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In a Year of 13 Lakes

Gay Nazis, minimalist experiments, and maybe a Sokurov masterpiece at the Berlin festival

BERLIN, GERMANY— Only an übermensch could enter the Berlin Film Festival and come out with sanity intact. With over a thousand screenings all over town, and crowds more overwhelming each year, the Berlinale promises riches or, depending on one's path through the three main sections, raspberries. The competition is often seductive but underwhelming, with big-name Yankees and their compound titles (e.g., Die Tiefseetaucher mit Steve Zissou) alongside divisive works from Euro-auteurs like André Téchiné and native son Christian Petzold; the Forum is the most challenging but has the films most likely to implode, and in the Panorama, one finds gays, Nazis, and a special 2005 bonus from Rosa von Praunheim, Heroes and Gay Nazis.

More than any other major festival, Berlin's competition is characterized by a predominance of the cinema of quality and a daily helping of Europudding. Both genres are indicative of EU financing trends: As central governments get weaker, so does arts funding. Set on the day of the Champions League football final in Russia, Turkey, Spain, and Germany, the "comedic" One Day in Europe casts Europe's future as uninspired remakes of Night on Earth. A late addition after the collapse of a deal to import Glenn Close to represent the Merchant Ivory production Heights, the Hungarian concentration camp film Fateless is the kind of old-fashioned co-production the film world salivates over: a three-month shoot with a big budget, thousands of extras, and an Ennio Morricone score. Precisely adapted by Nobel laureate Imre Kertész from his autobiographical novel, cinematographer Lajos Koltai's directorial debut might be made to win awards, but it refuses compromise, aestheticizing the camp experience in a more provocative manner than Schindler's List. The film proceeds through young Gyuri's time in Buchenwald in a poetic accumulation of random events of hell and kindness, reserving its greatest kick for his journey home to Budapest.

Another trend seemed to be rehabilitation, with three films sympathetically portraying controversial figures in their final stages. In The Last Mitterrand, Marseilles lefty Robert Guédiguian ditches his usual actors for Michel Bouquet, who relishes puttering about as the late French president; the main argument is that Mitterrand at his height was better than what France has now. Bouquet gamely delivers Mitterrand's soliloquies to his biographer, a stiff Jalil Lespert. Hany Abu-Assad's Palestinian suicide bombers in Paradise Now might be nameless in comparison but are no less concerned with their world-historical importance. This handsome film courts controversy, but wavers behind Abu-Assad's desire to present his subject in thriller form and elucidate the motivations of the bombers, who become the director's mouthpieces.

A late highlight was Alexander Sokurov's The Sun, the apex of his dictator trilogy. Maybe a masterpiece, it depicts Emperor Hirohito (a brilliant Issey Ogata) as he struggles—in often dim interiors shot by Sokurov—with the end of the war and his status; fantastic aesthetic flourishes capture Hirohito's monumental decision to renounce his divinity. Ogata's mannered performance as the meek emperor—seen struggling with his dedicated staff, who insist on maintaining decorum, and in conversation with MacArthur—is nakedly humanizing. Sokurov finds in Hirohito a leader in whom he invests all human qualities. Unlike Hitler and Lenin, the subjects of Sokurov's Moloch and Taurus, he's a legitimate hero, whose willingness to sacrifice his pride for saving lives is a rare example of graceful leadership.

Sokurov may be hit or miss, but Tsai Ming-liang always delivers droll Asian alienation. The latest contribution to cinema's most consistent oeuvre comes with a press kit hyping Tsai as "the most erotic, sexual, and sensitive filmmaker of our time." (The lavishly illustrated booklet ruins most of the jokes, many involving watermelons.) Body obsessed, The Wayward Cloud is Tsai extreme, with a water shortage, hardcore sex, and kitschy musical numbers. Now a porn actor, Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng is humping in the apartment above his old friend and new love Chen Shiang-chyi, since returned from Paris; it's amusing to see the taciturn Lee attempt broad comedy in the musical numbers, even dressing up as a large penis. Par for the course, Tsai forges something touching out of very little, bringing the film to quite the head.

In the Forum, meanwhile, old-school minimalist James Benning pushes whatever boundaries are left—his 13 Lakes and Ten Skies are the most radical, and awesome, films anywhere. (Also artwise in the Forum, Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's video walk Ghost Machine delivered the most trippy, exciting, and fun Berlinale experience.) Installation pieces designed for the big screen, or in Benning's words "found paintings," the films deliver on their titles' promises: 13 lakes across the U.S. and 10 skies shot around Benning's home in Val Verde, California, each a 10-minute take. Ten Skies is an anti-war film, his wayward clouds representing the kind of beauty we're destroying. Me, I'll take the lakes, especially number 12, Oregon's Crater Lake, a glorious mirror image of land, water, and sky that drew even more gasps than Tsai's raunchy climax.

 
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