by Harlan Kennedy



Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome. Have you ever thought what it must be like to look down on a film festival from the skies? All those black dots moving in and out of black blocks. All that ant-like flux. It would be like a satellite picture of human folly. “This, gentlemen, is a view of several thousand crazy folk going in and out of movie theatres, hoping to make sense of human life and history through art.”

The big-bang 53rd Berlin Film Festival coincided exactly with the 12 billionth year of the universe’s history and the four-and-half-billionth year of Earth’s. Context is a sobering thing; and we needn’t even talk sub specie aeternitatis. Why was this February 2003 filmfest special? Why did it seem richer, though two days shorter (due to Germany and Berlin’s sandbagged economies), than almost any Berlinale in recent memory?

Perhaps because it showcased the first generation of movies wholly conceived in the aftermath of two momentous ‘events’: 9/11 and – more frivolously but no less durably – the calendar year Kubrick made mythical in his space odyssey. 2001.

In both cases the Earth was made small and fragile-seeming by invocations from above: terror in the skies, visions of space travel. No wonder this year’s filmfestspiele fielded battalions of films contemplating Life Down Here as if from a Viewpoint Up There. Hydra-headed reality surged and teemed and seethed, connecting movies as different-yet-similar as – five Golden Kennedy contenders or Silver at least – Solaris, Adaptation, The Hours, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and Goodbye Lenin! Add to these the film to which an Atom Egoyan-presided jury led the Golden Bear itself: Michael Winterbottom’s In This World.

Digital video camerawork; dialogue in English, Pashtu and Farsi; and a narrative itinerary for which you need a seared-into-the-brain map of Asia-Europe, from north-west Pakistan to London via Tehran, Turkey and Trieste. No one said good films are easy. But once the two heroes start their asylum-seeking slog – an Afghan refugee and his boy cousin hoping to swap soup camp for sceptred isle – the ‘what next’ momentum takes over. Winterbottom paves their road with suspenseful incident. Perilous border checks; nasty Mr Fixits deaf to clients’ distress while robbing them blind; all-night foot trek over snowy peaks of the Iran-Turkish border; near or actual suffocation in a Channel-crossing lorry crammed with fellow migrants.

Winterbottom misses the boat a couple of times. After a chilling montage of panic – swirly close-ups veiled by darkness, screams, bangings – the payoff to the airless truck sequence is perfunctory. A few bodies lie in painless, scenic disarray while the surviving boy (Jamal Udin Torabi) legs it towards London. The film’s opening is also inauspicious: an overvoice chapter-and-versing us about refugee camp life while duplicitously slipping in anti-American editorials. (America’s bombing budget for the Afghanistan war is loadedly compared with its aid budget).

The winning cards are the fluency of a script largely improvised on location, the star quality of the boy actor (his tousled unblinking face and quicksilver responsiveness as compelling as Leaud’s in Les Quatre Coups) and the sense that by the time the film was shot – summer 2002 – the horrors of 9/11 had annexed a vast complexity of issues. Terrorism; homelessness; cultural division, intercontinental standoff, religious plurality. The movie has no answers but many haunting questions.

Likewise the American pix at Berlin. Most were directly about reality and its volatility; memory and its maddenings. Soderbergh’s retread of Tarkovsky’s SF ballad has space psychologist George Clooney visited by ‘wife’ Natasha McElhone, though she died years before and may be merely a memory made ghost-flesh.

The planet Solaris has that effect. It reincarnates the bygone. Clooney and cast, including the ever-quirky Jeremy SAVING THE MONKEY/SPANKING PRIVATE RYAN Davies as the weirdest spacenik since ‘Hal 2000’, wander through the blue-rinse visuals (Soderbergh works his own camera again, here under the name Peter Andrews) grabbing at weightless dialogue and wondering when a recognizable ‘plot’ will begin. But the distinction of Solaris is that it has no beginning and no end. Like time, space and life it is curved, delivering you back, after 90 minutes on the event horizon of eventlessness, to the perplexity you started out with.

Adaptation is even more crisis-stricken as a narrative. But it became a Berlin favourite, dicing reality as challengingly as Last Year In Marienbad (though it’s more fun) as Nicolas Cage plays the film’s true-life screenwriter Charlie Being John Malkovich Kaufman plus his twin brother. Both look like Gene Wilder since Cage has frizzed his hair and fattened his face. Meryl Streep hoves to as another true-life character, journalist-author Susan Orlean whose book on endangered orchids is being adapted by Kaufman for a non-true-life Hollywood movie.

