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Sibling Stories: The 64th Berlin Film Festival.

The Competition of the 64th Berlinale had a glamorous, star-studded, and wildly entertaining opening with Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel and a sensational and deeply moving conclusion with Richard Linklater's Boyhood. In-between, there were some memorable films such as Benjamin Naishtat's Historia del miedo/ History of Fear, an episodic reflection on the state of paranoia and insecurity of Argentina's middle class in the wake of recent economic crises, as well as the Chinese neo-noir Bai Ri Yan Huo/Black Coal, Thin Ice, for which Diao Yinan, in a surprise development, took home the Golden Bear. One great disappointment was 2009 Golden Bear winner Claudia Llosa's much anticipated English-language debut, Aloft, a mother-son drama set in a forbidding Northern Canada and featuring supernatural healing, falconry, and some highly improbable plot twists.

With the witty, smart, and whimsical Grand Budapest Hotel, the festival had a dream opening for which stars Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and Bill Murray paraded on the red carpet. A story within a story, the film tells of the fate of an Eastern European Grand Hotel set in the imaginary country of Zubrowska (a close cousin of Lubitschland) during the interwar years, when grand dreams, grand ambition, and grand failure determined people's lives. The plot revolves around the mysterious death of countess Madame D. (Swinton), who bequeaths a valuable painting to concierge Gustave H. (Fiennes), a loyal Lothario who romances older female guests in the hotel, including her. When Gustave is accused of murder by Madame's son and presumed heir (Adrian Brody), things take a nasty turn for the concierge, who must rely on his faithful understudy, Zero (Tony Revolori), to save his neck. As to be expected of a Wes Anderson film, one finds stunning production design, artful animation, inventive costumes, and a plethora of stars in minor but amusing roles (including Lea Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel, and Bob Balaban). Produced by Studio Babelsberg (with five million euros of German funding) and shot in nearby Gorlitz, Anderson's film enjoyed a definite home field advantage in Berlin and was rewarded with the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.

While Anderson's latest film is first-class entertainment, the festival favorite by far was Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which achieves that rare mix of being both funny and deeply moving. It tells the coming-of-age story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter), and their single mom (Patricia Arquette), who tries to keep things together while pursuing her degree. The father (Ethan Hawke), who is said to have a job in Alaska, assumes the role of a charming but irresponsible weekend dad. The mother marries her biology professor, whose income allows her to finish her degree and lift her lifestyle. When he turns alcoholic and violent, she moves out. Her first husband remarries and trades his sports car for a minivan. Mason, meanwhile, collects arrowheads, smokes his first cigarette, drinks his first beer, and kisses his first girlfriend. All this sounds like a rather conventional family drama, but Boyhood is anything but.

Filmed over twelve years with the same cast, with an average of three days of shooting per year, Linklater's film evokes long-term documentaries such as Michael Apted's Up series (begun in 1964, it currently spans 49 years) or Winfried and Barbara Junge's The Children of Golzow (1961-2007), as well as his own trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013). And yet, Boyhood is something entirely new, not only in Linklater's oeuvre but also in film history. Never before has the passage of time been shown in such human dimensions. Where other filmmakers use make-up to indicate the process of aging, here it is simply recorded by the camera. Boyhood deeply resonates with our hopes and anxieties, our ambitions and disappointments. The director was careful to focus on the everyday and to omit events that would have made for high drama. We witness how, over the course of time, Mason campaigns against Bush and for Obama, joins the Harry Potter craze, gets his first smart phone, and rants eloquently about Facebook--but scenes of his first sex, of his breakup with his girlfriend, or of any trauma connected with his parents' divorce are left for us to fill in. At the press conference, Lorelei Linklater explained that at one point she wanted to abandon the project, but her father would not let her, as her death would have created too significant a plot point. Filming also made considerable demands on the professional actors. Not only did they take on a twelve-year commitment, but Arquette, as she stated, was not allowed to undergo a facelift during that time. The outcome certainly justifies individual sacrifices.

After the press screening, the film received a standing ovation and was treated by critics as a shoo-in for the Golden Bear. That this did not come to pass--Linklater "only" won the Silver Bear for Best Director--might be because juries do not want to be told how to handle their job. It may also be that jury president James Schamus, who as a screenwriter and producer is closely associated with U.S. independent film and who, until last October, was head of the arthouse unit at Universal, did not want to create the impression that he was giving the award to one of his own--even if there can be no doubt that he must have been as impressed as everyone else by Linklater's cinematic masterpiece.

