Berlin Wrapup : Six From The Archive

includes Slow Summer/1976, Clinch/1978, The Dancing Hawk/1977, Araya/1959, Stars of the Day/1968 and Little Valentino/1979.

Neil Young

(Neil Young's Film Lounge), 2nd June, 2009

Of the three biggest European film-festivals — Cannes, Venice and Berlin — it's the German event which invariably provides the largest number of "archive" films, with older titles popping up in all of the sections (outside Competition) as well as an annual retrospective and a tribute.

This year there was also strand dedicated to films made in eastern Europe in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall — 'After Winter Comes Spring' — and lurking among the features was a real gem, indeed the best thing I saw from any era, past or present, at the Berlinale 2009. This was The Dancing Hawk by Grzegorz Krolikiewicz, an utterly berserk and unclassifiable chronicle of an ambitious schlub's rise from the meanest of rural beginnings through the ranks of the country's all-powerful Communist party through the 50s, 60s and 70s.

A relentlessly inventive visual and aural assault on the viewer, it presumably got past official censorship bodies because they had no idea what to make of it. But there's no mistaking the sheer sledgehammer force of Krolikiewicz's satire — his script based on a novel by Julian Kawalec — as our unasumming "hero" Michal Toporny (played with just the right kind of offhand deadpan by Franciszed Trzeciak) glides into positions of power despite (or, to coin a cliche, perhaps because of) his utter lack of principles, morals or conscience. The picture hits the ground running with the demented brio of the most avant-garde shorts, but somehow manages to maintain its momentum, with only a couple of brief dips. to feature-length — not least because of its head-spinningly bravura camerawork from cinematographer Zbigniew Rybczynski, though the hyper-brisk editing by Jadwiga Ignatczenko and Halina Nawrocka deserves at least as much mention.

"Terry Gilliam's Mirror" is how I summed up The Dancing Hawk to a friend as I emerged from the cinema, dazed and delighted by a film which, from its discombobulating opening image (what you take to be a studio "ident" turns out to be nothing of the sort) to its sublimely beautiful final shot, is way ahead of its time and a superb example of a director exploring the farthest limits of what the medium can do. This is a lost masterpiece - one whose Berlinale screenings will, if there's any justice, propel Kroliekiewicz (who's still with us) into the limelight his talents deserve.

Of the half-dozen or so titles I caught in 'After Winter Comes Spring', The Dancing Hawk was by far the most impressive. But there was also much to like about the rather more sedate Hungarian picture Little Valentino, which follows a twentyish bloke as he loafs around Budapest at the dog-end of the seventies. Freckly, amoral, late-teenage Laci (aptly dismissed at one stage as a "snotty youth") isn't exactly the most colourful, intelligent or engaging of individuals — the main thing is that he's so mobile around the city, restlessly exploring (mostly somnolent) neighbourhoods, hanging out in bars and restaurants, casually interacting with various "street characters."

In this manner director JELES Andras constructs a portrait of a time and place that, while unassuming, is more than a little Joycean in its attention to city/character detail: Little Ulysses, if you like. And it's surprising just how "un-grim" so much of it feels. While clearly no paradise, the Hungary of the late seventies certainly doesn't feel like the Communist, police-state nightmare so frequently imagined by observers in the west.

Shooting in warm, vaguely sepia-ish black and white, Jeles' biggest stylistic "flourish" is to have words appearing on the screen — sometimes right in the middle — which we take to be glimpses into Laci's thought-processes, a stream-of-consciousness that sometimes coincides with the dialogue (serving to emphasise certain key phrases: 'We're not Rothschilds') but is mostly functioning an oblique, slightly gimmicky "commentary" on events.

Notably well-cast and well-acted even in the smallest of roles, the film — which recalls both Scorsese's Mean Streets and Bill Forsyth's roughly contemporary That Sinking Feeling (with its mercantile hagglings and quick-buck schemings — has a nicely improvised sort of feel. Overheard conversations, radio-broadcasts and snatches of dialogue ("a new romanticism — that's what we need") accumulate in a picture that achieves gritty social-realistic verisimilitude with a poetic, haphazard, offbeat undercurrent. And the last shot, involving a rickety Budapest street-tram, is rather terrific.

