Berlin titles beat lowered expectations

Warming trend felt among general press reactions to fest

First, the bad news: There was no picture in Berlin as moment-to-moment enthralling as Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” or as monumental as Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse,” to name two standouts from last year’s otherwise much-criticized lineup.

The Panorama sidebar came in for more knocks then usual, many of them directed at Stephen Elliott’s porn-industry Cinderella story “Cherry.” One of the festival’s hottest tickets, Timo Vuorensola’s sci-fi satire “Iron Sky,” failed to live up to the hilarious promise of its Nazis-on-the-moon premise.

Such disappointments aside, and below-freezing temperatures notwithstanding, the good news is that an unmistakable warming trend could be felt among the general press reactions to the 62nd Berlinale. Certainly in the competition, responses seemed less sour, overall spirits appreciably higher — and not just because the program’s widely perceived decline in recent years had lowered expectations so dramatically.

If anything, fest director Dieter Kosslick confounded those expectations by unveiling a lineup full of new names and unknown quantities. What to expect, going in, from unheralded talents like Frederic Videau, Alain Gomis, Nikolaj Arcel and Kim Nguyen? The few critics fortunate enough to have seen prior features by Ursula Meier and Miguel Gomes were rightly stoked for “Sister” and “Tabu,” respectively. And while Berlinale regular Christian Petzold is one of the best-regarded German helmers on the international stage — something he confirmed with his latest drama, “Barbara,” deservedly awarded a directing prize — he and his countrymen Hans-Christian Schmid and Matthias Glasner remain little known offshore.

It would be uncharitable but not necessarily inaccurate to conclude, from this state of affairs, that Berlin is simply no longer in a position to court the world-class auteurs who flock to Cannes and Venice. Increasingly, this 10-day February event is at the mercy of a crowded calendar: Top-tier, big-name filmmakers would prefer to hold out for Cannes, and unlike Venice, a fall launchpad for kudos contenders, Berlin falls too late (or perhaps too early) to influence awards season, despite the trend-bucking recent exception of “A Separation.”

Amid these tough conditions, Kosslick managed to assemble a main program that proved respectable largely because it didn’t shoot for the moon. The highs may not have been as high as in 2011, but neither were the lows as low. If few pics sent the international press corps into a sustained swoon, fewer still were dismissed as outright stinkers, with the arguable exception of Antonio Chavarrias’ almost universally reviled malevolent-moppet thriller “Childish Games.”

In contrast with Cannes or Venice, where the field often oscillates between prestige studio fare and austere art films, the Berlin competition seemed to hit its stride with a series of modestly scaled, expertly made pictures that, if not for their foreign provenance, would have no trouble connecting with a Stateside audience. With the superb exception of “Barbara,” a 1980s East German love story told with breathtaking subtlety and control, the competing Teuton titles fell solidly in the realm of the middle-class melodrama: Glasner’s “Mercy,” an angsty domestic sudser elevated a few notches by its strong performances and gorgeous Norwegian vistas, and Schmid’s “Home for the Weekend,” an emotionally perceptive study of familial dysfunction that mercifully steered clear of histrionics.

Better still, and no less accessible, was “Sister,” Meier’s tender, sharply observed and cumulatively heartbreaking tale of two kids struggling to escape their hardscrabble existence. If that sounds like the outline for a Dardenne brothers movie, Variety reviewer Guy Lodge went so far as to compare Meier’s film favorably with the Belgian duo’s 2011 Cannes prizewinner “The Kid With a Bike.” It’s a stance that, whether or not you agree, makes you wonder how much a film’s heavyweight-auteur pedigree, or lack thereof, affects our willingness to seriously engage with it.

Pedigree wasn’t enough in the case of two high-profile competition titles. The sole American-directed entry, Billy Bob Thornton’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” drew mostly muted-to-hostile reactions, as did Brillante Mendoza’s “Captive,” which, much as I personally admired it, didn’t seem to energize even the Filipino auteur’s regular devotees.

On the flipside, a film that boasted little in terms of name talent turned out to be one of the fest’s bright spots: “A Royal Affair,” a warm-blooded, full-bodied Danish period piece that proved both more classical and more satisfying than the 19th-century costume drama that opened the festival, Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen.” “Affair” received two awards from the Berlinale jury, a welcome endorsement of the seldom-acknowledged fact that there’s room for intelligent crowd-pleasers at a prestigious world-cinema event.

In picking a Golden Bear winner, of course, the jurors perhaps felt compelled to crown one of the fest’s less commercial, artistically riskier propositions. They could have gone with “War Witch,” Nguyen’s hauntingly poetic child-soldier drama, or “Just the Wind,” a work of slow-building dread from Hungarian helmer Bence Fliegauf.

In the end, however, the chance to bestow top honors on two venerable helmers, Italy’s Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, must have proved irresistible. Certainly “Caesar Must Die,” a “creative documentary” structured around a maximum-security prison staging of “Julius Caesar,” might have held a particular resonance for jury president Mike Leigh, with its intriguing if finally half-chewed insights into the collaborative nature of acting.

Still, if jurors were looking to give the Golden Bear to a formally inventive black-and-white experiment, they might have fared better with Gomes’ playfully bisected, lushly romantic “Tabu,” which instead had to content itself with the Alfred Bauer prize for “particular innovation.” Easily the competition’s most gorgeously sui generis offering, “Tabu” drew the festival’s most rapturous reviews; one journalist was even heard making the Cocteau-esque pronouncement that there was cinema before “Tabu,” and cinema after “Tabu.”

This statement is, of course, objectively true; as my colleague Shane Danielsen wryly observed, we are apparently now living in a post-“Tabu” era. Let’s hope it’s one in which this lovely film will have a life beyond the festival circuit. In the meantime, there were festivals before Berlin, and there will be festivals after Berlin. This wasn’t a bad one.