65th Berlin International Film Festival, 5 – 15 February 2015

Justin Jaeckle goes through open, closed and back doors to report back from this year's Berlinale

By Justin Jaeckle

Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, 2015. Dir: Kidlat Tahimik Kidlat Tahimik. 2015 Berlin Film Festival Madare ghalb atomi (Atom Heart Mother), 2015, Dir: Ali Ahmadzadeh. © All Rights Reserved Still from The Forbidden Room, 2015 (detail). Dir: Guy Maddin / Evan Johnson © Galen Johnson The Machinist’s Lament, USA 2014. Dir: Jen Liu. Courtesy the artist and Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam. Forum Expanded, 2015  Still from In Rom, 2014. Dir: Jeanne Faust, © Jeanne Faust Concert C with Door, USA, 1971, Dir: David Askevold. Courtesy MoMA, New York. © 2015 Estate of David Askevold Every Thing Will Be Fine, 2015, Dir: Wim Wenders. © NEUE ROAD MOVIES GmbH, photo: Donata Wenders Taxi, 2015, Dir: Jafar Panahi, 2015 Berlin Film Festival

To the Sound of the Closing Door – the title of the exhibition and screening programme of the Berlinale’s experimental flagship, Forum Expanded – quoted Jean-Luc Godard:

'I thought the New Wave, at the time, was a beginning and everything was going to continue. Now I think it was the door closing.'

But without landmark projects this year to match 2013’s 'swimmers-only’ Hélio Oiticica screening in the pool of the Liquidrom, or its 2010 squatting of Phil Collins’s indoor-drive-in project, Auto-Kino, at Temporäre Kunsthalle, this year Forum Expanded felt a little more like 'Forum Formal'. Nestled into its original home in the Akademie der Künste, its programme bristled with ambitious approaches to the moving image, yet many works in its essayistic and politicised film selection felt a little acceptant of said closed door.

'Countless people are making from the aftermath of the liquidation of professions, their profession', intoned the voiceover atop an animated rubber glove, in Jen Lui’s overture to industrialisation, The Machinist’s Lament (2014), after a parade of quasi-welding-mask-sculptures were modelled as labour-cum-lifestyle solutions. A digital sheen aligned the work to the contemporary, but references to industrial production, modernist theatre and 1980s-aesthetics asserted this syndrome as longstanding. Yu Cheng-Ta’s amusing triple-screen sit-com of art-world nepotism and farce, Practicing Live (2014), dramatised (actual) art-world insiders as a dysfunctional and scheming art world ‘family’. Its fiendish characterisations ranged from the uncomfortably close, intellectual and sexual, relationship of an independent curator with his prize artist, to a despised pseudonymous collector the group were slowly revealed to be in thrall to. In Practicing Live, if you’re the wrong side of the art world’s door, you don’t stand a chance.

Still from In Rom, 2014. Dir: Jeanne Faust, © Jeanne Faust

In the midst of the exhibition’s many narrative works, Jeanne Faust’s In Rom, 2014, provided a joyful punctum. A diptych of a framed advert for Gucci’s Forever Now equestrian-inspired heritage line (a horse accompanied by Grace Kelly’s granddaughter as a saddle-blanket touting model) and a text piece ('A HORSE / A SMALL BOUTIQUE / OBLIVION) stood next to a black-box projection room, where a casual projection of a horse lolling in its stable could be found: effortless poetic literalism. Among Forum Expanded’s screenings Anton Vidokle’s This Is Cosmos (2014) stood out for its Nikolai Fedorov-inspired call for social-equality through immortality, offering the healing properties of a red-coloured screen as a first step for the audience [ook our for more about This is Cosmos in the forthcoming April issue of ArtReview].

So, if ‘the echo of the slammed door’ couldn’t be fully heard in Forum Expanded, except where it was, literally, in the beautiful 16mm documentation of David Askevold’s 1971 performance, Concert C with Door, at the exhibition’s entrance, where was it reverberating?, The Berlinale’s incredibly varied wider programme offered some answers.

After championing 3D in a series of documentary works (Pina, 2011, The Salt of the Earth, 2014) Wim Wenders’ new feature, Every Thing Will Be Fine, 2015, sees him turn his attention to 3D drama. Whilst the film’s ‘tale of healing’ content is a little inconsequential, his normalisation of the hyperreality of HD 3D is full of potential consequences. Employing Benoît Debie (DOP on Gasper Noé's Enter the Void and Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers) on camera duties, the magical trickery of reflections, architectural planes and falling snow envelops the audience in the narrative through cunningly constructed visual intimacy. 

Ending on an increasing close up of lead James Franco, the film also offers the nearest equivalent to being eaten alive by the actor as is legally possible. Whilst discerning use of 3D has its precedents in films such as Hitchcock’s 1954 Dial M for Murder, Wenders’s use of the medium, especially when seen alongside Godard’s bombastic use of the third dimension in Adieu au Langage, 2014, spells an interesting future for auteur-driven 3D film.

Hard working Franco was all over the Berlinale, and his polymathery is beginning to have surreal consequences. Industrial cinema has long been based on stars playing characters, but through Franco's creative work cannibalising his own public persona and status as an actor, observing him on screen now comes across like an exercise in watching James Franco playing James Franco playing a character – a performance cubed, that feels of significance to a contemporary of fluid, performed and mediated identities. Besides acting as a sociological aid, Franco hosted an evening opening of Ryan Trecartin’s show at KW alongside Klaus Biesenbach, starred as a gay activist turned straight reactionary in I Am Michael, 2015, and acted as a lovelorn ambassador’s aide in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, 2015, – in which Herzog goes kitsch, directing a personal love-letter to his feisty female protagonist, British explorer-turned-politico Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman). It’s a very pleasant watch, with amusing satire on the British, but aside from the performances extracted from a vulture and some camels, you’d be forgiven for not recognising this as a Herzog movie. Perhaps studio-financed auteur filmmaking shut its door a while ago.

