Berlin was particularly icy this February; even discounting the gusts of wind that howled across Potsdamer Platz in the evenings, temperatures dropped below -20 °C. The extreme weather provided an appropriate counterpart to the peculiar political climate, which ran the gamut of the good, bad and ugly: daily news of the booming, record-defying German economy; apocalyptic reports on the financial health of Greece and Portugal (and thus the whole of Europe) and the resignation of the Federal President, who bowed out on 17 February after a series of increasingly absurd political affairs. It was perhaps this last topic of interest that most closely mirrored the broad theme of the 42nd annual International Forum of New Cinema. Above all, the program engaged cultural explorations of closure: disintegration, destruction and departure.

Few would have predicted last year that Christian Wulff would leave office during the festival. Indeed, it’s an annual truism that the Berlinale program reflects the hot political issues from eight months ago. Perhaps no event dominated the news cycle as much as the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and the resulting meltdown at Fukushima; the Forum exhibited no less than three attempts to understand the tragedy in documentary form, two of which I was able to see.

In friends after 3.11, Shunji Iwai, the feature filmmaker of Love Letter (1995) and Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), takes a “We are the World” celebrity approach. Punctuated by pop songs and pathos, the concept revolves around interviews with nuclear engineers, professors, journalist, activists and, more troublingly, actors, filmmakers and social media starlets with whom the director is acquainted. These episodes should surely be distinguished; many are earnest and revealing. Nevertheless, the conversations with Iwai’s “friends” from the world of pop culture are terribly self-referential. An actor harps upon the career risks he is taking by speaking out against the corruption and secrecy of the government and energy companies; a young celebrity blogger who saunters, weeping, through the ruins in the Tohuku region in a school-girl sailor skirt must surely seem, in any culture, to be an interlocutor of poor taste. At one point, the proceedings take an unexplained detour to Malaysian director Tan Chui Mui, who expounds upon the high Japanese suicide rate. One of the more disturbing aspects is Iwai’s participation and especially his unexpurgated tick in interviews to mutter the Japanese equivalent of “uh-huh”; repeated (by my rough count) 8,000 times over the course of the two hour running time, it makes for painful viewing. In addition, friends after 3.11 has difficulties in achieving an appropriate tempo. Many areas, in particular the interviews, could have been much more tightly edited; other sections move much too quickly and betray Iwai’s background in pop music videos, surely an unwelcome aesthetic given the subject matter. Associative, self-indulgent and ultimately uncompelling, this treatment of the recent Japanese catastrophe reveals the pollution of the word “friends” in the age of Facebook.

If Iwai’s project glosses the tragedy via society’s crème de la crème – politicians, artists, academics, celebrities – Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Land engages with the local victims of the tragedy and, more broadly, poses meta-questions about our fascination with images of destruction. The essay film begins with a stunning pan across wreckage, a shot that – despite the visual overload of broken material objects – is especially fascinating for what it potentially fails to disclose. Are there dead bodies under the rubble? What has become of the community that populated this once vibrant area? Many images were shot by an unprotected cameraman 40 days after the tsunami; this alien landscape bears the rubble of civilisation, but only few traces of humanity: the police in white uniforms, the so-called “ghosts”. Stylistically, Fujiwara’s effort delivers a thoughtful, undistracting variety that pushes forward the inquiry. The camera work accommodates stationary shots, material captured from a moving car and the handheld. The audio and sound/image relations are even more engaging. Armenian-Canadian Arsinée Khanjian’s sympathetic voiceover narrator comments self-reflectively, not self-servingly; occasionally, the sound cuts out only to return with a bang. Spontaneous interviews with victims prove, in contrast to friends after 3.11, a real strength. Whether workers involved in the reconstruction or homeowners inspecting the remains of their properties, Fujiwara approaches his human subjects with sensitivity and restraint. No Man’s Land proves a moral but never moralistic contribution to one of the worst disasters of recent memory.

