My watch stopped on my first day at the Berlinale. My first day of my first Berlinale. I was landing two days after the opening of the festival, and even though it lasts about ten days, that’s late by its standards. I got to Potsdamer Platz to pick up my badge just as a huge crowd had gathered around the Berlinale Palast to gape at the red carpet.
After I managed to make my way through the sea of people and get hold of the holy badge, I rushed to the ticket stand. First priority: Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, hoping to catch the last few screenings. “It’s all sold out, I’m afraid,” said the guy at the counter, looking genuinely sorry to see me so disappointed. Still, I ran to one of the screenings in case someone with a ticket decided not to turn up and I could get their seat. Too much naiveté. There were at least 20 people standing on the stairs of the cinema, holding placards, desperately seeking a ticket. And that was beside the huge line at the counter, which showed no signs of diminishing even five minutes before the screening. That’s it, the article I had dreamt of – comparing the films of two of the monstres sacrés of New German Cinema – had already gone down the drain (Wim Wenders’s Everything Will Be Fine was an official selection outside the competition and it is uncommon for both Herzog and Wenders to have their latest shown in the same festival).
Evening had fallen by that point, and everyone started thinking seriously about cocktails and parties. A lot, a whole lot of people from the cinema world roamed the streets around the Palast, both from the commercial and the independent side, although they admittedly seemed to be attending two different festivals. Friends from workshops, friends from university, “let’s go to the Polish party”, “nah, let’s go to the Finnish party”, could not hear me as I stuttered, “But I’ve no tickets for tomorrow, I don’t even know the schedule well, I’m totally out of the loop.”
It took me 24 hours to get to see something. Luckily, there was a press screening for Victoria, a German film in competition directed by Sebastian Schipper. The jury came in to watch the film with the press. As I saw Darren Aronofsky, Daniel Bruhl, Audrey Tatou and Matthew Weiner come in, serious yet cool, and sit down two rows ahead, I thought that it’s taken me 24 hours to get onto the Berlinale time zone, to feel that I’m in the right place at the right time, as dictated by her own rules.
Victoria itself creates a special conception of time. As I had only gotten to skim through the synopsis, I didn’t know much about the film other than that it’s about a Spanish girl, Victoria, who lives in Berlin and befriends a gang that pushes her to commit all sorts of illegalities. I had no idea that it was shot in one take (without the tricks of Birdman), and after the first 10 – 15 minutes I had already begun to feel my body tense up, starting to wonder when the first cut would come (it wouldn’t). Sebastian Schipper and the Danish DoP Sturla Brandth Grovlen portray a 20-something year old’s descent into chaos, a chaos that she actually craves for, in real time. She is a Conservatory drop-out who feels worthless and lonely, and the guys offer her the rush and feeling of connection she needs.
The beginning roots the characters into the reality of Berlin youths, seekers of nightlife and of someone on a similar wavelength. Having lived in Berlin for only three months, Victoria goes out clubbing on her own and meets a group of four guys that she joins for a nightcap. The handheld visual style is established right from the start, leading to an unsettling feeling of constant anticipation and tension.
However, the story truly takes an unexpected dark turn as Victoria’s new friends are forced to rob a bank in order to settle old scores with a figure of the Berlin underworld. The film takes on elements of a Bonnie and Clyde-style story, although the one take really creates a feeling of unpredictability that genre-movies have long forgotten about. I became conscious of the way in which the camera chose to focus on a certain character and action at a specific point in the story, at the expense of other concomitant actions and characters, steered the narrative and emotional development of the film (and its characters) in a particular direction.
Schipper confirmed that he had a 12-page script and that the rest was constructed together with the actors and their improvisations. They only shot three takes and used the last one. The film was shot practically in 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Not everyone was as enthused; I think some critics found the plot-development too difficult to buy into. The critic sitting next to me (who ironically enough resembled Tabitha from Birdman) huffed, puffed and shuffled her way through the film. It was the best one I was going to see in the next couple of days.
Terrence Malick’s new Tree of Life, namely Knight of Cups, is another piece that plays with time, in the already established style of the director. The film revolves around a Hollywood actor (Christian Bale) who battles his own desires and realises that their satisfaction only leads him into further inner emptiness. He spins around in circles, constantly starting over.
Malick creates a contrast between the subjective, inner landscape and the objective, exterior one. The former is conveyed by DoP Emmanuel Lubezki (another Birdman reference, as he was the film’s DoP) through sweeping shots and either extreme close-ups of faces or a wide-angle lens that distorts the film’s settings. Short takes and sudden cuts highlight temporal fragmentation and therefore narrative fragmentation. Each character is introduced through the well-known, husky voice-overs, via which s/he expounds her/his own inner battles and life philosophy.
Malick is to be commended for his persistence in subverting classic narratives, yet I am not sure that he has made me feel much through the alternative he proposes, which can test one’s patience. Plenty left the cinema or checked their phones during the press screening. Nonetheless, perhaps the Berlinale is not the right context in which to see a Malick film (from a spectatorial experiential point of view, not a marketing one); it is a space that is conducive towards ADHD-type behaviour, as many (including myself) seem distracted and agitated, perhaps out of sync with Malick’s temporality.
After watching the Malick, I couldn’t help but feel struck by the fact that two films with completely different budgets and modes of production have been put on the same level, through the mere fact that they are being offered equal amounts of importance and will be judged according to the same criteria.
I was slowly lured into this Berlinale temporality, one that initially created disorientation and anxiety, which would soon turn into order. An order that was such only within the Potsdamer Platz bubble. In the next few days I became completely oblivious to the Ukraine- Russia tensions reaching sky-high levels and other such non-trivial events. I guess being out-of-time with the quotidian and in-time with something totally un-quotidian is a pretty good exercise for the spirit.
Image sources [1 = personal archive], [2 = official Berlinale press pack],