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Festival Watch: Berlin International Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

A man wearing glasses gives a close-lipped smile while holding a gun to his temple, fromTerry Zwigoff's 'Crumb', about the iconoclastic underground cartoonist, screened in Berlin's Forum section. (Photo: Robert Crumb)

Documentaries at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, which was held February 9-20, were most in evidence at the International Forum of Young Cinema, headed by Ulrich Gregor, who is also co-director (with Moritz de Hadeln) of the entire festival. Another section, Panorama, headed by Wieland Speck, is always generous with time for documentaries, with special attention to low-budget iconoclastic swingers, god bless 'em. Berlin's video sidebar also included documentaries, notably those of activist Jon Alpert, who heads New York's Downtown Community Television.

Perhaps 200 international titles, some of them shorts, were visible in these and other events. In addition, the festival's Market, headed by Beki Probst, screened a whopping 446 titles (documentaries, fiction, and animation) of many nationalities, visible primarily to buyers, journalists, and programmers, in 15 luxurious screening rooms at the Cine Center, adjacent to phones, faxes, refreshments, and all conveniences to expedite the buying and selling of films. Within this huge Market arena, which provides significant income for the festival's budget and which represents the sine qua non of filmmaking—that is, producers must find screens and audiences and income—an important presence for American producers is American Independents at Festivals Abroad, which facilitates screenings, publicity, press conferences, contacts, and even social events for the Yankee producers. AIFA is a consortium of 59 member institutions that include the IDA, Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Center, Women Make Movies, UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the alphabet soup—AFI, AIVF, FAF, IFP.

World War II ended in 1945, a half­ century ago. Yet it did not end. In those 50 years, countless fiction and documentary films have explored aspects of the war, and filmmakers will continue to do so. Accordingly, the Berlin festival screened several dozen documentaries about aspects of the war, its Holocaust, and its aftermath. Among the most intriguing was The Jewess and the Captain (Germany), written and directed by Ulfvon Mechow. This 90-minute documen­tary seems too incredible even for fiction. Wehrmacht Captain Willi Schulz, Nazi Party member, assigned in 1941 to Minsk, there meets and loves the Jewish maiden Ilse Stein. Eventually Schulz resolves to escape. He, Ilse , her sisters, and 25 Jews all board a lorry and with false documents pass through Nazi checkpoints, eventually reaching safety. If it were a Schwarzenegger vehicle, would audiences believe such a yarn?

Another war-themed film, He Called Himself Hohenstein (Germany) by Hans­ Dieter Grabe, deals with a German who is appointed by the Nazi victors as mayor of a Polish city during 1940-42, during which time his diary betrays an increasing awareness of Nazi excesses. Awarding the film its Peace Prize, the Berlin jury cited it as "a complex picture of everyday fascism, a German official who be­lieves that by looking away and repressing, he can escape responsibility for certain atrocities."

The city of Stuttgart had many secret resistance fighters, including high governmental figures, laborers and unionists, leftists and moderates, many young people. Katrin Seybold documentary Courage Without Obeying Orders: Resistance and Persecution in Stuttgart1933-1945 recounts the stories of these courageous people who were among the first casualties of the war, their actions "kept secret by the Nazis," according to Seybold, "thanks to their enormous, efficient police force, torture, and the scaffold." Even today, points out Seybold, "there are very few films about resistance in Germany." Thus contemporary young Germans are denied a part of their histo­ry of which they can be proud.

Shoah was Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary on the Holocaust, nine hours primarily of talk, without stock footage or narration. Now Lanzmann returns with the five-hour Tsahal, the Hebrew name for the Israeli army. In a sense, the film is an extension of Shoah, in that the spirit of "Never again!" is the basis for the nation of Israel and for its army. In effect a series of interviews with Israeli warriors, Tsahal displays no maudlin sentimentality in the straight, casual manner of the soldiers talking: "This is my country, this is what I am trained to do, this is my tank, this is how I fought and will fight again."

Another documentarian known for his sometimes epic-length works centering around war, human suffering, and responsibility is Marcel Ophuls. His new four-hour film, The Troubles We've Seen, divides the world into "us" and "them," the "us" being the TV and radio journalists, the photographers and cinematographers who cover the war in Bosnia; the "them," the public watching the war on nightly news and reading about it in the daily papers. Dividing the news gatherers from the consumers is a complex media apparatus of electronic viscera, itself part of a sociopolitical environment.

Troubles is the culmination of the filmmaker's desire for more than a decade to examine all kinds of journalism and the manner of their control and manipulation of the public. Reporting on reporters, photographing photographers, Ophuls shot his this latest work during six visits to Sarajevo. Interlaced within his discourse are playful, sometimes bitterly ironic asides from fiction films, including fragments from Yankee Doodle Dandy, films by Howard Hawks and Leo McCarey, and even clips from a film made by his father, Marcel Ophuls, in the 1930s, From Mayerling to Sarajevo. Be­cause history is ongoing and endless, you need a reliable style to deal with it, especial­ly, Ophuls says, in an age of "TV rat­ings, consumerism, opinion polls, and the dictatorship of institutionalized mediocrity."

The portrait genre of documentary got a full workout at Berlin, with profile films of subjects ranging from famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (The Art of Remembrance by Johanna Heer and Werner Schmiedel, U.S.), Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara (Ernesto "Che" Guevara: The Bolivian Diary by Richard Dindo, Switzerland), and groundbreaking lesbian poet Audre Lorde (Michelle Parkerson and Ada Gay Griffin's A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, U.S.) to two elegant films on Japanese artists by Charlotte Zwerin, Isamu Noguchi: The Sculpture of Spaces (U.S. /Japan, codirected by Kenji Hayashi) and Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu (U.S.).

Of special interest to film aficionados were new portrait films by Jean-Luc Godard and Edgardo Cozarinsky. "What was Rembrandt looking for when he set up his easel next to the mirror? " won­ders Godard in his JLG/JLG (France /Switzerland). The great Nou­velle Vague director, who has worked with video since the 1970s, ponders ques­tions of art, meaning, and self-portraiture in JLG /JLG , which is not an autobiographical portrait; he muses, but does notconfess. Godard and two generations of French cineastes were educated in the darkness of the Cinematheque Francaise, Paris’ theater, archive, and museum. Their teacher was the late, legendary Henri Langlois, who provided and protected the premises. He was "the drag­on who watches over our treasures," said Jean Cocteau. Cozarinsky’s documentary Citizen Langlois (France) traces the career of this obsessed film archivist, so passionately devoted to the art and even the trash of cinema, notorious for his sloppy bookkeeping, justly accused of pilfering any film can not nailed down. Langlois’ religion was cinema history; his commandment was, ‘Even the least worthy film must be preserved’. Despite many adversities, Langlois changed the concept of a cinematheque and set a high standard, controversial but enduring.

Citizen Langlois garnered the FIPRESCI Award given by the International Film Critics Association, whose ten-member jury saluted the film as "a brilliant essay revealing a multifaceted grasp of a major pioneer for whom cinema was the ultimate nationality." Other documentaries earning awards included Deborah Hoffman's Oscar-nominated Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, which snagged both the Gay Teddy Bear for Best Documentary and the pres­tigious Caligari Film Prize of 2500 D.M. Finally, Michael Apted's Moving the Mountain, about the massacre at Tiananmen Square and the student dissidents who led it, was cited as best film within the Forum section by the Churches of the Ecumenical Jury, commending "its sensitive documentary strength ... [enabling] a worldwide audience to appreciate the context and the young leaders who embody qualities not only for China's future but for that of the world."

Gordon Hitchens is the founding editor of Film Comment magazine.