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Berlinale Forum 2023: The Trial, De Facto, Anqa, I Heard It Through the Grapevine

Christoph Bach in Selma Deborac's De FactoChristoph Bach in De Facto

Last year at the 2022 Berlinale I had the uncanny experience of watching Hito Steyerl’s documentary The Empty Center (Die leere Mitte, 1998) in a 75-seat theater hidden away beneath The Sony Center. If you’re unfamiliar with The Sony Center in Berlin, take a second to Google it, or think back to the sterile postmodern backdrops of Brian De Palma’s Passion, in which architect Helmut Jahn’s eight-building complex plays a prominent role. The Empty Center is, in part, about the obscene land grab that occurred after German reunification, when multinational corporations like Sony, Daimler-Benz and ABB swept in to stake a claim on what would soon become the biggest construction site in Europe, and in the process stoked racial resentments and provoked widespread labor strikes. More than two decades after the opening of The Sony Center, Potsdamer Platz remains a deeply strange place, a shopping mall of a neighborhood that sits only a few blocks south of Brandenburg Gate and that seems to have been designed as a willful act of historical denial. When I was in Berlin this year, I met up with filmmaker Dominik Graf, and we spoke a bit about the economic toll suffered by the GDR after the wall fell, a recurring interest of his work. I mentioned to Graf how absurd it is that I fly all the way to Berlin every winter and then spend nearly all of my time in Potsdamer Platz, the site of most Berlinale press screenings. “Well,” he laughed, “we made a lot of mistakes after 1990.”

The Empty Center screened as part of Fiktionsbescheinigung, a sidebar of the Forum that spotlights underseen work by Black directors and directors of color in Germany, and that engages directly with questions of race. Launched in 2021, it’s become one of the Berlinale’s hidden gems and one of the last remaining places at the festival to see work projected on celluloid. I caught nearly a dozen films in last year’s wide-ranging program, including Thomas Arslan’s early feature, A Fine Day (Der schöne Tag, 2001); Branwen Okpako’s Dirt for Dinner (Dreckfresser, 2000), a documentary about a Black German’s fall from social icon to criminal; and the essay film Raoul Peck made as a student at the German Film Academy, Merry Christmas Deutschland (Merry Christmas Deutschland oder Vorlesung zur Geschichtstheorie II, 1985). I was especially impressed by In the West (In der Wüste, 1987) by Spanish-born director Rafael Fuster Pardo, a buddy film about two immigrants scraping together a subsistence living as artists in 1980s West Berlin. To use the metrics of the day, Arslan aside, these are all films that have been logged fewer than a dozen times on Letterboxd—truly once-in-a-lifetime screenings. Regrettably, I saw only one of the Fiktionsbescheinigung films this year. Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Order (Ordnung, 1980) is a bone-dry portrait of an unemployed civil engineer (Heinz Lieven) who, like Melville’s Bartleby, prefers to not participate in the everyday striving of middle-class life and, instead, loses himself in fantasies and impotent acts of rebellion. When, at the end of the film, his wife admits him to a psychiatric clinic for treatment, the small, unadorned room he’s assigned seems a welcomed respite from his neighbors.

Order also screened beneath The Sony Center (on 16mm!), in the larger of the two theaters that have, for more than two decades, been the primary venues for Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art. Founded in 1963 as Friends of the German Film Archive, Arsenal presents year-round programming there—one of its core missions, along with archival work, distribution and presenting the Forum and Forum Expanded. Since 1971, Arsenal has set out to fulfill the Forum’s founding charge to screen “difficult, dangerous films.” However, with the arrival of Carlo Chatrian and Mark Peranson from Locarno in 2020 and their creation of Encounters in the Berlinale to foster “aesthetically and structurally daring works,” and with the expanding program at Berlin Critics’ Week, which operates independently, guided by the “principle of discussing the most stimulating works,” and which this year attracted the likes of Graf, Claire Denis, and more than 30 other guests, the lines separating the strands are becoming a bit blurred. The good news for lovers of “difficult, dangerous films” is that Berlin in February has become a one-stop shop. Frankly, there’s too much to take in. I’m eager to see how the Forum evolves in 2024 under the new leadership of Barbara Wurm, a well-respected critic, historian and programmer who is stepping into the role following Cristina Nord’s four-year stint. I’m also eager to see more of Berlin, as Arsenal will be moving in 2025 from The Sony Center to a new 180-seat facility at silent green Kulturquartier.

