Berlinale 60 Day Three: Spur der Baren (Trace of the Bears), New York Memories, Waste Land, Howl

by Meredith Brody
February 15, 2010 5:42 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
Meredith Brody files Berlin Day Three:

In order to maximize movie viewing during a complex festival with many venues and many programs, I utilize one festival strategy: spending the entire day in one venue, the International, a beautiful remnant of Soviet Cold War architecture on the Karl Marx Allee, whose clean Bauhaus façade and mid-century-modern undulating wood slat walls are belied by plush blue velvet curtains and a shocking gold lame undercurtain.

11 a.m.: Spur der Baren, or Trace of the Bears, a documentary by Hans-Christoph Blumenberg and Alfred Holighaus about the 60-year artistic and political history of the Berlinale, from its origins using American funds in a divided and battered city, through the Cold War and the reunification of the country. Archival footage featuring everybody from Jayne Mansfield, a tipsy Errol Flynn, and Orson Welles through stars on the red carpet of today is wittily and candidly interspersed with interviews conducted for the film with 28 international directors and stars intimately involved with the Festival, including Agnes Varda, Costa-Gavras, and Tilda Swinton, who appeared at Berlin with her very first film with Derek Jarman, was head of the jury last year, and is in town again in 2010, with an Italian movie, Io Sono L’Amore, that she co-produced. I’m reminded she was sitting a half-dozen seats across the aisle from me just two nights before at the opening night film, Tuan Yuan, her red hair flaming atop a complicated blue gown. Wim Wenders was sitting on the aisle.

Thompson on Hollywood
But I digress. Dieter Kosslick, the current and fourth director of the Festival, introduces the aged artist who designed the Golden Bear statue, who presents Dieter with a 1951-vintage edition of the statue.

2 p.m.: New York Memories by Festival stalwart Rosa von Praunheim, veteran of the often gay-themed Panorama section, which twenty years ago screened Uberleben in New York, about three German women and their lives in the 80s. For his new, very touching film,von Praunheim returns to his favorite city and traces the lives of two of the women still living there, as well as two young women he knew from childhood, children of fellow German expats, woven with his vintage footage of the grittier New York of his youth. The wild parties and demonstrations of the 80s are replaced with an obsession with real estate, and erstwhile go go dancers living in NY illegally are transformed into teachers with apartments in Harlem and US citizenship. After the film Praunheim and most of his cast and crew are reunited onstage.

5 p.m.: another documentary of an entirely different sort, Waste Land by Lucy Walker and co-directors Joao Jardim and Karen Harley, which just premiered to great acclaim at the Sundance festival. The film’s origins – following Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who creates art from diverse materials, as he constructed a new project with the impoverished pickers of one of the largest garbage dumps of the world in Rio de Janeiro. Slowly his art – making self-portraits from the refuse -- transforms their lives in unexpected ways, no story more moving than that of Tiao, a handsome, articulate young man who founds a recycling cooperative movement as the result of his involvement. The whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. Walker brings an emotional Tiao, who’s become something of a national hero, onstage afterwards, to thunderous applause.
a hard act to follow, and Howl, the first fiction film by documentarians Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is not quite up to the task. Part of the official competition, it’s a strangely bloodless amalgamation, with James Franco as a young Ginsberg declaiming the poem live in a jazz club, and being interviewed about its history, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn going head-to-head as lawyers in the 1957 obscenity trial of "Howl"'s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and animation created by Ginsberg colleague Eric Drooker. I was pleased to see celebrated French actor/director Hippolyte Girardot, at the Festival with his film Yuki and Nina, a Franco-Japanese co-production, in the audience -- was it for Howlor The Ghost Writer?Or both?

Much more satisfying, if considerably less experimental, is the final movie I see, Roman Polanski’s stylish, Hitchcockian The Ghost Writer, a witty, expertly-filmed adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel about a Tony-Blair-like Prime Minister of England, played by Pierce Brosnan, whose ghost-assisted memoirs are interrupted by the mysterious death of one collaborator, who is replaced by Ewan McGregor, amid calls for the Prime Minister’s trial for war crimes. It’s a beautifully-filmed, crackling, classic thriller. In an equally classic film-festival-goer’s frisson, I’m amused to see Olivia Williams, who incarnated Ian Dury’s long-suffering wife in yesterday’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, playing an equally long-suffering but considerably more sinister wife in The Ghost Writer.


The mark of a successful movie: the subway, where I excitingly manage to catch the last metro home after 1 a.m. from East to West Berlin, seems as sinister as Polanski’s mean streets. When I exit at the Zoological Garten stop, I choose to trudge along the lighted side of the street, which turns out to be a still-sinister-seeming string of sex shops and fast-food stands. I see a strange queue of men, which when I get closer I see extends from a temporary, well-stocked florist stand. I’m confused for a moment: why are all these men buying flowers in the freezing cold at 2 a.m.? And then I remember: it’s Valentine’s Day.

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