• Christian Hain

Berlinale 2018 – The Films. Day 3: Dovlatov, Transit, Eva


Day Three, 17 February Third day, and I already suffer from severe butt cramps. These seats reach levels of uncomfortable, you can hardly imagine. But it’s (inofficial) 'Writer’s Day' at Berlinale, so let's get right into it. Last year, somebody complained at a press conference about the underrepresentation of Russian films in Berlin, wondering whether this were motivated by politics. This year, there’s Dovlatov. Have you ever heard of him? Sergei Donatovich Dovlatov-Mechik was one of 20th Century’s most popular writers in the Russian language, although he became famous only after the curtain fell and his death in American exile in 1990. I’m still unsure if you should watch this biopic, but I’m firmly decided to try one of his books soon. The films documents one week in Dovlatov’s life in early 1970s Moscow. No flower power, no sex, drugs and rock’n’roll for them. No ABBA either, on the upside. Refusing to produce government approved art, Dovlatov would not be granted the all decisive Academy status, and he struggled to make a living by writing for magazines. The beginnings are tedious, the film feels like a guide to Russian literature for dummies, with a large amount of namedropping and the habitual stock phrases for “intellectual” films. There’s a film-in-film, actors impersonating the classics (Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky,...) being interviewed by (the actor playing) Dovlatov. Some dialogue is tedious, forced, unnatural, lecturing – or at least the subtitles make it appear as such. At this point, you might regret not having spent the time reading instead. Personally, I detest secondary literature, and in this case it’s not even (and could not possibly be) in-depth research. Dovlatov improves with time, however. There are even some great scenes, e.g. Dovlatov duping a black marketer into collecting data on fellow free thinkers for him, the assumed state official. Scary, actually. The film then meanders from repetition to repetition, there is only a limited number of variations in Dovlatov’s daily struggles to feed himself, deal with an ex-wife and daughter, and being refused publication. And yet, the documentation of daily routine under soviet rule seems legit. Halfway through, you think to understand not only the writer, but life in the USSR in general. Then it just drags on and on. The sudden intrusion of the KGB, leading to an unexpected and only half-accidental death, happens quite unexpected. You might complain about this suddenness, or accept it as authentic, the violent manifestation of an ever latent danger. The horrors were quite real, just like the – equally surprising – episode involving a miner and hobby poet, and the discovery of thirty-odd dead children, victims to a German air raid some twenty-five years earlier. The name of Dovlatov’s acquaintance and fellow poet Joseph Brodstky might ring a bell with more of us (and don’t confuse the name with Max Brod).

When the film was over, I liked it a lot better than while watching - might actually watch it again! Prediction: Russia’s back. That’s no Eisenstein, and not Dostoyevsky either, but a well deserved place in competition. Milan Marić‘ portrayal of Dovlatov is excellent. When it comes to German films, I cherish some prejudices. Transit is a German film. People are fleeing from Europe, fascist Germany will soon occupy France, and the port of Marseille, one of the last still offering a chance for escape, will close. A man takes the identity of a writer whose dead body he's found in a Paris hotel room. He tries to board a ship to freedom and a new life in Mexico, but there’s the writer’s wife, her new boyfriend, and a family of fellow wannabe-exiles. The story (after a novel by Anna Seghers) has not only been filmed in today’s France (logically), but without any historic decorations, i.e. in today’s streets, with today’s people, cars, trains, and businesses. Even the police uniforms are 2018. It thus moves between the times, not ana- but simul-chronistic, and Transit has a message: "See all those migrants coming to Europe? That's us, in the past, and very soon again!" Because, you know, it’s 1933 all over again, the fascists are rising to power, and there will be a new war soon, new persecutions and atrocities, and refugees fleeing the continent once again.

- Or maybe the right wing parties' rise to power is owed to people trying to defend their identity in face of a never-ending stream of foreign invaders. Guess what: both is bullshit. But director Christian Petzold firmly believes in the first idiocy. (Excursion on contradictory positions: “Elsewhere in the world, people honour the guest right, and willingly open the door to everyone.” – “Even to burglars who sneak in without invitation, then demand the residents to change their behaviour, language, and way of life, with no intention to ever leave again?”) To rub it in for even the most ignorant, or obstinate, of the plebs you're here to educate, that family the main character befriends is of Arab origins (a single mother, evidently). It’s all so freaking obvious, you cannot but call Transit the purest example of a propaganda film, and suspect, Petzold would have fared quite well in Dovlatov’s shoes. There's some involuntary humour, not least when the main actor Franz Rogowski who has a speech impediment (sounds like a harelip), talks and sings to the deaf and dumb Arab mother. On the other hand, it’s well done. You tend to forget the historical setting, and suddenly feel startled by reading the birth date “1908” in a document needed for the passage. The dead writer’s name is Franz Weidel btw, an obvious hint to Franz Werfel, for whatever it's worth. The story is told by a voice from the off, writer style, and it might be the plot only suffices for a short film. Towards the end, events become more and more implausible. At the last development, tragic actually, the row behind me burst out with laughter. But there was a lot of applause, too. Prediction: A media favourite. Maybe enough to carry it to a Bear. Eva starts with some tragicomedy when a homosexual British writer in his late eighties welcomes a male prostitute to his Paris apartment, tells him of a recently finished play, then deceases in the bathtub. His first words are a vulgar play on words, “my name’s not Cul-son, but Coulson” ("cul"="arse" in French, frequently used in composites like “film de cul”="porn flick"). The boy takes the script, and quickly becomes a star of the Paris theatre scene. Later, it gets confusing. This might be a new trend, at Berlinale at least, so many character motivations seem hard to comprehend. Isabelle Huppert plays the wife of a jailed antiquaire (potentially for smuggling, or falsifying, artworks), who now sells her body to pay his lawyer in cash. The false writer seeks to use her for a new script, as he can only write about what he has experienced in real life. There’s also his girlfriend, the theatre’s owner, and the play’s director (or what exactly is his role?), and for some unknown reason, the writer decides to accompany his play on a tour de France. Players playing each other, it’s not bad, and once again excellently acted. But is it supposed to be a joke, how they styled the imposter to resemble French writer and TV personality Frédéric Beigbeder? Prediction: Not a favourite. Too confusing/confused in the end. But entertaining in parts.

Berlinale, 15-25 February 2018

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism




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