The 62nd edition of the Berlinale was marked by a feeling of relief. Not only did the line-up for this year’s film festival look more promising than in previous years, the programme ultimately featured fewer bad surprises as well as some truly excellent films.
Two of the three German titles in the competition stood out for their defiant narrative structure, both in their own way offering an exquisite blend of intensity and emotional restraint. Following up Jerichow with his fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss, Christian Petzold probably enjoyed the festival’s greatest triumph with Barbara even if the prize for best film went to the Italian prison drama Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) by directorial duo Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, awarded by a jury headed by Mike Leigh (need I say more!). Set in 1980 in a small East German town, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor who was denied an exit permit by the country’s authorities and, for disciplinary reasons, was transferred from her prestigious post in Berlin to a hospital in the country. Secretly planning her escape via the Baltic Sea with Jörg, her lover in the West, Barbara has no intention to connect with her new colleagues or local residents, who in return counter her coolness with suspicion and defiance – except for Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), Barbara’s new boss, who seems to have a crush on her. Barbara knows not to trust anyone around her and has no illusions about Andre’s role as observer reporting to the Stasi, who regularly search both the shoddy apartment she has been allocated and her own body, forcibly entering the most private parts of her existence. However, as Barbara realises that she and Andre share the same approach and dedication to work, her defensive wall slowly starts to crumble, which eventually forces her to make a decision about her future. In contrast to most of his previous work, Petzold gives the story a profound warmth and emotional charge, subtly balancing his usual laconic style and distinctive narrative approach, while Nina Hoss unfolds her character stunningly in yet another razor-sharp, painfully acute performance that justly won her the Best Actress prize for the second time, surpassing her breath-taking appearance in Petzold’s Yella in 2007.
The other remarkable German competition entry was Matthias Glasner’s Mercy. Glasner, who some years ago impressed us with The Free Will, about a rapist trying to readjust to society after years in a clinic, has crafted his most accomplished film to date with this strangely intimate moral melodrama. An inadvertent car accident shakes up the troubled marriage between engineer Niels (JÃ¼rgen Vogel) and his nurse wife Maria (Birgit Minichmayr), not long after their relocation to a small town on the very edge of the Arctic Ocean, where the couple and their tight-lipped pre-teen son where hoping to make a new start between black night and permanent twilight. One day on her way home from work, Maria appears to run over someone or something. Unable to face up to the situation, she panics and rushes back home. Niels checks the road, but although he can’t find anything, both realise well before the truth comes to light that the accident has forced them into a cruel dilemma – a dilemma that seems to revolve less around mercy than guilt, and ultimately reactivates their relationship. Glasner’s charting of their dark journey is acutely alert to the moral complexity of the situation and chillingly tender while free of sentimentality.
Anything but mercy could be found in Timo Vuorensola’s eagerly awaited Iron Sky, which immensely boosted the fun factor in this year’s Panorama section. Partly financed through fan crowd-funding, which offered supporters a chance to help not only producing the film but developing the plot, Iron Sky is an overwrought and unashamedly daft symbiosis of tongue-in-cheek sci-fi lunacy and old-school guerrilla filmmaking. It’s a film about a bunch of Nazi punks in outer space who, just before the end of the Second World War, managed to build a space station on the dark side of the moon. The action starts in 2018 when an African-American astronaut discovers the swastika bastion led by a FÃ¼hrer called Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier – who else?). Kortzfleisch leads an attack on Earth with an army of steel-armoured zeppelins, which ultimately causes a new war between world leaders. The film requires a reasonable amount of good will to get past the daft jokes, but the few sparks of true brilliance make Iron Sky a joyful B-movie space odyssey.
Far more serious illusions and delusions were at the core of two other Panorama entries: Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot (Fon tok kuen fah), two thrilling, dark tales from a transnational, political present in which everybody is an alien one way or another. My Brother the Devil follows 19-year-old Rashid and his teenage brother Mo through the streets of Hackney, where Rashid has learned to make a living as a shrewd drug-dealing gang member. Being too good at heart, he takes the chance to enter a completely new world as it opens up to him, while Mo soon has to face his own prejudices if he wants to save his brother’s life. A moving, well-acted coming-of-age melodrama about repressed feelings and damaged community spirit, the film is told with care and sensitivity and is a welcome departure from the usual grim British social realism.
Aesthetically distinctive in its modern film noir-ish look and feel, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s follow-up to his inaccessibly cryptic Nymph is a remarkably accomplished portrait of an altruistic cop turned assassin whose vision is inverted when a bullet hits his brain. Despite the brutal action that increases as Tul gets fatally caught up in the slippery concept of justice, Headshot is a marvel of fierce visual beauty, slow, yet effective storytelling and stylish precision: every frame and movement, every colour and texture seems completely controlled. While the story is by no means original, Ratanaruang knows what he is doing and safely steers his badass neo-noir thriller to a devastating finale in which Tul finds a new place for himself in the world of the lost.
A final word about a small, brooding masterpiece. Screened out of competition, Keyhole is Guy Maddin’s latest and by far most ambitious film to date. Trying, as usual, to make sense of the memories and feelings from the past that haunt him day and night, Maddin this time has crafted a heady amalgam of sinister black and white 40s noir-gangster flick, Homer’s Odyssey (loosely adapted), Sirk-like melodrama and haunted ghost story. Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s a perfectly twisted, dark, dreamlike cinematic encounter that stays in the back of your mind long after you have re-entered reality. It won’t convince everybody, but it put a spell on me.