Usually at one point during a festival one hits a wall and decides, in the interests of sanity, to take a little time off from the inexorable wave of celluloid (or pixels) that’s engulfing you.
Somehow this never happened to me, even with the extra difficulty added by the icy, snowy streets and the fact that I got cocky one early night after navigating them successfully for a time and performed a classic slip-and-fall, turning a corner en route to the Berlinale Palast. I thereby learn what the phrase “to have the wind knocked out of you” means. Nothing really serious seems to have occurred, aside from a persistent ache in my side that makes navigating the stairs to the S and U Bahn and the ones inside the theaters a bit more challenging. It hasn’t slowed me down, just added an extra layer of inconvenience (and the occasional involuntary groan) to the daily rounds of standing in lines, waiting for doors to open, acquiring and relinquishing tickets, having passes checked, achieving a seat, settling one’s bags, taking off and putting on layers of clothing, all the minutiae whose constant repetition engenders my daily mantra: “We must really love movies.”
It’s not the wall but the lure of sociability and gourmandise that makes me linger at the home of my hosts rather than rush off for a 9 a.m. screening of the closing film, Otouto (About Her Brother), by some counts the 76th film by director Yoji Yamada, or even to make the 2:30 screening of the documentary Blank City, about the downtown NY film world of the late Seventies, that was also on my radar. I take pictures of the plates of cheeses, charcuterie, and baked goods that cover the breakfast table in the charming apartment in the Tiergarten (does anyone still use the word gemutlich?) where I’m staying, in order to dazzle my foodie friends back home. (I’m especially taken with the bright-orange, creamy yolks of the free-range eggs here. You can’t get eggs like these back in the Bay Area, no matter how much you pay for so-called organic eggs at the farmers’ market.)
Afterwards we take an excursion to the outdoor food market called Winterfield, where I would sample raclette, sausages, and borek, if I wasn’t already full from breakfast and aware that we’re soon to have lunch in a nearby restaurant. (After more than a week sustained mostly by sandwiches and floods of coffee, I’m going to have three sit-down meals in one day. Good planning.) So I content myself taking more pictures of the beautifully-displayed vegetables, meats, and prepared foods.
We’re joined at lunch by German filmmaker Monika Treut, whose films have frequently played at the Berlinale, including a short film in a retrospective program this year. She’s leaving later today for a ten-day retrospective of her work in Rio de Janeiro, which repeats over the next ten days in Sao Paulo, where she’ll also be in attendance.
Despite the fact that I’ve been told we’re in an Italian restaurant (and indeed it has an Italian name, Manzini), I’m delighted to see stewed venison with bread dumplings and schnitzel with fried potatoes tucked among the pastas and vitello tonnato. I end up having a very creditable beef goulash (ascribed here as Viennese, though aren’t its origins Hungarian? Well, there was, of course, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Anyway, it’s very good).
Afterwards I’m dropped off at Potsdamer Platz and pick up my ticket for the Awards Ceremony, as well as a couple more. I run into Dennis Lim, a film writer and critic whose work I admire, and he asks me where I’m off to. “Bibliotheque Pascal,” I say cheerfully, and he responds, “Oh, I hear it’s not very good,” which is always the last thing you want to be told just before walking into a movie, even knowing that every movie you’ve seen at the Festival (or, truth be told, in your life) has its partisans and detractors. Dennis is off to one of the many sidebar art installations under the rubric of Forum Expanded that have totally escaped me, despite my best intentions.
As it turns out, I enjoy the brightly-colored Bibliotheque Pascal, which incorporates effective little surprises (the sudden introduction of a character who emerges buried from a sandy beach, animation that appears surrealistic but turns out to be a dream) -- the equivalent of a novel’s magic realism -- in the telling of the picaresque adventures of a young woman who inadvertently enters into the world of sex-trafficking, from which she emerges to reclaim her daughter. There’s an especially charming and effective sequence in which she performs a autobiographical shabby puppet show at a carnival. I’m glad I saw it, an unknown film by a previously unknown director to me (Szabolcs Hajdu, of Budapest). I could easily see it being programmed in San Francisco, Marin, or Toronto, among many other upcoming festivals.
Somehow my assigned place at the awards ceremony is a couple of rows behind the seats of the jurors, so I get to admire Werner Herzog, nicely cleaned-up in an evening jacket with an old-fashioned string tie, chatting with Renee Zellwegger, in a puff-sleeved short black number (I’m guessing Carolina Herrera, again) with a deep square-cut bare back.
The ceremony is being televised, so it begins promptly at 7. Again emceed by the sprightly Anke Engelke, in her own short black dress and sparkly silver skyscraper heels, who tells us “We’re ten days older, but we’re richer for the films.” She introduces Hanna Schygulla (looking great, apparently sans plastic surgery or anorexia, with blonde hair cascading over her shoulders and bright red lipstick) and writer-director Wolfgang Kohlhaase, recipients of both hommages and their own Silver Bears. Inexplicably, she does a bit which must be one of her trademarks, in a fake Asian language, in honor of both the opening-night Chinese film, Apart Together, and closing-night Japanese film, saying afterwards “I hope they think it’s a dialect.”
Dieter Kosslick announces that the attendance has topped 300,000, a new record, and mentions two memories, a big one and a small one, shown onscreen by a shot of the outdoor screening of the restored Metropolis on the Brandenburg Gate, between the cascading curtains designed by Bay Area artist Christina Kim, and another of Kosslick leaning down to give a hug to the child star of Bal, Bora Atlas, who requested the same attention as the grownups received on the red carpet. The award-giving commences. The Berlinale Camera is given to Yoji Yamada, “in the tradition of Ozu,” whose movies have been screened at the Berlinale seven times. Yamade dedicates the award to Kon Ichikawa, who 50 years ago made a film with the same title as the movie he’s showing tonight, and ten years ago received the same prize as he’s now receiving. “So I say to him in heaven I’m getting the same award as you did, which is a great honor.”