There are gangsters, alligators, car crashes and a fatal swamp chase. Confused? You haven’t heard the half. But hang in there. This is human life as it might be viewed by the Man in the Moon: good surreal fun, a panorama seen through the haze of space, and nearer Earth through the smoke and sparks of “misfiring synapses” that have been part of human mental functioning – says Kaufman-Cage in his opening voiceover – since time began.

Meanwhile, for some embellishing in-joke reason, Streep’s husband is played by director Curtis La Confidential Hanson, Brian Cox does a saucy impersonation of scriptwriting teacher-guru Robert McKee and at one point there is a time-lapse sequence depicting four billion years of Hollywood history. As we suspected, from primitive swamp to modern jungle there has been no change.

You don’t have to be a certifiable cinemane to love this film, but it helps. (It helped the jury give Adaptation the runner-up Grand Jury Prize). Actually everyone at Berlin was certifiable by the end of week one, mainly because we kept seeing double. There were two Cages; two Streeps (here and in The Hours); two Kaufman screenplays (this and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind); and two George Clooney movies, C.O.A.D.M. and Solaris. Clooney, the chisel-chinned wonder, debut-directed the former as well as co-starring in it, though the true auteur is writer Kaufman, again blithely disregarding ancestral protocol about beginnings, middles and ends. 

In the whirligig reality of this turning world, truth-based hero Chuck Barris might be a once and longtime CIA hitperson (as claimed in his memoirs), was definitely a TV gameshow inventor back in the 1960s and is almost certainly the unghosted author of the rambling autobiography on which this lovable, overlong film is based. 

Con-men, real or supposed, are big in modern cinema. See Catch Me If You Can. Or recall, come to that, the schizophrenic parallel life that Russell Crowe as John Nash Jr enjoyed in last year’s popular-in-Berlin A Beautiful Mind. But Confessions is more interesting than either: partly because Clooney as director has reinvented the wheel – the colour wheel – doing visuals like handtinted postcards; partly because Sam Rockwell’s hero is a quirky, compelling, crypto-deranged dufus, far more intriguing than DiCaprio’s playpen Adonis and more believable than Crowe with his Actors Studio fumbling and fidgeting. No surprise that Rockwell won the Berlin Best Actor gong.

We all live fantasy lives of a kind, some just as loopy and extravagant as Mr Barris’s. So we can understand, especially sub specie historiae germanicae, why the characters in the best homemade film in Berlin, Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye, Lenin!, recompose political history in a funny, ingenious way to hornswoggle their mum.

This well-meaning Marxist matron emerges from a hospitalised coma – following a pre-unification heart attack – in the months after the Wall has come down. Too much excitement will kill her, says doc, so the family pretends that Nothing Has Happened. They redecorate the convalescent one’s bedroom in East Berlin Grunge. They explain away the giant Coke sign on an opposite highrise: “Coca-Cola was developed by East German laboratories in the 1950s….” They make fake newscasts for the TV, camcorded with a friend in a mock newsroom. Finally, when mum is confused to see affluent westerners swirling through the streets, she’s told that the communist East has become a mecca for migrants disenchanted with the free world.

The film rearranges its historical furniture with finesse, seldom bumping into it. And when the charade threatens to be too facile, writer-director Wolfgang Becker puts a sting in the tale with mum’s revelation that she has stored away a financial nest egg for the kids, now tragically worthless since the window has shut for exchanging Marks into Euros. The pile of once-precious banknotes sits there looking as useless as confetti for a cancelled wedding.

Becker’s masquerade is fanciful, of course. Walk into the skyscraping wonderland around the festival’s Marlene-Dietrich-Platz – soaring slabs in beige brick and blinding glass, movie posters as big as football pitches  and you know Berlin has changed. East and west have merged, are still merging, to become a brave new building site. Yesterday’s razed housing is pasturage for today’s mad architects.

No wonder Hollywood stars behave as if they’ve seen nothing like it.  Richard Gere, Nicole Kidman, Nic Cage, Dustin Hoffman, Macaulay Culkin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Oliver Stone (what a cast) staggered dazed into their press conferences. Anxiously smiling, squinting at flashbulbs, they wondered what street/city/country they were in and why half the population treated them as gods – as they have come to expect – and the other half with lese-divinite or less.

