Falmouth University’s student trip to Berlin felt like an escape from the apocalyptical weather that has been affecting the South West, especially when we arrived to blue skies and mild temperatures. After the long over night bus ride and the flight energy levels were low but travelling through the city from Berlin’s Schönefeld airport on the South East of the city rejuvenation borne of excitement was in the air. The prospect of four days of cinematic indulgence in one of Europe’s most historic and exciting capitals certainly assuaged any lingering tiredness. Shortly after our arrival we walked from our hotel past the Reichstag and the beautifully lit Brandenburg Gate, monuments to Germany’s imperial past, and onto Potsdamer Platz, central point of the festival and symbolic of the country’s contemporary economic power. The central streets were buzzing with activity. Throngs of people milled around the red carpet area at the front of the Berlinale Palast, hoping to get a glimpse of a celebrity, and the box office, located in a central shopping centre already boasted long queues. This, as it turned out was a forbearance of the problem that would beset all out students throughout the whole weekend: the quest for tickets.
There are many adjectives to describe the Berlinale ticketing process: abstract, clandestine, chaotic, perhaps even anarchically democratic. Tickets are shared out between the online store, the centralized box offices and the individual cinemas for each specific screening. There seems, however, to be no rhyme or reason as to when or how the ticket allocation gets released for any given film. Questioning the proficiently polite tellers added to the mysticism of the process. “Are there tickets?”, “no”. “Will there be?”, “maybe”. “Any idea what time?”, “I don’t know”, was the kind of discourse repeated on many occasions. The difficulty can be attributed to having arrived ostensibly in the middle of the opening weekend screenings were intensely busy and therefore tickets, particularly for the big American and competition films, were hard to come by. All that could be done then was to embrace the British stereotype for stoic queuing and hope that fortune favoured the patiently diligent.
The ticketing dilemma struck me on the first night as I went directly to the Haus de Berliner Festspiele to try and see Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel – the film that opened the entire event. This proved to be wishful thinking as the screening was announced as full long before we got to the main entrance. The film was seen however by Oliver Graves who extolled on “Wes Anderson’s trademark idiosyncratic camera work”, which “dollied around geometrically like a castle on a chessboard”. He added, “the script and performances were delightful, especially the rapport between Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) along with the impeccable use of the colour and detail in the sets and costumes”.
Having failed in our first attempt to get into a screening my colleague Mark Douglas, along with Bristol Film Hub Coordinator Tiffany Holmes and I, engaged a back up plan, which was to walk a short distance to the fantastically named Zoo Palast to try and see what turned out to be a severe Chinese drama entitled Shadow Days (Zhao Dayong). This was a rather unevenly told story about forced abortions resulting from China’s one child policy. The serene and pictorial cinematography and poetic ghostliness clashed jarringly with the brutal social realism that depicted the scenes of state corruption and abuse. The film produced some arresting moments but overall was a rather cumbersome affair to watch, lacking a shocking outrage it seemed to be aiming for. Afterwards, the humbled director (this screening was the world premier) was beckoned to the stage for an atrociously hosted Q&A - another recurrent theme throughout the festival - which (translation problems accepted) gave little further insight into the relevant cultural politics.
Despite the obstacle of the ticketing over the weekend the students saw many of the festival’s highlights. Lauran Carter cited two films as standouts: 71 (Yann Demange) is set in Ireland during the height of the troubles and “deals with the conflict in a double edged manner, refraining from simple black and white assertions, and through a story which was “emotionally entangling”. But even more impressive was N - The Madness of Reason (Peter Krüger) a transnational film that depicts Frenchman’s Raymond Borremans’ obsession with African culture and the Ivory Coast: “The viewer is guided, with Borremans, by the spirit of Africa in a beautiful film with footage that offers a deeper insight into cultural difference and affiliation”.