The best first feature award, which carries with it 50,000 euros, is given to the Swedish film Sebbe, directed by Babak Najafi, who says “I’m very happy and a little sad because it’s only once in your whole life that you make your first feature.” The Alfred Bauer prize, given to a film that opens up new perspectives and innovations in the world of film, is given to the Rumanian film If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, which I certainly liked but don’t quite understand in the context of new perspectives and innovations. Whatever. The Silver Bear for the best script is awarded to Apart Together.
One for a film with an outstanding artistic contribution is awarded to Pavel Kostomarov, the cinematographer for the Russian film Kak Ya Provel Etim Letom (How I Ended This Summer), shot on a snowy remote island in the Arctic Ocean (or so I’ve heard – I didn’t see it). The clip shown includes a rampaging bear, which makes me inevitably think of Herzog’s Grizzly Man, apparently appropriately because the producer accepting the award for the absent Kostomarov says “This bear goes to a man who fell in love with a bear.”
The prize for the best actor goes ex acquo to the two actors of How I Ended This Summer, Grigory Dobrygin and Sergei Puskepalis; the younger of the two exuberantly proclaims that “It’s my very first role and what a start!,” and finishes by asking his granny, who’s not well, to get better.
The prize for the best actress, which I’d been thinking was going to go to the elegant, white-haired, 83-year-old Lisa Lu, almost unrecognizable as the drab character she incarnates in Apart Together, partly because she’s prominently seated on the aisle ten days after the film opened the festival, partly because she was terrific in it. But it’s awarded to Shinobu Terajima, the star of the Japanese film Caterpillar, which again I didn’t see. She plays the wife of a highly-decorated WWII Japanese soldier who returns to her having lost his arms and legs, and the clip shown is harrowing indeed. Since she’s performing that night in a play in Osaka, the producer who accepts the award reads an email from her from his phone, a use of technology that elicits laughter from the crowd, even though the message turns out to be “I hope that one day we can live in a world without wars.” Me too, and possibly a world without the constant lighting up of cell phones in movie theaters, a wish that is probably as impossible as Shinobu Terajima’s. I have noticed here that incredibly well-dressed people attending gala screenings hold onto their phones during the entire movie, perhaps as a pacifying device, or one signifying connection. (The people who actually use them during the film tend to be more furtive. At one point I think a colleague has succumbed to the arms of Morpheus in an unusually dramatic fashion, slumped forward completely in his chair, head between his knees, until I see the tell-tale light he’s trying to obscure. I’ve long ago given up trying to control my filmgoing environment, unless especially hard-pressed.)
The Silver Bear for Best Director is awarded to Roman Polanski for The Ghost Writer, which feels both slightly shocking and quite satisfying. It’s accepted, in absentia of course, by two producers, who quote the under-house-arrest Polanski as having said “Even if I could attend, I wouldn’t, because the last time I went to a festival to get a prize I ended up in jail.” Black comedy!
Afterwards the awards for the Silver Bear Grand Prize (i.e., the second-best film) and the Golden Bear seem slightly anti-climactic to me. The Silver Bear goes to If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, and the Golden Bear to the Turkish Bal (Honey), a beautifully-shot, deeply-felt film that I admired without thinking I was watching a masterpiece. Its award makes sense in the context of the competition.
Instead of sticking around to see Otouto, I rush over to catch most of The Lights of Asakusa (1937), the second film in the retrospective of Shimazu. Its story and setting – the complicated romantic lives and rivalries among a theater group – grab me more than The Trio’s Engagement did, plus I love the exterior filming. The film doesn’t approach the heights of the 30s work of Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Naruse, but I’d like to see more of his work. When it’s over, I get the satisfaction of being the first to tell the people I see there, including Dennis Lim, Tom Luddy, and Gary Meyer -- that Polanski won best director, as well as reciting his witticism.
I head off with Darryl Chin, who’s on a year-long artistic fellowship in Berlin, for a Vietnamese meal in one of his favorite restaurants in Schoenberg. It’s not only, amazingly, my third sit-down meal of the day, but almost my first contact in ten days with lightly-cooked fresh vegetables. In the middle of the meal, Darryl looks at me with concern, and asks me how I intend to get home. “I’ll take a taxi,” I say. Darryl, who’s been in Berlin for five months, and navigates the subway system like a native, responds “I haven’t seen any taxis in Berlin.” I laugh and assure him we’ll find one. (It reminded me of the famous line in The Sorrow and The Pity, “There were no Germans in Clermont-Ferrand.” Cut to the town square covered with German soldiers.)
Having found my taxi within a minute of standing on the corner, I return home thinking I’ll make it an early (ish) night, only to find my host watching Ecke Schonhauser, the 1957 film written by homage-recipient Wolfgang Kohlhaase, on TV. Its crisp black-and-white cinematography instantly seduces me, and even unsubtitled I can follow most of the plot, about three disaffected West Berlin youth who travel, pre-Wall, to East Berlin to get into trouble. I can tell that the ending is hopeful because of the sudden swell of optimistic music and a shaft of sunlight.
Afterwards there’s a documentary about Kohlhasse, which I drift off during, but not before watching, astonished, as the 79-year-old attacks a punching bag with great force. “He says he does this every Saturday for three hours,” my obliging host, also named Wolfgang, translates for me. “He says he likes it because it takes him out of his head.” It’s the last thing I hear.