by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Berlin Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 2: The Salt of Tears, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, Undine

February 28, 2020

Our second dispatch from the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival does something a little different from our familiar festival coverage pieces. Below, a trio of writers go long on three international master filmmakers — Philippe Garrel, Jia Zhanke, and Christian Petzold — providing retrospective contexts that inform these, their latest films, which include: The Salt of Tears, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, and Undine. Check back next week for our third dispatch, which will return to standard blurb format and tackle another eight to ten 2020 Berlinale offerings.

Over the course of his half-century career behind the camera, 72-year-old French master Philippe Garrel has traversed a multitude of styles. From his 1964 debut project, Les enfants désaccordées alone, one can already see the idiosyncrasies and trademarks that would define his career. But even before the film’s premiere on French television, Garrel was already made to feel like an outsider when the station declined the teenage filmmaker an interview. In a later discussion with Cinema Scope Magazine, Garrel explains, “I was told they were not going to interview me since I was so different and just too original… So this forced me to make cinema outside of cinema, so to speak. It was only when I met Andy Warhol in 1969 … that I realised it was not so bad to be an outsider.”

Garrel’s rejection from the industry at such a young age cemented his status as a resilient and uncompromising filmmaker. The films he produced in the first two decades of his career, during which he frequently worked with small budgets, evoke a sense of intimacy characteristic of an artist in a constant state of self-reflection. In the 1970s, Garrel’s work became consumed by his relationship with singer and actress Nico, with whom he first worked on the 1969 picture The Virgin’s Bed. The pair’s decade-long entanglement was filled with as much passion as calamity — inevitably leading to drug addiction, depression, and eventually shock therapy. His first collaboration with Nico during their relationship was 1972’s The Inner Scar, which is comprised of poetical images that give off the impression of raw improvisation, and operates as a shared dream between the couple: The tenderness that they shared during this period presents itself through an assemblage of arresting photographs that establish a space conducive for self-reflection.

Following the end of this relationship in 1979, Garrel’s work changed drastically. He immediately started collaborating with renowned screenwriter Annette Wadamant (Lola Montès) on L’Enfant Secret, which recounted the many trials and tribulations of his tumultuous decade and paved the way for his now-trademark monochromatic tales of sorrow, regret, and romance. The birth of his son Louis in 1983 with the actress and filmmaker Brigitte Sy, would push his work into even more confessional territory. As he adjusted to his newfound family unit, his films became canvases that allowed him to scrutinize and further understand the ubiquity of temptation and the anxiety of indecision—themes that soon became intrinsic to each new project. This wasn’t an abandonment of his radical origins as a filmmaker but rather a reorientation of his priorities.

Boasting one of the more polarizing Parisian hairstyles to come out of the 1980s, Garrel took on the role of a filmmaker in Emergency Kisses (1989), casting himself alongside his wife, their son, and his own father, actor Maurice Garrel. Evidently self-referential, the film is the story of a director preparing to shoot a movie based on his life, its conflict arising when he refuses to cast his wife, who is also an actress, in favor of Minouchette (played by Anémone). For Garrel, this blending of his public and private spheres was unprecedented, and one can see his progression from L’Enfant Secret (a film that reflects on the past) to Emergency Kisses (a film modeled after his life, at the time) as a persistent attempt to escape his past demons. Yet, Garrel also uses the medium as a method to solemnize the present. He refuses to present an insincere portrayal of his idealistic desires, while still recognizing the beauty of a romance within the sacred bonds of family.

I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991) acts as a Hegelian synthesis between L’Enfant Secret and Emergency Kisses. While the latter opened up a new chapter in Garrel’s oeuvre—its fixed narrative and family-centered catharsis moved away from the poetic imagery of his relationship-focused ’70s works—Guitar is the director’s late ode to Nico, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1988. Accordingly, it returns to Garrel’s anxieties from an earlier period. While recognizing the necessity of moving on to a new chapter of life, this elegy towards his great love is filled with remorse and self-doubt; it asks what the remaining years might have been like if they had stayed together. While Garrel employs Benoît Régent to act as his stand-in (instead of casting himself in the role, as he did in Emergency Kisses), the character clearly regrets abandoning his youthful idealism for a traditional family unit. As the film’s narrative progresses, we see Régent grow more resentful of renouncing his past: he recognizes his youth is over, and sees that everyone from his past has remained stagnant with nowhere to go but down. 

