by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Berlin Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 1: First Cow, Red Moon Tide, Anne at 13,000 Ft.

February 25, 2020

Our first dispatch from the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival takes on a diverse mix of 2019 festival circuit frequenters and a pool of debuting international fare, including: Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow; Lois Patiño’s sophomore effort, Red Moon Tide; Guy Maddin look-alike (courtesy of fellow Winnipeg native Matthew Rankin) The Twentieth Century; and Alexander Kluge’s latest, Orphea; among others.

First Cow is a film of beginnings and endings (and thusly also of returns). Kelly Reichardt‘s second period film marks the return of the 4:3 aspect ratio, once again opening a dialogue with silent cinema to invoke a style of photography long since departed from mainstream cinematic productions. It’s a film of densely textured images, of moss-covered trees and thickets that steep this 19th century portrait of Oregon in vegetation, in untamed land apathetic to the plight of every man and woman that suffuse the frontier. Loosely based on the novel The Half-Life by frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, the story follows the friendship of Cookie, an innocuous man hired as a cook for a group of trappers, and King Lu, a Chinese immigrant found hiding in the undergrowth from a band of hostile Russians. After Cookie secures his new friend’s escape, the two men meet again in a nearby town and establish a business selling fried biscuits, ‘oil cakes’, the primary ingredient of which they procure from the property of a wealthy English landowner – a cow, the first to arrive in the area. Thematically, this could be considered familiar ground for Reichardt, yet here we can see the opening up of her minimalist style to allow it to bespeak wider historical processes that push forward in spite of individuals desperate for a piece of the pie. The film’s beginning is instrumental in this, serving as both a prologue and epilogue, in addition to acting as a conjunction of capitalism’s vector within Oregon Territory and the fate of her two protagonists. But where this really excels can be seen in the endearing instances of domesticity where Cookie and King Lu take lodgings together and form a bond that contrasts strikingly with the mercurial attitude of the boorish fur trappers; indeed, it comes as no surprise that the masculinity of the latter men is something represented as ultimately self-destructive and segregated from the ability to communicate – so vital to success. Considering the quite blunt inference of the prologue, success is not something the audience will necessarily expect of their protagonists; thus, as the narrative enfolds, it becomes clear that the conflicts which comprise the film are only of importance inasmuch as they’re the driving forces which remind Cookie and King Lu of the exigencies of life so that finally they may return to the earth, together. Sam Redfern

Anne at 13,000 Ft. only occasionally utilizes medium shots, and nothing wide, so committed is it to staying close to its titular subject, to actualizing the suffocating feel of her existence. Anne’s (Deragh Campbell) presence vacillates between lax and unhinged, with a kind of frenzy always apparent beneath the surface. Sometimes, this is played endearingly, all pranks and eccentricity, in a way that evinces a puckish quality — that transforms Anne’s nonconformist energy into a grounded realization of a manic pixie dream girl (sans dream). At other times, Anne’s actions are discomfiting, and often attributed, by herself, to a miscommunication or stick-up-the-butt unreceptiveness to her own self-perceived charms. What Anne at 13,000 Ft. is ultimately up to, then, remains appealingly vague, sometimes suggesting an lack of preparation for both the idleness and anxiety of adulthood, sometimes a more nefarious psychological disturbance. Rules constantly prove inhibiting to Anne, and behavior modification seems mostly unattainable. But certain details of chronology, paired with the accelerated narrative progression, suggest a more sudden onset of difficulty for the character. Director Kazik Radwanski’s approach remains steady, and effective, regardless: A handheld camera maintains proximity to Anne, flitting about faces in flux. Uncertainty and concern and exasperation is captured, not only in Anne’s expressions, but in those of people around her. This unease and volatility adds to obvious tonal and dramatic similarities to John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. But Anne at 13,000 Ft. stands on its own — thanks to its opacity. Where Cassavetes opted for an expansive treatment, for deeper theme-building, and for more of a study of external stimuli, Radwanski’s film is all concision, the lack of context resulting in something closer to car-crash viscerality than psychological probing. To this end, the latter film becomes more kinetic as its condensed runtime elapses, the increased emotional and relational chaos reflected in more disorderly images and bristly lensing. All this informs the final image here: a moment of welcome calm, the screen emptied of Anne’s presence for the first time as she finds respite, by choice, in freefall.  Luke Gorham