Other notable documentaries deserve at least passing mention. Revision tells the story of Romanian immigrants who perished under suspicious circumstances on the German-Polish border in 1992. Officially, Grigore Velcu and Eudache Calderar were the victims of a hunting accident; filmmaker Philip Scheffner conducts an investigation that contradicts the original findings and exposes a widespread, albeit “passive” xenophobia in the German legal system. Part mystery, part political thriller and part self-reflexive experiment, Revision uses a series of competing, kaleidoscopic perspectives (including the family of the murdered men) and contexts (contemporary racist violence in eastern Germany) to pursue posthumous justice.

In contrast, All Divided Selves interrogates the “stranger within” via the Glasgow-born psychiatrist Dr Laing, whose late 1960s’ writings suggested that schizophrenics are in fact “hypersane”. Through a kinetic montage of archive footage and a fidgety camera, director Luke Fowler both simulates the experience of mental illness and provides a flavour of the period. His project provocatively contextualises the personal tribulations of Laing with broader institutional questions and the social and cultural currents of the day.

Not all of the documentaries engaged the exceptional; What Is Love exposes quotidian or “normal” relationships and how they end. A woman jogging, eating alone, removing make-up, sleeping, seeing patients, listening to winding Sunday dinner conversations: these are all scenes that are normally cut out of narrative cinema. Ruth Mader’s follow-up to Struggle (2003) provides a peek into the editing room floor, with surprising results. Telegraphing how love gets bogged down in details, plans, responsibilities and routines in five fifteen-minute case studies (an optometrist, a financial advisor, a priest, a factory worker, a devout homemaker) with a host of artificial or recreated sequences, this is one of those documentaries born from a concept, rather than a compelling subject, a current event or a pressing issue. In this way it contains its own interpretation, which must be more or less rejected or accepted. It is, in essence, assembly-line filmmaking: in strict framings and with an icy distance, Mader systematically presents her subjects’ work, home, family, chores, transportation, leisure activities and environment. Ironically, the film’s strength lies not in its rigour – the carefully planned recreations – but rather in the spontaneity that seeps in despite the rigid program. The best bits are the longer conversations between partners, those unrehearsed moments when partners symptomatically narrate their endangered, collapsing relationship in colourful dialect; episodes such as the one with a vicar whose nearly extinct parish must market itself with “love letters from Jesus” are the most satisfying and telling. Although the stated and apparent aim is to illustrate the “normalcy” of atomised, individual lives, What Is Love also functions as a perceptive sociology of contemporary Austria.

The Forum’s feature films were no less interested than the documentaries in cultural exploration. Going on holiday has been a major trope in German cultural production since Goethe. The experience of encountering foreign territory, besides its importance as the major leisure activity in the form of Easyjet and Ballermann, provides a convenient dramatic device for authors and filmmakers: the conceit allows characters to reveal their traits by responding to new stimuli. It’s a motto of pop psychology, if not a fact, that despite ideals to spend more time with each other in a relaxing setting, couples frequently break up on or after holidays. In this vein, relationship dramas involving holidays have proliferated in recent years: think of Maren Ade’s surprise success Alle Anderen (Everyone Else, 2009) or Thomas Arslan’s Ferien (Vacation, 2009). Ann-Kristin Reyels’ Formentera very much picks up on the dynamics and scenery of the former work, unravelling the marriage troubles experienced by a Berlin-based couple on their first post-baby vacation. Ben, a boyish, blonde Dane, takes his stressed wife Nina to a close-knit hippie compound on the eponymous Spanish island. The hosts, whose relationship to Ben is initially unclear and remains vague throughout, are middle-aged free spirits, even if their idyll is not spared a good dose of irony: their common bank account may not be distributed equally (“In the end, if it doesn’t work out mathematically, then cosmically”) and the French-German couple Pablo and Mara’s son, Yoko, is “raised by everyone”, which in fact means no one. Much of the initial action aligns Ben and Nina’s touristic perspective with our own: long walks and Vespa rides through forests and deserts and trips to multi-coloured markets, captured in sensuous, tactile cinematography. There’s lots of brooding and worries about the baby, who is left behind in Germany with Nina’s mother, and the revelation that Ben is considering moving the family to the island in order to found a solar energy business. By this point the script is ticking boxes from a screenwriting primer and much of the spectator’s work consists in figuring out the characters’ opaque constellations and past traumas (such as Ben’s fear of water), underlying tensions and ennui. A long second act involving Nina’s anxiety about Ben and Mara flirting climaxes in the disappearance of the latter that too strongly recalls L’avventura (1960). A not unpromising effort with solid atmospherics, Formentera suffers in comparison to Ade and Arslan and also Joanna Hogg’s recent work. In the end, this is a story about the whingeing, unlikeable middle class whose “insecurities” revolve around whether to stay in Berlin with their well-paid jobs or move to a paradise with solid work prospects, and whose “problems” amount to having to care for one child.

