Berlin Film Festival 2011: Geoff Andrew looks at the big winners

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Geoff Andrew surveys the prizewinners – including Hungary’s Béla Tarr and Iran’s Asghar Farhadi – at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival

Given the lack of top-notch features in competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously taking issue with the main prizes awarded by the jury presided over by Isabella Rossellini. There may, of course, have been some debate about which film should get which prize, but there was surely never any real doubt that Asghar Farhadi’s ‘Nader and Simin, a Separation’, Béla Tarr’s ‘The Turin Horse’ and Ulrich Köhler’s ‘Sleeping Sickness’ would each come away with something, simply because there was nothing else of note contending for the Golden and Silver Bears.

As it turned out, the Iranian film carried off the first prize, though whether that was in part a political gesture directed at the Islamic Republic’s authorities, whose imprisonment of Jafar Panahi prevented his serving as an active jury member, is unclear. Certainly, as far as the Golden Bear was concerned, Farhadi’s film was the only serious rival to Tarr’s, and its cast, as an ensemble, was also deservingly awarded the best actress and actor prizes.

‘Nader and Simin, a Separation’ begins with a middle-class couple discussing whether they should divorce with a judge: the wife would like to go abroad so that their daughter can grow up in a healthier environment, but the husband feels he must stay in Tehran to look after his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. A trial separation means he has to employ a woman to clean the apartment and keep an eye on his father – which results in a violent argument, a miscarriage and a messy court case.

Closer in theme to Farhadi’s ‘Fireworks Wednesday’ than to his better known, if disappointing, ‘About Elly’, the film again focuses on how our desire for stability often leads us into telling lies that betray and damage not only other people but also ourselves. In ‘Nader and Simin…’, no one’s entirely guilty or innocent; all parties act according to what they think are good motives, but pride, obstinacy, fear, patriarchal tradition, religious doctrine and the country’s laws work together to suck all the characters into a whirlpool of destructive behaviour. After a fairly tame first half-hour, the film turns into a gripping drama of increasing narrative and psychological complexity that also offers illuminating insights into issues of class, gender and the role played by Islamic law in today’s Iran.

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Béla Tarr’s fable-like Silver-Bear-winner ‘The Turin Horse’ could not be more different. According to an introductory voiceover, it is inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche stopping a Turin cab-driver from whipping his horse; having put an end to the cruelty, the writer returned home to his mother and sisters and spent the next ten years until his death in demented silence – whereas, we’re told, it’s not known what happened to the quadruped in question.

Whether the stark apocalyptic tale that follows this brief prologue is intended as a corrective to that uncertainty is unclear; the festival catalogue and some critics seem to believe the man and horse we first see returning to a remote farm on the Hungarian plains are those described by the narrator, though there’s no indication that the comments about Nietzsche have any link to the main narrative save that they point up the randomly chaotic, often bitterly cruel nature of existence.

The plot, such as it is, simply depicts six days in the life of the man – elderly, with one useless arm and, perhaps, one blind eye – and the grown daughter with whom he shares the cottage. They get up, get dressed, get water from the well, try to go to work – though the horse, ailing and refusing to eat, and an ever more violent gale prevent their doing so – eat (boiled potatoes only, using their fingers), stare out at the storm, and sleep. One day, a man visits to borrow brandy and speaks of the desolate prospects facing greedy, self-serving humanity; another day, a passing band of gypsies comes to the well but is driven away by the irate cottage-owner, leaving a religious tome for his daughter as recompense.

That’s it, in terms of story – except that by the fifth day it feels as if the wind will never drop and the wretched pair will never be able to leave their home. All this – which lasts two and half hours – is conveyed by around 30 long, elegant shots, beautifully lit and composed in monochrome by frequent Tarr collaborator Fred Kelemen; other regulars on board for what he has described as his last film include co-writer László Krasznahorkai (on whose novel Tarr’s masterpiece ‘Sátántangó’ was based), composer Mihá ly Vig (here contributing a dirge-like minimalist drone that matches the repetitively rhythmic raging of the tempest), and editor/co-director Ágnes Hranitsky.

The slow pace, the generally miserabilist mood, the sparse dialogue and the focus on mundane quotidian domestic ritual will not be to everyone’s taste, and at times the sheer single-mindedness of the film threatens to slide into something like self-parody. Yet somehow it weaves its hypnotic spell: so bold are both the conception and execution of Tarr’s darkly cinematic elegy that the final scenes are as sobering as anything in his – or indeed anyone else’s – body of work.

Next to this, ‘Sleeping Sickness’, which won Köhler the Best Director prize, inevitably felt a little lightweight, though its imaginative, tension-building use of totally unlit scenes was almost as effective as that in Tarr’s film. The study of a European doctor who’s been working and living in Africa for so long that he can’t bring himself to return home to live with his wife and daughter, the film feels rather like a ‘Heart of Darkness’ for our times. Though fundamentally modest in tone and ambition, with its excellent performances, fine camerawork and subtle, resonant script the film nevertheless stood head and shoulders above most of the other competion entries. Indeed, save for the aforementioned Bear-winners, the only other films I saw that came anything near it – ‘Karen Cries on the Bus’, by Colombia’s Gabriel Rojas Vera, and ‘Matchmaking Mayor’, by Czech documentarist Erika Hníková – both screened in the otherwise disappointing Forum selection.



Author: Geoff Andrew



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