Luigi Sibona particularly admired two films: Calvary is John McDonagh's follow up to his successful black comedy The Guard which “takes Brendan Gleeson's good priest character to disconcertingly darker avenues”. Framed as a whodunit, “Calvary explores the contemporary distrust of the clergy, and the meaning, or lack of, found in death. Crucially it never gets bogged down in its subtext, constantly delivering jet black humour and an utterly compelling, dense mystery thriller plot.” Luigi also sighted Concerning Violence (Göran Olsson) as “the most innovative and affecting non-fiction film of the last few years. Comprised of archive footage of Africa's liberation and readings from Frantz Fanon, Olsson creates shocking, poetic and deeply affecting piece of nonfiction cinema”. High praise indeed.
Representing a lighter mood Ashton Snow saw French fantasy animation Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (Mathias Malzieu, Stéphane Berla) based on an illustrated novel and concept album made by rock band Dionysos. The bittersweet tale set in 19th century Scotland left her “emotionally exhausted” after a “beautiful ending accompanied by peaceful yet haunting music which left the audience (which included many young children) in silence as the credits rolled”. Emma Graham points to the unsettling Thou was mild and Lovely (Josephine Decker) which “Left you unsure how to you feel” as a sweet love story “takes a shocking and bizarre plot twist. Visually there were some beautiful shots but too much transitioning in focus undermined this”. Emma’s final comment “I would have to watch twice to understand but it’s a film you can only watch once” perhaps sums up its enigmatic effect.
One of the most pleasurable aspects of going to the Berlinale is dashing to different parts of the city to see films in different cinemas. Many of the filmpalasts we visited representative of the changing architectural styles in different time periods, but and are also symbolic of Berlin’s politically divided past. Yes, there are many generic multiplexes carbon copied throughout the world. But grandly named edifices like The International and The Colosseum are huge monuments of utilitarian modernist design, which attempted to imbue a futuristic ambiance but now, from 2014, seem very dated. But this is no criticism. Entering these buildings to watch a film one gets a greater sense of the cultural value of cinema. Perhaps it is nostalgia for a past that only exists in the romantic imaginary but these arenas suggest a time before the soulless corporate revenue stream culture of contemporary cinema exhibition. Their magnitude and sumptuousness, along with design idiosyncrasies, adds a real sense of place, and therefore occasion, to a film screening.
The viewing highlight for me was Michael Gondry’s beautifully crafted documentary about the academic and political commentator Noam Chomsky Is the man who is tall happy? Gondry’s films always venture in some way into the realm of human consciousness and here the director actually sets out an epistemological reasoning for using animation at the start of the film. The areas that his conversations with Chomsky broach – the nature of reality as it is perceived by the human mind - undermined the possibility of using live action is it assumes notions of ‘truth’ in a manipulative way. Gondry wanted to remind the viewer that they are watching a construct, and allied to this, the animation allowed the director to visually assist in explaining the complex conceptual ideas that are the hallmark of Chomsky’s work. The film succeeded therefore in creating a form of accessibility into some very difficult ideas.
Michel Gondry was at the screening for an audience Q&A and I was looking forward to hearing him discuss the film. This was, however, another example of a rather badly run session, if also somewhat amusing. Firstly a rather austere and disinterested man introduced him as “Michael” Gondry, which drew laughs from the audience. The director took this in good humour. However, during the Q&A after the film – which was again monopolised by the host – the same man who had announced his name incorrectly interrupted Gondry in full flow and said in a thick, monotone German accent “you must stop now.” Gondry replied on the mic “you are a very rude man. You didn’t know my name when you announced me and now you stop me from answering the audience’s questions.” This statement drew a round of applause from the audience and the clearly unhappy French director and festival judge put the microphone down and walked out.
Travelling back home and talking to the students they all seemed to enjoy the weekend, equally for the cultural experience of Berlin as much as the film festival. Lauren Carter stated that the “forums and Q&As with directors/writers/producers gives extra insight into the films. Having a chance to speak to people directly from the industry is priceless for film students. Also the independence and self-confidence this trip has given me is irreplaceable and I gained courage form having independent time within the city.” I think this sentiment epitomises the value of the trip in that it lies beyond instrumental outcomes and is more about developing one’s independence and confidence. I, and I’m sure many others, are already looking forward to next year.