Alone in Berlin
So what day is it again? Stress, malnutrition, sleep deprivation and a general sense of disorientation are part of any legitimate film festival experience. Making work a bit harder still is sitting through hours of disappointing to underwhelming work.
One must ask, for example, what business does the nonsensical and supremely boring Crosscurrent (Chang Jiang Tu) have being in the competition lineup. Hailing from China, the experimental love story traces, for the most part, young man Gao Chun’s (played by Qin Hao) journey upstream on the Yangtze River, looking for the ever-elusive An Lu (Xin Zhi Lei). But even such a brief synopsis is partly intuited, thanks to the muddled and gracelessly fragmented way in which the movie unfolds.
Apparently jumping between past and present, the real and imagined, the glacially-paced drama is not big on matters like coherence, context or, God forbid, plot. We don’t get to find out the characters’ background or intentions on any meaningful level. When they’re not busy speaking the most random things on their minds or nothing at all, they refer to themselves in the third person in lengthy voice-overs or recite poems. And yes, poems do seem to hijack the whole film as they take up a disproportionately large portion of the spoken lines and are obsessively reprinted on screen.
Despite his utter failure to communicate or emote, writer/director Yang Chao at least brought a seriousness to the project that prevented it from becoming a complete frivolity à la last year’s Gone with the Bullets. But that doesn’t justify the considerable discomfort one suffers sitting through the mumbling mess. Re-thinking what by now feels like an unwritten quota for Chinese film is in order.
Faring somewhat better is the English-language Nazi-resistance drama Alone in Berlin, adapted from the literary bestseller by Hans Fallada, Jeder stirbt für sich allein. “Better” is of course a relative term, considering how the merits of selecting this picture for the main Competition – besides its name cast and Berlin setting – are still questionable.
The story about a middle-age couple who’ve just lost their son in battle and decided to expose the lies of Hitler’s propaganda machine doesn’t stray far from your typical Nazi-movie narrative: the brutality of an evil regime, the civil courage of the few, even the crisis of conscience that leads to a death at the end you can also see from a mile away.
Swiss-born director Vincent Perez is smart to inject a major dose of genre sensibility into the proceedings. A circular chase down the elevator shaft, an almost run-in on the tram could have been lifted from a David Fincher thriller and proved satisfying despite the evident attempt at amped-up tension.
Veteran thespians Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson are better than the material they’ve been given. The former’s stoic stance, cracked open only rarely by any signs of hurt, is a wall of dignity and strength. The latter’s expression of quiet desperation and instant, cold realisation wrenches the heart no matter how corny the scenario.
It's a shame then, to see such outstanding individual aspects and moments failing to overcome the film’s overall averageness.
Crosscurrent | Tue, Feb 16, 20:30, Sun, Feb 21, 14:45, Haus der Berliner Festspiele
Alone in Berlin | Tue, Feb 16, 18:00, Friedrichstadt-Palast; Thu, Feb 18, 18:30, Babylon (Kreuzberg)