The various meanings of “Avalon” – the mystical island of Arthurian legend, a 1982 Roxy Music hit about the end of a party and the name of countless discotheques – are resurrected in Axel Petersén’s claustrophobic milieu study of the same name. In the posh summer Swedish resort town Båstad, Janne, an aging jack-of-all-trades with a dodgy past in art sales, real estate and bonhomie, is opening yet another nightclub. Although the narrative moves quickly, unburdened with background detail, whispers of a recent house arrest and the wonderfully hardened, nicotine-stained faces and hoarse voices of Janne (Johannes Brost) and his sister Jackie (Léonore Ekstrand) betray years of the protagonists’ excess. Pushing retirement age, they prowl the middle-class milieu of golf courses, tennis tournaments, convertible cars, cocaine and alcohol as leftovers of the carefree 1980s. The major complicating incident – Janne’s role in the accidental death of his business partner’s Lithuanian builder – is less important than the uniform, unquestioning reaction that the body should be disposed without informing the authorities. Thereafter the proceedings alternate between the preparations for the club’s opening night and the criminal subplot: the Lithuanian’s girlfriend becomes suspicious and Janne becomes increasingly dependent on the local crime syndicate. The handheld, post-Dogme95 style amplifies an increasing sense of tension and foreboding; Cassavetes is a clear reference point for the strange atmosphere and unmotivated hysterics. The dénouement, which portrays an orgiastic opening night, witnesses Janne’s transformation into a drugged-out Aguirre, determined in his mission to keep the party going at any cost, and descends into the protagonist’s unexplained robbery of his own club and an early-morning boat ride. Is this bizarrely utopian ending a gesture toward a mythical destination, an escape from the law or the mafia or even the debilitating process of aging? Avalon, an intriguing if not fully fleshed-out conundrum, withholds any certain answer.

Sacha Polak’s debut feature, Hemel, begins with a sex act that first registers as a naked rendezvous between long-term lovers until it is revealed as an anonymous one night stand. This initial episode anticipates the major theme: how love, sex, desire and power become slippery terms, relative values under constant negotiation. The title character, whose name means “heaven”, initiates a series of torrid affairs. She wants a lover to leave immediately after sex; like “lions and real men”, she likes to fall asleep without post-coital caresses. (Both in body type and attitude, the troubled, androgynous waif [played by Hannah Hoekstra] recalls Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter [Il portiere di notte, 1974].) This cycle repeats with increasingly aggressive partners, choking, rough sex and perhaps rape. Enter Hemel’s father, Gijs, a Clooneyesque salt-and-pepper art dealer and musician. Although in many ways enjoying la bella vita of another generation, Gijs – unlike Janne in Avalon – comes off quite cool, cavorting with women who are contemporaries of his daughter. Indeed, his connection to Hemel defies the exclusively paternal. As she breaks up with his girlfriend for him or when they go on holiday to Spain together, their Oedipal relationship shifts between lovers, adult friends and a pre-adolescent father-daughter bond (she is jealous of his girlfriend; he helps her pee when she is too tired to get out of bed). This relationship comes up for further scrutiny when a key fact about the death of Hemel’s mother is disclosed, a revelation that complicates her desire to break out of generational cycles and defy the genetic blueprint of her parents. One of the strongest displays in this year’s Forum, Hemel bodes well for Polak’s future work and represents a sign of life for Dutch cinema.

