Arts Listings

Berlin Film Festival: From the Stones to Abu Ghraib

By Lewis Dolinsky, Special to the Planet
Friday March 07, 2008
A scene from Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ film on Abu Ghraib, was part of the Berlin Film Festival.
A scene from Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ film on Abu Ghraib, was part of the Berlin Film Festival.

How big is big? At the 58th annual Berlin Film Festival, or Berlinale, in February, 387 movies were shown in 11 days on 38 screens in 15 theaters operating from 9 a.m. to past midnight. 

Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light opened; by the end, every Luis Bunuel film had been screened. In between came a “Talent Campus” for young filmmakers with panel discussions and workshops, and a parallel European Film Market of more than 700 films (some overlap), showing more than 100 a day. Even if you like movies, that’s a lot. Many of them may never see the dark of a commercial theater, not because they’re lousy but because no distributor is willing to bet that there’s an audience for them. But in Berlin, with perfect screens and perfect prints, even bad films have their moments. 

The Berlin festival is not as old as Venice, nor as big as Cannes but, uniquely, it is the only one of the Big Three that is as much for the public as for the industry. Nearly a quarter of a million tickets were sold. Unlike Cannes and Venice, Berlin is held in the worst weather, although this winter stayed above freezing much of the time. Still it is better to be indoors.  

Representing the Daily Planet, I saw 19 films, attended a dozen press conferences where one could see up close and personal Scorsese and the Stones, Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz, Scarlet Johansson and Natalie Portman, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Daniel Day-Lewis, Madonna (she’s funny) and Errol Morris, the one-time Berkeley graduate student who changed the documentary genre. I interviewed the festival’s head of jury, the great political film maker Costa Gavras (Z, Missing, The Music Box).  

I marveled at the efficiency and good humor of a huge staff that kept the thing going. And at a city that really works (even if one bus was three minutes late). This is a place where beer is pure, restaurants exude atmosphere, the museums and galleries are world-class, and the revitalized neighborhoods of East Berlin retain a certain mystique. After 60 years of Nazi and Stasi, Berlin seems at home with itself. The center of the festival is Potsdamer Platz, a former no man’s land, now representing the best and worst of modern architecture. The Berlin Wall once ran through it.  

After screenings, L’Oreal gave mascara—to everyone. Vanity Fair had wonderful gold gift packages, of chewing gum. A movie named Bananaz provided bananas. Volkswagen poured champagne, and uncovered its new car at a party at the Berlin Academy of Art, Seal performing. There were more galas than even Leah Garchik could handle. 

After the photo shoots—herds of cameramen baying—the director and stars of films would answer standard questions: How did you happen to begin this project? What was it like working with …? (Wonderful.) A child actor was asked whether violence in his film had scared him: No. “It’s a movie.”  

Every day, Berlin papers published several pages on the festival. Three trade publications—Hollywood Reporter, Screen and Variety—put out daily glossy magazines of reviews and gossip. Forty-two hundred journalists (4,200) were said to be in attendance, but of the general interest American papers, apparently only the New York Times and the Daily Planet published.  


The Elephant  

Getting a handle on the Berlinale is like the blind man trying to describe an elephant. Journalists and filmmakers and civilians, looking for one great film and not finding it, asked each other: What have you liked? What do you expect to like? Conventional wisdom said that the competition section was weak this year and that more interesting things were to be found among the smaller films, or the first films, or unusual documentaries, or the “Culinary Cinema” section, or the German section, or the Rossi or Bunuel retrospectives, or the Vietnam War films. 

For those looking for a handle, festival director Dieter Kosslick suggested music. In addition to the Stones, there was a Patti Smith bio (she attended and sang). Heavy Metal in Baghdad showed a band truly on the run. CSNY Déjà Vu was directed by Bernard Shakey (who looked and sounded a lot like Neil Young). Madona made her directing debut with “Filth and Wisdom.” The late Willy Sommerfeld, last surviving silent film pianist from the 1920s, was honored.  

Some actresses gave astounding performances: Tilda Swinton in Julia, a film that, like its main character, careened out of control; Kristin Scott Thomas in “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime…” (I’ve Loved You So Long) about the readjustment to society of a child murderer; and Israeli Arab Hiam Abbass. In Lemon Tree, Abbass walks into an all-male café on the West Bank. The looks she gets are so chilling that one might suppose that the greatest divide in the Middle East is gender.  

Several films dealt with the abuse of children. Kids were forced into war, kidnapped, murdered, molested, or just bullied. Apparently, every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.  

Among its suggestions for 10 movies to see, the German weekly Die Zeit picked RR, directed by the American James Benning. He said he wanted the title to be pronounced “railroad” rather than “ahr, ahr” (lest his film be confused with a sequel to “Treasure Island”). In 120 minutes, RR shows 43 trains. They enter a frame and they leave it—first slow trains, then fast ones. Enjoyable? One viewer said, “It depends on what the definition of enjoyable is.”  

