GO WEST, OLD FESTIVAL! — a report from the 64th Berlinale (for Tribune)

red-carpet scenes at the Berlinale Palast

“Anything may happen to Berlin in the second half of our century,” wrote James Morris in 1963, “but whoever rules her, until the shades of that dreadful capital are exorcized at last, until the very memory of it is dim, all the brilliance and bluster of the new city will be sham.”

Nowhere is the new city’s brilliance and bluster—and sham—more evident than at Potsdamer Platz, an area just a few hundred yards from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. For centuries a major city-centre junction and later a buzzing hub of shopping and nightlife, Berlin’s answer to Times Square and Piccadilly Circus was RAF-obliterated in 1945, Wall-bifurcated in 1961. Three decades of bleak limbo ended in 1993 when this desolate expanse became Europe’s largest building-site: the colossal result, planned seemingly with little heed paid to human scales, was a bombastic, ostentatiously American-style mini-metropolis featuring skyscraper office blocks, a multi-level shopping mall, two multiplex cinemas and an unappetising, overpiced plethora of chain cafés and restaurants.

Seldom visited by echt Berliners, Potsdamer Platz (angular epitome of what Morris envisaged as “the new Europe—so steely, so hard, so uniform”) livens up for only a couple of weeks each year, when it plays host to the Berlin International Film Festival: Berlinale for short. Inaugurated in 1951 to inject the cultural life of West Berlin with some Hollywood-studio pizazz, the festival now uses cinemas across the city but its epicentre since 2002 has been Potsdamer Platz.

The Berlinale’s offices are located here, as well as several exorbitant hotels, and it’s where all screenings are held both for press delegates and also for buyers attending the parallel European Film Market (EFM). On Marlene-Dietrich-Platz (nice touch) there’s the Berlinale Palast—an 1,800-seat theatre which is used for nightly red-carpet premieres—whose adjoining casino, the Spielbank, sprawls over three floors.

Zoo Palast by night

Up until 2002 the heart of the Berlinale was still very much in the former West, specifically at the Zoo Palast a couple of minutes’ walk from the famed, slightly scruffy Zoo Station and round the corner from the Ku’damm shopping drag. This year Zoo Palast returned to the Berlinale’s roster for the first time in over a decade after a deluxe refurbishment. And with half a dozen cinemas within walking distance of the Zoo it’s tempting to imagine the Berlinale some day gravitating back to this raucously energetic part of the city—one which, for all its chaos, at least feels like part of Berlin’s actual fabric, and not some soulless, insistently artificial, pseudo-futuristic environment of brashly ostentatious prosperity.

Unfortunately the chances of this happening are, on current evidence, minimal. Incongruously in a city renowned for turbulent upheaval, Berlinale has been in so many ways frozen in amber since that move to Potsdamer Platz for the 2002 festival, the first under artistic director Dieter Kosslick. An ebulliently genial chap who’s absolutely nobody’s idea of a discerning cinephile (himself included), Kosslick during the latest Berlinale (6-16 February) scotched persistent rumours regarding his supposedly imminent departure.

It seems we’re stuck with him until at least 2016, meaning business as usual—with the emphasis on business: a very banal type of glossy glamour (vulgarly ginormous adverts for major Berlinale sponsor L’Oréal are an inescapable feature of the Platz), a slew of “prestige” sponsors, and Hollywood red-carpet stars in perpetual beaming abundance. This might be tolerable if the programming wasn’t so haphazard, but Berlinale’s reputation is long-established: mediocrity the norm, with the occasional gem lurking among the dross.

French Connections: JOURNEY TO THE WEST

This year’s ordure-encircled sapphire was Tsai Ming-Liang’s Journey To the West (Xi you), a 56-minute miniature which quietly premiered away from the main Competition section in the disorientingly vast Panorama sidebar (home also to Eskil Vogt’s well-received Norwegian head-spinner, Blind). The Taiwanese-Malaysian Tsai’s official swansong from cinema was, as Tribune readers may recall, the 2 1/2 hour epic Stray Dogs, unveiled at Venice last September and hailed in many quarters as a landmark of modern cinema. But if Journey to the West turns out to be Tsai’s actual “last word” in the medium, it’s a rather lovely way to sign off.

Journey is Tsai’s fifth (and perhaps final?) work “starring” the director’s perennial leading-man Lee Kang-Sheng as a silent, red-robed, head-bowed Buddhist monk who proceeds ex-tre-me-ly slow-ly regardless of his environment. After snail-pacing his way through a crowded Taiwanese city in No Form (2012; 20min), a bustling Hong Kong in Walker (2012; 26min), then navigating an interior space in Diamond Sutra (2012; 20min) and creeping around Tsai’s Malaysian childhood home in Walking on Water (2013; 28min), this nameless, wordless divine now pops up in Marseille for further glacial peregrinations.

The difference here is that the ‘walker’ gains a follower–a tormented, possibly insomniac middle-aged bloke played by the diminutive, dynamic Denis Lavant of Beau Travail and Holy Motors fame. (Preparations were unorthodox: according to the thesp, “the only thing Tsai told me was ‘you are the dragon from the Chinese mythology.'”) In one of the film’s bravura extended shots, Lavant is seen emulating, at a distance of half-a-dozen paces, Lee’s millimetre-by-millimetre progress through a crowded, café-lined street just off the main drag, the Canebière, to the mounting bemusement of onlookers.

Presumably filming with a hidden camera, Tsai creates a spectacular tableau from the simplest of means, a deadpan-comic but transcendentally spiritual form of urban performance art. On two occasions elsewhere he makes stunning use of a vast mirrored canopy erected just next to the city’s harbour, achieving delicious trompe-l’œil effects that question and reconfigure our understanding of cinematic space.

For Berlinale attendees familiar with Marseille in general and its film-festival in particular–the documentary-oriented FIDMarseille, held each July—Journey to the West threw into stark relief the deficiencies both of Potsdamer Platz as a festival hub and also of the Berlinale. FIDMarseille is a much smaller, more carefully curated event which occupies several venues right in the city-centre itself, and which despite the ‘challenging’ nature of its programming manages—like proudly proletarian Marseille—to keep its feet very much on the ground.

The Berlinale, by contrast, continues to hawk a bygone conception of cinema as an excuse for glitz, escapism and a conduit for the flogging of luxury goods. Because while socially-conscious works are quite often to be found within its catalogue’s pages—Yinan Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, a sprawling, atmospheric Chinese neo-noir even managed to land the Competition’s top prize, the Golden Bear—under Kosslick the emphasis has always been on bouncy fun, laced with a kind of devil-may-care, party-hearty hedonism which seems decadent enough during the boom-times and can smack of the obscene during such dreadful periods of endemic bust.

Neil Young
25th February, 2014
written for Tribune magazine
revised 9th March 2014 with further information on Tsai Ming-Liang’s ‘Walker’ films

links to official site

further reading: Michael Pattison’s Berlinale 2014 essay, Spree City