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Day 5: Berlinale Competition – What’s hot and what’s not

Read up on the latest and not-so greatest films in the Berlinale Competiton section.

Toby Jones in 'First Cow'
Photo courtesy of © Allyson Riggs/A24

As we race past the half-way point of this year’s Berlinale public screenings, some potential winners and losers have already shown their hands in this week’s Competition section. Let’s check out a few likely contenders for either rubies or raspberries.

What’s hot: First Cow

Foraging for food in the Oregon woods “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) finds the cowering, naked form of King-Lu (Orion Lee) in the bushes. On the run from some Russians, one of whom King-Lu may have killed, Cookie agrees to aid his escape. Meeting up later at the trappers camp, King-Lu invites Cookie to share his cabin and the two become friends. 

Observing the desperate and miserable lives of the camp dwellers, they start making cakes for which the prospectors will pay handsomely. The catch? The milk for the cookies has to be stolen from the cow of fearsomely ruthless Chief Hat as played by Toby Jones. The boys seem to be onto a good thing, but like the rivers in Oregon, good things rarely run straight…

In a slow-paced but intimately shot western, director Kelly Reichardt delivers a merry tale of milking gone awry. With its opening credits announcing the golden participation of Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner, you instantly know you’re in a for a good time. And whilst both guarantee more-than-solid performances, it is actually the quiet bromance of John Magaro as Cookie and Orion Lee as King-Lu that steals the show as they repeatedly make off with the milk.

Employing a tone not dissimilar to John Maclean’s Slow West, the pace here is intentionally languid so that the chill and the monotony of a trapper’s existence can properly seep into your bones. As such, you can expect damp goings-on in the first act as Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond’s script binds you to its motley crew of characters. However, once you hit the second act, where the boys nakedly profiteer from Toby Jones’s vanity for milk in his tea, then everything sells like hotcakes. 

In what ends as a sublimely-hewn comic drama, First Cow is the clear head of the herd when it comes to this year’s comic offerings at the Berlinale. Just like when Toby Jones’s Chief Hat opines that he “can taste London” in the boy’s cakes, you too will be striking gold with this comic gem nestled in amongst the festival schedules. 

Paula Beer in Undine
Photo courtesy of © Christian Schulz/Schramm Film

What’s hot yet cool: Undine

A historian in Berlin’s urban planning department, Undine (Paula Beer) cannot accept that Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) is leaving her. Despite her threatening to kill him, Johannes still takes the risk and leaves her. Unable to process his absence, Undine is instead seduced by the clumsy charms of industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski). However, when Johannes tries later to re-enter Undine’s life, a mysterious sequence of events starts to play out, all of which reveals much more than just Undine’s true feelings…

A German myth based on a French folk-tale, the character and themes of Undine has been visited in numerous productions of opera, ballet, film and literature. However, for Christian Petzold’s 2020 update, the director has chosen to start his version in the third act of its usual narrative.

In terms of story, the character of Undine has an uncanny connection to her job as a historian in Berlin’s Stadtmusesum. For a city that was been built-up on a mediaeval mud plane, it’s like she’s personally witnessed it all before. Disenchanted by the unreliability of love in modern-day Berlin, Undine seems like a wronged, vengeful woman when we meet first her. Expertly portrayed by Paula Beer, her take on Undine has an almost autistic directness in her black and white capacities for passion. When she meets Franz Rogowski’s ruggedly dense Christoph, it’s clearly his lack of presumption that attracts her. Yet when Jacob Matschenz’s Johannes returns, inadvertently kicking over the new feelings that Undine has been building for Christoph, her darker, more obsessive nature comes to the fore.

In an uncomplicated film that clearly telegraphs both symbolism, metaphors and dialogue references, director Christian Petzold wisely conceals Undine’s true nature until the movie’s closing scenes. Yet, in what feels like an almost post-finale addition too far, Undine ventures unnecessarily in the similar, climactic waters of Luc Besson’s The Big Blue. Skipping over a couple of potentially, stronger sign-offs in preference to this drawn-out moment, Undine sadly slightly waters down its own aftertaste.

Yet, with its director regularly shortlisted for awards with films like 2014’s Phoenix and 2018’s Transit, maybe 2020 is the year when Christian Petzold finally takes home the golden bear. With its ultimate adherence-to-myth and Paula Beer’s dead-eyed depiction of a fish-out-water (which in itself might garner a nod for best actress), Undine might be surprisingly drowned in statuettes.

Mawusi Tulani and Agyei Augusto in Todos os mortos | All the Dead Ones
Photo courtesy of © Hélène Louvart/Dezenove Som e Imagens

What’s not: Todos Os Mortos / All The Dead Ones

It’s the end of a millennium in São Paulo, Brazil. The eighteenth-century is disappearing fast but the traditions, hostilities and religious prejudices that have stained Brazilian society refuse to go quietly. Nowhere is this seen more than in the house of Soares. Formerly rich, slave plantation owners, the women of the household are now facing ruin, following the death of their housekeeper. In the first in a series of frantic acts to stop their way of life imploding, frail matriarch Dona Isabel (Thaia Perez) bans her daughter Ana (Carolina Bianchi) from ever leaving the house. Believing that desperate measures are required to cure both her mother and Ana’s disintegrating grasp on reality, Dona Isobel’s other daughter, Catholic nun Maria (Clarissa Kiste) travels to the failing family estate to confront their father. Nevertheless, her purpose for the trip is actually disingenuous. 

Intent on forcing former house slave Iná (Mawusi Tulani) and her son Joao to return to São Paulo with her, Maria blackmails Iná into performing a fake spiritual ritual to ‘heal’ her family. However, when Iná refuses to go through with Maria’s charade, the seeds are then sown for an unravelling of injustices that will have no place in São Paulo’s future.

Ostensibly starting with a documentary-style vignette, Todos os mortos / All the Dead Ones unconvincingly switches to a dramatic narrative for the rest of its two-hour running time. Whilst the acting is all reasonably on key, directors Marco Dutra, Caetano Gotardo wield a brutal cleaver when it comes to their movie’s disjointed manner of storytelling. Abruptly stopping and starting scenes with no clear, discernible thread or coherent character arc to follow, the first hour’s worth of scenes are a fractured and uncommitted affair. Add to this music inserts which randomly burst into life like somebody left the radio on in the back of the set and Todos os mortos progressively kills off any interest you might have had in its going forward.

That said, in its second hour, there are at least two pieces of decently connective tissue=. First is the central relationship of Mawusi Tulani as Iná and her son Joao as played by Agyei Augusto. Recognising that the new century will afford her son more opportunities than she could ever dream of, Iná has to concede that even as a parent, she doesn’t have all the answers. Secondly, Clarissa Kiste gets to grasp the nettle that is the hypocritical Maria, delivering several disquieting scenes of full-on religious xenophobia, all of which hint at some blazing the conflicts to come.

Sadly though, these two performances fall between the keys as Todos os mortos’s stumbling ambition falters as it tries to document the progress of Brazilian society. With a very late attempt at genuine drama, Marco Dutra and Caetano Gotardo’s movie finally overreaches itself with a surreal epitaph that belongs in a different movie.

As Iná herself puts it, “people are not made of sugar” and on this viewing, you shouldn’t expect to take to their taste immediately.