Highlights from the 2018 Berlinale Film Festival

From the controversial winner of the Golden Bear to Morgan Fisher's homage to Bruce Conner – to possibly the bleakest film ever made

BY Bert Rebhandl in Culture Digest | 27 FEB 18

Christian Petzold, Transit, 2018, film still Courtesy: Berlinale Film Festival 2018

Christian Petzold, Transit

The latest film by German director and 'Berlin School' member, Christian Petzold, since his 2014 feature Phoenix, Transit is based on Anna Seghers' novel about refugees stuck in Marseilles during the time of the Vichy government in France. A young German, Georg, gets entangled in the fate of a young woman, Marie, one of the many refugees waiting for passage from the port city. Marie is searching for her husband, Weidel, who, unbeknownst to her, has died in Paris. By coincidence and bureaucratic irony Georg becomes the stand-in for the missing husband, and now has to figure out how to reveal his secret without alienating Marie, who is starting to fall for him, but won't forfeit her loyalty towards her husband. Petzold's adaptation makes two crucial changes in relation to the text: firstly the narration switches from the main protagonist to a third person voice off screen, secondly the period elements of the story seem to fade away overridden by signals indicating that this version of Transit is actually a tale of (and for) our times. These two adaptions make for a strong conceptual move, since Petzold manages to both universalize the refugee experience, while undermining any simplistic reading of one historical situation by way of another: the voiceover 'connects' with the narration exactly when the story appears to collapse.

Morgan Fisher, Another Movie, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Berlinale Film Festival 2018 

Morgan Fisher, Another Movie
(Forum Expanded)

Bruce Conner's A Movie (1958) is probably one of the most famous experimental movies ever made. A highly attractive and comical collage of found footage from pinups to mushroom clouds. What makes the 12 minutes of the film truly unforgettable, though, is the music: Ottorino Respighi's exuberant 'symphonic poem' Pines of Rome (1924) pointedly highlights and overwhelms the absurdities and slapstick Conner aimed for. It makes for a brillant coupling of temperaments that the American experimental filmmaker Morgan Fisher (famous for, among others, Standard Gauge, 1984) has now paid homage to in his own remake, Another Movie. Much could be written just on the potential meaning engrained in this laconic play on the title's indefinite article and its other. Fisher, as a filmmaker, is always also a film historian, and Another Movie responds to A Movie with a double reduction: the image plays with the ambiguity of blackness and nocturnal darkness, interrupted for a few minutes by a full moon; for the soundtrack Fisher restores Respighis opus to its full durational glory (Conner had edited it for his purposes). The effect is experimental cinema at its best: Fisher highlights the method of building image and sound upon each other by highlighting and overshadowing their inherent incongruity.

Hu Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Berlinale Film Festival 2018

Hu Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still

This four-hour Chinese film came with the reputation of possibly being the bleakest film you will ever watch. Much of this was inevitably connected to the fact that An Elephant Sitting Still is the first and last film by a young man who took his life after finishing it. 'Hu Bo is no more', was the euphemism most commonly used at the Berlinale in relation to the loss of the director who did not live to see his 30th birthday. It is hard not to scour the movie for clues about the disposition of its creator, but a stronger and more general observation might be that the contemporary China portrayed seems a hostile environment for all young people. The main protagonist, a high school boy named Weibu, finds himself on the run after inadvertently pushing a classmate down a flight of stairs. His parents can't help; the authorities are not called, while Weibu tries to figure out where to go next. An Elephant Sitting Still takes the neorealist approach of the early films by Jia Zhangke (now considered China's most important filmmaker) to the next level of immediacy and urgency: the camera, frequently close to the character's faces, is more interested in impact than action, which often takes place out of focus (or out of frame). Provincial China, with its fast (and superficial) improvements, runs ahead of the forlornness of its next generation.

Adina Pintilie, Touch Me Not, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Berlinale Film Festival 2018

Adina Pintilie, Touch Me Not
(Competition: Winner of the Golden Bear)

The awarding of the Golden Bear to this film caused a stir among critics and fans. When Tom Tykwer, the president of this year's Berlinale jury, announced it as the winner he spoke pointedly about 'the future capacities' of cinema. Whether or not Romanian director Adina Pintilie really shows us how to make films differently is a matter for debate but clearly the jury was inspired by its main policy of Berlinale this year: in light of the still ongoing #metoo scandal, issues of gender and power were put front and centre above all else. In fact Touch Me Not is not a film to stand for something else than its very own, intimate and at the same time highly demonstrative agenda: White (and later some BDSM-black) is the dominant colour in the mostly therapeutic setting of this quasi-documentry. People with several different kinds of disabilities (taken in its widest sense) are looking for sexual fulfilment, personal release or just physical contact. Pintilie isn't exactly breaking taboos but rather leads a group of people into a realm of tender transgressions all signifying that mainstream ideas of beauty and fulfilment are woefully narrow. Touch Me Not looks almost like a home movie, yet speaks with the filmic vocabulary of high modernism: the breaking of the fourth wall, the interference of the director, and a notion of performance even at the peak of lust.

Main image: Adina Pintilie, Touch Me Not, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Berlinale Film Festival 2018

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.