Skip to main content

The 48th Annual Berlin lnternational Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

A black-and-yellow movie poster from Nettie Wild's A Place Called Chiapas.

Approaching the completion of its first half-century, the Internationale Filrnfestspiele Berlin is bigger, better than ever, despite its imperiled financial base and the trauma of uprooting itself in just two years from its familiar digs in the Kurfurstendamm area, the sprawling entertainment/culture center of West Berlin. At the millennium, the Berlin festival will take up new facilities within Potsdamer Platz, now undergoing what is proclaimed as the greatest construction project in world history, on land obliterated by both wartime bombing and that long encircling empty ribbon where once stood the infamous Berlin Wall.

This year's festival (February 11-22) coincided with the European Film Market, where 1,200 registered producers/vendors crowded the 20 small, comfortably-appointed private screening-rooms, to see the 360 titles from many nations. In addition to its 20 screens, EFM housed 51 display-booths, presenting literature and cassettes and agents of 100 companies from around the world .

While we're doing numbers, let's note that the glamorous competition ("Information") had 28 titles, including 7 Hollywood mainstreamers; "Panorama" had 23 features, plus shorts; the "International Forum of New Cinema" had 59 features, some featurettes, 10 video titles, plus New German Cinema, about 15 titles. Panorama and the Forum together provided 40-50 interesting documentaries, of which this report is limited to a mere sampling. (We won't even attempt to review the "Kinderfilmfest," annual Mecca for several thousand screaming Berlin children.)

First, some documentaries about films and filmmakers. See if you can figure who's talking here: "But what I really consider interesting and remarkable is the fact that film has preserved its original form, the invention works just the same way as it did a hundred years ago. It's more sophisticated , things have been added to it but really, it's this remarkable thing-well, yes, the mystery which I always feel is magic." The Voice of Bergman by Gunnar Bergdahl, Sweden , is a monologue by the eminent scholar-authority of Swedish silent film, Ingmar Bergman , who also wrote and directed a few films of his own, with a distinguished career in theater. Bergdahl cut his own questions to increase the impact of the distilled, concentrated Bergman, in this, his first interview in a decade. Like him, Bergdahl is generous with intensive close-ups of the man, with no music and no excerpts from his many famous films. Bergdahl made the film for fun, without commercial motive—it is seen at festivals only.

Three films pay tribute to Sergei Eisenstein on this 100th anniversary of his birth. Naum Kleemann, Marianna Kirejewa and Alexander Isken produced Eisenstein, The Master's House, Germany/Russia. Working chronologically, it portrays the visual and intellectual world of the visionary Soviet master, tracing his career, exploring the wide-ranging sources for his inspiration, using excerpts from his work, stock footage and stills. The Different Faces of Eisenstein, by Oksana Bulgakowa and Dietmar Hochmuth, Germany, departs from orthodox Eisenstein portraits and uses new materials to fashion a new image. Re-examining Eisenstein per the Faustian pact-with-the-devil cliche—he's also been called the Leonardo da Vinci of our time—the filmmakers find Eisenstein to be clear and whole, yet fragmented; both a cynic and a vulnerable, sensitive being; both generous and stingy; an outgoing cosmopolite, yet a hermit. Above all, he was a great troubled artist, a keen analyst of his own work and that of others, aware through self-study of his own unconscious. The third film is Sergei Eisenstein, Mexican Fantasy, by Oleg Kowalov, Russia . It concentrates on Eisenstein's aborted, mutilated Mexican epic, intended to trace history from idyllic pre-Columbus time, through the Conquest of Mexico by Cortez, imposing Catholicism and the ruthless Spanish crown, to the revolutionary overthrow of the rule of Maximillian's corrupt monarchy, to the present, which was 1930 when Eisenstein began shooting. Resembling more a poem than a conventional movie, the rushes horrified producers and the film was mutilated by their hands. Surviving film-fragments later emerged—Time in the Sun and Que Viva Mexico. The Kowalov film reconstructs this artistic tragedy and the original intentions of Eisenstein, an investigation into the incomplete project, a search for the lost Atlantis. It reveals the profound humanism of the great director, "his thoughts on life and death, memory and beauty, and the divine cosmos in which humankind lives, loves and suffers."

