It wouldn’t be the Berlinale without a couple of controversial films pushing the envelope and heating up debates.
This year, the competition title that most violently divided opinion is probably Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s unsparing, breathlessly tense survival drama U – JULY 22. Using fictional characters drawn from real-life people and events, it recreates the massacre that took place on the island of Utøya outside Oslo on July 22, 2011 which claimed 69 lives. In real time and one single, stupendous take, we’re made to relive the 72 interminable minutes spent by the (mostly young) attendants of the local Labor Party’s summer camp as they were hunted down by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik.
From the brief description alone you can tell this is not an easy movie to sit through. The dynamic, closely observant handheld camera, the complete lack of editing and of course the still vivid memory of the well-publicized tragedy itself take much of the distance away that usually separates a film from its viewer. So you’re right there with 19-year-old counselor Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) as she tries to make sense of a suddenly, imminently mortal danger, find her missing sister and stay alive. It’s a sweat-inducing, heart-sinking type of visceral, immersive experience like you seldom get in cinemas.
Obviously there’s an ethical dilemma here. Is it respectful, tasteful or even decent to stage and simulate such unspeakable horrors? How do you justify the use of any narrative tools in this context and how can you avoid the objectification of carnage? When do you stop honoring and start cheapening, exploiting the memory of the dead? All fair questions with no easy answers. It’s not surprising that many feel sickened and outraged by a movie they call immoral, repulsive, dangerous.
It’s worth noting that the screenplay of U – JULY 22 was developed in close consultation with the survivors of the attack. The decision to shoot this movie entirely from the perspective of the victims as a way to tell their story – as opposed to the story of a depraved, now infamous sociopath – was apparently met with approval. In strictly cinematic terms (to the extent that art can ever be considered independent of its implications), this decision proved highly effective. Throughout the film, we only get two fleeting glances of the killer, although his presence, announced by the deafening shots and the screams of people scrambling by, is constantly felt. The first time we actually see him – or rather just a blurry figure walking past – when Kaja is trying to hide with an injured companion and not make a sound, they don’t even need to tell you who that is, you just instinctively know because it’s the only one who’s not running. A pure moment of horror if there ever was one.
Berntzen, making her on-screen debut, carries the movie with astonishing poise and versatility. With no breaks in between, she has to go from one emotional extreme to the other, build herself up and be completely dismantled time and again, in one unbroken take. We are her in this living nightmare and she makes us feel everything. Martin Otterbeck’s cinematography is unreal. Dashing, ducking, leaping, trembling, the camera is always on the move, always surveying the landscape and recording the scent of fear hanging in the air. You can’t not be swept away by the sheer superiority of skill on display here. I have problems with certain parts of the film where the perfect illusion is compromised by lesser performances in supporting roles or a slight implausibility in scenario, but overall the feat of filmmaking achieved by Poppe and Co. is – to me – undeniable.
Another competition film that seriously put people off on the one hand AND won raves on the other is Filipino auteur Lav Diaz’s SEASON OF THE DEVIL. While many criticize the camerawork on U – JULY 22, comparing its hyperactivity and microscopic attention to snuff porn, the fact that the camera hardly ever moves in the 4-hour (!) black-and-white Filipino musical (!) about human rights violations under the Marcos regime during the 1970’s isn’t well received either. Indeed, judging from the waves of walk-outs at the Berlinale press screening, this is the film that finally breaks even hardcore festival journos who make it a rule to never walk out of ANYTHING.
Can you blame them? No. Diaz’s films are a tiny niche all their own and with this latest addition he may well have made the most difficult one to appreciate yet. As per usual, there’s little linear narrative going on. Events jump around in chronology a bit and you’re often unsure how somebody relates to everyone else. Many scenes feature seemingly random characters carrying out – in great detail – seemingly pointless tasks. All of them are statically shot, so that the already deliberate pace of the storytelling gains an added level of visual stagnancy. The biggest difference this time is a collection of original songs performed throughout the picture.
This being a Lav Diaz joint, obviously there’s no music. So technically all the songs are sung a cappella. Those looking for PITCH PERFECT will find themselves in a very different kind of film, though. Some of these compositions are less combinations of melody and lyrics than lines delivered with arbitrary notes attached to them. And even then the actors don’t always hit those notes. This leaves a borderline parodic impression of amateurism that will probably stun most viewers, especially in the first two hours.
