The Berlinale loves women, on screen and off. For the second time in the past three years there were more female members than men on the competition jury, this time led by Wong Kar-wai, whose martial arts epic The Grandmaster (starring a ravishing Zhang Ziyi) opened the festival. But it was the subtly winning style of on-screen actresses such as Paulina Garcia, who received the Silver Bear award for her performance as grounded but brave middle-aged Gloria in Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s competition entry of the same name, and Isabella Rossellini’s radiant presence (when receiving the Berlinale Camera award) that captured the media’s attention, and created some quiet sparks during an otherwise largely uneventful 63rd edition of the festival. What’s more, looking at the films on offer, women not only seized opportunities to breach social conventions but, more often than not, gleefully plunged into misery and destruction, both physically and emotionally.
The youngest discovery among the group of on-screen heroines was Austrian actress Melanie Lenz, who plays an overweight teenager doomed to fall in love with her middle-aged doctor (Joseph Lorenz) at a diet camp in the final act of Ulrich Seidl’s female-led Paradise trilogy.
Meli is the 13-year-old daughter of Teresa, who went out on a quest for sexual bliss in a beach resort in Kenya in the first episode (Paradise: Love), while Meli’s aunt, who drops her off at the camp in the opening sequence, scourged herself for the love of Jesus in the second part, Faith. With her family either far away or busy praying, Meli relies solely on her ebullient roommates to read the signs and follow her heart. That nothing good can come from that is as predictable as the unadorned visual style, considering Paradise: Hope is a Seidl film, and a gruff one at that.
Labelled with an equally misleading title, but to more shrewdly amusing effect, was Canadian critic-turned-director Denis Côté’s eccentric Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, which starts off promisingly, but gradually loses momentum, as well as character depth, before an unexpectedly superb, if bitchy, ending. Pierrette Robitaille as Victoria, who has been discharged early from prison for a life sentence, and Romane Bohringer as Vic’s former cell mate and now lover, Florence, who has her own agenda for consistently soft-selling Vic’s mounting fear that she will eventually drop her, both give convincing performances as the outlaw couple trying to make a new start somewhere in the Canadian forest. But Côté doesn’t quite manage to keep the viewer interested in his deceptive directing choices and the film’s enigmatic atmosphere, so much so that one doesn’t really care anymore when the trap that has been carefully laid out eventually snaps shut.
Unsurprisingly, prospects seemed no better for the group of German immigrants who, in the summer of 1898, set out on a journey to find their fortune in the Canadian goldfields around Dawson City in Thomas Arslan’s carefully constructed, weirdly chaste and slow paced German-language Western Gold. The film centres around enigmatic Emily (Nina Hoss), a self-reliant and hands-on divorcée amidst a bunch of peculiar male characters, who turns out to be the most driven member of the group, willing to push ahead at all costs.
Arslan, who is best known for documenting Berlin in the 1990s in his unobtrusive trilogy of character studies (Brothers and Sisters (1997), Dealer (1999) and 2001’s A Fine Day), has a meticulous eye for characters continuously in motion and on the move, and here successfully brings the clinical distance and landscape poetics of the Berlin School to bear on what is essentially an ensemble costume drama, carried by yet another remarkably restrained performance from Hoss.
Not strictly part of the official festival programme, but screened in the German Cinema – LOLA@Berlinale section, which showcases preselected films for the German Film Award, Margarethe von Trotta’s cinematic portrait of Hannah Arendt stood out for its astuteness and skill in capturing a persona as prolific yet elusive as the German-Jewish philosopher (played by Barbara Sukova), whose theory of the ‘banality of evil’ made her both famous and vulnerable. The film follows Arendt as she travels to Jerusalem to report on the infamous Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. Irritated by the staging of the trial as well as by her own and others’ interpretation of the proceedings, Arendt eventually gets caught up in her own judgement of the ardent Nazi and anti-Semite as he manages to disguise the role he played in the Holocaust. Trotta, by contrast, has crafted an extremely lucid, tense and unsettling drama. It’s also an incredibly tender film without ever being sentimental.
One of the most impressive films in the international competition was Harmony Lessons, by 29-year-old first-time Kazakhstani director Emir Baigazin. In its essence, Harmony Lessons is a twisted school-bullying revenge drama revolving around introverted 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), who is targeted by his ruthless classmates. In return, Aslan vents his anger and frustration on cockroaches and other pests and insects that he uses as guinea pigs for the cruel little scientific experiments that he conducts in his room. Things seem to get slightly better when a student arrives from the city and helps defy the bullies, while palling up with Aslan. However, when a murder takes place at the school, the main suspects are easily found, transforming both the characters and the plot into something deeper, darker and more mysterious. With its existential overtones and the creative assurance of a young director who seems to have little to learn from any arthouse veterans, Harmony Lessons is an inventive, genre-defying film located on the borderline between the real and the imaginary, and deserves more attention than it received in Berlin.