Five Films from Berlinale 2020
The 70th Berlinale Film Festival served up a wide range of Kino with 18 films from 12 different countries competing in the main competition, and over 300 hundred others participating across various other categories. This year also marked a new chapter for the festival, with new organisers, a new artistic director and new venues all introduced as part of a makeover, although there was still room for controversy in the build up to opening night.
In January, organisers announced their decision to suspend the Alfred Bauer prize, named after the festival's founding director, when newly uncovered documents revealed his involvement with Nazi propaganda efforts during the Second World War. Then in February, there was widespread criticism over the selection of Jeremy Irons as jury president, in light of his past comments on women's rights and same-sex marriage, which the actor directly addressed during the festival's opening press conference.
As for the selection of films, there were some good ones, there were some not so good ones, and there were a whole host of others that I didn't have time to see, including Mohammad Rasoulof's There Is No Evil (2020), which won the main prize. Nevertheless, there were a few gems that really stood out over the 10 days, and here they are in no particular order:
1. Siberia (2020) Dir. Abel Ferrara
Abel Ferrara doesn’t hold back with this one and it was interesting to note the points at which some people decided to get up and walk out. Those moments felt like markers in a film where a plot or storyline is practically non-existent.
In short, it’s a surreal odyssey into the depths of a man’s psyche, which can be deeply disturbing one moment and then funny the next. The voyage is made up of several episodes, each one preceded by a change of scenery where Stefano Falivene’s cinematography does a great job of setting the tone, especially in the turquoise tinged mountain range where the film begins.
It’s easily one of the most polarising films that I saw at the festival and it's one that you really need to see in the cinema to get the full effect. Definitely one to look out for, you'll either love it or you'll hate it.
2. First Cow (2020) Dir. Kelly Reichardt
Set in the woodlands of Oregon during the 1820’s, two men cross paths and discover a way to make their own small fortune - by selling sweet, delicious oily cakes. If you’ve seen Kelly Reichardt’s previous films, then this is somewhere between Old Joy (2006) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and the more I think about the performances by John Magaro and Orion Lee, it’s closer to the former rather than the latter.
The storyline is simple and straightforward, the pace is slow and patient and the attention to detail is second to none. These three factors are all crucial because once you get a feel for the place and the period, you get the sense that this is what life on the American Frontier really might have been like.
Reichardt’s frontier seems distinctly influenced by paintings but it doesn’t indulge itself. It’s a place where life is slow and difficult and the people who live it come from different corners of the world, having arrived with hopes of making their fortune, they find themselves in a primitive place with a lot of time on their hands.
When you see a film that deals with the Wild West, you usually think of the classic Western, or something that will inevitably tick certain boxes. What I really liked about this was that it challenges those assumptions and brings a different view of the American Frontier to the big screen.
3. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020) Dirs. Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
Somewhere on the outskirts of Las Vegas a dive bar opens its doors for the last time, and over the course of the day its congregation of unruly regulars come together to watch Jeopardy, drown their sorrows and say their goodbyes.
An unscripted work of fiction shot like a fly on the wall documentary, this one is a funny, sentimental and completely convincing snapshot of American society in 2016, and an interesting experiment in filmmaking at the same time. This film was screened in the Panorama category and it really offered something different in both style and substance.
4. Rizi (2019) Dir. Tsai Ming-Liang
Even by this director’s standards, this is a very slow film, but the longer it went on the more I enjoyed it. The rhythm was really well suited to a morning screening and it was great to watch it with a large audience .
Tsai Ming-Liang’s latest film follows the lives of two men living in Bangkok, using long and quiet takes to observe their solitary, everyday moments, until a brief encounter in a hotel room provides both with a respite from their loneliness.
If you’re into dialogue then it’s probably not the film for you. It’s minimal throughout and there are no subtitles, leaving the images to do the talking, and the viewer to piece together the meaning. But once you settle in and get used to the pace, you might find it to be a really meditative watch.
5. DAU. Natasha (2020) Dirs. Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel
This was the final film that I saw at the festival and it also proved to be the most controversial. The more you read about DAU. Natasha, the more you realise that this is far from any ordinary film.
In 2005 director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy set out to make a biopic based on the life of Soviet scientist Lev Landau. Then in 2009, the production team then began constructing a massive film set in Kharkiv, north-east Ukraine, modelled on the Soviet research institute where Landau lived and worked between the1930's and the1960's.
This is where things get a little strange, and more interesting. The film set became a fully immersive environment for the next three years, somewhere between a historical reconstruction and an alternate reality. Over 300,000 people reportedly auditioned to participate in the project, primarily as extras, then those who were successful were required to live on site, working the real life jobs that once existed in the facility.
The cast ranged from scientists to cleaners and they remained entirely true to the period in which they were living, from costumes to currency. They were supposedly even given replica Soviet passports, and were paid in Russian Roubles, which they could then spend on set. Another surreal aspect to all of this was that time didn't stand still, it moved in a linear fashion, just at a different speed. The historical period would change when Khrzhanovskiy decided to move onto the next chapter of the project, which meant that between 2009 and 2011, the actors reenacted different periods of Soviet history between1938 and1968.
After shooting over 700 hours of film, the set was dismantled in 2011 and the production is now commonly referred to as the DAU project - a colossal multimedia art project which will potentially yield 13 feature films as well as TV series and documentaries.
Which brings us back to the film itself. DAU. Natasha is set in the year 1952 and follows the life of a canteen waitress working in the facility. It's a film of two halves, the first focuses on Natasha's turbulent relationships with her colleagues, the second reveals her harrowing experience when brought face to face with a high-ranking Soviet official, which is much more difficult to watch.
Due to the immersive nature of the production, a group of Russian journalists penned an open letter to the Berlinale organisers following its premiere at the festival. The letter questions "the ethics of including Dau. Natasha in the main competition" in light of recent years which have been “marked by the struggle against the culture of violence and abuse in the film industry.”
This didn't prevent the jury awarding the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to the film's cinematographer, Jürgen Jürges, which I thought was totally deserved. This one is a gripping watch which stays with you well after it's ended, and it's likely to leave with plenty of questions. As for the DAU project, DAU. Natasha is only the beginning of an elaborate experiment, and I can't wait to see what comes next.
By Alex Escott