Even though Boyhood's title indicates that Mason's story, and not Samantha's, is the focus, the film derives much of its impact from the boy's changing relationship with his older sister. Puberty hits her earlier, and harder, than him, and through her experiences he learns about himself. If there is one common thread in the films I saw--thirty, less than 10%, of the approximately 400 entries--it is a focus on sibling stories. In the German Competition entry, Jack (Edward Berger), we follow a ten-year-old boy who must assume full responsibility for himself and his younger brother, because his single mother works during the day and likes to go out at night. Soon the two neglected boys are wandering alone in the night streets of Berlin in search of their mother, who has mysteriously disappeared and locked them out of their apartment. In laconic images of the endlessly roaming children, Berger finds an expression for the boys' loneliness and sense of abandonment. In the end, it falls on Jack to find a solution to his and his brother's problems--a Hansel and Hansel story without a fairytale ending.

Maximilian Leo's impressive first feature, Huter meines Bruders/My Brother's Keeper, screened in the sidebar Perspektive Deutsches Kino, which features some of the newest films from Gennany, also tells the story of two brothers, Gregor and Pietschi. One is married and a successful doctor, the other a free spirit and hedonist. After a weekend of their sailing together, Pietschi suddenly disappears. Gregor's life goes on, but the longer his brother remains missing, the more he realizes how little he knows about him. Gregor becomes fascinated with Pietschi's apartment, his taste in music, and even his brother's ex-girlfriend. Sebastian Zimmler as Gregor creates a fascinating portrait of a man who slowly changes from one person into another, only to end up completely insecure about his identity. Zimmler's face becomes the map of a character transformation that is both unspectacular and profoundly uncanny.

How absence can create a double, or at least room for projection, is also the central plot device of Maria Speth's mother-daughter drama Tochter/Daughters. Occasionally associated with the Berlin School for her films' psychological detachment and penchant for long takes, Speth favors elliptical narratives, precise framing, and a deliberate pace. In her latest feature, a mother travels to Berlin to identify a dead girl that might be her runaway daughter but is not. Shortly afterwards, while driving drunk, she hits a stray named Ines and, ridden with guilt, takes her to her hotel. A relationship between the two slowly develops, based on the mother's unspoken premise that her daughter could be someone like ines, who has to rely on the kindness of strangers. Mostly composed of close-ups of the two women during conversations in the hotel and long nocturnal car rides through an increasingly gentrified Berlin, Tochter is a powerful portrait of a bourgeois woman whose existence is suddenly called into doubt. But the film is also strongly reminiscent of Christian Petzold's Gespenster/ Ghosts (2005), and committed to an aesthetic that key Berlin School directors like Petzold, Christoph Hochhausler, and Thomas Arslan have moved away from in their last features, leaving us with the feeling that we are watching the work of an epigone.

A festival favorite, winner of the Best First Feature Award, was the Mexican coming-of-age comedy Gueros by Alonso Ruizpalacios. It follows the teenager Tomas, whose mother, tired of his antics, ships off to spend time with his older brother Fede, who studies in faraway Mexico City. Except that Fede doesn't attend classes, since the university is on strike and sit-ins have replaced lectures--but he doesn't attend those either, because, as he explains, he is on strike against the strike. Set in 1999 and shot in sumptuous black-and-white in a 4:3 ratio, the film can be seen as an extended homage to the Nouvelle Vague, for which student protests were also a important backdrop, especially for Godard's films. Poor on plot and rich in atmosphere, Gueros deftly captures the time-warp of the late 1990s in Mexico as well as Tomas' own struggle to orient himself in a time and place that offer few directions.

Other films that focus on fraternal relationships, whether in the form of sibling rivalry, works of mourning, or brother's keeper plots, were plentiful. The second Argentine Competition entry, La tercera orilla/The Third Side of the River (Celina Murga), tells of young Nicolas, whose domineering father leads a double life with two families. The situation forces Nicolas to defend his "half-brother" from bullying in school, even though that brother officially does not exist. When the father prods Nicolas to follow in his footsteps, the son revolts. The Brazilian entry Praia do Futuro (Karim A'l'nouz) pits young Ayrton against his older brother Donato, who abandons his family in Fortaleza to move to Berlin, following his lover Konrad.