This is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bertolt Brecht, primarily a man of anti-authoritarian and pro-Marxist political protest in poetry and theater, only secondarily in cinema. Bertolt Brecht—Love, Revolution and Other Dangerous Things, by Jutta Bruckner, Germany, is a follow-up to her Do You Love Brecht? of 1993. Brecht, whom we remember today for his Mother Courage, Galileo, Der Dreigroschenoper, and his brief appearance before HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, during the Hollywood Blacklist, was also a non-stop philanderer whose love-quarrels become dramatized re-enactments here. Settling in the German Democratic Republic, after fleeing HUAC, he became apologist for the regime, while also declaring (hypo- critically?), "Change the world, it needs it!" Director Bruckner studied history and philosophy in Berlin and Paris, got her Ph.D. in 1973. She wrote scripts, radio plays, essays in film theory, film reviews, and made her first film in 1975. Since 1985, she has been a film professor at the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin.

Obituary, Muséum Henri Langlois, Cinematheque Française (July 8, 1997) by Jean Rouch, France, is Rouch's "inspired stroll" through the famous Paris archive/museum, shot in one afternoon, a stroll with his voice-over, a witty yet serious appreciation of the museum and its namesake. The late Langlois was founder/curator/benign presence/factotum of these premises for decades. Shot in five 10-min. bursts, the film provides a chronological history of cinema as conceived by Langlois thirty years ago. Shortly after Rouch's stroll, the museum was completely destroyed by fire at the Palais de Chaillot. Rouch, educated in anthropology, has produced 150 anthropological documentaries, principally in Africa but also in France, along with one about Margaret Mead shot in the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City. Rouch works mainly in cinéma vérité, favoring relationships between peoples of various races and cultures.

HHH: Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien by Oliver Assayas, Taiwan/France, is a career-portrait of the renowned Taiwanese filmmaker, little known in the U.S. Indeed, he was little known in Europe until French critics praised his work and until an appreciation by Assayas appeared in Cahiers du cinema in 1984. Hou Hsiao-Hsien thus was invited to the Festival de Trois Continents in Nantes, 1985; his Boys from Feng Kuai won the grand prize. Since then, his films have earned him an international reputation. HHH discusses his work, his environment; he analyzes film clips and accepts gracefully the presence of Assayas and his crew within his daily routine—a relaxed, charming, politically astute gentleman.

Pyongyang Diaries, Australia, is by Solrun Hoaas, director-writer-cameraperson of this rare glimpse inside North Korea, including its cinema. She was there in 1994, for the Fourth Pyongyang Film Festival, three months after the death of demi-god Kim II Sung. She returned in 1996, again for the festival; the devastating floods had occurred in the previous two years. She finds the capital filled with showcase monuments and bombastic images of progress. She uses conversations, diary observations and ironic visuals of this unreal, grossly idealized closed society. Slogans abound, inculcating unity, pride, an illusory self-sufficiency, resistance to sinister alien attempts to dislodge the regime. Interviewing drama and cinema students and actors, the film finds evasions and contradictions, and some deadpan irony.

Solrun Hoaas was born in Norway in 1943, spent 14 years in Japan as a child and young adult, studied languages and theatre in Kyoto University, graduated in Arts and Anthropology from Oslo University, then to Australia for an M.A. in Asian Studies. Shooting in Super 8 and l16mm, she made four films in Okinawa. In addition, she produced a documentary, Green Tea and Cherry Ripe, and her feature Aya.

Hollywoodism by Simcha Jacobovici, Canada, was discussed in these pages (May 1998) in reviewing the Jewish Film Festival in New York. It created great interest in Berlin, particularly for its background on Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, who came to the U.S. and founded the Hollywood studios; also for its details regarding the Hollywood Blacklist.

Memories of World War II persist, both off-screen and in the movies here. Although the war ended 54 years ago, documentaries with new wartime revelations continue to appear, and Berlin programs them. The very recent revelations of suppressed secret information about Nazi collaboration with Swiss banks demand a strong dose of revisionism—until these crimes were revealed, Switzerland was esteemed for its peace and democracy, quaint mountain villages, those blond maidens wearing colorful aprons, cheese with holes in it. Blood Money: Switzerland's Nazi Gold (Stephen Crisman, U.S.) demolishes that charming fable of the benign Switzerland during the war, eager to provide a haven for refugees, a strictly neutral nation, clean of war profiteering.

"I want the truth. I want to know what happened. I cannot think of the fact that maybe a Swiss bank is wallowing in wealth because it was based on money stolen from Jews and put there by the SS," declares Edgar Bronfman, President of the World Jewish Congress, in the film. "So, it's not just the money that I'm concerned with. It's justice. What the hell right has anybody to make money off carcasses?"

