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The Berlinale Blog: Hopeless desire

Hopeless desire was the common thematic denominator amongst yesterday's premieres for one of our bloggers and while far from hopeless, Giovanni Marchini Camia finds his own cinematic yearnings left somewhat wanting.

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“Paradies: Hoffnung”

A number of today’s premieres featured protagonists beset by hopeless desires. Of these, two contend for the Berlinale’s famous Teddy Awards, which since 1987 have been awarded to films that address LGBT issues.

The first, screening in Panorama, is Lose Your Head, co-written and directed by Stefan Westerwelle and Patrick Schuckmann. Following a tiff with his boyfriend, Luis (Fernando Tielve) escapes from Madrid for a weekend of fun in Berlin, seeking the excitement and new experiences that his “boring” partner is unable to provide. It’s immediately clear that Lose Your Head endeavours to be the ultimate Berlin film, as it checks off every cliché like it’s hurrying through a list: with minimal techno blasting on the soundtrack, Luis takes the S-Bahn from Schönefeld airport to Warschauer Straße, drops his bag off at a boat hostel and heads straight to a club, gets sneered at by locals for being “yet another Spaniard,” negotiates his way through the infamous club door politics, snorts drugs in a bathroom stall, ends up at a comedown session in someone’s WG (= flat share), lands at another club, takes more drugs, etc. etc. – all of this occurs in the first10 minutes.

The rest of the film follows a half-baked plot in which Luis falls in love with an illegal immigrant named Viktor (Marko Mandic) who may or may not have killed Dimitri (Jan Amazigh Sid), a recently disappeared Greek boy with an uncanny physical resemblance to Luis. Forsaking all logic and plausibility, Lose Your Head devolves into a staggeringly ludicrous finale with the purpose of imparting the following groundbreaking piece of wisdom: watch out, you can lose yourself – or your head – in hedonism.

Far more likely to snatch the Teddy Award is Malgoska Szumowska’s Competition entry W imie… (In the Name Of). Back after opening last year’s Panorama section with her previous film Elles, Szumowska’s latest centres on Adam, a priest in charge of a parish in a desolate Polish backwater. Having set up a halfway house for youth recently out of reformatory, he offers stern but fair guidance to the troubled boys under his care. One day, a local woman asks him the reason why he was assigned to their village – surely it must be a punishment to be sent away from Warsaw to this unenviable posting. What eventually transpires is that Adam is gay and that accusations of molesting an altar boy resulted in his transferral. As he grows closer to one of his young charges and his façade becomes increasingly brittle, he is confronted by an upsurge of intolerance against him.

Despite a really strong first half, striking cinematography throughout and a stellar performance by Andrzej Chyra in the role of Adam, W imie… fails to realize the potential of its themes. Once Adam’s sexuality is revealed, the film seems at a loss where to go next, meandering into an unsatisfying finale that lacks all of the subtlety that up to that point had made the story and characters so convincing and nuanced. Most problematic is the oblique reference to the recent child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. In an emotional outburst, Adam yells at his sister that he is “a faggot, not a paedophile!” Suggesting that the priests accused of molesting altar boys were the victims of homophobic stigmatization may hold truth with regards to some isolated cases; as presented here, however, it constitutes a regrettable relativization of this extremely contentious issue.

Finally, Ulrich Seidl’s much-anticipated Paradies: Hoffnung (Paradise: Hope) also screened in Competition today. While not eligible for a Teddy, the concluding instalment of the Paradise trilogy offers yet another take on impossible desire. Here Melanie (Melanie Lenz), the 13-year-old girl seen at the beginning of Paradies: Liebe (Paradise: Love), is sent to fat camp while her mother is off on her wretched endeavour to find love in Kenya. Melanie’s hopeless desire, however, does not involve losing weight, but her first crush, which to her misfortune happens to be on the camp’s middle-aged doctor (Joseph Lorenz), whose conscience when it comes to coveting children is far less clean than the Polish priest’s.

Those that are familiar with the rest of the trilogy will know what to expect: clinical cinematography characterized by meticulous and symmetry-obsessed tableau shots, wholly unappealing characters doing horrible things to one another, unsettling and ethically fraught humour, and an escalation of horrifying events leading up to a vicious and traumatizing climax. However, with the victims here being children – many of them barely pubescent – the level of discomfort is raised to an almost unbearable pitch as we watch scene after scene of heavily overweight and always scantily dressed kids humiliate themselves for an artistic purpose that becomes ever more difficult to legitimate or even pin down.