Garrel’s ’90s films continue to follow a similar trajectory, and it’s not until Regular Lovers (2005) that the next major transformation in his work occurs. Now casting his son (Louis Garrel) as his stand-in, Garrel makes use of his character as a means of transferring his lived experience — in this case, of the May ’68 riots. Cinematographer William Lubtchansky’s breathtaking black-and-white photography seems almost indistinguishable from Garrel’s thought-to-be-lost 1968 short Actua 1, which was filmed during the actual riots. Beginning with the strong sense of camaraderie amongst the people of France that started the revolution, Garrel slowly depicts the disembowelment of their idealistic vision. The second act then follows the aftermath of the revolution as bourgeois complacency sets in while sex and drugs run rampant. 

Garrel’s following work, Frontier of the Dawn (2008) continues the trend of presenting his traumatic experiences through his son Louis. While the film has no direct partisan throughline, its focus remains on idealism as it exists within a social fabric reinforced by the state. There’s a deep fear that lingers within each frame of the film, which chronicles the tragedy of losing an ex-lover. Incorporating his own real-life pains, it stands as one of the director’s most individualized works, even as his son’s presence communicated a critical distance from the narrative. Louis Garrel remained the stand-in for his father’s onscreen persona up until 2015’s In the Shadow of Women, where he merely features as the narrator.

The Salt of Tears, Garrel’s latest work, returns to the foundations of family and relationships. Another monochrome drama, it positions its narrative amidst transitional phases of life, telling the story of a young man named Luc, who prepares to attend the renowned furniture-making school École Boulle in Paris. He is affectionate towards his elderly father, who wants his son to have a life that he never had. While Garrel’s work has always ruminated on past relationships, The Salt of Tears is less about the romantic encounters that shape one’s life and more of a reflection on the past and the struggles that come with the search for “meaning.” 

The Salt of Tears can thus be read as a kind of generational confrontation. As the aging director reorients the narrative around a younger man, he analyses the presumed causality of life’s transitional stages. “You always urge your son to do better than you,” says Luc’s father late into the film, “maybe we’re too close, that’s the problem.” Rather than regurgitate his ideologies and experiences, Garrel provides a deliberate critical distance from his own life in order to examine the role that parents play in their children’s state of becoming. There is a sense of urgency within the narrative, used to convey the desire that parents have that their children will rise above the expectations placed upon them. Never appearing as a controlling force, the elderly patriarch sincerely yearns for the success of his son, who is following in his footsteps. By effacing his own presence within the film’s framework, Garrel preserves the essential nature of the familial bond, and thus points to the dearest concerns of an older generation attempting to steer the lives of their children away from the difficulties that once befell them. Patrick Devitt

In a 2003 essay, Jia Zhangke — now the preeminent figure among his sixth generation class of Chinese filmmakers — recounted a conversation with renown British film critic Tony Rayns, who had asked for his opinion on the future of the film medium. He recalls that his reply to Rayns was that “the age of amateur cinema will return.” That sentiment would seem to encompass the values of Jia, the burgeoning underground artist, at that time; but now, some 17 years later, Jia has come to be considered the de facto curator of his nation’s contemporary cinema — a Chinese Scorsese, if you will, taking into account his roles as festival organizer, independent film promoter, and producer of films by upstart directors. The tension evident in Jia’s career is that between his ‘return to amateur cinema’ and his eventual embrace of professionalism; the amateur hews closely to values of diversity, locality, the refusal of strict formal methods and principles, and freedom from customs, while a more professionalized approach to cinema elevates strict competency, marketability, formal rigor, and the refusal to be caught repeating oneself. This binary illuminates much: the deficiencies of mainstream cinema and the merits of a subaltern, non-professional artistry — and, of course, it offers a way of interpreting Jia’s own filmography, as well as his position within the contemporary Chinese cinema establishment.

