It turns out that the new and wildly unpopular policy of not allowing other passholders to attend the early-morning press screenings once the press had been let in, in the Berlinale Palast, (so big that you can almost always be guaranteed a seat) didn’t survive long – a general insurrection resulted in its reversal midway through the second day, though it’s taken several days for this knowledge to reach me. As I wait in line at Na Putu (On the Path), people are still buzzing about the offices they went to, letters they wrote, and emails sent to achieve the desired end. Quelle scandale!
[Photo of Na Patu's Zrinka Cvitešić courtesy Zimbio]
Na Putu is set in Sarajevo and directed by Jasmila Zbanic, whose Grbavica won the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlinale. A trim young stewardess watches in dismay as her partner becomes increasingly embroiled in a cultlike Muslim sect, destroying their relationship. “It’s a good thing we like looking at her face so much,” I say to my companion, Telluride's Tom Luddy, because I find the beats of the slender story (even with its emotional subtext about the genocidal war) rather predictable. When she walks bravely off alone into the future at the end of the movie, I see the ghostly outline of Barbara Stanwyck. I ask Tom if he’d ever been to Sarajevo, knowing that his good friend Susan Sontag spent a lot of time there. No; like me, he’d been near, in Croatia and Servia, but not actually in the city. The attractively-shot movie reminds me of the seductive travelogue aspect of film, inescapably present, floating behind even the most emotional foreground.
I have to get in line early to make it into the following screening of Jud Suss – Filme Ohne Gewissen (Jew Suss – Rise and Fall), an historical biopic about the actor Ferdinand Marian, who played the title role in the notorious anti-Semitic film made in 1940, which has been banned from public exhibiton since 1945. I’ve never seen the film itself, but last year at Telluride I saw a fascinating documentary about the director Veit Harlan (Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss). (I once met Marta Feuchtwanger, the widow of Jew Suss’s Jewish author, Lion Feuchtwanger, at events at Villa Aurora, the LA home they donated to serve as a German cultural center.) I find the movie hilariously funny and kitschy – the portrayals of the evil Nazis, I think, are even more over-the-top than those in a Warner Brothers movie of the 40s.
The movie makes Inglourious Basterds look restrained. I sense that the audience is watching with their mouths hanging open, like the reverse shot of the audience seeing the first performance of Springtime for Hitler in The Producers. Martina Gedeck, familiar from The Lifes of Others, seems to be giving a performance with some emotional truthfulness as Marian’s quarter-Jewish actress wife, but everybody else is mugging and leering and popping their eyes. If there were handlebar mustaches present, they would be twirled. The sex scenes (including one shot during a bombing raid) are especially baroque. I find it all deliriously entertaining, but at the end of the screening there are boos, the first time I’ve heard them at the Berlinale. It seems they were expecting a much more serious movie, and Tom assures me that what I think is deliberate kitsch is actually unintentional.
The audience seems so incensed that I try to get in to the press conference, expecting controversy and discord, but I’m turned away. Though there are a couple of large flat screens on which you can see the conference, it’s hard to hear what they’re saying, so I head off to the underground Cinestar complex to catch as much of I can of a Paraguayan documentary about the mysterious life and death of the filmmaker’s gay uncle, Cuchillo de Palo (My Uncle 108). In yet another festival coincidence and echo, it’s preceded by the short film Covered by the Canadian director John Greyson. Typically witty and elegant, it’s about the homophobic violence and threats that shut down the first Queer Film Festival in 2008 in Sarajevo. Throughout the film Greyson quotes from a peculiarly acute Sontag essay about Sarajevo, birds, cover versions of songs, and cover versions of dance videos. It is, of course, an imaginary essay, concocted by Greyson, but it echoes satisfyingly with my thoughts of Sontag a couple of hours earlier.
I watch about half-an-hour of Cuchillo de Palo, and could happily have watched it all, but I’m lured away by a screening across the street in the Cinemaxx multiplex of the Argentinian competition film Rombecabezas (Puzzle), about a timid, overworked housewife and mother who finds herself when she discovers she has a mysterious, innate ability to put together jigsaw puzzles. Small but rather charming.
Afterwards I grab a coffee with Tom at the adjacent Film Lounge, where we’re joined by Scott Foundas, who’s recently left his longtime job as film editor and critic of the LA Weekly to join the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York as its associate program director, and Dennis Lim, film writer for the NY Times, among many other publications. Through the magic of cellphones, Peter Sellars, in Berlin rehearsing Bach’s St.Matthew’s Passion for a upcoming production with Simon Rattle, shows up for a few minutes with a young colleague who used to dance with Mark Morris. Cultureklatsch! It seems surreal to be discussing plans for upcoming possible Richard Quine and/or Glauber-Rocha restrospectives with Scott (who’s just seen an immaculate print of Antonio das Mortes in the David Thomson-curated retrospective of 60 years of the Berlinale) in such exalted company – even more surreal when it turns out the the back part of the Film Lounge has been cordoned off for a party for Na Putu. We see the trim young stewardess arrive, totally transformed, in an amazing full-on peach silk organza tight floorlength gown, completely covered with avant-garde swirls of embroidery, perhaps the best dress I’ve ever seen this close up.
Tom and I head off to the Kulinarisches Kino to see Kings of Pastry, a documentary about the Meilleur Ouvriers of France pastry competition, held every four years, by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker. Pennebaker, who’s 84, is still amazingly hale and boyish. All sorts of contrived competitive food events now litter the Food Network, but the emotional ante is upped in this one because the filmmakers follow one competitor in depth who teaches at a cooking school in Chicago, as well as a couple of other French aspirants, in less detail. The audience sighs at the sight of luscious-looking practice cakes, pastries, and chocolates discarded before their eyes. During the grueling 3-day competition itself, disasters arise that are heart-breaking for the contestants (but good for the film).
There’s a lavish meal to follow across the street in the temporary Gropius Mirror restaurant, but we can’t attend. We are due at a dinner to say goodbye to Alice Waters, who with the help of pals cooked a lunch earlier that day for Olafur Eliasson in his apparently amazing Berlin studios. (Well, the lunch was cooked elsewhere, a pig somehow roasted in the inadequate oven of Alice’s temporary digs with the assistance of Angelo Garro who famously introduced Michael Pollan to the joy of wild-boar-hunting in The Omnviore’s Dilemma, served with salsa verde whose parsley was laboriously chopped by Alessandra with the aid of a woefully blunt knife from Ikea.)
It’s only the second real sit-down meal I’ve had during the festival – the first was the dinner after the Kulinarisches Kino opening film on Sunday – at an Italian restaurant called Al Contadina Solte le Stelle. About twenty of us surround a long table in its own room, and we share a feast, including prosciutto with shards of parmesan topped with bitter orange marmalade, breseola, fennel-and-orange salad, warm eggplant with pine nuts, and lasagna layered with artichokes. I split a lovely steak topped with shaved truffles with Sandra Nettelbeck, the director of one of my favorite food movies, Mostly Martha. The eclectic crowd includes the photographer Hanna Mattes, whose father is Werner Herzog, and Nikolai Kinski, the son of Klaus Kinski, who starred in five of Herzog’s films. Only at the Berlinale!