by Harlan Kennedy


“Strange, the things we remember and the things we forget.”



The Berlin Film Festival began and continued with a rain of fireworks. They were happening inside our own heads. The synaptic sparkings were so colourful, so explosive, so continuous that many mistook them for actual pyrotechnics.

What was going on? Well, philosophical issues, questions and conundrums were having their blue touch-paper lit in our brains. The main theme this year was memory. How much should we remember? How much DO we remember? Is memory loss ever an advantage? (Yes, we’ll list the movies later). And is remembering – and perhaps this is the point and prescript of art, culture and festivals – the necessary tribute paid by the present to the past? Are you still there?

Such things, I repeat, had to be asked at the 54th Berlin Film Festival where anniversaries rose up like Krakens from the deep. They flailed their tails and gnashed their scaly teeth; they roared, firebreathed and ravened; they woke us with a start in the morning and threw us into bed, exhausted by battle, at night.

It is a decade since South Africa’s liberation from apartheid, so documentaries on that theme were practically uncountable, plus John Boorman’s competition feature THE COUNTRY OF MY SKULL, starring Juliette Binoche and Sam Jackson as colour-contrasted news hacks covering the 1994 ‘truth and reconciliation’ hearings. It was the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara’s motorbike field trip round South America, so we had travelling companion Alberto Granados’s docu-diary of this famous field trip, also just dramatised for the Walter Salles feature THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (opening soon). Granados and Che’s son Ernesto were both in Berlin to honour the 35-years-dead guerrilla personality. So was Romano Scavolini, carrying an incendiary mini-doc about Che’s last hours which asks: Was the revolutionary pinup actually executed in cold blood, rather than hot battle, after hours of captivity awaiting the joint sentence of Bolivia and the USA?

Elsewhere in Berlin, voiceover narration was so prominent that we’ve never heard so many ‘Thens’ filtered through so many ‘Nows.’ Obviously Lars von Trier’s unsparing use of the omniscient storytelling voice in DOGVILLE has leaped out and bitten everyone else.

Elsewhere still, there was a retrospective of Hollywood’s great decade of hipster independent cinema, the 1970s (plus late 60s), when Altman, Hopper, Coppola, Ashby and Co ruled Filmdom. 

And even these sideshows were left in the shade, in the Theme and Variations on Retrospection at this Berlinale, by the fest’s top audience hit, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia-radiant BEFORE SUNSET. Imagine the odds against a sequel to Linklater’s borderline winsome rom-com BEFORE SUNRISE being even bearable. Yet here are Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meeting cute again in a European capital – Paris – with an even smaller window than last time for romantic rapture, since he’s a bestselling visiting author with a plane to catch and she surprises him in the bookstore, 9 years and one missed reunion date after their coup de foudre in Vienna.

Why does this work? Because walk and talk are all we want from a movie, provided they are good, and here is walk-and-talk to dream of. Fizzingly written by all three perpetrators – Linklater, Hawke, Delpy – BEFORE SUNSET is a crime against cinematic probability and against the rule that sequels are flat, stale and cynically profitable. This has charm, acuity and vitality. It was also made in two weeks on a dime. Like any serious crime it should get long sentences for all involved: from admiring and loquacious critics.  

Ah remembrance. Other American pics, Ron Howard’s THE MISSING and Patty Jenkins’s MONSTER, were about the grislier power of human recall, when dreadful deeds must be remembered in order to be exorcised. Howard’s retread of THE SEARCHERS had a big-screen scenic wallop that Patty Jenkins’s singles version of THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, about multiple killer Aileen Wuornos, didn’t even try for. But both refract past cruelties through the present’s prism, movie homage itself being part of the jewelled fracturing. And Charlize Theron’s cosmetic and behavioural makeover as a plug-ugly lesbian with aggression issues really is as good as the Oscar buzz suggests.

Add German director Hans Petter Moland’s elegaic BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY, all backstory re-beautified as its hero, a Vietnamese boatperson (Damien Nguyen), remembers his epic trip across the world to find his Texan dad (Nick Nolte); and Matteo Garone’s PRIMO AMORE from Italy, a sly weave of spoken memory and gothic foreboding as a Pygmalion goldsmith shapes a luckless bride into anorexic shapes; and Catherine Breillat’s latest fleshfest ANATOMY OF HELL, with the director’s own voice transexually narrating Rocco Siffredi’s thoughts as he plays cacher le salami with Breillat’s latest programmed cockteaser; and Lebanese-American newcomer Omar Naim’s Hollywood writing-directing debut which stirs Robin Williams into a sci-fi scarer about memory implants – add all these and Berlin 2004 sometimes resembled a Ouija session masquerading as a movie junket.