Jia’s earliest films — and, indeed, those of contemporaries Wang Bing, Lou Ye, etc. as well — contain methodologies utterly at odds with those of the previous ‘generation’ of Chinese cinema. Radical verité, docu-fictive strategies, and an emphasis on social realism are applied to studies of specific localities, each with their own intractable problems. The value of “diversity” could be better articulated here as ‘class position’: these early sixth generation films express the full spectrum of life in China. And that effort was an intentional one, as has been acknowledged by Wang, who once remarked that China’s fifth generation films had “only stories…no people.” Jia’s films from 1995’s Xiaoshan Going Home to 2013’s A Touch of Sin, register attentiveness to lived experience in the modern Chinese political and economic landscape. They are films defined by the elevation of virtues of the local and the diverse, that dedicate themselves to an awareness of the actual struggles of daily existence, the gargantuan acceleration in development in China’s historical moment, and the dejected and indifferent mental states that arise as people lack real power to affect change around them — whether that be explored in and around Jia’s hometown, and its province of Shanxi (Xiaoshan Going Home, Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures); or further afield in Beijing (The World), Chongqing (Dong and Still Life), or other reaches of China (Useless, 24 City, I Wish I Knew, and A Touch of Sin). 

The agency of individuals registers as such a paramount concern in these early Jia films that names, faces, and places recur, suggesting a fidelity to these people, and sites, and how they can be discovered and rescued from time. And the rich intertext produced by this effort indeed leaves nothing forgotten, leaves Jia’s narrative worlds open, even as this openness is countered by oppression within physical space. That tendency toward repetition, however, never precluded Jia from taking steps forward: he has, in fact, frequently proven himself to be at the forefront of Chinese filmmakers, incorporating new technologies into his films. In 2003’s Unknown Pleasures, Jia turns to digital and finds a means to both better court the immediateness of the life he wishes to portray, and to heighten its incongruities. The latter objective is made even more explicit in 2005’s The World, which incorporates animated sequences; in 2008’s Still Life, which features UFOs; and in A Touch of Sin, which makes prominent use of a CGI snake. That progression — and A Touch of Sin’s release in particular — ultimately heralded a change in Jia’s films, specifically as that relates to his relationship with the professional-amateur binary. Jia’s early films are frequently tethered to narrative, but they also draw heavily on nonfiction aesthetics, as a way to express and capture a sense of reality. (E.g. Still Life is set in the actual demolition sites of the Three Gorges, The World in a real theme park in Beijing, and 24 City — which is much closer to an actual documentary, but with fictive elements — in a state-owned factory that was turned into an apartment complex.) A Touch of Sin signaled a more decisive turn toward a mode of ‘storytelling’ — toward professionalism. And, taking up Wang Bing’s criticism of the fifth generation as a guide for what defines the values of the sixth generation (i.e. less story, more people), this amounted to something of a betrayal of those ethics. 

While sourced from real stories of real people (that Jia came across on the Chinese social media service Weibo), A Touch of Sin is still, explicitly, made up of structured narratives. The film also demonstrates a certain erosion of locality and diversity; it’s less about life in specific places, more about a bigger idea of ‘China’ — a trend that extends to 2015’s Mountains May Depart and 2019’s Ash Is Purest White, both being fictional narratives that are easiest to read as something like parables for the burgeoning middle class of the Xi Jinping era, films that espouse \the values of Chinese identity and its persistence in the face of globalization and other international struggles. Assuredly, there is merit to all these films as well, in particular to their formal rigor: the use of different film stocks and the incorporation of archival footage which, in the case of Ash Is Purest White, Jia shot himself years earlier. But there’s also the impression that Jia is leaving behind his interest in names, faces, and definite places — that he’s become a trafficker of the intertext of his films for their own sake, rather than what they once symbolized (his aesthetic can be seen mimicked by burgeoning filmmakers that he himself produces), and that the state that Jia himself is very much a representative of, as a member of the National People’s Congress, is dictating the values Jia’s films impart, and the conclusions that they draw.

