achtung berlin – new berlin film award: Roundup Part 1

     |    Wednesday April 24th, 2013

by Andrew Horn

After Berlin’s overly extended winter, the first warm days of Spring coincided with this year’s Achtung Berlin Film Festival. For those who never been, it’s a festival devoted to the city of Berlin, either from subject matter, location, or by virtue of the fact that the director lives or works in the city. This leaves a lot of room for a wide net and while nominally following it’s rather specific mandate, the festival has no problem encompassing the rest of the world.

I’ve lived here in Berlin for over 20 years but I can’t remember ever having heard the name of Roland Klick. According to Sandra Prechtel’s documentary, “Roland Klick – The Heart Is A Hungry Hunter” he’d been a big name back in the days of the New German Cinema.

Ms Prechtel had apparently never heard of him either until discovering his films on video a few years ago. Though little remembered today, he was a four time winner of the German Film Prize (Germany’s Academy Award). The first was for his film “Deadlock” (1970) which was the official German entry to the Cannes Film Festival – until it was torpedoed by various German filmmakers who successfully lobbied to get the film booted from the program; the next for the film “Supermarkt” (1974) where the performances he extracted from actual street people inspired German producer Bernd Eichinger to hire him to direct the film “Christiane F.”, and then kick him out within a few weeks of production for attempting the same thing; another for “White Star” (1983), the film he did with Dennis Hopper, which became a major disaster due to Hopper’s acute coke habit (though described by one critic as the most beautiful flop he’d ever seen); as well as a documentary on horse racing in America, “Derby Fever USA” (1979), which, happily, seems to have come and gone without incident.

Klick says in the movie he was courted by Hollywood and turned them all down. In an interview with his former cameraman Jost Vancano – who, himself, went on to a Hollywood career shooting films like “Robo Cop” and “Starship Troopers” – Klick should have been the big international breakout from Germany. As we know from history (or the lack of it), he wasn’t.

In the movie we see him today as a teacher, telling his students that giving up on a project is a luxury you only have in film school – out in the real world filmmaking is a matter of life and death. It can also be poetry, fulfillment, and adventure.

While he no longer makes films, the documentary does present him as a man on an adventure, whether insisting on shooting “Deadlock” in the war zone of The West Bank, or dealing with uncomfortable topics like the child committing murder in “Bübchen”. In an interview with one of his actors, working with him was described as having a kind of urgency, that he was someone who was obsessed with what he was trying to do, but “he wasn’t a slave driver, he was looking for something and we were all there with him”.

Ironically, Klick talks about refusing the Hollywood offers because he was convinced he would be ruined by the commercial system, while at the same time relating the problems he had with the elitism of New German Cinema mafia who accused him of pandering to the audience.

We don’t know from the movie what ended his career so it’s hard to say if he was a glorious flame-out who stuck to his guns, like Welles or von Stroheim, or someone who just blew his chances out of hardheaded attachment to principle. But while things clearly did not go well for him, he doesn’t come off as a failure.

Stanley Kubrick once said that making a film was like going to war and if nothing else the story told in “Roland Klick” is one of struggle that’s engaging for it’s own sake. And that’s what connected with me, both as a viewer and as a filmmaker myself. To be honest, I am not sure from seeing the clips used in the documentary that I would necessarily like those films if I saw them today, but I will say that for 87 minutes I was a fan.

The adventure of filmmaking is also in evidence in RP Kahl’s film “Bedways”, which is nominally a film about love and desire that plays out in the story of a film being made where the love scenes are to be shot with actual on-screen sex. But since this is not the movie, rather the movie about the movie, or, more precisely, the rehearsals for the movie that they are about to make, the result is deliberately not as stylized, or arguably as titillating, as a “real” movie would be.

If you’ve ever seen Andy Warhol’s “Blue Movie”, you know that movie sex is quite different from actual sex. While there are, supposedly, great things going on inside for the couple, for us on the outside it’s not quite as interesting. What arguably separates us people in the real world from our movie counterparts is…well, let’s say, good choreography,  good lighting… and maybe also the luxury of multiple re-takes.  We in the real world have the advantage that we’re not acting (or not supposed to be).