At the risk of being the pretentious smart-ass, however, I would argue that SEASON OF THE DEVIL is leagues above the insufferable bore many critics make it out to be. Yes, there’s tedium, disharmony, repetitiveness to the way the songs are composed and used in the film. But at the end of the day the purpose of these songs is not to entertain but to characterize and mock a totalitarian regime, and to lament the injustice suffered by the people. The simplistic, jarringly cheerful “La la la la la” chorus of one such song performed by the paramilitary officers over and over again, for example, proves to be a particularly brilliant satiric touch.
The same tragicomic devices can be found in the portrayal of the fictional dictator in the story, who literally barks at his followers (with no subtitles), and how the government goes about spreading fear and superstition as a way to solidify its control over civilians. Also, as with his other films, after a certain point you do start to feel this curious sensation of being inside a space/time warp – not as extreme as with the 8-hour A LULLABY TO THE SORROWFUL MYSTERY (2016), which also premiered in Berlin and won the Alfred Bauer Award for “opening new perspectives on cinematic art” under Meryl Streep’s jury, but it sure gets trippy (in a delicious way).
I realize watching this movie would be the very definition of torture to many and cannot in good conscience recommend it to everyone out there, but I do believe that those who put themselves through all 234 minutes of it with an open mind will be rewarded with not just a powerful, metaphorically rich ending, but a form of cinematic expression so uniquely its own we probably don’t have all the vocabulary to talk about it yet.
If banging the drum for SEASON OF THE DEVIL makes you a masochistic fraud and endorsing U – JULY 22 means you get off on misery porn, I’m afraid to know what it says about someone if they dare to like German director Philip Gröning’s MY BROTHER’S NAME IS ROBERT AND HE IS AN IDIOT (yes, that title itself deserves an award).
Set in the German countryside over a hot summer weekend, the 3-hour drama feels like an illegitimate child of Terrence Malick and Larry Clark, with an extra helping of incestuous content thrown in there just to make sure nothing else beats it to WTF-glory this year. The story – if there is one – revolves around teenage twin brother and sister Robert and Elena. From the get-go we are informed of their relation and within five minutes we’re seeing them naked in bed, her casually stroking his genitals. Spoiler: this is not the weirdest/wrongest thing to happen in this film.
Compared to its shocking finale, the first half of MY BROTHER actually goes by in a rather harmless, dreamily photographed daze. Elena is taking her high school graduation exam in philosophy on Monday and Robert is helping her clear up some basic concepts. They lie in the grass, drink beers, harass the cashier of the gas station nearby, exchange ideas on the meaning of time. Shot stream-of-consciousness style free-flowing from glimpses of natural scenery to extended philosophical discourses and back, the resulting looseness of structure and stiffness of tone are admittedly dreary, if never less than cryptically intriguing. Then, out of nowhere, Elena proposes a bet that she can find someone to sleep with before the weekend’s out.
Does that indecent proposal have anything to do with the rest of the story? Maybe, maybe not. The screenplay, marked by an overall arbitrariness that many will find lazy, gives us little context with regard to the siblings’ motivations for doing what they do. One would be hard pressed to comprehend, let alone relate to their ever more appalling and diabolic behavior at any point.
Its frustrating impenetrability aside, the film is nothing if not extraordinarily directed, with its last act, in particular, being a volcanic burst of pizzazz. Building on hours of optical, intellectual tease, violence, sex, nihilistic pursuits that challenge the essence of humanity finally collide inside a gas station to deadly consequences. Gröning’s visual and conceptual design for the way things play out as well as for that final shot in a classroom is so (perversely) striking and executed with such cold, slick precision, the images are likely to haunt you long after the credits rolled.
To varying degrees I admired all of the three provocative, divisive and wildly different films mentioned above, and I’m curious to see if Tom Tykwer’s jury will be one to embrace controversies and ruffle some feathers with their choices tomorrow. Of course there are also films that crossed the line for me, but generally I’m excited and thankful for filmmakers who dare to experiment and push boundaries. In terms of Oscar prospects, SEASON OF THE DEVIL and MY BROTHER’S NAME IS ROBERT AND HE IS AN IDIOT are way too outré for these things, but if U – JULY 22 triumphs on Saturday, I would definitely keep an eye out for it as a Foreign Language Oscar contender next year.