All of this frames any consideration of what ‘a return of amateur cinema’ might mean, on Jia’s terms — and the filmmaker’s latest, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, adds further doubt to the claim. Filmed during, and in the months after, a literature festival in Fenyang, which was founded by Jia, this documentary takes, as its object, the relationship between the Chinese rural and urban spheres — a point of focus that was gestured toward in Jia’s saccharine 2019 short The Bucket. Opening on a series of interviews with elderly members of a countryside village, in the orbit of Fenyang, the film begins by stressing the foundational importance of rural China to the nation’s (i.e. the People’s Republic’s) current prosperity, both economically and culturally, before broadening its scope, as literary figures born in successive decades — each of whom were raised nearby to major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an — discuss the importance of the countryside in shaping their early lives and work, as well as offering respite from the city as they’ve aged and noticed its absence in the lives of young people. 

In this way, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is as didactic and propagandistic as Jia’s most recent narrative features were parabolic, lamenting and elegizing a lost, rural-urban relationship through references to government policy changes in the 1980s; the film smacks of promoting the narrative of resurrection under Xi. While one could go on to complain about the interviewees and the storified presentation of their upward mobility, through a state-sanctioned evocation of Wang Bing’s form, one would be better pressed to scrutinize Jia’s questionable use of montage to highlight, for example, the contrast between literary figures speaking on the stage of his festival with young people using their phones or sitting inured to boredom in city streets. While Jia might once have understood and filmed this boredom as a symptom of class stratification, here — in a film in which even the camera movements feel rote — he seems to smugly preach against that reading. At one point, Jia goes so far as to capture one of the nation’s most highly regarded writers in the process of educating her clearly embarrassed child — who apparently attends one of China’s top high schools — on the subject of how to speak the local dialect that this film opens with. It’s hard to see, in all of this, the heralded future of ‘amateur cinema,’ in which filmmakers “free themselves from conventional customs and restraints to an infinite space for creation” — as was the way that Jia characterized this idea in that 2003 essay. Instead, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue represents an adoption, and a standardization, of principles for a professionalized cinema, for a cinema that follows state dictum rather than operating under, through, and around it. Jia Zhangke may be a master but, in the words of former Editor-in-Chief Sam C. Mac, he’s “the master who sucks.” Matt McCracken

A spectral trilogy concludes under refracted conditions in Christian Petzold’s diagnostic landscape of 20th Century anxieties, which actualizes the magical realist gestures methodically peppered throughout his last two projects, Phoenix and Transit. This development has evinced the increased crystallization of a certain kind of ghost story, one fixated, primarily, on a historicism that has mapped recent German politic, telegraphing toward a self-alienation in a nostalgic response to modern, culturally persistent guilt. Of course, Petzold is not the least bit interested in romanticizing this yearning for dead history, but rather his concern lies in how that through-line of thought, and connection to such volatility, has determined manners of reflexivity. The portraits he has displayed in these most recent films offer only vacancy in characterizations, alongside a muted agitation in hoping one might eventually find their own once segregated from such inner-turmoils each player seems to tenaciously evade; hence, these three works are rendered as ‘love’ stories.

Most important to consider within this context is the utility of history as a device and its simultaneous scrutiny of the contemporaneous. With Phoenix, the stage is set following the collapse of the Third Reich, during a period of deep reconciliation and complacent silence as the atrocities of war find light. Nelly (Nina Hoss) returns to her husband, a German who had supposedly given her up to the SS, forcing her into Auschwitz. Having undergone facial reconstruction due to injuries, she begins to insert herself into a pre-war role, beside the man she must love, smitten both by nostalgia and fear of confronting a future fated by this cultural halt and fascist unveiling. History, here, exists to direct, to recreate itself as an idealized cyclicality, a utopian vision rendered through the eyes of a victim who sorely believes the future is incompatible with peace. Petzold achieves a near materialization of history as object, elixir, wherein immobility enables liberty. Such a perspective, he knows, is but blind mysticism.

