03 March 2018

Outstanding cinematographic art across the sections: The SCHIRN MAG presents a selection of feature films, experimental movies and documentaries of this year's Berlinale, the International Film Festival.

By Katharina Cichosch and Daniel Urban

The sections at the Berlinale, the International Film Festival and the largest such event in Germany, are not always helpful. What makes a title a candidate for the “Competition” and who differentiates between the categories “Forum” and “Panorama”? This is probably quite crucial when it comes to the prizes, meaning many films don’t even have a chance at one of the accolades. Ultimately though, cinematographic art can be found across all the categories – in the form of feature films and experimental movies, but also in documentaries, which this year are frequently outstanding. The SCHIRN MAG has compiled a selection of films that tell or act out a story in a particular way – in the form of, or partly using, dramatization. Some of these have already appeared on DVD or will be hitting cinemas soon.

“11x14” by James Benning (1977)

James Benning’s “11x14” was first shown at the Berlinale Forum back in 1977. In cooperation with the Austrian Film Museum and the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art, the film has now been restored and is being presented again in the festival’s cinematographic art series. “11x14” is an experimental arrangement exploring what it is that only images can relate – beyond the contextualization and montage. The film consists of countless one-shots, and each scene lures the observer into its own universe of narration. The individual characters appear time and again in different scenes, telling a story whose beginning and end points are never entirely clear, and the sequence of which could also run quite differently. This is a film whose form contains the narration in itself and is perhaps also the key to deciphering it. Or, as James Benning himself suggested: “Hopefully, the film teaches you how to watch the film.”

The film is now available on DVD.

Videostill, 11x14, 1977 (c) James Benning
“Jahilya” by Hicham Lasri

What do cockroaches dream of? The brief prologue in Hicham Lasri’s “Jahilya” tells us: of not being squashed by humans, but rather dying a natural death. Nothing is openly said as yet about the dreams of people in this. If we consider a person’s dreams to be their guiding principle, then Hicham Lasri gives us nothing good to surmise about them: Here men tyrannize women, children adults and the powerful their inferiors.

In “Jahilya” Hicham Lasri paints a sad picture of Moroccan society, characterized by contempt for women, hopelessness and oppression. Lasri weaves six plotlines into a surrealist mélange, which altogether creates a story about outcasts and their suppressors: a rape victim, a suicide, and an unmarried, pregnant woman. In pictorial terms, and the vocabulary is as symbolically charged as it is violently down to earth, the film is reminiscent of Buneul’s later surrealist works like “The Phantom of Liberty”. Lasri herself also sees “Jahilya” as a head-on attack, as a film that cries: That’s enough! The work is the completion of her dog-themed trilogy and is preceded by “C’est Eux Les Chiens” (2013) and “Affame Ton Chien” (2015).

Videostill, Jahilya, 2018 (c) Hicham Lasri
Videostill, Jahilya, 2018 (c) Hicham Lasri
“The Green Fog” by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

H-hm – *smile* – Hmm – *struggleforwords* – ?– *gaspforair* –Tsts – *smacklips* – ssssssss – *sprinklesaltonfood*

At the beginning of the film “The Green Fog”, a loudspeaker control is switched from “Speak” to “Listen”. And then: You hear that you can hear nothing. Dialogs that never come about. Beautiful women and mute men, who struggle for words and find none in one continuous loop. Instead there are the sounds of eating, breathing, gasping for air. Smiles, looking into another’s eyes, then looking away. 

Guy Maddin, the Canadian experimental filmmaker whose works make it into cinemas relatively regularly, and Evan Johnson have taken apart classics of film history and reassembled them such that the crucial correlations do not obviously play out on the screen. And thus the film noir, to which they pay homage here (as they do to the entire history of relevant Hollywood classics) is robbed of its essential components: scheming men, whose pursuits never end, sagging crooks, villains and detectives, who always notch up one more scene. Is this not once again a kind of “anti-homage”?

The experimental arrangement is driven by a Hitchcock classic and thus also by San Francisco, the northern Californian city in which it all began: “Vertigo” is the pivot of the action, retold here roughly as a collage – with excerpts from such unrelated works as “Sister Act 2”. This makes “The Green Fog” all the greater an accomplishment, although you don’t necessarily have to get the reference to appreciate the scary green fog in the scenically beautiful, eerie San Francisco. The roundel of media references doesn’t stand still for long here in any case: Towards the end, the nineties boy-band NSYNC even appears in the image on the black-and-white tube television.

Scheming men, whose pursuits never end, sagging crooks, villains and detectives, who always notch up one more scene.

Videostill, The Green Fog, 2018 (c) Guy Maddin und Evan Johnson
“Isle of Dogs” by Wes Anderson

A pack of scruffy dogs on an island of waste, handmade miniature animals against a likewise handmade miniature backdrop, with grumpy or melancholic voices by Bill Murray or Bob Banaban; a story about friendship and the relationship between humans and animals, full of whimsical notions of how one might imagine life in a Japanese megacity, and on top of this a cinematographic dedication to protest and codetermination: “Isle of Dogs” was the opening film at the Berlinale and captivated almost all the viewers.

Undoubtedly Wes Anderson’s second animated film would still have deserved a prize for its particular artistic achievement in terms of features and implementation. Also bound up with this is the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between form and content in the films by the Texan director – the famous Wes Anderson aesthetic, which continues right down to the dialog and the character development, has long since shifted from its original status as a somewhat quirkily likeable side aspect to become the all-encompassing main player.