For all the ruminations about how to portray said love and desire, “Bedways” is actually more about insecurity and power games. The director, Nina, is not exactly sure what she wants and insists on working without a script. She wants her two actors, Max and Marie, to find their way – as she says, “without playing themselves, but without being anyone else”. Neither seems at ease in the situation, but for reasons that they don’t seem to quite understand themselves, the two actors are bound to play out their parts no matter what, provoked by Nina into some kind of artificial relationship, which doesn’t appear to be a healthy one.

The interplay of the characters seem driven more by manipulation than attraction. One by one, each of the three ends up having sex with each of the others, but there’s too much going on in their respective heads for there to be any pleasure. In fact the sex reminded me of the lovers in Jean Cocteau’s “Testament of Orpheus” who, from a distance, seem to be locked in a passionate embrace, but when you get closer you see that each one is busily writing down their impressions on a pad behind the other one’s back.

While the movie takes place in Berlin, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. The whole story – if story is the right word here – plays out in very interior spaces, whether in an empty apartment, and alley way, a featureless music club or the abstracted space of a cubicle for voyeurs in a sex club. But mostly one could imagine it plays out in the interior spaces of the actors themselves as they try to grapple with their roles in the story – both as characters and as the actors playing those characters. And then there’s the director who wants to remain true to her vision, but is struggling to sort it all out. While each of the two women are busy analyzing their intentions, the guy is more worried about how much control he’s going to have of his hard-on. Sounds a bit crass… though given the weight of the loaded atmosphere, maybe just pragmatic.

Contrary to the Nina’s rambling construction for her film, the actual film was fully scripted with rehearsals and improvisations used to adapt the script to the actors playing the parts. And unlike his female surrogate, director RP Kahl seems to be very aware of where he is going and not afraid to get there. Despite Nina’s doubts, he manages to deliver us – and her – to the big finish, so to speak.

Kahl, who serves on the Festival jury this year, was also represented by the film, “Rehearsals”, which is a sort of remake of “Bedways”, taking it to the next level of self-reflexion with himself as the director, and the action played out “live” in front of a small audience in the film.

The very fact of making a verité documentary is already an adventure. While you may have a concept, you never really know how it will play out or where you’ll end up. And when you make it about a quest for your own personal discovery…well, lots of luck.

Bin Chuen Choi is a filmmaker from Hong Kong, living in Berlin, who decides he needs to reunite with his mother, who left him and his father when he was a small child. His only real memory is a brief visit from her when he was 10. She bought him a toy robot which his brother threw out the window of their apartment. That was the last he ever saw of her.

Now an adult with a little girl of his own, he decides to make a , called “Mother’s Day”, documenting his search for his mother and ultimately end with their meeting. He finds out on the internet that she had become a successful author of over 300 books, who now lives in Vancouver. Her biography mentions a daughter, but no son.

Going back to Hong Kong to do some research, his family is not very encouraging. His aunt blames the split up on his father who she calls a “disaster”. His step mother, who raised him, is even more blunt, telling him it’s silly to even ask why she left. “I don’t know why your parents had you,” she adds,  “abortion was legal by then”. Thanks mom…

He tries various contacts through family, friends and community, writes her a letter through her publisher, but nothing comes of any of it. Now against everyone’s advice, he decides to just go off to Vancouver and try his luck.

Like any good detective, he dutifully follows up all his leads and then accidently stumbles upon the information that brings him, unannounced, to her door. And like any good detective in a story, what he finds is more than he bargained for.

A family friend gives him a piece of advice – “before you knock on the door, you must have forgiven her.”

Easy to say…

And the fact that you’ve got a cameraman standing there recording it all doesn’t help the awkwardness of an already awkward situation.

So now it’s not enough he has to reconcile himself what happens, he also has to deliver a good movie. And somehow he manages to pull them both off. What could have been a dreary story is actually told in a light and ingenuous manner, partly through some playful animated sequences woven in and out of the movie, but mostly from his own sincerity. And in the end, if he didn’t really achieve what he wanted, he did somehow manage to get what he came for. But he also realizes that, like Dorothy and the ruby slippers, he already had what he needed the whole time.