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Critics Look Back on Berlin, Where Kink and Quality Collide

Variety critics compare their impressions of the big premieres, prize winners of the 2015 Berlin film festival

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Well, Peter, another Berlin Film Festival has come to a close, ending on a high note with the awarding of its top prize, the Golden Bear, to Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi.” Panahi’s film screened right at the start of the festival and emerged as an early consensus favorite among critics here. As it turns out, the Darren Aronofsky-led jury felt the same way, and I’d like to think their decision was based solely on the movie’s artistic merits, rather than the unfortunate position in which its director finds himself in his native Iran, where he’s been under house arrest for the last four years. It’s impossible, of course, to watch “Taxi” without thinking about the unusual circumstances under which it was made — something this highly self-reflexive film very much invites you to do. But what makes “Taxi” a great movie, I think, is that its formal playfulness, its political shrewdness and its overwhelming humanism would be no less impressive if Panahi had made the film as a free citizen (or, this being Iran, as free as any artist can ever be to express him- or herself).

Onstage at the closing ceremony, Aronofsky repeatedly stressed that the jury’s decisions were unanimous, and also praised festival director Dieter Kosslick for a selection so strong that the jury had to split one major prize (best director) between two films, while also adding two special cinematography prizes (to the German film “Victoria” and the Russian “Under Electric Clouds”) to the official roster. Most of the time, my blood pressure starts to rise when juries start handing out extra awards, especially in Cannes, where filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Alain Resnais have been the recipients of hastily dispatched career-achievement “palmes” that felt quite like the consolation prizes they so obviously were. (Eastwood even had the good sense not to show up for his.) But this year in Berlin, where the competition was by general agreement unusually robust, I find it hard to object to the jury’s verdicts.

Especially pleasing were the dual best actor and actress prizes handed out to Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling for “45 Years,” a film you deservedly praised in our mid-festival dialogue, Peter, and which I liked every bit as much when I caught up with it later on. It’s an incredibly incisive portrait of a marriage, and specifically the way certain things can lay dormant in a marriage — or any relationship — for decades, and then, suddenly, rise up, like a long-festering splinter breaking through calloused skin. Both Rampling and Courtenay (one of the great faces of the 1960s British New Wave) are as good here as they have ever been, effortless at suggesting a couple who truly have been together for better and worse. Sundance Selects has picked “45 Years” up for a U.S. release, and with any luck, we’ll be hearing these names again around this time next year — on Oscar night.

I was also delighted to see Romania’s Radu Jude win one of the two best director bears for his “Aferim!” (the other went to Poland’s Malgorzata Szumowska for “Body,” a film I missed). If you’ve been going to film festivals over the past decade, one of the hot topics has been the exciting revival of Romanian cinema, heralded by Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” at Cannes in 2005 and cemented by Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” in 2007. Those movies were landmarks, defined by a certain style — long, handheld tracking shots; minimal narrative incident; no music — that, a decade later, has been so widely imitated as to verge on the cliche. But “Aferim!” is something completely different: a raucous, tragicomic Western set in the 1830s, shot in black-and-white CinemaScope, and packed with enough narrative incident for two or three movies. The subject is Romania’s centuries-long history of Roma slavery, which was abolished in 1856 but remains (as in America) a sensitive and largely unresolved subject. For that reason, some have said that Jude’s film is his country’s answer to “12 Years a Slave,” though in its biting humor and baroque flourishes it equally calls to mind everything from “Blazing Saddles” to the early films of Emir Kusturica. By any measure, it’s unlike any Romanian film you’ve ever seen before.

PETER DEBRUGE: Given the sheer scale of the festival, I always find Berlin a bit overwhelming. With nearly two dozen films to evaluate for potential review, I haven’t managed my time nearly as well as you, Scott, in finding time see other movies — I hesitate to say “for pleasure,” given the rather arduous nature of the selection. Unfortunately, most of the ones that interest me (German single-shot thriller “Victoria,” Pablo Larrain’s “The Club” and “Aferim!”) don’t repeat again until late tonight, when I’m back on my way to Paris.

That said, I did stick around immediately after the awards ceremony to see Golden Bear winner “Taxi,” so I’ve caught up with what is arguably the most essential film of the festival. Considering how easily some directors give up when the money or means don’t materialize, you’ve gotta love how committed Jafar Panahi is to expressing himself onscreen. The Iranian authorities, who’ve forbidden him from making any more movies, may just as well have ordered him to cease breathing altogether. Cinema is a compulsion for him, even if it means having to disguise himself as a cab driver and rely upon a tiny dashboard-mounted digital camera to comment on contemporary Iranian life. That setup gives the film an enticingly spontaneous feel, as if he’s merely driving around in search of stories, as opposed to orchestrating each of the interactions that take place in his taxi — which, of course, is how it really happened.

