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The 2000 Berlin International Film Festival

Water Drops on Burning Rocks

Major transitional years occur only occasionally in the festival world. It is, in part, continuity of venue and curatorial staff that makes these institutions tick; their very consistency allows filmmakers and film professionals to make informed choices about how films might be received at their premieres. In this context, the 50th Berlinale was a traumatic and difficult event.

Ten years ago, when the Wall fell, rumors had already begun that the Festival would be moved from its hideous, if comforting, decades-old home in Breitscheitzplatz to new digs in the just-liberated wasteland of Potsdamer Platz, the former center of all things cultural in prewar Berlin. It seemed like a stretch at the time, but the crane-filled skies of the new Germany threw up a fully formed cultural complex of theaters, offices and fancy shops faster than an “Achtung!” The results of the location change were good, on the whole. The Festival decided, however, to keep half its screenings at the old venues, a split decision that gave one the strange feeling of being a suburban commuter.

The Berlinale Palast, the new home of the Competition, is the focal point of rebuilt Potsdamer Platz, its red carpet the terminus of the area’s main street. From the outside, the Palast is suitably massive in feel, but inside, the maze-like basement which houses the press center and the curiously intimate cinemas belie the usual overblown Competition hoopla. The other two main venues in the area are modern multiplexes: the CineStar and CinemaxX. Various bits of the Festival used five screens in the former and all 18 screens in the latter. They have all the problems of such places in America: the screens are far too big and the raked seating far too vertiginous. The experience always feels more like a carnival ride than a festival screening. Also of concern is the fact that these places are calibrated to play digital sound, and when they are given 16mm or video or 35mm mono tracks, there is a tendency toward muffled reproduction, particularly at the CinemaxX.

These small problems would not have been so noticeable had the Festival’s old screens not been in operation. The Zoo Palast, the Delphi and the Atelier are spectacular cinemas for movie watching and so comparisons were inevitable and unfortunate. Even with these caveats one must say that the technical presentation at the Berlinale is second only to Cannes in the festival world.

The new Festival neighborhood is very strange. While the proximity of cinemas and offices is wonderful, the insta-city looks strangely like Beverly Hills, with glass malls and lots of parking the dominant features. This incongruity is only underlined by the fact that Mitte, the stunning 19th-century Berlin downtown, is within short walking distance.

As usual, the films in Berlin were a mixed bag. Opening Night was not auspicious. Wim Wenders made what could well be the worst film of the new millennium so far, the unspeakably pretentious and silly The Million Dollar Hotel, perhaps best described as an “attempt to understand the poor.” Following that debacle, the Festival offered plenty of Hollywood fare (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Three Kings, Magnolia, etc.), some sentimental fluff (Boy’s Choir, from Japan, about singing gay orphans, and Zhang Yimou’s commercial romance The Road Home) and another lugubrious German historical film from Volker Schlöndorff.

The two most interesting films in Competition both suffered in adaptation but were intriguing efforts nonetheless. Jonathan Nossiter, winner at Sundance a few years ago with Sunday, struck a stridently transcendental note with Signs and Wonders, a romantic-triangle film about a man obsessed by chance meetings. The film has a stunning digital aesthetic and extremely strong performances, particularly from Charlotte Rampling and Deborah Kara Unger. The first two thirds of the film play somewhere between lighthearted Tarkovsky and Eurofied David Mamet – the film is set in Athens, was produced out of Paris and, like Sunday, feels far removed from the usual preoccupations of American independent cinema – and then the roof caves in. An overly obvious tip-off to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – The Raincoat! The Raincoat! – spirals out of control as Nossiter lifts the entire final sequence of the ’70s classic in an oddly self-immolating tribute to one of his cinematic heroes.

The deeply uneven François Ozon (See the Sea, Sitcom) has talent to burn. Though sometimes painfully obvious in his choice of targets, Ozon has the ability to create hysterically funny situations that both celebrate and deconstruct camp while skewering all sorts of contemporary cultural constructs. So who better to adapt Fassbinder’s great unfilmed manuscript, Water Drops On Burning Rocks? A kind of poem to the bitterness of May-December power relationships, it fits neatly into the German’s canon between In A Year of 13 Moons and Fox and His Friends. Ozon translates the dialogue into French but retains all the jokes about provincial Germany, a conceit that is actually quite amusing as a European Union trope. What Ozon does not quite get right are the sex scenes; there is a violence to the erotic practices of Fassbinder’s characters that engages on many levels with things German, clichéd or otherwise. In French with French actors everything becomes kissy-kissy and overly romanticized, and this creates distance from the narrative’s essential and fascinating cruelty. Still, one scene of this film in this amazing language makes one long for someone of Fassbinder’s skill and artistry to emerge from somewhere!

I also saw The Beach for the first time in Berlin. The world has already judged this film but I would like to say for the record that it is one of the smartest, most knowing and cynical appraisals of contemporary youth culture and its concerns that I have seen in ages. The critical community’s inability to hide its distaste of a shirtless DiCaprio has blinded it to the film’s bold and multilayered investigations of modern notions of Utopia and its fascinating, Zeitgeist-nailing connections to that other blond in an ultimately self-defeating mission film, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Berlin has two other sections of importance: the Forum and the Panorama. I have long been a fan of the Forum, even if it can sometimes favor work by the old guard – Straub, Huillet, etc. – that is overly hermetic and fighting battles long since irrelevant to the course of cinema. When I became involved with Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s Benjamin Smoke as executive producer, this section seemed a natural place for a documentary with a relatively non-narrative character. The organizers were wonderful supporters of the film; we left with very good feelings and they offered to distribute the film throughout Germany to a group of nontheatrical institutions. Films that play in the Forum also appeal to the most aesthetically radical of the European broadcasters – they pay attention to what plays there.

What was perhaps the best-loved American feature film of the Festival debuted here. George Washington is a complex, meditative exploration of a group of kids in a working-class, rusted-out North Carolina town. Its portrayal of small acts of heroism and cowardice and an absolutely stunning 35mm aesthetic set it apart from most American indies. It also features top-notch performances from a group of kids that rival anything that little blond boy at the Oscars did.

The Panorama – typically an uneven showcase of international cinema with a special focus on gay and lesbian work – had an excellent year. For me, the standout film was Chill Out, a rough-and-ready first feature from Andreas Struck which happily points to a new direction in German cinema. Evoking a “morning after the drugs of the night before” mood and using some simple, gorgeous visual tableaux, Struck interweaves three characters – a gay guy, a straight guy and an older woman – in a minimalist, tender fashion. The film has much to do with the new Berlin and a great deal about how we create families in our vast urban playgrounds.

The other wonderful discovery in Berlin was Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s follow-up to Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, Funny Felix. A shaggy-dog story following a Normandy-born Arab guy on a road trip to Marseille to meet a possibly imaginary father, it has a droll energy and also explicitly asks questions about how gay people form families.

Although this report has been critical of the Berlinale, I found this year that the programmers seem to be in touch with contemporary ideas as never before. Whether acknowledging the desperation of the new spiritualism or rethinking the family or just reemphasizing the importance of challenging cinema, Berlin felt very much like a world class forum for ideas that matter.

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