Clooney was socked in the ego by a pressperson piping up that Solaris was “boring.” The star-producer extemporised affrontedly that the reporter-layperson didn’t understand the complex hardships of filmmaking: to which the reporter-layperson could have replied that he didn’t understand rocket science but knew when one fell from the sky. Spike Lee was told by another heckler that he had “cashed in” on the World Trade Center tragedy by incorporating scenes about 9/11 in his competition entry The 25th Hour. Whereupon star Edward Norton at Lee’s side snapped, “You’d rather we just pretend it didn’t happen?”

Probably these moments were boil-offs from another tension; the Iraq standoff  between Bush’s America and Old Europe. God knows that tension was there. God Himself could see, from his management eyrie in the heavens, the giant poster lording it outside Potsdamer Platz station, a mockup billboard  publicising a movie called The Peace Killers starring George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Dick Cheney (all pictured, backed by bristling guns) and subtitled ‘The Way to Find Bin Laden.’

Dieter Kosslick, pointedly motto-ing his 2003 festival “towards tolerance”, made sure that Russian president Vladimir Putin blessed the fest while passing through and that well-equipped young filmmakers did vox pop interviews about the coming-or-not-coming war. So it seemed timely that there was a larger-than-usual cluster of films at Berlin, not necessarily political or 9/11-related, on that ineluctable and never distant subject

– Death.


***Son Frere. France’s Patrice Chereau, who copped a golden grizzly two years ago for Intimacy, won the Best Director prize for this tale of two brothers reunited when the older (Bruno Todeschini) falls ill with a rare blood disease. He is hauled through the horrors of hospital life – from bossy woman doctor to unflinching scene of all-over body hair removal (best single sequence at Berlin) – and betweenwhiles quarrels with his bro. Can there be hope? Love? Redemption? Not much, except the H, L and R we get through Chereau’s truthful direction and the kind of acting which shows that the human spirit – gallant cliché – burns more fiercely in pain than in complaisance.

**My Life Without Me. Cancer pic from Canada. Sarah Polley plays the mother condemned by her medico – two weeks to live – who shares with us her hopes and fears in a second-person-singular voiceover. “You are standing in the rain…You are unhappy…Now you want to take to take all the drugs in the world.” Pic would be depressing without Polley’s incandescent innigkeit and the touching believability of her character’s determination to complete ten self-appointed tasks before death, including recording year-on-year birthday messages for each of her kids up to age 18.

****The Hours. Ed Harris falls out of a window, Virginia Woolf walks into a river, and Julianne Moore votes with her valium.  Mortality is ubiquitous in Stephen Daldry’s film of David Hare’s screenplay adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzered novel. It was almost ready for release in September 2001, but That Event happened and Miramax thought New Yorkers didn’t want more death shoved at them, especially in a movie partly set in New York. Release date was postponed. The Hours had another year to improve – and on all evidence has. Berliners loved it. The Golden Bear hug seemed likely. Instead an ensemble Best Actress guerdon went to the firm of Kidman Streep Moore.

***Flower And Garnet. Best surprise outside the competition. Just when you thought In The Bedroom had said it all on the loneliness of family life – on wives, husbands and children sundered from each other in pseudo-togetherness – here comes first-time helmer Keith Behrman’s tale of motherless siblings (teenage girl, 8-year-old boy) and the machismo-brainwashed dad who tries to raise them. It all goes wrong for him. Daughter’s pregnant, sonny is alienated and dad himself plays ominously with guns. But the ‘story’ counts less than the cracks and telltale fissures in it: asides, throwaways, silences, cutaway closeups that cumulatively composite a drama without words, a tragedy without noise. This director must be watched.

You never know what unconsidered country will land at Berlin with screeching tyres and overweight cargo of cinematic inspiration. Who’d have bet on two good Canadian films within 48 hours?  Who’d have thought Israel would grab attention on the festival fringe with a two-pack that caused buying frenzy: the schmaltzy, sold-around-the-world Broken Wings – tale of another dysfunctional family but from the soap-op end of the spectrum – and the small but neatly formed Yossi And Jagger, a big hit in Israel with its touching gay love story between two army officers.

Who’d have bet that Cuba would cause bottleneckings in theatre entrances, as we crammed in to see Olly Stone’s 90-minute interview with Fidel Castro (edited from 35 hours; can’t wait for the DVD). The grand old Marxist with the wire-wool beard pulls the wool over audiences – or tries to – with bluster that deserved a Golden Bear for propagandist chutzpah. Cuba doesn’t persecute artists or gays (says Fidel). Cuba has never tortured during its 43 years of revolution (says Fidel). Cuba is a friend to animals. Cuba helps old ladies across the street. Cuba never wanted those pesky Russian missiles in the first place. By the end of the movie I was putting Castro on my Christmas card list. 