Of the dozen features I saw in the Forum this year, the best were nonfiction films (loosely defined) that, formal innovations aside, demanded to be reckoned with as political, historical, social—as human—material. Claire Simon’s Our Body has already been discussed in other festival reports by Giovanni Marchini Camia and Patricia Aufderheide, but I agree with the general consensus that it was among the standout premieres of the Berlinale. A three-hour documentary shot at a French public hospital, in the units that provide care to women and trans men, Our Body has drawn comparisons to Frederick Wiseman, which is fair enough, but its genius is the first-person plural perspective reflected in the title. I’ve not seen, or felt, anything quite like it before. Because of scheduling conflicts, I wasn’t able to watch Our Body with an audience in Berlin, but I’m sure that if I had, I would have skipped my next film to take a walk and process what I’d just experienced, as I did several other times at the fest.

The story behind the making of Ulises de la Orden’s The Trial (El Juicio) is nearly as compelling as the film itself. In the spring and summer of 1985, nine leaders of Argentina’s military dictatorship were put on trial for 90 days, during which participants in the crimes, victims,and relatives of the “disappeared” testified to the horrors they’d witnessed. The Trial of the Juntas climaxed on September 18, with chief prosecutor Julio César Strassera’s famous closing statement: “I wish to use a phrase that is not my own, because it already belongs to all the Argentine people. Your Honors: Never again!” More than 530 hours of the trial were recorded by broadcast television on U-matic cassettes, copied, then stored away in various locations in South America and Europe. Orden began hunting for the footage a decade ago and eventually was able to piece together the entire trial from multiple sources, including a long-rumored VHS copy that had been safeguarded in the late-1980s by the Norwegian Parliament. His film compresses it all down to 177 compulsively-watchable, emotionally-exhausting minutes.

The style of The Trial is established in the opening sequence, when the nine defendants enter the courtroom, all in full military dress, and the camera pans to capture reactions from the public gallery. The footage is unexpectedly cinematic, in the sense that both camera operators made real-time decisions in 1985 that still generate tension, punctuate dramatic turns and shape the personalities of the key players. Part of the pleasure of The Trial is imagining Orden and his editors breaking down story beats, like in a traditional writers’ room. When lead defense attorney Jorge Orgeira, a weasel of a villain straight out of central casting, complains to the judges that the prosecutors have better seats, Orden cuts to Strassera and his charismatic associate Luis Moreno Ocampo, who are barely suppressing their laughter. On the other end of the dramatic spectrum, when a woman describes the terror and suffering she endured while being raped, he cuts to a shot of women sobbing in the audience. The bulk of the film’s runtime is dedicated to such witnesses, who sit with their backs to the cameras and whose faces are only glimpsed in profile except when entering and leaving the courtroom. The stories they tell are ghastly in their details and in the various ways they’re told. “The bastards! The bastards!” one man yells, his voice cracking. Another, overcome by the tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress, stops to ask, “Do I have to keep telling this?” A former gunman deflects responsibility in monotone: “I’m a military man. I was given a target.” And in the closing moments of the film, and presumably the closing days of the trial, a witness states plainly and with bitterness and scorn, “That’s what they did. These men who consider themselves Christian.” For viewers, there’s really no place to hide. The Trial makes us witnesses, one step removed, to the vilest of human behavior—the naked brutality of the perpetrators and the white-collar political structures that empowered them. It’s hardly a spoiler to note that only five of the nine men were convicted and that by 1990 all had been pardoned.