With Panahi in the driver’s seat (an apt metaphor for his role as director), the self-aware film blurs the lines between fiction and reality, commenting on how cinema affects its various characters — from the star-struck, black-market dwarf, who recognizes Panahi as someone who bought illegal DVDs from him in the past, to the filmmaker’s young niece, armed with her own camera and a list of rules to make Iranian films more commercial — and slyly justifying how his controversial films reflect contemporary Iranian life: a moral mugger may as well have stepped out of his movie “Crimson Gold,” while a woman on her way to visit a girl arrested for attending a volleyball game corroborates the validity of “Offside’s” social critique.

This year, I attended the Teddy Awards for the first time, which recognize the best LGBT films within what is by far the world’s most queer-cinema-friendly mainstream festival. The Berlinale is so all-embracing (including a well-received documentary, “Daniel’s World,” about a self-identified pedophile), that I’m starting to feel a bit perverse after 10 days of screenings in which middle-aged men offer sensitive re-creations of teen boys’ first sexual experiences. I’m intrigued by the way Argentine helmer Marco Berger (a 2011 Teddy winner for his student-coach fantasy “Ausente”) approached such discoveries in his new film “Butterfly,” which interweaves two parallel narratives as its coed cast mixes and matches their affections. And I’m overjoyed that Mark Christopher (who’s next preparing a spicy TV series set in Berlin) had such a great platform to unveil his long-suppressed, never-before-finished director’s cut of “54,” wherein Ryan Phillippe’s stunningly beautiful Studio 54 bartender is finally allowed to be his true, cravenly opportunistic self, seducing any and everything that crosses his path.

As for the Teddy Awards show, no one told me that the televised production, which lasts nearly two hours, would be almost entirely in German or, for that matter, that it was possible to pick up a translator headset at the door, so it all made for a somewhat surreal experience, as acrobats on bicycles delivered trophies to the winners between elaborate song-and-dance numbers. The top prize went to Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby,” a satirical worst-case scenario of what can happen when queer couples find themselves on the front lines of big-city gentrification — a film I desperately wanted to love (but didn’t) when it premiered at Sundance. Also nominated for the award was Peter Greenaway’s gonzo “Eisenstein in Guanajuato,” which opened my eyes (and how!) to the fact that the most dynamic director cinema has ever known happened to be gay. I guess I’d never thought to ask myself — which also goes for F.W. Murnau, whose snapshots of young, nude cabana boys bathing in his Hollywood pool I stumbled across in a monograph of the director’s private photos, published by Berlin’s queer-culture Schwules Museum and offered for sale in the festival bookshop.

FOUNDAS: Well, it’s certainly encouraging to know that the heavily hyped (and by most accounts, heavily silly)“Fifty Shades of Grey” wasn’t the only erotic attraction Berlin had to offer. I still haven’t seen that one myself, after getting shut out of the official festival press screening, which managed to fill up an enormous Imax theater 40 minutes ahead of the scheduled start time, with uniformed police on hand to quell the disgruntled crowd that quickly began to form in the theater lobby. Alas, I had to settle for a very different kind of bondage movie: Olivier Hirschbiegel’s “Elser” (a.k.a. “13 Minutes”), a biopic of the controversial Johann Georg Elser, an unassuming carpenter from the Wurttemberg region in southern Germany who, in November 1939, instigated a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Elser planted a powerful homemade bomb inside Munich’s Burgerbraukeller, a large beer hall where Hitler was scheduled to give a speech commemorating the anniversary of the 1923 Munich Putsch. The bomb went off, killing seven people instantly, but not Hitler, who’d left the premises 13 minutes earlier in order to catch a train.

Elser is a fascinating character — a fiercely independent autodidact who didn’t much want to be a member of any club that would have him, Nazi, Communist or otherwise. In Hirschbiegel’s film, he’s played by the brilliant Christian Friedel, who made his screen debut in 2009 as the young schoolteacher at the center of Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” and whose work here confirms him as one of the best of his generation of German actors. Friedel, who has a somewhat slight, sloping build and tufts of dark, wavy hair jutting out in all directions, plays Elser with a fanatic’s self-possession and wholesale disregard for whatever society expects of him, trusting that history will justify his actions. He’s so good, in fact, that he deserves a better movie that “Elser,” which tackles its main character’s life in such paint-by-numbers fashion as to make “The Imitation Game” seem almost transgressive by comparison.

Germany has turned out a steady stream of slick, commercially successful but artless historical dioramas in recent years, typified by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” and Hirschbiegel’s own “Downfall” (about the final days of Hitler), and “Elser” continues the trend, albeit with an odious injection of barely veiled torture porn. For most of the two hours it’s onscreen, the movie leaves nothing to the imagination, as Elser is arrested by the Gestapo for his crime and subsequently beaten into submission — or at least into spewing forth a detailed confession (along with a fair amount of projectile vomit). Over and over, Hirschbiegel shows us Elser being bound to an overturned bed, horse-whipped, prodded with hot pokers under his fingernails, and otherwise coerced using methods that make the CIA black ops sites from “Zero Dark Thirty” look like Disneyland. And the problem isn’t that Hirschbiegel shows all this barbarism, but rather that he does so without taking any discernible perspective on the images he creates. The kind of competent but mindless technician the world’s film schools turn out en masse, Hirschbiegel manufactures the same carefully lit, framed, balanced compositions whether he’s shooting a torture scene, a love scene, or a Nazi rally, which calls to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s famous objections to the use of an elegant tracking shot by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo to film one of the concentration-camp deaths in his 1959 “Kapo.” But with “Elser,” Hirschbiegel reaches a new level of aesthetic vulgarity: He gives us history as a kind of high-end car commercial.

