Although the programme of the 48th edition of the KVIFF was packed and looked as exciting as ever, unfortunately there was only time for a fleeting visit this year. The always judicious picks of festival favourites from the Berlinale and Cannes included The Congress, The Great Beauty, Behind the Candelabra, Frances Ha, A Touch of Sin and Harmony Lessons to name a few, in addition to the premiere of A Field in England, a day before it became the first film to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on home entertainment formats and free TV in the UK. There was also a long-overdue Jerry Schatzberg retrospective, including the 1970s New York-set heroin romance Panic in Needle Park alongside the newly digitally remastered Scarecrow, not to mention the wealth of new offerings from Central and Eastern Europe. And even with only four days there, the small selection of highlights below proves that Karlovy Vary remains a great hunting ground for the unexpected.
Halley (Sebastián Hofmann, 2012)
By far the most striking and original film I saw, Mexican filmmaker Sebastián Hoffman’s debut feature is essentially a zombie film wrapped in awkwardly stylish, realistic yet surreal art-house trappings. The horror comes in the form of an unnamed, seemingly terminal illness that has taken control of the body of lonely security guard Beto (Alberto Trujillo), who meticulously observes the strange wounds spreading from head to toe all over his skin. Ashamed and desperate when he can no longer hide his disease, Beto goes to extremes to keep the deterioration at bay, but he soon realises that hope is vain and eventually holes up in his flat, surrendering to his disturbing physical condition.
Driven by a keen sense of the grotesque, Hofmann has crafted an increasingly outlandish film that skilfully utilises and subverts genre conventions without ever failing to approach his troubled protagonist with genuine respect rather than mere compassion or exploitation. Watching Beto quietly wasting away is painful, but seeing the hint of a friendship developing with the woman who runs the gym where he works before witnessing the events that follow his last desperate attempt to cling to life is nearly heart-breaking. Halley is an intelligent, haunting and melancholy tale of the deep, unrewarding human desire for love, intimacy and acceptance, and the weird dreams that often come with it.
Watch the trailer for Halley:
Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)
Fruitvale Station, which premiered at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section earlier this year, is one of those films that you watch not so much for its artistic refinement as for the political urgency it radiates. Nonetheless, debut filmmaker Ryan Googler shows a remarkably steady and not too heavy hand as he takes the audience through the real-life events of New Year’s morning 2009, when 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed in a senseless police shooting at Fruitvale rapid transit stop in Oakland, California.
The super-low-budget drama chronicles the last hours in the life of the young black man (intensely played by Michael B. Jordan) who, newly out of prison, is all set to make big changes in the year ahead: no more drug dealing, no more trouble, being a better son to his doting mother, a better partner to his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and, most importantly, a more reliable father to his own daughter, starting off by taking Sophina out to see the Bay Area fireworks that night. But despite his best intentions, plans change when the police line him and his friends down on the ground against a concrete wall on the subway platform for all the wrong reasons. The real-life shaky cell phone clip at the beginning of the film, recorded in the station just before Grant’s death, not only gives a sense of foreboding to the events, but adds to the film’s aim to make Oscar human – a real person, far from being perfect, but utterly undeserving of the destiny thrust upon him. Powerful, angry and sad, Fruitvale Station exerts a subtly gripping tension that is abruptly energised as the fatal gunshot is fired, leaving the film lingering in the mind for some time after the credits roll.
Watch the trailer for Fruitvale Station:
My Dog Killer (Mira Fornay, 2012)
One would have thought that, by now, the appetite for bleak, stark East European social dramas with non-professional actors, had waned, but Mira Fornay’s Slovak-Czech film My Dog Killer, one of the three Tiger Award winners at Rotterdam earlier this year, proves that the formula still appeals to some. After setting her debut feature, Foxes (2009), in Dublin, this time the director works on her home turf as she follows the apathetic 18-year-old Marek (Adam Mihal) and his dog, Killer, through their daily struggles in a dead-end village near the Slovak–Moravian border, where all-embracing anger, dodgy dealings and open, anti-Roma racism are the order of the day. When Marek finds out that he has a half-brother with gypsy blood in his veins, he doesn’t think twice before taking drastic action. But although Mihal delivers a convincing lead performance, in the end, the only thing that one really cares about is Killer. This is a drab, hate-filled film that might well tick all the right boxes to become a strong presence on this year’s festival circuit, but anyone looking for some fresh, less formulaic and more inventive drama may want to look elsewhere.
Sources of Life (Oskar Roehler, 2013)
Oskar Roehler’s last film, Jew Suss – Rise and Fall (Jud Süss – Film ohne Gewissen, 2010), which reimagines the story of the making of Veit Harlan’s 1940 Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss, was a dead loss to say the least. So it was a relief to see him back on form with Sources of Life (Quellen des Lebens), an adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel Herkunft. In its ambitious 174 minutes, the film recounts the story of a German family spanning three generations as they face up to the country’s post-war experience. Setting off in the late 1940s, we first meet Erich (Jürgen Vogel), a soldier devoted to Nazism, who returns home several years after the war to win back his estranged wife and make a new start by establishing the first garden gnome factory in Germany. The business flourishes, but his son Klaus (Moritz Bleibtreu) doesn’t share his fine commercial acumen and instead sets out to become an aspiring author, only to realise with jealousy that the woman he loves is a far more gifted writer than he is, but equally useless when it comes to raising their child. The latter part of the film follows their son Robert as he tries to find love and, more importantly, ‘himself’ during Germany’s eventful 1970s, when the Baader-Meinhof Group rocked the country’s democracy with a series of increasingly violent terrorist attacks. Building on his notably odd sense of humour and the three love stories at the heart of the film, Roehler manages to weave an interesting ironic commentary into his portray of West Germany, but how much that will appeal to an international audience less familiar with the detail of the country’s bumpy post-war period is anyone’s guess.