Indie darling Hal Hartley flew the flag for just doing it yourself with Ned Rifle, 2014, an enormously fun and sardonic take on a vengeance thriller, financed entirely from Kickstarter and to be distributed by Hartley via VOD. The film’s lapsed poet laureate attempting to reinvent himself as a vlogging stand-up comic was one of the Berlinale’s sharpest characters.

Hollywood’s enthralment to certain idiosyncratic spiritual systems (cf. Scientology, Kabbalah) is well known, but Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, 2015, suggests the hermit director might be better placed setting up his own church. A two-hour infomercial for his own rather particular brand of faith and redemption, the film sees a lost Adam (Christian Bale) chasing multiple, mostly scantily clad Eves through the Stations of the Tarot. Could Malick be on track to be the new L. Ron Hubbard? He’s already amassed his legions of disciples, although many remain unconvinced by his recent work.

Taxi, 2015, Dir: Jafar Panahi, roundup Berlin Film Fesitval, March 2015

Still from Taxi, 2015, Dir: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi’s Golden-Bear-winning Taxi, 2015, saw the Iranian outlaw-director compose both a moral epistle and an eloquent deconstruction of contemporary video. Mostly shot from a car-mounted candid-camera, the director plays host to a cast of characters whilst masquerading as a cab driver, and reflecting upon justice and justification. The film repeatedly breaks its own fourth wall, whilst wittily incorporating an iPhone-shot will, a CCTV-recorded mugging, Panahi’s niece’s school film project, and a bootleg-DVD-selling dwarf, as a meta-demonstration of the ubiquity and myriad forms taken by contemporary moving images. Panahi yet again slips past the door the Iranian authorities have tried to shut on him, by banning the director from making films.

The use of film to open the door of geo-political dialogue was present in much of the Berlinale’s progamme. Madare ghalb atomi (Atom Heart Mother), 2015, offered a satirical and hilarious road-movie-cum-sci-fi, hacking Western culture in service of a portrait of contemporary Iran. The film crescendos early as an SUV-driving trio of Tehrani youth break into a sing-along to USA for Africa’s 'We Are the World', before picking up a George Clooney lookalike from another dimension, critiquing 2012 film Argo’s depiction of the Middle East, and unwittingly transporting a fugitive Sadam Hussein to a mysterious black limousine.

Acts of cultural and historical re-alignment were also present in indigenous cinema hero Kidlat Tahimik’s Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, 2015, an epic and humorous 38-year undertaking retelling the story of Magellan’s 16th century globe-crossing from his Philippine slave’s perspective, and in The Story of Judas, 2015,  (Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche), in which the French-Algerian cast and director absolve Judas of traitor-status to focus upon the conflict between the Roman occupying forces and ‘the Galilean rebel’s liberation front. Naturalising the biblical story and inscribing a historical linearity between it and contemporary conflicts of religion and empire, the film elegantly fulfils its complicated task of having both political and cultural relevance.

Pablo Larrain’s The Club, 2015, took Christianity to task, pulling off the seemingly impossible by making a highly accomplished and darkly hilarious film about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Sex was everywhere in Eisenstein in Guanajauto, 2015, Peter Greenaway’s lascivious portrayal of Eisenstein’s failure to make a film in Mexico. ‘I am discovering everything at once, and the catalyst is sex’ Eistenstein declares, following a slapstick scene of olive oil lubricated sodomy that ends with a red flag triumphantly placed in the director’s anus. In Greenaway’s hands, the backdoor is another way past the closed one. Predictably, Russia is outraged.

Still from The Forbidden Room, 2015 (detail). Dir: Guy Maddin / Evan Johnson © Galen Johnson, roundup 2015 Berlin Film Festival, March 2015

Still from The Forbidden Room, 2015 (detail). Dir: Guy Maddin / Evan Johnson © Galen Johnson

The Forbidden Room, saw Guy Maddin’s trademark melodrama and love for the silent movies and early talkies of cinema’s dawn spectacularly (and spectrally) filtered through co-director Evan Johnson’s command of surrealist-noir. The film washes over the viewer like a psychedelic spell of late-night channel surfing on a 1920s cable TV network, as its D-movie protagonists and stories lope in and out of cognition. A lumberjack journeys towards a ‘pink cave’ to rescue a beautiful maiden. Submariners suck the air out of flapjacks to stay alive in the face of impending catastrophe. A memoir-writing diplomat rampages with a bust of Janus. 

But absurdity is resolved as lyricism as the film’s dense Russian-doll-like choreography of stories within stories masterfully concludes following ‘The Book of Climaxes’. A corollary to Maddin’s recent attempts to resurrect unmade ghosts of cinema-past in his Seances project at the Pompidou and Phi Centre (2012 - present), The Forbidden Room proves that often, to look forward, one must look back; preferably simultaneously. That doubled headed bust of Janus, the Roman god of thresholds who looks both into the past and future, here assumes key significance. Perhaps cinema’s door is still ajar after all.

Online exclusive published 18 March 2015