A more amusing but less successful exploration of sexuality came in the Japanese contribution, The End of Puberty. Schoolgirl Tsubara harbours a crush on her nerdy biology teacher Madoka, an obsession she records in a series of fanciful and explicit notebook drawings. One day she follows through on her fantasy and seduces Madoka; their romp inexplicably causes them to exchange their genitals. Young director Shoko Kimura’s direction delivers a magical realism in the visuals and sound; Tsubara eats vitamins rather than food (a nod to Tamagotchi logic or the video game Dr Mario Rx?) and there is a suggested, if ultimately inconsistent late 1980s’ Nintendo tone. I wanted to like this film and wished it to be another glorious find in the vein of Sion Sono’s epic, weird Love Exposure (2008). Ultimately, however, it proves both over- and underdeveloped; there is too much repetition of information and not enough motivation to care. After the initial switch (roughly ten minutes into the proceedings), the next 100 minutes consist of the biology teacher moaning that they need to switch back: this state of mind needed to be sharply, but succinctly communicated so that the narrative could go somewhere. (A useful contrast would be with a Trading Places [1983], Freaky Friday [1976, 2003] plot, in which the comedy derives from the characters’ experiential encounters as the Other.) Instead, the story runs a treadmill of erection humour and a bizarre, unbelievable love quadrangle between the two central figures and two of Tsubara’s classmates. This gender-bending parable of unrequited love would be well served to lose a half hour and sharpen its moral.

Finally, two features from the near and middle east can be classified as interesting and potentially promising, if ultimately flawed. The first, Tepenin Ardı (Beyond the Hill), explores the dynamics of (especially male) camaraderie, family and community in rural western Turkey. Much of the action revolves around conversations and the “manly education” of fishing, hunting and cooking. Proceeding at a tempo antithetical to city life, the film presents the environment as a major determinant; there’s some of The Thin Red Line (1998) in the overwhelming, breathing nature as well as in the creeping paranoia which afflicts the characters. Oscillating between paranoid psychodrama and black comedy and an aesthetic palette that includes liberal use of POVs and a poetic realism, Tepenin Ardı functions as a mood piece, a vague rumination on human nature and perhaps a commentary on city-country tensions in resurgent Turkey. Nevertheless, despite lots of marketing muscle and good reviews from colleagues, to my mind it was overhyped and underwhelming. I was more convinced by the sly, unpretentious, Jordanian slow-burner, The Last Friday. Although the narrative hinges on the protagonist’s decision to have surgery to remove a tumour from his testicle or spend the money on his son, the viewing pleasure derives from elsewhere. Youssef, a stoic, hard-luck taxi driver (played by the magnificent Ali Suliman), listens, observes and, when necessary, flirts and fast-talks his way towards the money he needs. Director Yahya Alabdallah’s reticent cinema chronicles an Amman of scoundrels and nouveaux riche with a hint of Roy Andersson’s absurd tableaux and long takes, but also a fundamental belief in humanity. Contemplating autumnal states and bitter endings, this year’s Forum in general anticipates fresh beginnings and provides the seeds of a potentially rich world arthouse cinema.

The International Forum of New Cinema
Berlin International Film Festival
9-19 February 2012
website: http://www.berlinale.de/en/HomePage.html

About The Author

Mattias Frey is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Kent, UK. His film reviews and scholarly articles have appeared in various books and reference works as well as in Cinema Journal, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Framework, Film International and the Boston Phoenix. His book on post-1990 German film, Goodbye, Hitler: Postwall German Cinema and History, is forthcoming with Berghahn Books.