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Berlinale Diary 2012: Part Three

Finally! It took a ski-stealing kid to raise the bar for films selected to be in competition. Ursula Meier’s L’enfant D’en Haut (Sister) tells an intriguing story with well-composed twists, starring brilliant actors Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux (who really gets to show how talented she is) as Simon and Louise. Twelve year old Simon spends the winter days up on the mountain snatching skis and other sports equipment to sell in order to make a living. When asked about the whereabouts of his parents, he explains how they died in a car accident and that he now lives with his sister. Simon and Louise’s relationship constantly shifts between battle and tenderness. Meier captures her story full of contradictions and struggle with a narrative and visual ease going into great depth. (I purposefully choose to be a little cryptic with this description, as spoiling too much would ruin the first time experience of this beautifully constructed film). Equally strong, yet completely different in its approach, idea and composition, is Werner Herzog’s Death Row, which dedicates a set of four portraits to the topic of the capital punishment, which was also the focus of Into The Abyss from last year. Besides the fact that Herzog is a profound interviewer, what’s so striking about the four episodes is the equality with which he treats every single one of his interviewees, whether they are attorneys, inmates, or family members. Ultimately that is how he manages to take on the subject beyond a simple consideration of right and wrong. Herzog spares us a polemic commentary and instead offers a very intimate and human view.

In complete opposite to the sensitivity Herzog has on his subject is Zhang Yimou’s Jin Líng Shí San Chai (The Flowers of War). Contrary to what you might believe to be possible, the film manages to continuously get worse with every minute that passes. (This excludes the first ten minutes, in which Christian Bale showcases some unwitting comedic chops.) Set in Nanking in 1937 during the Japanese invasion, it tells the story of Bale as John Miller reluctantly taking on the role of the protector for schoolgirls and prostitutes who have sought refuge at Winchester Cathedral. While the subject itself could have lead to a very intense filmic experience, it is merely used for dramatic exploitation. What’s so troublesome is the story presented seeks to be a touching and serious drama and ends up being an ironically predictable, depthless film with a worn out story and stereotypes on every level possible.

By contrast, the first film from Dutch director Sasha Polak, Hemel, is remarkably refreshing. The film’s title character (played by Hannah Hoekstra) goes through men with the frequency in which other people blink with their eyes. Polak’s film gives a very precise portrait of this young woman, her relationship with her father and the men she sleeps with; at its core, it’s about sexuality as a measure of absolute provocation. On that note, it does seem as if sex is one of the connecting threads in the films that I end up watching. It also featured in the last film of today, yet in a very subordinate role and by no means as central or present as in some other films I’ve seen: Alexey Mizgirev’s The Convoy, from Russia, which also had the distinction of leaving me utterly lost. It might be due to the fact that it was the last one of yet another image packed day. I could give a quick rundown of the events taking place during the film’s 81 minutes but that still wouldn’t help the fact that I can not make sense of the whole. Perhaps it will come together for me tomorrow as I retrace the film in my mind, but for now I will have to leave it at that, paired with the realization that it’s already halftime and the list of what to see does not get any shorter!

Merle Fischer

Visit the official website for the Berlinale Film Festival

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