An elegiac stillness envelops the population of a coastal town, the death of one of their own evoking a history where the laden myths of sea monsters find agency over their livelihoods. Civilians become the ghosts they mourn, the film rendering them an amalgam of their sorrows and the nature that encompasses them, whether in textured, creeping wide shots shrouded in forestry and domestic anonymity, or in dejected close-ups which persist in portraying a collage of faces, all with the same glazed lack of presence. The sonic landscape of Red Moon Tide offers substance as deep as any of its visuals, the euphonious tonal bellows suggesting said monster’s omniscience, offering a total vision, even if dislocated from the images that are specifically chosen to not romanticize the reality these people live in. This is a common device found in director Lois Patiño’s previous work, and in this, his second feature, the aesthete’s more tactile eye seeks beauty in a tableaux of the quotidian — he gradually situates the surreal as an innate foundation for lives he observes, here existing on the intersection of contemporary fiction and cultural mythology. What’s atypical here is the interiority he attempts to capture, the human element superseding the technical, and there is a dissonance, which undeniably stunts the film’s accomplishment. For all of Red Moon Tide’s formal specificity and realized inertia, the work’s driving narrativization is executed according to trite, passive engagement with the humanity it seeks to transform into metaphor. With Each frame and each represented character, the proceedings become a transparent conceptualization; these literalizations condemn the film to a purgatorial stasis, creating something in past tense. The individual, in this context, becomes part of a collective consciousness, rapt by tragedy and stripped of identity. As the voiceover oscillates through time, navigating reflections and lamentation, sadness is objectified, transformed into sterility, made manifest in white sheets (placed by witches) that will offer anonymous form under the shadows of an encroaching red night. It is the exercise in ethereality, itself, that obscures the facets which would offer access into the subconscious of its subliminal horrors, instead opting for the ubiquity of contemporary slowness, a ghost story haunting vacant spaces. Zachary Goldkind

40 years after his film Grand Opera debuted as part of the Berlinale lineup, legendary avant-garde filmmaker James Benning returns with a personal, strangely hypnotic feature. In Maggie’s Farm, Benning turns to his home turf, the California Institute of Art, for an exploration of beauty, confinement, and freedom. Ostensibly a collection of still lives that become increasingly cold and claustrophobic, Benning’s latest wordlessly journeys through the grounds of the Institute, going from beautiful landscapes with hints of modernity to the antiseptic, isolating concrete walls of the school itself. More a mood piece than anything remotely resembling a narrative, the film might seem to actively distance its audience — though as walls both literal and figurative block the viewer’s perspective (a “no motor vehicles” sign posted in a scene early on points to Benning’s interest in blocked gazes) and the setting becomes more and more modern, Maggie’s Farm evokes a rising claustrophobia in the viewer. It even manages to turn everyday things such as hallway drinking fountains into science fiction-like objects. From the very beginning, even the faintest of noises can be heard: a car buzzing by on a highway, or the softest of white noise hums within the school. In an increasingly busy world, the film offers up such moments of relative quiet in contrast to the crowded perspectives within the frame, and the result is a truly meditative experience. At 80-plus minutes, though, it’s also much too long. The protracted shots initially contribute to the film’s hypnotic atmosphere, but by the end fall flat. Ultimately, the film’s static direction and focus on perspective seem more suited to a gallery setting. Josh Brunsting

In the Canada of The Twentieth Century, Winnipeg director Matthew Rankin’s gonzo historical reimagining of the nation’s late 19th century history, disappointment reigns supreme. (“Expect less than is your right,” goes one of the fictional Canadian oaths that’s recited before an official banner of Disappointment.) Telling a (quite literally) perverted history of the rise of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the film might seem like an improbable selection for TIFF’s Midnight Madness program; however, it conforms to the negative expectations of the section more than one might expect. Comparisons to fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin are inevitable, as both share an evident interest in lost and/or defunct film forms, artificial staging, and wild humor. An early sequence where candidates for a political nomination are put through various “tests of leadership” — ribbon cutting, leg wrestling, and seal clubbing, among others — immediately recalls the “four trials of the Red Wolves” scene in 2015’s The Forbidden Room. To say that The Twentieth Century is a significantly lesser achievement than Maddin’s film, however, would be a gross understatement. Not always easy to tease out, the difference seems to be that the incongruous, borderline surreal turns of Maddin’s singularly fecund oeuvre feel touched by genuine madness, whereas Rankin’s film registers as merely mannered — filled with the coruscating energy of his shorts (most recently The Tesla World Light), but mostly absent of a cogent reason for being. That said, there’s no question that the director has ample technical facility (a climactic skate through a maze of light and mirrors is a visual highlight)and his enduring commitment to a blatantly artificial, uncommercial aesthetic puts him above many a Canadian filmmaker. There’s ample cause for disappointment, then, when it comes to The Twentieth Century. But there’s also good reason to expect more from Rankin’s next film. Lawrence Garcia