Slow Summer

Over on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Forum section showcased two newly-restored features by the Canadian-born, "Viennese by choice" John Cook, who in the 1970s segued from fashion photography to low-budget cinema with Slow Summer (1976) and then Clinch (1978) — both of them fascinating as time-capsules but still impressively fresh and funny. Slow Summer is marginally the pick of the pair, in which Cook (in his late thirties) plays himself - a would-be photographer who can't quite get his first feature completed.

Hanging out with his younger drinking-buddy Helmut (mid-twenties), he views the 8mm footage he shot in the "slow summer" of 1971 — not that the summer of 1975 is any speedier. As Cook and Helmut watch and chat about the 1971 material, what we end up with is in effect a DVD commentary some 20 years avant la lettre, and there's much profitable confusion in several scenes as it's rather tricky to know when we are.

There's no doubt about the 'where', however: this is emphatically Vienna, but a world away from the tourist vistas of Hapsburg splendour. Instead, Cook evocatively — and, despite his on-camera alter-ego's creative travails - apparenly effortlessly socks over a bohemian milieu of artists, layabouts, money-men, elusive women, schlubs, his 8mm cameras achieving an entirely organic-feeling domestic intimacy with his subjects, including himself. 

His boozy, skirt-chasing romantic mishaps give Slow Summer something of a Confessions of a Randy Fashion Photographer air at times, but the movie is none the worse for that - indeed, it functions very nicely as a self-deprecating, self-lacerating comedy with unforced socio-economic undertones. Cook comes across as a particularly natural, unforced kind of film-maker — it's all too rare to find such artistry and likeability in a single package.

His follow-up, Clinch moves away from (fairly) naked autobiography towards more straightforward fiction — the story of a discontented city-parks gardener who doesn't fit into the cosy Austrian society he observes at first hand. Reminiscent of Charles Bukowski's square-peg protagonist from Factotum, feckless, wiry, pint-sized twentysomething Hermann Holub (Hermann Juranek) drifts half-heartedly into a romance — and ultimately an ill-advised marriage — while conducting a slow-burning, largely passive "war" against his society's all-pervasive bourgeois values.

Rather more elusive and slick than the amiably rough-edged Slow Summer, Clinch's restrained analysis of an individual and his society cuts deceptively deep - even if its glum-faced protagonist emerges as something of a luckless, hapless, aimless doofus with a teenager's surly defiance. "All you've got to be these days is efficient," he drily observes... "that, I am."

Hats off to the Austrian Filmmuseum for restoring the two Cook films - they also have an outstanding value DVD available {link}, which contains both pictures plus his earlier mid-length work from 1972-3, Ich schaff's einfach nimmer. The same organisation is also responsible for a fine book {link} on the film-maker — half of which is in German (essays by academics and critics), half in English (Cook's own autobiography, never previously published — co-edited by Olaf Möller, whose excellent article on Cook for Canadian magazine CinemaScope is available online: {link}

The Forum's other big restoration was the documentary Araya by Margot Benacerraf, which has only been very sparingly screened - for technical and legal reasons — since its 1959 premiere. Of course, just because a movie is hard to see doesn't make it any kind of masterpiece, and while it's great that Milestone Films should have gone to so much effort to piece together the most complete version of the picture ever assembled, it has to be said that the passing decades haven't been especially kind to this much-discussed, seldom-seen chronicle of salt-harvesters in a remote coastal village.

Though strikingly shot by Giuseppe Nisoli — remarkably, this seems to be his only film credit — the film is saddled by a repetitive, near-incessant, pseudo-philosophical voiceover that reminds us, again and again and again, that "the sea is the only source of life" in these parts. It's fascinating to watch the day-to-day lives of the Araya villagers, nearly all of whom — including children — are involved in the labour-intensive business of turning salt-water into salt. But after a while the viewing experience starts to become increasingly frustrating, as Benacerraf's distanced approach keeps us at a remove from the Arayans - hardly any of whom get to express their point of view.

