(Berlin.) And so it starts again,... and ends. Berlinale LXIX - sorry, still in that Super Bowl mood: Berlinale 69 - is the eighteenth Berlin Film Festival orchestrated by Diether Kosslick, and it will also be his last. - Who would not dream of leaving the stage with a 69 at the age of seventy?
I won’t pretend to have ever met him under four, or even less than two hundred, eyes but he seems quite a nice guy. Only that ... unique voice of his won’t be missed by anyone. As long as he’s still here, Kosslick will give his all, and he’s a man on a mission: This year, Berlinale will go even more political than usually. And “going political” means, to hammer home an agenda, that well over ninety per cent of Western media outlets are supporting anyway, an ideology that well over ninety per cent of people in the arts&culture industry adhere to, preached to an audience of which well over ninety per cent believe firmly in the promoted doctrines. Home game. Expect a lot of Populism coming from Berlinale these days (and an irrelevant Blogger getting provoked by it, trying to set things straight, to balance views, and if only for the sake of it and pluralism).
You like cheap novelettes? Good, so does Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfing. She loves them so much, she would probably produce them at a rate of two per month (preferably doctor dramas), had she not been offered the means to go down another career path. Now, she contents herself with writing screenplays, and directing. The Kindness of Strangers is a fairy tale in the worst sense of the word, heaping cliché on cliché, a melodrama shamelessly aiming at the audience’s tears where we may follow the most goodest people on earth on a downward spiral toward salvation that comes in a happy ending that it as foreseeable as in an Asian massage parlour.
Some supremely skilled make-up artists formed Tahar Rahim, the male lead in charge of providing some alleviating romance – into a lookalike of Patrick freaking Dempsey. It would not be surprising to see Fabio on the film poster - I would have put a bare-chested Fabio on top of this critique, on horseback, trampling the villain, as his liberated ex-victims are looking on with a moronic smile, could that not lead to image licensing troubles (and would CS5.5 still work on a new Macbook - say “thank you, Adobe”). You also get Caleb Laundry Jones doing his best to impersonate a young Steve Buscemi, and Bill Neighy, who is not Bill Nye the Science Guy, in supporting roles. These two are mostly there for comic relief, and sometimes it even works. Most often, it does not.
The story, should you care, follows a very young mother waking her kids – two boys aged four and eight approximately (I’m really bad at guessing ages) - in the middle of the night to drive them to New York City, escaping her violent husband, their father. He is a cop and thus almighty not only in her eyes (the film does not care a super lot about realism, or “logics”). For dramaturgy’s sake, she won’t even wait for him being at work – which, granted, he rarely does in the following two(!) hours, but prefers to leave while he’s sleeping in the next room. In New York, the escapees’ first and only contact, the one they seek refuge with, is ... her father in law. Yep, smart move. Surprisingly, he won’t help them.
The car gets towed away after collecting one too many parking ticket, the mother goes shoplifting and at one point might briefly be considering a career in prostitution (that dress!). The oppressed family ends up first in a soup kitchen, later in a church where an angel in human disguise (not literally), is leading group therapy sessions on “forgiveness” - besides running the soup kitchen and being employed full-time as a ER nurse – and takes care of them. Hand in hand with a handsome ex-inmate (Patrick Demp- no: Tahar Rahim; and of course he is totally innocent of the crimes his brother – who, being an drug addict, couldn’t help it either - committed, but willingly accepted the prison term) who after his release has nothing better to do than accompanying his lawyer to said group therapy sessions, en passant finding a well-paid job as the manager of a large Russian themed restaurant, without any references other that having dined there with the lawyer on the night of his release from prison when the restaurant shareholders happened to be there too, and like his face (he is very handsome). That’s the same restaurant by the way, where the poor mother regularly goes to steal food, having parked the car just outside.
You know that moment, when while watching a film you realize you’ve started to side with the bad guy? It seems, Mrs Scherfing anticipated that danger just in time, and had the brilliant idea to change the father from mere bully to full-blown psychopath almost murdering his proper dad (that guy from the start who refused to let the escapees stay with him – in hindsight maybe not his worst decision – man, would his son have got mad!) for about the last twenty minutes of the film.
In his defence,... during that cold night in the empty church, the younger kid suddenly feels like getting up and sneaking outside (the “angelic” character – who, of course also has issues on her own, namely a “nobody loves me”-syndrome - having explained at large, how the doors will be locked all night but hey, who would care for logics?), then almost freezes to death in the snow, exactly like the crazy loser guy who cannot keep any job he gets (Landry Jones) only a few scenes earlier. If you think you have a good idea for your film, why not use it twice? Now, I certainly don’t mean to say, the father’s right in beating the family up, but... well, if that brat frequently has dumb ideas like that one... he just might have a point. In any case, it would at least be great to hear his part of the story.
I’m not exactly sure, why the kids are dressed exactly alike in most scenes, like you do to twins, is it to blur any individuality, and victimize them even further? Some other symbolism is easier to decipher: The bad father we learn, once ordered the elder son to beat up his brother for leaving a fork on the table (or ranging it in the worn drawer, was it?) Toward the end, the pretty guy proves how he is also just a man, and male spells evil: In a truly bizarre scene, he all of a sudden aggresses the pseudo-Russian waiter/stand up comedian (Bill Neighy) for adding caviar spoons to every table. Being the restaurant’s manager, he cannot tolerate this aggressive marketing. After all, what do they want to do there – sell food?! However, the detail to remember is that spoon. Deep down, he’s probably not better than her ex. Worse: When they’ll once “wear their own clothes”, having developed individual identities, those boys might turn out just as violent. I at least suspect, Mrs Scherfing is trying to tell us. Unless there’ll be a more radical final solution to the male problem.
WArts’ Verdict: A woman’s film. If you’re a guy – well, there’s that 14th of February again, soon. Maybe take her to the movies, but bring an (or two, or three) extra pack of tissues, and sedate yourself with a bottle of Russian Standard vodka (the brand being explicitly named in the film, they might have co-sponsored it). Then later, back home and as soon as she’s fallen asleep, watch the collected works of Nicholas Winding Refn.
If you’re a girl: Take your bff who is currently going through a hard phase because of that bastard who dared leaving her and one or two lesbians of your choice on a girl’s night out. Maybe wait for those days of the month. But please: do have pity and tell every male companion, family member, colleague, and neighbour of yours, to stay out of your way, especially when there’s any object around that could serve for a weapon.
P.S.: As you can see, the Berlinale posters have changed this year, it’s no longer a bear (Berlin’s heraldic animal) exploring the city but – shocking! I sincerely hope, they won’t get into any trouble with PETA for this – the Jury members in bear costumes. That looks like fur, and fur’s bad, ‘mkay?