Cinema release in Germany from May 10, 2018

Videostill, Isle of Dogs, 2018 (c) Wes Anderson
“Notes On An Appearance” by Ricky d’Ambrose

A young man returns from a holiday abroad and goes to stay with a friend in Brooklyn. He helps his friend with his academic thesis about a recently deceased controversial philosopher, evaluating private video material and various writings by the thinker. Suddenly the young man disappears without trace and his friends set off on a search for him. “Notes On An Appearance” by Ricky d’Ambrose is a one-hour chamber play about documents and evidence. Time and again, personal objects belonging to the protagonists appear in front of the camera in close-up shots: a postcard, a passport, newspaper articles or diary entries.

The detailed shots and basic design language are strongly reminiscent of the French cinema of the nouvelle vague, particularly the pictorial idiom of Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket”. Detached from any material space in which objects otherwise develop their uses, the young American heaves them onto the grand stage in his first, Kickstarter-financed experimental feature film. “Notes On An Appearance” appears to be on the hunt for what objects can say about their owners. The protagonists thus remain remarkably monotone and robotic in their conduct and their speech, and there is something less human about their bodies. What remains are things, as well as some distant sounds that gradually fade out.

Videostill, Notes on Appearance. 2018 (c) Ricky d'Ambrose
“SPK Komplex” by Gerd Kroske

True to the exclamation of psychiatrist and mastermind Klaus Dörner: “The only valid psychiatry is a social one!”, the Socialist Patient Collective – the SPK for short – was founded in 1970 in Heidelberg. The anti-psychiatrically oriented group that formed around Dr. Wolfgang Huber believed the existing in-patient treatment methods were, at best, something like “detainment psychiatry”. Huber attempted to develop a counter-model and treated patients in a kind of alternative treatment center, with Hegel reading matter included. Sometimes there was even supposed to have been intensive contact with several extreme leftwing terrorists. This quickly led to problems, not only with Heidelberg University, and ultimately resulted in court cases, at the end of which Huber and his wife had their medical licenses withdrawn and were also given long custodial sentences.

Gerd Kroske’s “SPK Komplex” is a thoroughly intelligent documentary film that relies entirely on the spoken word of the so-called “talking heads”. There are none of the now sadly so conventional reenactments, indeed Kroske does not even give the viewer a single categorizing interim title or personal description – merely the spoken word or even the silence of contemporary witnesses. “SPK Komplex” is thus not only a recollection of the SPK’s story, which has largely been forgotten, but is also a manifesto of the power of the spoken word, be it in the form of therapy or indeed in the reworking of stories.

Videostill, SPK Komplex, 2018 (c) Gerd Kroske
Videostill, SPK Komplex, 2018 (c) Gerd Kroske

SPK Komplex is a manifesto of the power of the spoken word.

“Premières solitudes” by Claire Simon

Claire Simon, the French screenwriter, actress and director, also gives the spoken word the greatest conceivable scope. In “Premières solitudes”, she has young people report plainly and simply about their everyday lives. They are called Tessa, Anaïs, Catia, Manon, Elia, Hugo or Clément, and are all in the eleventh grade and from a suburb of Paris. As a viewer, it’s hard to believe that these are young people actually reporting openly and freely on their lives here, and not actors playing from a script, for example. Simon herself cannot be seen or heard. Nor does she give her young protagonists any thread to follow in their speech. Her camera is literally a silent observer as the students chat in small groups about their hopes and desires, about their broken homes, their first loves and their first woes. 

It is surprising how carefully considered, unpretentious and how self-confidently they interact with one another without any shyness in front of the camera. One boy initially begins shamefacedly, but then talks ever more openly about the messed-up relationship with his father, until he eventually cries and is comforted by his friends. There is something inexplicably magical, human in the very best sense, about how Simon shows us the young people in “Premières solitudes”.

Videostill, Premières Solitudes, 2018 (c) Claire Simon
Videostill, Premières Solitudes, 2018 (c) Claire Simon
“An Elephant Sitting Still” by Hu Bo

“But I don’t have any money. I sleep on the balcony,” explains the grandfather to the young supplicant tersely. In the film cosmos created by Hu Bo, you can apparently be accosted for money anywhere and at any time: be it among relatives and neighbors, when the dog has been killed by another dog, by way of threat and intimidation, or by way of security. Along with a new work by Lav Diaz, “An Elephant Sitting Still” was by far the longest feature film of the festival – for virtually four hours without a break the story plays out in a typical Chinese residential block.

It’s also thanks to the creative choice of radical minimalism that one can easily follow it to the end: Although the director, at just 29, condenses his story into only one day, he manages to give his characters extensive temporal and pictorial scope. Every scene has its own shot in which the story and actors often play out over minutes, with no adjustment even to the focus during this time. After 230 minutes the final scene comes to a close in one of the most sublime moments to be seen on screen for a long time. And at the same time it is one of the most tragic, since Hu Bo’s suicide means his first feature film will remain his last.

Videostill, An Elephant Sitting Still, 2018 (c) Hu Bo
“6144x1024” by Margret Honda

By far the longest experimental film of the whole festival, “6144x1024” comes from US artist Margret Honda, who considers it an homage to “11x14” by James Benning. Here, Honda shows the 6,144 color shades multiplied by the 1,024 brightness levels, which together make up the entire spectrum covered by the projector, in complete silence: One color after the other fills the entire screen, as one shifts seamlessly into the next.

It’s not only enduring this 36-hour-long projection that is virtually impossible: At the Berlinale, “6144x1024” was shown in stages in a tiny cinema with screenings lasting several hours, and the first viewers left the room nervously after just a few minutes. Such art, and it unfolds far away from our habitual way of seeing, can actually be downright demanding in physical terms. By the end, a viewer from some theoretical universe could have seen a total of 6,291,456 different color fields.