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  • Christian Hain

Not quite Netflix-and-chill, but: Berlinale-and-chilly-weather outside. A Different Festival

(Berlin.) Originally scheduled for February when it had to be postponed for the well known circumstances, Berlinale, the Berlin Film Festival, has finally launched this week, and in altered form: Online only, and only for professionals (and accredited press, obviously). Pending further developments, there will be another event for the ple- the public! later on this summer; probably. It's still a huge festival, with a lot of films, and each one accessible for 24 hours only, even though this year, no Hollywood blockbusters feature in that weird "competition-out-of-competition" category which has been scrapped altogether. The risk of journos and other (more or less) professional people filming, and sharing, their proper screen was probably deemed too high - No, you can not search people for filming devices before entering their home office or living room, really not, Mr. (enter film industry executive of your choice). At least not yet, maybe if certain politicians get their way, and send Corona not-so-secret police out in search for that one visitor too many in our homes,... but not just yet.

Besides, isn't there software - sorry, being old fashioned again: an "app"! - to capture your screen all automatically (asking for a friend)? Be that as it may: This year's hunt for the Golden/Silver/Whatever Berlinale Bear has officially started - streaming!

1) Slow movies can be confusing, too: Inteurodeoksyeon

Off we go with (probably unecessary to add, but: South!) Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo's Inteurodeoksyeon - that's a lot of consonants, and Google Translate won't enlighten us as to the meaning, limiting its assistance to the suggestion "Frisian" for a source language; "English: Inteurodeoksyeon". Well played, google, well played. (Berlinales image credits say "Introduction", looks like a loanword.)

Inteurodeoksyeon is a slow paced meditation in black and white, which could sound "stereotypical", yett this is exactly what you expect a Korean arthouse flic to be! Roughly a family story, Inteurodeoksyeon centres around a Christian doctor praying to overcome some unspecified obstacle in his life before practising acupuncture on various people, further his (apparently: ex-) wife, and their son. KPop is still popular, right? That student's got such a pretty face - they even say so in the movie, several times! - which might guarantee a commercial success with a certain demographic. ...Or not: This will never make it to the big screen, and if only because Koreans still smoke, even the good guys (keep it up, brave Koreans!).

As it ought to be with a proper arthouse film, you'll need some time to figure out what's going on, and how the different chapters (yep, it's divided into chapters, check) are connected. That said, Inteurodeoksyeon is shot in very classical images that ressemble old monochrome photography (this is a compliment!), but back to the story: There are also the son's (eventually: ex-) girlfriend, a supposedly uberfamous actor-friend of both parents, and potential allusions to a homoerotic attraction between the son and his close friend (this suspicion might just be a cultural prejudice).

Parts of the story are set in "Germany", but we won't learn, where exactly (it might, or might not, be Berlin) - not that it would matter in any way, "Germany" being only used as a synonym for "the West", chosen without specific reason (not even coproduction politics - it isn't, right?). The girlfriend leaves to study "Fashion" here, moving in with an artist friend of her mother's - there's undoubtably some Exotism involved: In the "Far West", basically everyone must be an artist or fashion designer, and "they" don't even make a difference between "formal" and "informal" language like Koreans do... Nothing wrong with it.

It won't get easier to keep track, as the story culminates in a generational conflict with a twist: adults pushing our hero towards a career in acting, which doesn't agree with his morals - there's even some reflection on the general "morals" of acting! 'k. You might file all this under "ordinary story about ordinary people in ordinary situations", but then you'd need to overlook quite a few logical inconsistencies and impropable coincidences. ...Know what? Best watch it without the subtitles. Simply enjoy the acting (which is great! - two years ago, a Korean actress won that Bear, and not undeservedly), and make up a story in your mind. But watch it!

WArts Verdict: The acting's good, and there might be some chances in that line. For the rest, well... Can we risk that bear ending up in a medicine shelf?

2) Art, from gallery to -house

The stream fest continues with contemporary artists-slash-filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas et Khalil Joreige's Memory Box, and we've met these two in an Art context before. Right from the beginning, their work offers a stark contrast to Inteurodeoksyeon (come on, a couple more times, and you'll pronounce it fluently ... not). Whereas in Korea, smartphones seemed ominipresent but only as an unobtrusive requisite, the style now is willfully modern, zooming in and out of smartphone or laptop to fill the movie screen, messages from a group chat appearing in front of our eyes, a photo viewer opening to details, &ct. It could feel not merely hectic, but even pretentious, wantedly modern - if you are a confirmed contemporary artist (couple), do you really need to employ such very "arty" gimmicks? Thankfully, it doesn't stay like this, soon they calm down, and that's when the film gets great - truly great! More than our first coup de cœur, Memory Box is an early favourite for the victory, one or even a pack of Bears.