And then there was China.

Controversy and counterculturalism in general, and gayness in particular, have always been big in the Panorama sideshow. But what a jawdropper when the People’s Republic, no less, deplanes in Berlin with a quartet of off-message, off-Maoist movies on – respectively – homosexuality, police corruption, blue-collar criminality and the reach of totalitarianism down the decades.

The homosexual flick was So-So’s The Old Testament. Imagine a gone-Mandarin The Hours, telling of three gay characters in separate but theme-streamed stories. A boy ‘comes out’ to his horrified family. An old flame moves in with his younger ex, while keeping a wife on the side. A menage a quatre welcomes a cinquieme. China itself hasn’t jumped out of the closet: this film was made in secret and smuggled to Berlin on a Betamax cassette. But the director came too – imagine a pudgy-faced Pekinese version of Almodóvar – and clearly revelled in the limelight. What he will revel in when he returns home we shudder to think. The film is no masterpiece – an am-dram three-pack filmed with a Shakicam and shakier performances – but its very existence seems a piece of history.

Johnny To’s Ptu won hurrahs in the Young Filmmakers Forum for its violent tale of one night's cop action in Hong Kong as special-force thugs go after a bunch of bloody-handed gangsters. Brilliance of style; boldly affectless dialogue: serpentine twists and gnomic non-sequiturs: we could be looking at an eastern Tarantino. Maybe China still regards Hong Kong as its licensed prodigal child. Long may it do so.

Li Yang’s Blind Shaft was the Main Competition’s piece of Chinaware. Uproariously cynical and shot with grungy grace, it traipses after two con-men who earn their keep by enlisting innocent jobseekers willing to masquerade as a brother or nephew to get coalmining work. Once the crooks get the rookie down the shaft they kill him, pretending it was a mine collapse; then they claim family-member compensation. The black comedy gets blacker by the minute. One victim is allowed a little spurious compassion: “He can’t die yet, he hasn’t been laid”, so they troop off to the nearest brothel. If the founder of Chinese communism could see the movie’s representations of China today he’d surely rotate in his grave. “Get your IDs, passports, drivers licences here,” yells a street hawker with a barrow. In this land human dignity isn’t worth the forged paper it’s printed on. When a miner complains of poor pay the pit boss snaps back dismissively, “China has a shortage of everything but people.”

Larkiest film of all from the New China was Tales Of The Dragon. Under the populist guise of docu-portraying action star Jackie Chan’s voluminous family – eccentric raconteur dad, two long-lost-till-now brothers (still stuck in China), two shrinking-lotus sisters, a sere but surviving (till last year) mother – director Maggie Cheung unfurls a spellbinding archival narrative of China through the 20th century. News footage presents everything from the rise and fall of Chiang Kai Shek to the Nan King massacre to the Cultural Revolution, inter-threading the Chan Dynasty’s adventures when and where possible. (Dad was successively a bodyguard to Chiang’s Chief of Staff, a Nationalist agent and a ports inspector who met Jackie’s mother when he nabbed her for opium-running). Stranger than fiction. And more fun.


The festival blazed out in a bonfire of the vanities. Everyone threw pretension into the blaze. Dieter Kosslick caused clamours of shocked applause by removing his bowtie – I thought it was surgically attached to his throat – and several Hollywood stars, notably Norton and Hoffman, chucked their patriotic credentials into the flames by speaking out against the US-Iraq conflict. “It all contributed, I think, to the festival being a statement for peace,” said Kosslick on goodbye day, as half a million Berliners marched through town in a synchronous anti-war demo.

Togetherness is the last thing one expects from a festival whose selling point used to be its continent-dividing, culture-splitting concrete wall. But we got it this year, even out at the dear old World Culture House, that hat-shaped building which once housed the festival itself and this year hosted the new 5-day Talent Campus.

Youngsters swirled through the glassy spaces like lost, enchanted goldfish. They fiddled with computers; attended masterclasses; wielded DV cameras; grilled the great (Wim Wenders, Dennis Hopper, Atom Egoyan, Spike Lee); and were told by Mike Figgis in the afternoon-long Digital Photography seminar that in the age of DIY imaging there is nothing to stop someone making a film today – except fear of filmmaking.

It sounded positively Rooseveltian.  A New Deal for cinema. Maybe Berlin, short but perfectly formed, and grabbing harmony from the jaws of a disharmonious world, is a New Deal for film festivals. Go for it!






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.