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The Berlinale Blog: Traditionalist vs. experimentalist

An understandable, easily accessible movie is not always better than its stunning, confounding neighbor. Zhuo-Ning Su takes a look at two stylistically vastly different films at this year's Berlinale.

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Elser

When a film clearly has its heart in the right place, doesn’t make particularly damning mistakes and is all-around likable, educational, even a little purgatorial, you obviously want to endorse it. But a technically accomplished and thematically important movie like Elser (13 Minutes) could also feel so standard, rehearsed, so exasperatingly safe you just can’t seem to get worked up about it.

Screening out of competition, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s latest work sees him returning to WWII territory which helped him gain worldwide renown in Der Untergang (Downfall) a decade ago. This time around the focus is on Georg Elser, a fun-loving everyman from the south who ventured one of the most famous assassination attempts on Hitler. The film starts literally with a ticking bomb, as we see Elser secure dynamite and a detonation device in place. Of course the plan didn’t pan out and our hero ended up in detention. Convinced he couldn’t have pulled off the attack by himself, NS-officers proceed with extreme interrogations, shedding light on an ordinary individual with an extraordinary life in the process.

In many ways reminiscent of this year’s Oscar contender The Imitation Game, this movie occupies itself with a personality well worth knowing and does so with skill and great care. The narrative is meticulous and orderly, guiding the viewer ever closer to an unlikely resistance fighter. The performance by lead actor Christian Friedel as a womanizer-turned-political-assassin is technically sound and the mood-setting score appropriately brooding/menacing. On the whole, however, the storytelling is so conservative it evoke serious Nazi-film-fatigue, as in the case of the Benedict Cumberbatch-starred film with traditional Oscar-season biopics. Although its opening scene is charged with an exhilarating, unexpected thriller sensibility, the film slowly but surely sinks back into a very familiar arc that does what it’s supposed to do but affords no surprises whatsoever.        

On the other end of the spectrum we have films that are wholly unconventional, that follow no customary narrative pattern and don’t care if you can keep up. One (not so extreme) example at this year’s Berlinale would be the futuristic/existential drama H., which screens in the Forum section.  

Written and directed by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, the film is told through two parallel storylines both featuring a main female character named Helen. An old woman fixated on nursing plastic babies finds her husband missing after a fishing trip in one. In another, a young couple coping with the disappointment of a false pregnancy starts experiencing physical changes after a meteorite strike. Stringing its total of four chapters together are furthermore shots featuring the head of a large sculpture. In short, you learn very quickly the three-act routine is probably not in order and logic might not be the best way to approach this thing. Without those safety nets, it takes an open mind to experience something this foreign, instinctual, entirely its own.    

While it’s certainly a little frustrating, for some even downright infuriating, not to have all the questions answered in a movie, the two filmmakers here are able to describe a visual landscape pregnant with meaning by using a highly evocative cinematic language. The sleek, wintry art direction keeps you constantly intrigued, as do the numerous symbolic icons scattered throughout the picture. And although this kind of idiosyncratic experiment with narrative and style tends to allow for multiple, open-ended interpretations, the movie’s central themes of loneliness, detachment and the overpowering need to escape are conveyed with impressive clarity and urgency.

Elser (13 Minutes) screens Feb 13, 9.30 (Friedrichstadt-Palast), Feb 13, 12.00 (Haus der Berliner Festspiele), Feb 13, 18.00 (Friedrichstadt-Palast).

H. screens Feb 13, 19.30 (Zoo Palast 2), Feb 14, 20.00 (Colosseum 1).