There is a wonderful old photograph in the guide to this year's Berlin Film Festival. It shows Rainer Werner Fassbinder in evening dress, clutching the Golden Bear he won for Veronika Voss. The aging enfant terrible of German cinema looks much the worse for wear. Unshaven, bleary-eyed, he is holding a cigarette in his spare hand and leering at the camera. Standing by his side, immaculate as ever, is a very wary-looking Jimmy Stewart.
The combination of Fassbinder and Stewart sums up what the festival (now in its 49th year) is about. Here, as nowhere else, European art-house cinema and the Hollywood mainstream clash head-on.
Last week, Aki Kaurismaki was doing his best to be as obstreperous as Fassbinder. The maverick Finn was in town with a full orchestra for the world premiere of his new film, Juha. A black-and-white silent movie, adapted from a 1911 Finnish novel, Juha seems inspired in equal measure by Soviet-style social realism, Buster Keaton, and Murnau's Sunrise. It was certainly the most eccentric film in Berlin. Kaurismaki's approach is so solemn that we don't know whether his rambling yarn about a doughty farmer whose wife leaves him should be taken as a lugubrious comedy or a tragedy.
It's a smaller leap than might have been expected from Juha to David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, another deadpan drama that teeters close to self-parody. Despite some typically morbid imagery a gun made out of human tissue that uses teeth for bullets the mood here is as playful as it is threatening. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a wonderfully coquettish performance as the inventor of "eXistenZ," an "organic game" that entails competitors having strange, rubbery polyp-like objects shoved inside them. There were boos when Cronenberg carried off a Silver Bear, but in its own perverse way, this is probably the funniest and most audience-friendly film the Canadian writer-director has ever made.
Although the Berlinale competition was stronger than normal, there was still the usual mismatch between the high-profile American movies (including Shakespeare in Love and The Thin Red Line, which eventually won the Golden Bear), the latest offerings from venerable auteurs (Chabrol and Tavernier among them), and the more arcane movies from Asia and Europe.
Among the world premieres, Max Färberböck's brilliantly acted Aimée & Jaguar, about the lesbian romance between a Nazi housewife (Julianne Koehler) and her Jewish lover (Maria Schrader) in wartime Berlin, was an immensely moving story, told in an immensely leaden way. The admirable Mifune's Last Song (the eventual Jury Grand Prize winner) wasn't as groundbreaking as its champions claimed. Directed by Soren Kragh-Jacobsen according to Dogma '95 tenets, this rural fable is as fundamentally old- fashioned as Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration. Strip away the Dogma cant and you're left with something very conventional.
The same can't be said of Alan Rudolph's Breakfast of Champions, as brazen a satire on modern American society as has been made in Hollywood in recent years. Rudolph's frenetic, scattergun approach doesn't always work, but he elicits a fine performance from Bruce Willis (who coproduced the film) as a Midland City car salesman extraordinaire, and it's hard to think of anyone other than Rudolph who would have had the gumption to bring Kurt Vonnegut's bizarre scrapbook of a novel to the screen.
Yesim Ustaoglu's Journey to the Sun, the first Turkish film in the Berlinale for a decade, screened on the same day that Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested. The idea for the film (one of whose main characters is a young Kurd adrift in Istanbul) came to Ustaoglu after she read newspaper articles about villages laid waste in southeastern Turkey. Given the level of censorship she faced in making it, this lyrical, deceptively simple tale about love, loss, and identity (brilliantly shot by Kieslowski's old cameraman Jacek Petrycki) was surely the most courageous film in competition. It was also the one real find.
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