Blood Money reveals how Switzerland prolonged the war by laundering Nazi loot, worth billions of dollars, from the subjugated peoples of Nazi-occupied Europe, especially Jews, most of whom died in Nazi death camps. The Nazis expected to win the war, with no surviving hostile witnesses to its crimes. Switzerland threw in its lot with the Nazis and served as Hitler's banker. But Switzerland miscalculated, as the Nazis lost the war, thus the Swiss made haste to obliterate the records of its wrongdoing. But some records survived, the secrets emerged, investigations and litigations began, and Blood Money traces that long, complicated history.

Milice, from France, concerns the World War II militia force of 40,000 Frenchman, recruited by the Vichy puppet regime, serving the Nazi occupation machine. Directed by Alain Ferrari, the film more than touches a sensitive nerve in France where wartime collaborations were commonplace. The "milice" or militia in France assisted with the round-up and forced transport of thousands of Jews, headed east to the gas chambers. Also, the milice battled the Resistance, the underground warriors against the Occupation. And the milice patrolled and controlled the towns and cities of the Vichy area, perhaps 40% of France, to suppress protests among the population in general. These men were volunteers and reflected the fascist mentality of many French citizens, including prominent figures in governrnent, the economic community and the arts. As the war ended, the milice were doomed. Many escaped abroad; many surrendered, were tried and imprisoned; some fought to the last beside their German masters.

The Big One by Michael Moore, U.S., himself a big one, is a Dog Eat Dog Production and explores another aspect of his Roger and Me hit of recent vintage. That aspect is the carnage wrought on the American working class by heartless corporations , down-sizing wantonly and/or transferring their operations to Mexico for its cheap non-union labor force. Moore uses humor wickedly to ridicule the sanctimonious self-exculpations of corporation bigwigs whom he buttonholes. His genuine passion for the American proletariat is total.

A Letter Without Words, U.S., is a debut film , produced-written-directed-photographed-edited by Lisa Lewenz. The film is credited as a collaboration between Lisa and her grandmother, Ella Arnhold Lewenz (1883-1954), because Ella's home movies as record of Germany, both before and during the Nazi reign, make up much of this valuable documentary.

Lisa Lewenz, born months after the death of her grandmother, was an adult when she discovered dozens of reels of rare 16mm color film, shot by her grandmother decades earlier. Much of the footage is of their large, prosperous and Ella Arnold Lewe, and Lisa Lewen cultured Jewish family in Germany durings the 1920s and '30s, including footage shot during a visit to Palestine, and after 1933, when the Nazis came into power and when private independent movie cameras became verboten. In addition to family scenes, Ella had shot the many prominent guests, including film actress Brigitte Helm, writer Gerhard Hauptmann, and Albert Einstein; also, she shot Nazi extravaganzas and scenes of diplomats coming and going as war tensions brewed. With Kristallnacht in 1939, Ella brought her camera and films with her as she and other Jews fled Germany via Britain to the U.S. A redoubtable cinematographer to the end, Ella continued to shoot within the U.S. into the 1950s.

The treasure of movie reels acts as a letter from grandmother Ella to grandaughter Lisa, a letter without words. Discovery of the films also meant Lisa's recovery of her Jewish heritage: until then , the Americanized family had been Episcopalian, in an effort to forget the anti-Semitism of Germany . Determined to explore the suppressed past, Lisa went several times to Germany, feeling that she might touch the dead grandmother she never knew. She retraced Ella's footsteps where possible, using the old footage as a guide and often shooting the same scene from the same angle.

A Place Called Chiapas, by Nettie Wild, Canada, derives from her eight months among the Zapatista guerrillas of resurgent Chiapas, in Mexico. Well-armed paramilitary death squads routinely strike suddenly and kill indiscriminately, even threatening Wild's film crew. The struggle there is both historical and contemporary, a seemingly endless struggle, rarely documented from the inside. Producer-director Wild has made feature-length documentaries, including one on the struggle to restore democracy to post-Marcos Philippines. She is with the CBC-Vancouver.

In South Korea, 1948, as South warred with North, and as Syngman Rheeseized power in Seoul, a popular protest against dividing the nation took place on Cheju Island, in the South. With assistance from U.S. forces, Rhee sent troops into action. 86,000 people were slain. Now, a half century later, Cho Sung-Bong has created Red Hunt from rare footage and testimony of survivors. The film is denied general public screenings but is visible among cine-clubs, civil rights groups, and at South Korea's Pusan Festival.