Petzold’s intertextual thesis comes to a fore with Transit, a film of two overlapped realities: one aesthetic, the other period. In Transit, we find an analog orchestration of WWII, set amongst the technology and architecture of a modern world. Georg (Franz Rogowski) takes on the identity of a deceased writer, in order to utilize his VISA and flee to Mexico. However, becoming a ghost, for him, leaves a footprint, as Marie (Paula Beer), the writer’s wife, finds herself on his paper trail. What transpires are intersections of lust and (again) guilt, a physical enactment of the passions and confusion that whirl around Nelly’s psyche in Phoenix as her husband stares at her with blank eyes, his past erased, his future non-existent, an embodied stasis of contrition. The use of modern aesthetic in Transit elaborates on the stagnancy Phoenix begins to articulate. These two films, one retrospective, one reflexive, converse on the lingering effects of tyranny, the psychological rollout, portrayed in gestural signifiers, always fleeting and never requited. Georg falls in love, appropriating the identity he has stolen, forced into a purgatory where, perhaps forever, he’ll seek out the phantasm of Marie, returning to the same bar, perpetuitously looking shyly over his right shoulder, never seeking emancipation from the inevitable collapse.

Undine, also starring Rogowski and Beer as a duo entrapped in a doomed affair, observes the democratic reformism of Berlin infrastructure post-Wall. A heavy emphasis is placed on the historicity of the city’s development, as Beer’s character, Undine, a historian, is employed as a Museum guide who, throughout, articulates the trajectory of the city’s growth, noting the both remnants of a split city and what has been built from the rubble. The politics surrounding an East/West Berlin do not take prominence here; rather, their influence lies in situating a societally-bred lack of individual identity. Rogowski’s character is one whose career surrounds the ruins of an old Berlin, his underwater surveyance interrogating the shadows under the guise of mystification, an arrested admiration for a disappeared beauty, neither contextualized nor reckoned with. The film begins with a spiritual murder, the consequences of which lay themselves bare over the film’s unfurling design. Similarly to Petzold’s previous works, such an act, in close relationship with a kind of death, is quickly followed with replacement, an immediacy bereft of personal reconciliations; the future can’t find space to exist.

How this film operates within the oscillation of its plot mechanisms is a more uniquely developed, perhaps slightly misguided direction for Petzold to seek. Its transparent confrontation of the magical also highlights much of the ambiguity and emotional ambivalence only previously gestured toward in Petzold’s prior works. Here, as the ghost story is literalized, an affinity for enigma resigns itself to more classically structured narrative progression. Where modernist tactics apply to both Phoenix and Transit, such a detour is likely a product of emancipatory praxis, developed through the seizure of character arcs that always feel directed toward a potential confrontation of their history. Though the dramaturgy feels slighted, the resonance of seeking remains rather moving. Though all of the guilt and unsettled sentiments remain lingering, their sensations take place in the physical specters that embody these characters. That development is, undoubtedly, an attempt at denying the comforts of stasis, rejecting the pillowing that cascades over you whilst under the influence of nostalgia.

Where these three films articulate their coalescence most acutely is in the dissemination of magical realist aesthetics. Phoenix exists within a surface realm of the uncanny, Nelly’s transformation and transmogrification into a new person, under a new psychical identity, untethers her from her own history. A ghost materializes in her already-filled shoes, stepping in tandem, absolving her of autonomy. Transit pushes further, the incongruity of time and aesthetic coupling with Georg’s final, fleeting visions of the dead — this world is baked under false pretenses, an “irreducible moment,”1 defined as an element of inherent contradiction that an audience is forced to reconcile with. Finally, Undine, a work of diegetic ghosts and resurrections, all amplified alongside imagery of a still-restoring Berlin, history in direct contact with its manifest spirit. Petzold’s trajectory has watched the shadows of the 20th century cast themselves onto the 21st, their estranged positionality provoking works of melancholic contemplation and reflexive scrutiny. His sights on historical determinism are most ably suggested, as Undine states, “In the center of Berlin now stands a museum built in the 21st century, in the form of an 18th-century ruler’s palace…The deceptive part lies in the hypothesis that this makes no real difference, which is the same as claiming that progress is impossible.” Naturally, such an explicit communication proposes that this is only a half-truth, for all verities remain unspoken within a Petzold film. Truths are instead acted upon, and where Undine culminates is in the submission that, much like in the now-celebrated coda of Phoenix, new histories can be sought elsewhere, in maturation with the past, for such values of growth and critical rapprochement are not mutually exclusive. After all, these films, each, are adaptations. Zachary Goldkind

1 Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Nashville (Tenn.): Vanderbilt University Press, 2004.