Partly Arabic, but mostly French spoken and English subtitled, Memory Box is based on Joanna Hadjithomas' personal notes, she took as a teenager in 1980s civil war Beirut, and Khalil Joreige's photo archive from the same era as we learn when reading all the smallprint in the closing credits. Looks, like they've merged both their biographies into the main characters': a middle aged woman and her teenage daughter, who get confronted with the mother's wartime diaries and photographs, created in the buildup to the family's flight to Montréal (this might have actually be chosen for film sponsoring reasons). It admittedly doesn't sound all too promising, yet the story proves captivating and touching indeed, jumping back and forth in time and place, and in this only occasionally being confusing (and if, it's probably wished for).

The Hadjithomas-Joreiges are well known for exploring their personal history and linking it with the wider world, but in this example, they've perfected their art. Relieving an earlier generation's life by media and memory, that's a fascinating concept without a doubt. Furthermore, Memory Box is "everyday life of everyday people" perfectly done. - Ok, perhaps not "everyday", if you haven't made it through a civil war in your past... At some point, contemporary audiences will listen up, hearing about parents, who "are afraid of everything, listening to their crap radio, ... but we want to live...!" Civil War, Libanon, 1980s. Not: Corona, around the globe, 2020s.

WArts Verdict: Wesh, is it in for a Bear? Definitely. Only recently, bears have been sighted in Lebanon again, remigrating there from Syria (you couldn't make it up).

P.S.: You know, you've watched too many movies, if during a romantic dancing scene in war territory to that cheesy pop rock classic "Dust in the Wind", you start to giggle, thinking of this.

3. Mensch, Maria!

Berlinale's inaugurial day continued with Maria Schrader's Ich bin dein Mensch, not very accurately rendered as "I'm Your Man". No, "Mensch" does not mean "man", or only as in "-kind", but rather "human being" or "person"; you might have heard this before via the Yiddish saying "Be a mentsch". Maybe the translator is a Leonard Cohen Fan, in which case everything is forgiven.

In some of the most colourful images this side of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Ms. Schrader tells us of a SciFi romance between a professor and her sex droid. ... ... ... Fine, things might be a little bit more complex than that. A modern exchangable human being accidentally born with female reproduction organs agrees to become beta tester for an android that is custom built to meet her innermost desires and offer everything she might expect from the perfect partner. Kind of what personalised ads promise us today, just like technology - supposedly! - knowing better what's good for us, and what we "truly" want, than ourselves. One puropose of the project, we're told, lies in an evaluation of the question whether "'marriage' for all" should extend to robots, too. Well, and why not, it doesn't mean very much anymore after all?

I'm Your Man is a neat German production - perhaps occasionally too much in love with technical gimmicks, holograms for instance, that scream, "See what we, too, can afford now" (thanks to federal support, the whole German, or: European, film industry still being on the dole)! It's been shot in Berlin, and isn't it great to finally see a use for James Simon Gallery, Museum Island's oversized new wardrobe? A film set, if only they'd told us so before! Art heads will recognize even more venues. At least implicitly, the film touches on some interesting points, for example whether not knowing might not be superior to knowing, when an anthropological research project gets cancelled for the robot's discovery of a South American publication on the same topic - in the olden days, we'd simply have two, or even more studies, human creativity not being imprisoned by the technological claim to only one possible truth in every context.

Lead actress Maren Eggert appears to have missed that "Crying" lesson in acting school, maybe she should observe Rim Turki in Memory Box, who does the job so much better. The ratio, by the way, between jokes that work, and failed attempts at such, is about balanced, which seems great for a German movie; or Germans.

In the end - well, Ms Schrader wasn't quite sure, how to finish the film that is freely adapted from a short story, and, of course, a whole literary tradition. Maybe, she wants "to pose questions, not to provide answers,..." At least for some, this future appears to be a brave new world indeed, viz. a man being perfectly happy with his girl bot (some sexism here?), and the circle closes: We couldn't help thinking of a quite legendary German TV sketch of the mid-20th Century about Asian, e.g.: Korean, "mail order brides". Maria Schrader certainly knows that one, too, and perhaps the times haven't changed that much after all. (There won't be a German version of these Berlinale texts, but for my German readers: Rest assured, I would have cited "Mai Lin 3.0").

WArts Verdict: No. Not even, if Isaac Asimov personally presided the Jury.

So much for a start, more to follow soon. This edition of Berlinale certainly feels weird, and not for the streaming alone. Only think of it: To see an alien world, where people are shaking hands, and not a single face mask in view, let alone social distancing... indeed: even open stores, and so-called "bars" (what was that again?)! Will we ever see the like again? Without running the slightest risk of course; although taking risks might no less belong to that stuff that makes us human...

But overall, it doesn't feel bad, only "different". Autism is always an option. The one thing, (professional) Berlinale regulars might miss the most, is that jingle before a film starts - I do! And on the other hand, this year's festival is a great reminder of how uncomfortable cinema seats really are, particularly if you wanted to make it through some four-and-a-half hours melodram from God knows which forgotten corner of the earth. Leading to b) I urgently need a new sofa.

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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