Because Strassera’s closing argument is greeted by rousing shouts of support from the audience, The Trial does climax with a moment of catharsis—hope, even—despite the eventual outcome. After a decade of oppressive rule in Argentina, the public airing of criminality and the public condemnation of criminals was itself a kind of victory. The Trial, like all of the best nonfiction films I saw in the Forum, is concerned with a classic philosophical (or theological, if you prefer) question—that is, how does one productively and humanely meditate on the problems of evil and suffering by means of artistic representation? It’s certainly one of the many concerns of Our Body, in which Simon introduces us to a 30something pregnant woman undergoing treatment for late-stage breast cancer. “When is the birth?” a nurse asks casually. “Late January,” she replies. “I have to last till then.” Simon’s solution is to focus solely on this one brief moment of contact, this single conversation, and by doing so resists the temptation to construct meaning from the woman’s story by taking it from her and re-presenting it in a tidy narrative. The woman’s suffering becomes simply (but not only) a particular embodied experience worthy of contemplation and empathy.

In De Facto, filmmaker Selma Doborac focuses on perpetrators of violence—more specifically, on the challenge of representing perpetrators without enticing viewers to participate in any way in the thrills or degradation of violence. The 130-minute film consists of only seven shots, the first six of which are static images of one of two actors, Christoph Bach and Cornelius Obonya, who take turns delivering long, rapid-fire monologues. Each sits in a Franz West chair at a polished Heimo Zobering table (both designers are credited in the film and press kit). The unidentified location is a sparsely decorated room with large open windows, situated in a wooded landscape; the breeze and natural light shift throughout each extended take. All of Doborac’s formal decisions—duration, montage, decor, performance style—are self-consciously conceptual. She has designed a Brechtian alienation machine, pulling out all the stops to distance viewers from the content of the monologues, which is a text collage of first-person testimonies, confessions and statements by anonymous, real-world perpetrators of obscene violence, including men who worked in Nazi concentration camps. It’s a provocative conceit, to say the least. Another critic in Berlin told me De Facto was either a major work or full of shit, he hadn’t decided which. After a second viewing, I’m leaning heavily toward the former.

Doborac, who was born in Bosnia and Herzogovina and now lives in Vienna, describes De Facto as an “alternative testimony,” a strategy that sits outside of traditional documentary forms and archival work. (Her director’s statement is unusually direct and useful.) She has crafted what is in effect a chamber drama that would, I suspect, translate well to the stage. I’ve now seen it on a large theater screen and at home, and the experience was more or less the same—it seems ready-made for galleries, too—because the overriding effect of the staging and Straubian recitation style is to make the performers present and tangible and, somehow, instructively archetypal: two middle-aged white men, stoic and haunted, recount in grotesque detail the grimmest depths of human depravity. And we, somehow, are there in the room with them. I wonder how different my experience of De Facto would be if I were fluent in German and were able to focus my full attention on their small gestures and on the sonorities of their voices rather than having to choose constantly whether to watch and listen or to read the subtitles. Being in proximity to Doborac’s “perpetrators” is fascinating; I’d like to get even closer, I think. I won’t spoil the seventh and final shot of De Facto other than to say it uses formal means to shake viewers out of the spell (or slumber, let’s be honest) cast by the long static monologues. Whether it serves as a benediction or an ecstatic howl, I’m not quite sure. Both, perhaps.