The Stones were enjoyable, by any definition. Some critics were disappointed that there was no story line. Also no analysis, no probing. But Scorsese used 17 cameras with frequent cuts to capture the band’s incredible energy. You feel as if you are in the third row. Good choice of clips. In one, we see Jagger, young and innocent, thrilled that the group has lasted for two years and hopeful that it can last another year. Meeting former President Clinton on stage before a concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City in 2006, Keith Richards says, “Hello Clinton, I’m Bushed.” In person, the Stones were an extension of the film, poised and funny. They had their personas down pat, and reveled in their status as “co-producers” and as the “actors.” Jagger, the preeminent Alpha, was definitely in charge. 

The Stones were in the competition section but not in the competition. The Golden Bear, the top prize, was awarded to the Brazil’s The Elite Squad about the brutal police war against drug lords. Some called it a fascist film or Death Wish in Rio. Errol Morris won the Silver Bear for his Abu Ghraib story Standard Operating Procedure, the first documentary ever entered in Berlin competition. Paul Anderson was chosen best director for There Will Be Blood, which got the best notices—although some found it bombastic and over the top. Sally Hawkins won best actress for the comedy Happy-Go-Lucky, a Mike Leigh film for people who don’t like Mike Leigh films. And an Iranian, Reza Najie, not Day-Lewis, won best actor. There were audience awards, a queer award, and young filmmaker awards; it’s an endless list.  


My Berlinale  

Ultimately, everyone there had his or her own Berlinale.  

I liked the intimate look of Citizen Havel. A cameraman follows the then-president of the Czech Republic for years. His staff pushes and pulls, checking him for dandruff and political positions. Vaclav Havel expresses annoyance with his jacket (too tight), with American soup, and with his rival, the uptight Vaclav Klaus. Clinton plays “Summertime” on a Czech saxophone (Havel’s gift),” Yeltsin needs a beer, and Ronnie Wood wants to know whether a restaurant named Provence would be a good choice in Prague. Provence will be fine, Havel reassures him. 

Katyn, by the legendary Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, shows the genocide within the genocide—the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers (including Wajda’s father) by the Soviet Union. The objective was to wipe out the Polish intelligentsia in order to prevent a sustainable independent Poland from re-emerging. That project turned out to be quite successful. For nearly 50 years, the Soviet Union blamed this mass murder on the Nazis, a group you’d expect to be impossible to libel—and Poles were forbidden to speak the truth. Now they can. It would be inaccurate to report that this is a perfect film as well as an important film. Still, the ending produces nightmares. 

Like I’ve Loved You So Long, the French film with Scott Thomas, Boy A, originally shown on British television, concerns a child’s killer re-entering society, but with a different result. And like the French film, Boy A is worth the pain one feels in watching. 

Johnnie To has made an homage to old Hong Kong—and to a team of pickpockets, which To says is a vanishing breed in HK. To’s film Sparrow is light and airy. It’s like dance. 

An Italian film, Quiet Chaos, was my favorite. Nanni Moretti plays an executive who comes to terms with the death of his wife, in his own time and in his own way, waiting each day in a park for his daughter’s school to let out. Each day, he plays a game with a boy who has Down syndrome and watches a beautiful woman walk her Saint Bernard. Colleagues come to discuss the problems of the office and an impending merger. And eventually, something shakes him out of his pattern and back into real life. The film is unpredictable and charming. It doesn’t hit you over the head.  

Of course, Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’ film on Abu Ghraib, does hit you over the head—with dramatic music and graphics, an almost pornographic fixation on those infamous photographs, and the kind of revealing interviews that are an Errol Morris trademark. People tell him things that they shouldn’t. All the low-level perpetrators play the victim but hang themselves with rationalizations. Lynndie Englund gives an account in which the brutalities of Abu Ghraib are less important than the fact that she got pregnant and now has a child. So if she had a chance for a do-over, she wouldn’t.  

In the press conferences after the films, there was rarely confrontation. With Morris, there was. Because many of the journalists were impressed by SOP (which Morris calls “nonfiction horror”) and grateful for what it showed, they wondered why all the bells and whistles and re-enactments. Why couldn’t the interviews have spoken for themselves? Why not “concentrate on the pure truth?” 

Morris was miffed (“With all due respect, I think this is nonsense”) but eventually gave a series of responses. You can see the whole thing on the Berlinale website “The human brain is not a reality recorder,” Morris said. "Reality isn’t in there somewhere and I can just recover it by thinking about it. We put the world together from bits and pieces … Consciousness is a re-enactment of the world inside our skulls. It’s all a re-enactment except the world out there. What we do is an attempt to recover that reality by thinking, by exploring, by investigating.”  

It was a good answer. It was also a valid question. 


Freelance journalist Lewis Dolinsky was a longtime editor and foreign affairs columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.