Then a film so new, so fresh, so unclassifiable came along that we forgot all about the past paying tribute to the present or vice versa. (There goes the thesis). L’ESQUIVE is the present: pulsing, funny, dynamic and full of east-west promise as its French-Muslim teenagers quarrel about love, honour and homerta – or whatever is its French-Muslim equivalent – in a suburban Paris project and attached high school.

First-time featuremaker Abdelatif Kechiche should go straight to the European A-list without passing ‘Go’. A street Rohmer, he gives his characters a scatter-gun articulacy that knocks us backwards in delight and a woebegone bluster that dazzles. Handsome but tongue-tied Kimo (Osman Elkharraz) falls for beautiful Lydia (Sara Forestier) and woos her – hopelessly at first – by grabbing a role opposite her in the school play (Marivaux’s ‘A Game of Love and Chance’). He can’t act; he goes to pieces; his pals gang up on Lydia’s pals; an outbreak of puppy love becomes a major political incident, leading to summits, talks about talks, and shouting matches about shouting matches. Very funny, very touching, truthful to the core. This is one of the best French debuts since memories began.

The French have a special aptitude for filmmaking. Wasn’t it Nicholas Ray who said, “Le cinema, c’est Jean-Luc Godard”? France may be the only nation that regularly transforms leaden scripts into golden movies, as if what people say – or even what people do – has no bearing whatever on the heart of the art. (Any more than a poem or painting’s subject has anything to do with its greatness. Cezanne’s apples are as momentous as a Giotto’s apostles). So Cedric Kahn’s FEUX ROUGES (RED LIGHTS) takes a Simenon-based plot about a quarrelsome married couple (Carole Bouquet, Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who set out to drive through the night to collect kids from summer camp but divide before dawn – she leaves to take a train, only for an escaped convict to dish out grim fates to both her and hubby – and produces a purring piece of perfect style. Very scary; insidiously rhythmed to lull and then terrify; with Debussy’s ‘Nuages’ the last music you would want or expect as thriller accompaniment – until you hear it. FEUX ROUGES is about the fragility of love and marriage. Don’t mess with them or they will sure as hell mess you back.

For those in need of light relief at a European film festival gusted by snow and subtitles, “le cinema, c’est Robin Williams.” Or at least, le presse conference, c’etait lui. What a joy to welcome the archangel of ad-libbers. The bicentennial man was supposed to be puffing THE FINAL CUT. He was actually poking fun wherever it could be poked, starting with helpful advice about a loud breakdown noises from the conference room loudspeakers (“Please stay with your group”), moving on to the rewards and challenges of playing pychopaths (“You get different fan mail and it’s usually from prison”), pillorying America’s Iraq adventure (“Bush talks about a failure of intelligence, isn’t that kind of redundant?”) and peaking with thoughts on Mel Gibson’s upcoming THE PASSION. “I can’t wait till they do the McDonalds promotion. ‘Mummy, my Coke’s turning into wine…’”.

So there is life after movies, or some movies. My own escapes in Berlin were often musical, including five hours at the Staatsoper – lovely, lovely – watching THE MASTERSINGERS OF NUREMBERG. It seemed surreal after so many films soothing you with voiceovers, English subtitling, programme notes und su weiter to be listening to cataracts of sung German without a break in Wagner’s archaic echt-Deutsch .

But THE MASTERSINGERS  is Germany. One should see it in Berlin every year. Its bewitching goulash of small-town pageantry, lumpy philosophising, stratospheric lyricism, and transcendental mysticism about art – well, if God hadn’t invented the Germans they would have had to invent themselves. And apart from a few world conflicts (but Don’t Mention The War), who would choose to be without them?

The Germans even had the honest, cranky boldness to boo their own worst competition entry: Romuald Karamakar’s NIGHTSONGS, a gaga marital breakup drama like a cross between Strindberg and tellysoap. The host country’s best shot at Golden Bear   let’s give the game away now and reveal that it won – was HEAD-ON. Fatih Akin’s film is fiery and funny in its tale of two Turkish immigrants meeting non-cute in Hamburg. Cahit (Birol Unel) is a fulltime no-hoper, a substance-abusing fortysomething recovering from a suicide attempt. Sibel (Sibel Kekili) is on the road back herself from wrist-slitting, a beautiful 20-year-old who directs a marriage proposal at Cahit just to get away out from her religious-patriarchal family.

Everything goes wrong that can do, first comically with Cahit’s horror at his once lovably dishevelled flat’s post-nuptial orderliness (“It looks as if a chick-bomb has exploded here”), then catastrophically with jealousy, murder and jail. The coda in Istanbul is quietly poignant, right up to the literal last bow of the Turkish musical sextet that has played its entr’actes for us throughout the film, with forlorn charm, on the shore of the Bosporus. Dolefully exact, delicately funny, yet straight-to-the-jugular when it wants, HEAD-ON follows the Cannes-preemed UZAL in suggesting that the next national culture to spread its tardy movie wings might be Turkey.

