Berlinale 2012 – Tips Beyond the Catalogue Blurbs

     |    Monday February 13th, 2012

By Andrew Horn

With literally 100s of films on offer at the Berlinale, it’s always hard to know what films to go see based on just the small descriptions given in the catalogues. Sometimes films that appear dire can turn out to be interesting and sometimes things that look like a must-see turn out to be awful. We rely on something we may have heard or read somewhere about the film, recommendations from friends, a previous film from the filmmaker we may have seen before, or the relation the film may have to current events or a theme or story that might be of personal interest. Or maybe you just liked the title or the poster. All are possible reasons to see a film, and all are just as liable to lead you astray. And hanging over it all is the inevitable feeling that whatever you do, you are missing something really cool going on in some other theater that you should have seen. That being said, sometimes the best experiences are the occasions where you have some time to kill and just pop into something that you never even considered and it turned out it to be great.

On Friday, I only went to see one film, a 1935 Russian film in the Retro section called “Gibel Sensazii” – alternately translated in English as “Loss of Feeling” or “Downfall of Emotion”. I have now seen the move twice and I still don’t quite understand the title, seeing as how the story is about the invention of giant robots, who unlike many robot stories, have no emotions at all. It all takes place in some unnamed western country (most likely England based on some of the names of the characters) where the invention is immediately co-opted by the military industrial complex to make the paid worker obsolete, as well as becoming a weapon of war. The inventor, Jim Ripl (probably they mean Ripley) thinks his robots will be the proverbial boon to mankind while his brother Jack, a union leader, sees it all for the danger it is.

The robots can be controlled by sound or radio waves and while the prototype is demonstrated by producing tones on a pitch pipe, the inventor is able to activate the first batch off the production line by playing a saxophone, resulting in something resembling a giant robot line dance. As much of a danger as they represent, we do feel some kind of sympathy for the robots, which turns out to be for the good because, of course, being a film made in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, they end up fighting on the side of the workers. Very inspirational, and possibly even timely.

An interesting contrast to one of Saturday’s films, “Iron Sky” a Finnish film playing in the Panorama. I had heard about this film before as it was partly funded through crowd financing, collecting about $1 million dollars of it’s $7.5 million budget. I had seen the trailer on YouTube and the storyline about Nazis who escape earth in 1945 to colonize the moon and plan their ultimate return to conquer the world totally made me want to see the finished product.

Note: anybody asking how they got to the moon in the first place has no business seeing this movie. Logic is not what it’s all about.

The movie is totally predictable and silly like an extended Mad TV sketch but certainly worth seeing. In fact with the combination of great special effects (assembling international geek power through the internet) and cheesy acting made me think of those internet Star Trek fan films like the New Voyages series . While those films are basically serious and well intentioned, Iron Sky is blatantly cornball and satirical with the president of the US being a Sarah Palin clone who is seduced into parroting the moon-Nazi ideology, and the ultimate battle in outer space being not about freedom vs totalitarianism but about the US trying to secure the a Nazi-developed alternative energy source. The overall silliness of how it is played made it hard for me to take it seriously as a “real movie” – it somehow seems like the ultimate YouTube film, but if it connects with that kind of young audience with it’s underlying message, it’s certainly a good thing.

Another good thing, was the sound track that was very appropriately composed by Laibach. When asked why they took the assignment, one of the band members replied, “we are specialists in anything to do with Nazis and of course also in humor.” Soundtrack is supposed to be coming out on CD.

Arguably just as predictable (for me at least), but not silly at all, was a film in Competition, “Barbara”. I saw this one because it was a story about life in East Germany before the fall of the Wall, which due to reasons too long to go into here, is a subject that I am always ready to check out. It was about a woman doctor who’s application for an exit visa immediately made her an object of suspicion and surveillance by the Stasi. Exiled from Berlin to a hospital in a rural province as a sort of punishment, she is biding her time till her western boyfriend can arrange her escape. The story parallels these preparations with her gradual integration into her life at the hospital. It has always been my contention that as outsiders, we really have no understanding of the paradox of good and bad that co-existed there and following her daily life became an interesting observation of these contrary forces at work. As in reality there is no way to really reconcile it all but it was really interesting to see it all play out. The one scene that sort of said it all for me was when she finds out that her friend in hospital is treating the dying wife of the Stasi agent who is harassing her and seeing the compassion he shows for both her and the husband. Our heroine asks him if he always treats assholes, and he replies, “I do when they’re sick”.

The next film I saw was a biopic of the Reggae star Bob Marley on the basis of a strong recommendation from a friend of mine who is a music critic, who repeatedly told me how much it moved him. For purposed of full disclosure I don’t like Reggae particularly but I recognize Bob Marley for his position and a good movie about music should make you appreciate it even if only for the length of the movie. Having been seduced by the music of Metallica in – or at least during – “Some Kind of Monster” I was ready to put personal preference aside. While I have to say that some of the early Reggae and Ska music featured in the movie was pretty interesting, the movie itself, just didn’t grab me. Obviously the director really likes Bob Marley – as he probably should to make the movie – but I didn’t find myself sharing his feeling. I can’t point to anything particular that I thought was bad but it was just not for me.

The film that was probably the most fun of the day – and maybe even of the whole festival, unless something really amazing happens – was the Hindi film “Don – The King Is Back”. The problem about making such a statement is that the experience was not just from the film itself but the whole scene at the presentation. Shah Rukh Khan is a huge star in India but also has a big following in Germany, or at least Berlin. I had seen and enjoyed the three films that the Berlinale has presented in same number of years, one of them being the original “Don” movie. This year’s sequel was mostly shot in Berlin and was co-produced through German film subsidies so having the premier here made it a pretty big deal for the festival.

It was, however, all about the fans who packed the 1800 seat Friedrichstadt Palast and were so revved up by not only the film but the impending appearance by Shah Rukh himself were literally screaming at everything. Never mind the first appearance of Don, they were cheering the credits, the sponsor logos, even the titles that told you where the scene was taking place. It was like the Beatles – if you can transpose that kind of energy to an audience of middle aged Germans.

The movie itself was good silly fun, as it was meant to be, but the real show was in the audience who, after screaming it’s way through the film, went completely ape when Khan made his appearance at the end. Even festival director Dieter Kosslick and head of the Medienboard Berlin/Brandenburg Kirsten Niehuus were going crazy onstage trying to do Hindi film dancing with the “Don”. It was a pretty surreal experience that I have to say way overshadowed the film for me. But hey – that’s ok too.