A kind of personal history documentary of the recent past, is Good Guys and Bad Guys, U.S., by Rick Minnich, a long-time resident in East Europe and a recent graduate of the Hochschule fur Filmund Fernsehen "Konrad Wolf', the elite film/television academy of the former German Democratic Republic, in Potsdam.

There weren't many good guys in Minnich's high school back home in suburban Los Angeles, but—there were plenty of bad guys. Now Minnich returns with his camera to settle old scores. Those "good guys" will hang themselves on strips of celluloid, in their own words. Not so much "good" as simply "boring," "fatuous" and... well , Republican: four ex­ highschoolers are singled out for the treatment. One of these is a self-satisfied go-getter behind a big desk, expansively giving of his time unto Minnich, bragging and generously postponing his golf game. He recollects those high school years of a decade ago, and his year in Washington, D.C., as an intern to President Reagan. Framed photos of him, the Prexy and the First Lady adorn his desk. He can joke about the good guys, because he was one, not a bad guy like Minnich, who he used to call a "pinko commie fag." The film has played around in Europe, went to the Denver Festival, even to the Documentary Festival in Bombay. It's a fine debut film for Rick Minnich, who by the way, seems like an authentic good guy.

Two documentaries to mention here are emblematic of the many films at Berlin wherein sex is the central force or presence. War Zone, by Maggie Hadleigh-West, and "presented by Susan Sarandon," is about those smart-ass male chauvinists who hassle Zone women on the streets—"Hey, nice ass, baby!"—they're often more explicit, but you get the point. Hadleigh-West calls it "street abuse." Why do these jerks demean themselves like this, in their attempt to attract attention? Hadleigh-West takes up her camera to find out. She shoots, or another person does, as she walks along, is occasionally accosted, the camera recording the remarks of the man, but then she pauses, turns and confronts him: Why the insult posing as a compliment? What's your point? What do you imagine a woman feels­ flattered? turned on? disgusted? Usually the man becomes flustered, ashamed and seeks to back away with a face-saving, "Just joking." But others become angry and lash out with venom, even assaultive. Dangerous filmmaking, especially when working alone, using a small hand-held camera. One big guy was positively frightening; elsewhere, she captured an eerie scene as she tracked beside and behind a middle-aged man stalking a 12-year old Black girl.

The Brandon Teena Story is a strange case about homicide, stranger still for having occurred in a tranquil small farm town in Nebraska. Brandon Teena, age 20, arrived in town and shortly made some friends, attracted by Brandon's good looks, boyish charm. The guys took to Brandon, also the women-in fact, Brandon was soon involved in a love affair or two. The women agreed that Brandon was a good kisser, gentle, treated them with respect. But then Brandon Teena made a mistake, a minor one involving a forged check for a small amount. In police custody, the truth came out: Brandon Teena was actually Teena Brandon, a female. Released, Teena faced hostile townspeople, except for several loyal women. But two young men who had liked the "male" Brandon and had shared drinks with him, felt betrayed, in a deep rage, perhaps mixed with forbidden excitement about transsexuals. They found Brandon and brutally beat her and raped her. Brandon took refuge with a farm family but filed charges of assault and rape against the two young men. They in turn showed up at the farm and murdered her, two others also, leaving only a small baby alive. After a time, the killers were discovered and charged. The film recounts the crime, using police reports, TV news footage, the testimony of those close to the crime, court records, and filmed statements by the two killers, who turn against each other and are convicted. Meanwhile, the towns­ people have time to reflect: for some their reflections point to Brandon as the culprit, for having been some kinda weird sorta deviating sexual prevert like that there.

Filmmakers Greta Olafsdottir and Susan Muska came to Berlin with The Brandon Teena Story to receive enthusiastic praise from audiences and a festival prize, the Teddy for Best Documentary /Gay and Lesbian First Prize, with a jury of festival directors from a dozen gay film festivals worldwide.

Of course, the films mentioned here are but a sampling of the many excellent documentaries within the Forum and Panorama sections of the Berlin Festival. It's an ideal venue for producers seeking to showcase their new films, with at least three screenings within five days, in three theatres, and with three Q-and-A sessions to confront—and be confronted by—their audiences.

GORDON HITCHENS was founding editor for Film Comments first seven years. He reviewed more than 200 films as a stringer for Variety. Formerly on the faculty at C.W Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant to many film festivals throughout the world, including Berlin and Yamagata. He is Contributing Editor of International Documentary.