2011 Berlin Film Festival report

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The first half of the Berlin Film Festival saw a return to form for Wim Wenders, Dominic Cooper shedding his ‘Mamma Mia!’ image as Saddam Hussein’s psycho son, Uday, and a call-to-arms for 3D to cross over from the mainstream to the art house. Dave Calhoun reports

It was an optician’s dream or an opthamologist’s nightmare, depending on which way you look at it. The Berlin Film Festival tested our eyes’ ability to withstand the demands of 3D this weekend by screening three films in the format on the same day. In case anyone needed evidence that 3D is moving beyond the realm of children’s cinema and blockbusters, two of them were by elder statesmen of German cinema, Werner Herzog (‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’) and Wim Wenders (‘Pina’). The third, ‘Tales of the Night’, was a collection of upscale French animations by Michel Ocelot, whose work has the crafty, handmade appearance of cut-outs and silhouettes. At least we’re beginning to get some variety with our eye strain.

While Herzog is the great survivor of 1970s German cinema (and we’ll be reporting on his ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ nearer its release next month), the reputation of Wenders has slipped in recent years. But ‘Pina’ is the ‘Paris, Texas’ director’s best work since ‘Buena Vista Social Club’. This collaborative, poetic documentary explores the work of German experimental dance pioneer Pina Bausch, who died in 2009. It’s both a tribute to an artist and a celebration of an art form. Wenders shoots the members of Bausch’s long-established company performing her most significant pieces, such as ‘Café Müller’, both in a theatre environment and outdoors in unusual locations, from the inside of a train to the edge of a quarry. The camerawork is as sublime as the performances. The decision to avoid most archive footage and other biographical tropes and focus simply on the glory of the work, living and breathing now, is a wise one. It’s a beautiful and moving film.

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On the other end of the subtlety spectrum is Lee Tamahori’s ‘The Devil’s Double’, a wild and tasteless dramatisation of the life of Latif Yahia, onetime body double for Uday Hussein, Saddam’s psychotic and notorious son. Dominic Cooper gives a raucous performance as both Uday and Latif, even if he plays the first as panto and the second as tragedy. The rest of the film is just as muddled, It salivates over Uday’s wild lifestyle and tut-tuts behind his back. It’s fun as kitsch. As a thriller, it’s dead in the water. As history, it has zero value.

Other notable titles in the first few days of the festival were Gianni di Gregorio’s self-teasing ‘Gianni e le Donne’ (‘The Salt of Life’), Kevin Macdonald’s YouTube collage, ‘Life in a Day’, and a witty Irish comedy, ‘The Guard’, from first-time director John Michael McDonagh and starring Brendan Gleeson as a dissolute rural Irish cop dragged into a drug-busting collaboration with the FBI’s Don Cheadle. The first is a sequel to the actor-director’s 2009 film ‘Mid-August Lunch’: again di Gregorio plays a version of himself adrift as a middle-aged Roman close to his infuriating elderly mother. If the first film had hints of Larry David, this fully feels like an Italian feature version of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, even down to the music. ‘Life in a Day’, meanwhile, is an edit job on thousands of hours of user-generated footage filmed all over the world by anyone who wanted to do so on July 24 2010. Inevitably, it’s shallow and deep, moving and trite. We see births. We see deaths. We see people going to the loo. All life is here. Only some of it is interesting.

Your critic sloped off to catch a couple of titles in the festival’s mammoth Ingmar Bergman retrospective, with guests including Liv Ullman, Harriet Andersson and Bibi Andersson all turning up. Harriet Andersson, who turns 79 this week, introduced a screening of ‘Summer with Monika’ (1952) on Sunday night and laughed at the memory of how Bergman persuaded her to stare straight into the camera in one of the film’s final scenes, so breaking every rule in the book at the time and inspiring Godard to name it one of his favourite scenes in all cinema. She looked genuinely amazed and thrilled that a full cinema had turned out 59 years later to watch her on screen as a 20 year old in her very first screen role.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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