Instead, we get the voiceover's God-like omniscience, droning on about how "it was a land of fabulous wealth, this land where nothing changes," or, commenting on youngster Tonico, informing us that the salt-work "will be the sole memory of his childhood." Really? The sole memory? And if this is a "land where nothing changes", what happened to that "fabulous wealth"? It doesn't seem much in evidence in the hardscrabble, toil-dominated world of the Arayans. "It has always been so," we are portentously assured, and it does seem as though Benacerraf is content with a situation that strikes the present-day viewer as an old-fashioned example of labour-exploitation. Who are the unseen beneficiaries of these working practices? Who pays the wages, organises the transportation of the salt? We're never told.

And when, in the final minutes (in what amounts to a rather jarring structural "trick") modernity and mechanisation rather rudely enters the scene, the soundtrack — previously blandly melodic — gives way to harsh discord, as if what we're watching is the traumatic shattering of a peaceful, happy existence by the bulldozing forces of Progress. But what we've seen of Araya is most definitely not some kind of innocent, pre-industrial situation - rather a siren-regulated, pittance-waged bosses' paradise ("Can anyone think of choosing?" ... "Leave?  Benito thinks about it. But where to?") Benacerraf's script drones on and on about the rituals of work, the fact that all life comes from the sea — but is oddly reticent when it comes to the practicalities, the finances, the Arayan's own perspectives.

Though punctuated with sequences — largely wordless — of invaluable ethnographic and anthropological interest, and moments of visual bravura (especially the 360-degree pan around fishing-boats, tracing an intricate network of labour), these do feel like the aestheticisation of poverty and perhaps even misery. Though seemingly made with sound intentions, as a means of showing the world a "hidden" phenomenon behind a taken-for-granted food-additive, Araya ultimately feels like a missed opportunity — one whose evasions and emphases might nudge even the most easy-going of viewers towards a Marxist consternation. The pill may be sugared for our consumption — but there's no masking the bitter saline aftertaste.

Half a world away — geographically and politically — from Araya's capitalist microcosm stands Stars of the Day, a Soviet Union production shown in the Berlinale's laboriously-curated Retrosepctive of 70mm movies, 'Bigger Than Life.' I'd hoped to catch several of these but in the end this was the only one I managed to see — albeit in the DDR-era splendour of the International cinema on Karl Marx Allee. This vast one-screen auditorium — complete with colossal, shimmering milky-white spangly curtain — proved ideal for Igor Talankin's sombre study of defiance and resistance set during the siege of Leningrad during WWII.

The focus is on poet Olga Bergholtz (Alla Demidova), who flashes back to her time in the city while receiving an award a couple of decades later. Bergholtz had maintained morale with a series of radio broadcasts - on the basis that "the bravest people are scared when the radio is quiet." The film is episodic and elliptical, audaciously blending realistic recreations of the brutal siege conditions (intense cold, hunger, attrition - "shall we crawl up, sisters?") with Bergholtz's poetic flights of fancy — many of the latter involving bloody episodes from Russia's past.

Built around a terrific, tough performance from Demidova, as good an incarnation of "triumphant patience" as cinema has ever found, the results resemble a cross between Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror and Andrei Rublev — and are oddly gripping even when it's not always easy to get a handle on exactly what's going on, when, and to whom. Her face a pallid putty-green, Demidova shows us the sombre seriousness of tough lives, lived at the very edge of one's nerves, in a period of crisis painfully stretched over many months.

And while it's very much the story of an individual, there's also the strong sense of collective, community effort — in the proper Soviet style - including a touching epilogue in which real citizens are seen gathering at a war-memorial to reflect and remember. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's wartime phantasmagoria Slaughterhouse-Five, Bergholtz is "unglued in time", seeming to exist in multiple epochs simultaneously.

From her perspective, all is dew-heavy with allegorical and symbolic significance, and while the movie occasionally threatens to buckle under the freight of deep-time historical significance, it has a dream-like airiness that unifies its disparate threads. Not to mention the sheer force of nature that is Demidova/Bergholtz: her reveries - soundtracked by rumbling, Russian-soulful chorales — a four-dimensional matrix of memories and associations, fragments shored against her ruin and the downfall of her nation. "To embrace absolutely everything... keep it close so it won't disappear."