Kurdish director Helin Çelik’s Anqa is an intimate portrait of three victims of violence and injustice. “Intimate portrait” is such a cliché, I know, but an apt one in this case. The victims are all unnamed Muslim women of unidentified nationality; the only clue in the film, for a Western viewer like me, at least, is a mention of the Royal Film Commission of Jordan in the closing acknowledgments. Çelik breaks their stories into fragments and reassembles them as a mosaic. Even after a second viewing, I can’t recount any one woman’s experience in exact detail. The film’s logline describes this as “the opaque logic of trauma.” One woman spent time in prison and now wishes her young daughters would die in their sleep rather than suffer a fate similar to her own, another had her eyes gouged out by a man and relives the terror as a nightmare each time she tries to sleep, and all three have been ostracized by their communities and now pass the days hidden away in their homes. A recurring motif throughout the film is the sound of Henry Barakat’s The Nightingale’s Prayer (Doaa al-Karawan, 1959) playing on a TV in the background. It’s a popular Egyptian melodrama starring Faten Hamama, as a young woman who seeks revenge for her sister, who was murdered by their uncle for shaming the family. The conditions of patriarchal violence don’t change, only the particulars of the crime.

Çelik and cinematographer Raquel Fernández Núñez film the women’s lives in a poetic-observational style and don’t hesitate to land a symbolic image when the opportunity arises, as when the blind woman walks up to a window, pulls aside two layers of curtains, opens both layers of glass, rests her hands on the metal bars that still separate her from the rest of the world and then closes everything again, pausing to straighten the innermost layer of lace. The window scene is typical of the strengths and weaknesses of Anqa’s style, which is always on the verge of oneperfectshot-ism. It’s too easy to imagine Núñez repositioning the camera for the balanced, planimetric frame, and I assume Çelik suggested the action. Why else would the woman open and close the windows like that? Anqa is the type of documentary that has a credited foley artist. I’m suspicious of this type of quasi-nonfiction work, generally. But for reasons of taste that are sometimes difficult to articulate, I trust the voice of this particular film. 

Anqa opens with a well-conceived six-minute sequence that establishes Çelik’s intent to present these three lives as a kind of mythical horror story. An epigraph by Rumi sets the stage: “Understand: time is an image of melancholy. Outside of time is our true form. / For this worldly time is a cage: Outside—all is Mount Qaf and the Anqa.” The title of the film alludes to the Phoenix-like bird that passes between this world and the next and that often symbolizes the very breath of Allah that gives form to our existence. Even in translation it’s a lovely evocation of despair and, for lack of a better word, faith. The film, likewise, is an unguarded and sympathetic but never condescending depiction of dreadful anguish. The opening sequence is a montage of borderline-abstract images that draw on horror tropes, accompanied by the hum of white noise. It all resolves to an extreme closeup of one woman’s lips and hand. The noise becomes a mechanical high-pitched whine as she says, matter-of-factly, “Sometimes I wish the end of the world would come.” Anqa sits somewhere in the Venn diagram of Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room, Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s and Verena Paravel’s Caniba and late David Lynch. The perpetrators, in this case, are no longer present, but they haunt every scene.

Finally, a quick word of recommendation for Dick Fontaine’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982), which was presented as a Forum Special in a new restoration from the Harvard Film Archive. Grapevine documents James Baldwin’s return to America in 1980, when he revisited several locations of violent struggle during the Civil Rights movement. At each stop—in Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, Jackson, St. Augustine, and then up to Newark—he reconnects with old allies in the struggle, people like Sterling Brown, Oretha Castle Haley and Amiri Baraka. It’s as much an essay as a documentary, with Baldwin a seemingly eager participant and co-author of the work. Late in his too-short life, Baldwin fully understood his public persona, and he makes iconic use of it throughout the film, posing for staged portraits in front of key landmarks, his pensive, beautiful face wearied with experience. I Heard It Through the Grapevine was the last film I saw in Berlin, after I’d already begun thinking about cinema as a mode of contemplation on violence and torment. (That’s what good programming does. It puts art, artists, and audiences in conversation.) Baldwin and his old comrades have no time for nostalgia. They’re clear-eyed and angry about the murders of dear friends and about how little progress was made despite the sacrifices. When he visits the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Atlanta for the first time, Baldwin says it is “absolutely as irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial.” I Heard It Through the Grapevine gives lie to the comforting notion that suffering and sacrifice lead inevitably to justice and progress. It’s a harsh truth, precisely and artfully rendered.

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