Years later, Ayrton shows up on the older brother's doorstep to demand an explanation. Partly gay melodrama, partly bi-national love story, and partly coming-of-age story, Ainouz' film favors a loud, dynamic soundtrack, sweeping vistas of sun-drenched beaches with athletic lifeguards in sporty outfits, and helicopter shots of a gray Berlin cityscape. In the end, too much of everything amounts to rather little. Feo Aladag's war drama Zwischen Welten/Inbetween Worlds is more balanced in tone, focusing on the tour of duty of German soldiers who have to defend an Afghan village from the Taliban. Their captain (Ronald Zehrfeld), whose brother previously died in combat, has accepted this second tour to prove that his brother's sacrifice was not in vain. While on assignment, he befriends his interpreter Tarik, whose work for the Germans puts him under attack from his own people. Protecting Tarik becomes increasingly difficult for Jesper, as it puts him in direct conflict with his superiors' orders. Aladag's powerful portrait of a moral dilemma was belittled as too naive by some German critics, but it can still pride itself on being an ambitious intervention into a genre too often considered a purely American (and male) domain.

As is to be expected from a festival the size of the Berlinale, many of its gems are hidden away in the smaller venues. Indeed, as in previous years, the Forum, which features smaller indie productions, and the Panorama, a sidebar comparable to Cannes' "Un certain regard" that focuses on recent trends in art-house cinema, are where discoveries were to be made. One of them was Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's 20,000 Days on Earth, a film with, about, and narrated by, Nick Cave.

Part documentary, part docu-mythology, the film employs the conceit that it is presenting twenty-four hours in the life of its subject, the Australian rock musician and front-man of The Bad Seeds, Nick Cave, who also doubles as novelist, screenwriter, and actor. The film follows Cave from the moment his gets up in the morning and sits down at his typewriter (!) to a nocturnal stroll on the beach after a gig. In-between, he talks at length to his therapist about his childhood, visits the Nick Cave Archive (which does not exist), meets up with his musicians, and watches a movie with his kids. As the co-director Jane Pollard explained during the press conference, "Very little of what you see in the film is true. Truth is not that interesting. It's a very narrow road to take your imagination down." Refuting most conventions of a rockumentary, we follow a thoroughly choreographed itinerary of Cave's everyday activities, interspersed with frequent car rides, during which Cave catches up with former collaborators such as Kylie Minogue and Blixa Bargeld. As Cave explained at the press conference, and as one does not fully understand while watching the fdm, this encounter was their first after the guitarist had left The Bad Seeds, announcing the end of their longtime collaboration in a twoline email. As everywhere else in the film, Cave keeps his emotions under wraps, preferring to be in control of the narrative rather than the other way around. Since Cave proves to be a master raconteur, we readily accept this premise.

Although international premieres are what distinguish the Berlinale and other award-giving festivals, an equally important section are its Retrospective and Homage--this year dedicated to Ken Loach, who was given the Honorary Golden Bear--where treasures from the archive are unearthed. A special discovery was Volker Schlondorff's Baal, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's early play that starred a twenty-four-year-old Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the title role. The film was shown on German television in 1970 and promptly disappeared into the vaults because Helene Weigel, Brecht's widow, objected to Fassbinder's portrayal of her late husband's anti-hero. Now, some 45 years later, the film proves to be a time capsule, prophetic about things that were then still to come while also energizing our own present.

Brecht's Baal, a poete maudit and a genius without restrictions or restraints, entertains remarkable similarities with the life that Fassbinder would end up leading--the poet as pig and pervert, abusive and manipulative towards friends and lovers, whom he would control by dishing out punishment and reward in equal measure. Of course, both die young. Filmed on a modest budget in and around Munich, with long dreamy sequences set to a jazzy score by Klaus Doldinger, Baa! feels more like a Fassbinder than a Schlondorff film, featuring Fassbinder's anti-teater crew, including Hanna Schygulla and Irm Herrmann, as well as Fassbinder regulars such as Margarethe von Trotta, Walter Sedlmayr, and Gunter Kaufmann. When Schlondorff heard that the longtime Fassbinder collaborator Juliane Lorenz, now head of the Fassbinder Foundation, had negotiated a deal with the Brecht heirs to finally release the film, he exclaimed: "Hallelujah, Juliane! For Fassbinder, yes; for Schlondorff, never! Fine, I'll happily play the black sheep. Now there's work to do." With a DVD release in the offing, viewers will soon be able to judge for themselves whether Schlondorff made the right call.
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Title Annotation:Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood
Author:Gemunden, Gerd
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Words:2559
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