectators—not preach to them or put them off. His critique of the New German Cinema’s “esoteric demeanor” precisely parallels Graf’s displeasure with films that readily fit “into the art-house drawer.”

Indeed, Klick’s work cannot be written off as generic fare any more than can Graf’s, as the resounding success of the latter’s retrospective at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam illustrated. Furthermore, Graf’s recent collaboration with Petzold and Hochhäusler—the very Berlin School directors with whom he had famously corresponded about the deficiencies of their cinema—on the three-part film Dreileben (2011), suggests once again that the dichotomy between auteurist and popular initiatives is spurious. A multivoiced film screened at the Berlinale in 2011, Dreileben might be understood as a manifesto for a German film of the future, one that accentuates the distinctiveness of its participants while blending an awareness of international film history with concern about the state of contemporary German cinema. Moreover, Dreileben demonstrates how authorial inscriptions and generic conventions might interact in diverse and enthralling ways.

Likewise, the cinema of Roland Klick persuasively shows how the emptiness of Antonioni’s landscapes could coexist with the down-and-dirty expanses of the film noir and the thriller. The director’s disdain for easy psychologizing; his desire to show, not tell; his relentless resolve to probe and manipulate convention and, in that way, to challenge and engage the viewer, are emphases he shares with Graf—but also with exponents of the Berlin School. Klick’s legacy should prod us to rethink German film history, finding a place for a significant cinema that coexisted with and yet stood apart from the Neuer Deutscher Film. Graf, for his part, has expanded our awareness of what is artful about popular cinema and of the degree to which auteur cinema relies on generic design. Of course, for those familiar with André Bazin’s seminal essay “On the Politique des Auteurs” (1957), this mutual exclusivity will seem old hat.

A THIRD FILM at this year’s Berlinale that undermined the trite dichotomy between the artful and the entertaining, Jan Ole Gerster’s Oh Boy (2012), was screened once in the “German Section.” It had already received elaborate festival exposure (including showings at the AFI Fest last November) and had a successful run in domestic cinemas. (It appeared at MOMA in April.) Oh Boy follows Niko Fischer (played by rising star Tom Schilling), a young good-for-nothing—unemployed, feckless but pensive—as he drifts through the streets of Berlin in search of a good cup of coffee. As the cash-poor flaneur wends his way through Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, we partake of spaces and haunts familiar to young denizens of the metropolis: the hyperhip eatery St. Oberholz and the spookily expansive bar White Trash; the (recently closed) Kunsthaus Tacheles, where a performance is taking place; the subway stop Eberswalder Straße; a gentrified café with an attitudinous Swabian-speaking waitress. These well-known sites commingle with a cast of Berlin originals to provide an idiosyncratic city symphony; even if the film spares us the local dialect, the idioms and inflections retain their inimitability. Critics are fond of likening Oh Boy to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (reserving special praise for Philipp Kirsamer’s crisp black-and-white cinematography and a moody jazz score redolent of the early Nouvelle Vague), dubbing it German mumblecore as well as tying it back to the zaniness of Werner Enke in May Spils’s paean to hanging out and shirking responsibility, Zur Sache, Schätzchen (Go for It, Baby, 1968), and positioning it within a series of recent German “Generation 30” films such as Hanna Doose’s Staub auf unseren Herzen (Dust on Our Hearts), Constanze Knoche’s Die Besucher (Visitors), and Brüggemann’s 3 Zimmer/Küche/Bad (aka Move; all 2012).

The gloomy and overcast urban expanses assume a whimsical and enchanted aspect; the film takes time—indeed it has a remarkable lack of urgency, very much in keeping with its protagonist’s lack of volition. Like its protagonist, the film seems to know quite well what it does not want to be. We see Niko visit the set of an American Nazi retro film, an apparent knockoff of Inglourious Basterds in which a German officer falls in love with a Jew. “This,” we are told, “is based on a true event,” which only emphasizes the speciousness of the spectacle. At another point, mention is made in passing of the “Berliner Sonderschule”; this throwaway phrase marks a point of reference. The appellation Sonderschule refers to a school for students with special needs, including the disabled. Unlike Brüggemann writing about the Berlin School, though, Gerster is not dismissive.

In fact, Oh Boy recalls a significant (but rarely mentioned and all but unseen) precursor to the Berlin School, Michael Freerix’s Chronik des Regens (Chronicle of Rain, 1992), which was shot in West Berlin just before the wall came down. The city has the look of a sleepy haven full of cafés and parks in which Freerix’s idle protagonist malingers with friends on the day before he is to begin a new job, reading newspapers, talking on public telephones, drinking endless cups of coffee (a pleasure systematically denied Niko in Oh Boy), walking along rivers, and hiking through forests. This film is not in a rush; it savors temps morts and takes time seriously, attending to everyday things most films consider insignificant.

Film critic Lukas Foerster noted several years ago that Chronik des Regens poignantly displays what the Berlin School has lost as it has become more formally polished and art-house compatible, namely “the utter originality of a filmic style that does not kowtow to the whims of the culture industry and the tastemaking agendas of feuilleton pages, but rather insists on aesthetic idiosyncrasy and a complex, subversive relationship to contemporary history.” Even if one does not endorse Foerster’s harsh verdict, one surely notes the ways in which the minimalism, modesty, and spontaneity of Chronik des Regens reverberate in the fine-tuned debut Oh Boy and offer a Berliner Sonderschule that has brought new life to German cinema.

Eric Rentschler is the Arthur Kingsley Porter professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Harvard University, the author of West German Film in the Course of Time (Redgrave, 1984), and a coeditor of Neuer Deutscher Film (Reclam, 2012), among other titles.