Greece has long been a single-bird movie nation. For 30 years the only creature with significant wing-span and take-off power has been Ornithus Angelopoulos. Mind you, the Theo Bird takes off with the same unobtrusive ease as an overladen Jumbo ascending through thick cloud. THE WEEPING MEADOW lasts three hours, consists of often achingly long single takes, and is only the first part of a planned 9-hour trilogy on Greek history in the 20th century. Begging your pardon, Mr Angelopoulos, but we’ve done this before, haven’t we? After THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS. O MEGALEXANDROS, ULYSSES’ GAZE and the rest, is there any atom or scintilla of Greek history left to scrutinise?

The new film is beautiful as ever, hauling us Homerically through an extended family’s uprooting from Odessa, its return to Greece, its dynastic squabbles when adopted Eleni (Alexandra Aidini) runs off with son Alexis, leaving at the altar A’s dad whom E was about to marry, and finally the mid-century’s grim riot of wars, civil and international, which sunder not just the hero and heroine but their twin sons, fighting on opposite sides as Greece tears itself in two. The fresco is massive, but this time the heart beating beneath is a touch frail and underdeveloped. Eleni and Alexis remain decorative ciphers while the scenery and epic visual effects – a funeral armada gaunt with crow-black flags and sails, a peasant village sinking beneath floodwaters almost as we watch – provide the emotional wallop we should have had, at least to equal degree, from the characters.

So the big names sailed in in final days. The farewell twosome were Rohmer and Loach, with Eric quickly sailing out again, in the reckoning of Golden Bear experts, with his bizarrely lubberly spy drama THE TRIPLE AGENT. A White Russian exile in Paris and his painter wife become ensnared in World War Two espionage, though Rohmer’s tiresomely teasing dialogue and elliptical storytelling preclude any possibility of knowing which side the hero is on – or frankly caring – until the end. Even then we can’t be sure, though we might have tried to guess if we hadn’t been distracted for two hours by wondering why on earth a great French director felt the need to pad obsequiously in the footsteps of John Le Carre.

Loach’s flick was lovable by comparison, or even without comparison. Set in Glasgow, AE FOND KISS – the ‘ae’ is Burnsian for ‘a’ or ‘one’ – pairs a blonde and pretty white music teacher (Eva Birthistle) with a Pakistani wannabe DJ (Atta Yaqub) in a colormix romance that spreads indignation through her school and his family. It spreads that indignation across most of south-west Scotland, we begins to feel, as tempers rise, self-righteousness gets seismic, and everyone feels the earth move in quite the wrong way.

Ethnic cleansing doesn’t just exist, obviously, in Bosnia or Kosovo. Yaqub’s father blows his top when he sees pre-marital miscegenation ruin his plans for the boy’s arranged wedding to an in-flying cousin – dad old boy has already razed the flowerbeds to build an extension for the couple – and Birthistle’s priest and her head teacher both insist that Catholicism rules out unmarried hanky-panky with dark-hued immigrants. Through the jungles of prejudice Loach steps with an explorer’s skill, never trampling the landscape when he can step softly carrying a big irony or the magnifying glass of acute social observation.

Sadly, AE FOND KISS didn’t win ae fond prize, apart from the Ecumenical Jury Award. By blessing the movie, these religionists clearly wanted to tell the world that the Church was not populated exclusively by intolerant crazies fulminating about sex outside wedlock. This was news.

The main Film Festival Jury was presided over by Frances McDormand – ‘Minnesota Marge’ to FARGO fans – who delivered her news of the winners and losers at 1400 hours on St Valentine’s Day. Hence the sense among critics of a massacre of movie judgment. There was nothing for MONSTER, save half a Best Actress award for Charlize Theron (the other half going to Catalina Sandino Moreno in the US-Colombian drug-smuggling procedural thriller MARIA FULL OF GRACE). Nothing for BEFORE SUNSET. Nothing for Patrice Leconte, Theo Angelopoulos or Cedric Kahn.

Nope, the runner-up Grand Jury Prize was bestowed on Argentinas’s well-made but minor LOST EMBRACE, Daniel Burman’s tale of a young man (Daniel Hendler, named Best Actor) seeking his ancestral identity in a Polish-Jewish family history and a dad missing-presumed-self-exiled in Israel. Kim Ki-Duc’s SAMARITAN GIRL from Korea, a tawdry sex drama with surrealist trimmings, secured the Best Director prize.

As Shakespeare said, it’s a funny old world. If they let me appoint the jury next year I promise to be back. Marge Gunderson can take maternity leave, and other excuses can be found to ban this year’s other jurors from Berlin 2005. Summon my sled. Call the huskies. I shall begin my journey now.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.