DEBRUGE: Given the sheer craziness around “Fifty Shades” in Berlin, I didn’t even try to see it there, knowing that the festival didn’t even have the world premiere. The kinky sex fantasy had opened the same morning in Paris, where I was easily able to catch a screening the moment I got back and where, get this, “Cinquante nuances de Grey” (as its relatively classy French title reads) has been deemed mild enough even for 12-year-olds. Scandalous? Perhaps, although it seems entirely reasonable to me, seeing as how the story appears to have been written by one.

Granted, I’m not the target market for this movie, so I’ll try to keep the snark in check, but as E.L. James’ bestseller unfolded onscreen, it was hard for me not to picture the first draft of this pseudo-edgy softcore fantasy as having been written in a teenager’s Hello Kitty diary with one of those feather-tufted pink gel pens. Unlike most dudes of my generation, I don’t watch porn, but I do read “erotica” from time to time, and this is the pits. On the surface, it’s all about a nervous, lip-biting 22-year-old virgin who stumbles upon an obscenely wealthy 27-year-old power monger in search of his next submissive. He’s named Christian Grey. She’s called Anastasia Steele. And they go together like peas and karate: He’s a sadist and she … well, she likes unicorns. I mean, the chemistry here is all in the camera, which adds a level of gloss that would make even “Showgirls” look sexy. Let’s just say that the couple, played by Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, is never more believable than when negotiating the finer point of their contract.

While I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert in S&M, I’m pretty sure the movie’s basic premise — that his desire to dominate is merely a mask for the fact that he hasn’t met the right girl — would strike most sadists as a fairly insulting proposition. In fact, between all those helicopter rides and post-coital piano recitals (I kept expecting Ana to wake up to find Grey sitting beside her bed, painting her portrait, or maybe carving her likeness in a block of ice), my mind kept drifting to the infinitely superior “The Duke of Burgundy” — perhaps the most intriguing explorations of the S&M dynamic that I’ve ever encountered, one that doesn’t attempt to psychoanalyze the root motives, but instead engages with the rather tricky reality such a couple faces in trying to keep it fresh. In that film, we also discover the somewhat counterintuitive notion that the masochist holds all the power, demanding to be dominated on her own terms, while the sadist does all the work. I suppose there’s something to be said for the “sex positive” notion that this movie tries to remove some of the shame from S&M, but does it really? I mean, does James even take that particular kink seriously?

There’s a running joke in the film that people think Grey’s gay, since he’s never photographed in public with a woman (until, of course, the moment when he opts to do exactly that with Ana), so I guess we can be relieved that James didn’t fashion this little fan-fiction phenom as the story of, say, how a shy little actress met a gay A-list star, signed an NDA, negotiated a contract and then turned him straight — which reminds me, if the malleability of sexual identity intrigues you, I’d sooner recommend a different Berlin movie altogether: “I Am Michael,” featuring another daring, label-defying performance from James Franco, whose twitchy self-consciousness would have added a few more much-needed nuances to “Grey.”

Incidentally, while I found it rather distressing that “Fifty Shades” was screening in Berlin a year after Lars von Trier’s infinitely edgier “Nyphomaniac” (though it was Venice that premiered the dark-grey-almost-black Vol. 2), I’m supremely amused to see its stars resurface in relatively vanilla projects: Charlotte Gainsbourg co-stars with Franco in Wim Wenders’ paint-by-numbers tragedy porn “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” while Stellan Skarsgard pops up in Disney’s live-action “Cinderella.” That movie’s far better than I’d expected, by the way, featuring a terrific performance from Cate Blanchett as the pic’s larger-than-life wicked stepmother.

My favorite male performance of the festival could be found in another Hollywood movie premiering out-of-competition: That would be Ian McKellen’s turn as the 93-year-old “Mr. Holmes,” a character whose world-famous wit is badly compromised in his old age, as he battles the onset of senility while desperately trying to rewrite the ending to one of Watson’s stories. The film has a strangely complex structure, nesting three not-very-interesting mysteries (Holmes’ original case, the reason he retired and a subplot involving whatever’s killing the bees he keeps at his country estate) within a rich and beautifully textured rendering of two different time periods — including a sort of spirit journey to post-nuclear Hiroshima — but overall, I though McKellen (reteaming with “Gods and Monsters” director Bill Condon) did a remarkable job of humanizing the iconic character, while putting a poignant bow on his storied career.

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