Orphea is as scattershot a film as one would expect from the unlikely artistic duo of Alexander Kluge and Khavn De La Cruz. The two first collaborated with the 2018 quasi-documentary Happy Lamento and have returned to breathe new life into the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice — doing so by flipping their genders to become Orphea and Euridiko. But anyone familiar with the work of Kluge — veteran of German cinema and influencer to many — should know that this will not simply be a retelling of the old myth, and that it will undoubtedly be layered with as many historical and academic reference points as the text will allow. Kluge’s films, especially his more recent work, have been concerned for the way in which film, and culture in general, are used to organize human experience in our current age of mechanical reproduction. It is for this reason that they avoid linearity and approach cinema with the discursive/associative trappings that recall few besides Godard. Orphea fits this mould well: though, on the surface, we are shown the journey of Orphea as she travels past orgiastic revelries and through the darkened brothels of Manilla to find her Euridiko, she is also transported throughout history, tracing lines between things such as the human fascination with immortality leading to contemporary research in Silicon Valley, and the migration movements seen throughout modern Europe. Death, or a world of the dead, and its opposition to the world of the living is the thread running through the micro-narratives of Kluge’s connections. Thus, Orphea’s journey becomes a utopian one, manifesting itself through nothing more than the film’s form, that gathers together the images of the dead in order to allow the spectator to not only look back at their Euridiko, but also enter into the light of the future alongside him. In this spectator’s opinion, Kluge and Khavn are not as successful here as they were in the past, nor are their associations as illuminating to the concepts and topics at hand as it appears they believe. To what degree this matters is again an issue for the spectator to decide as there are indeed delights to be found within this formally audacious construction site of a film, even if certain moments lack a much-needed comprehension. Sam Redfern

Austrian director Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born is a stylish, small-scale film whose narrative revolves around a child-like android called Elli who spends the summer with her father-figure custodian/creator. (Premiering in the Berlinale’s inaugural Encounters section, it is, you might say, a cyborg version of Pinocchio.) The pair live together in a secluded house that resembles a space station on a faraway strange planet and is reminiscent of the bourgeois countryside villa one finds in sixties European flicks where characters struggle with isolation and ill-fated romance. As the narrative does not provide any backstory for the characters or any explanation for their behavioral intentions, Wollner’s ambient film — with its disquieting mood and myriad internal tensions — becomes defined by its the meticulous observation of architectural space and dead time. The camera patiently depicts the oddball relation between Elli and her father-figure, and every now and then follows them, ghostlike, from one hallway or a room to another, as if suggesting that their repetitive movements are enclosed within a labyrinth or invisible web. The Trouble with Being Born is remarkable not just for its futuristic space and atmosphere, but also for how it depicts the relationship of the central house and the surrounding mystic forest. The latter functions as a gateway for Elli to escape to the outside world and also enables Wollner to combine sci-fi with folklore. Elli, previously the confidant of her “father,” runs away from home/prison and meets an old lady who becomes her mother figure and new guardian. She changes her face and gender, practically relinquishes her previous identity, and continues living in oblivion with her new custodian. But as the transient flashes of Elli’s past life appear, the film takes a new turn, reveals more of its existential-theological subtext, and unleashes its hidden tensions. Elli tragically fails on his/her journey back home. But the sound of his/her footsteps echoing along an empty, never-ending highway and the horrifying noise of the environment will haunt the viewer. The final image is of a girl/boy machine who becomes an eternally wandering ghost. Ayeen Forootan

Four years after his previous feature Koza, director Ivan Ostrochovsky returns to the Berlinale (this time under the new competition sidebar known as Encounters) with a provocative and brooding drama. Servants tells the story of Michal and Juraj, two students at a seminary in early-1980’s Czechoslovakia that is essentially being torn apart by the ever-expanding Communist regime. The school broken into ostensibly two parties, each of which try to manipulate the young men, and the film’s push-pull tension comes primarily from the resulting crises of faith. Will they stick to the proverbial script or will the secret police be able to crack them like they have so many others? Given its religious focus, the film — shot in haunting black and white — owes a debt to directors like Dreyer and more specifically Bresson. Comprised of primarily static frames, the film alternates between expertly-crafted facial close-ups and painterly tableaux that depict everyday life under a totalitarian regime. The film is also oddly geometric: in some of the film’s strongest shots, Ostrochovsky allows the rigidity of such an existence to manifest in the frame itself, be it in a shot looking up a staircase or down at a group of men gathered in a prison-like quad area. These are simple in concept, but when paired with the beautiful black and white they become almost dystopian. Servants is a frigid film, but it’s also an endlessly captivating one, an engrossing tale of two young men and the crisis of faith that may or may not destroy them. Josh Brunsting