Progress is impossible. Or so declares the title character in Christian Petzold’s Undine (2020). It’s a line that’s haunted me since I heard it at the film’s premiere at this year’s Berlinale: she’s speaking about postmodern architecture and its endless cannibalizing of earlier styles and forms, but it could easily be read as a diagnosis of a type of inertia, either personal or aesthetic. Or of the status of contemporary cinema in general. Or, now, of the state of a human population ravaged by disease and inequity. (Or, subsequently, my own progress in writing up this festival report.) Read retrospectively through the lens of a global lockdown that has cancelled dozens of major film festivals, this pronouncement has taken on new resonance, prompting questions about just what might constitute ®evolution, either personal or collective, at this particular historical waypoint.
A couple of months ago—but for a few idle whispers about the quarantines in Hong Kong and the increasingly dire situation in Italy, and fantastic speculations about a year without film festivals—these concerns seemed far more remote. The question of progress was, instead, being asked about the future of Berlinale’s programming, newly under the leadership of co-directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian. One of the biggest festivals in Europe, and partner to massive parallel industry events like the European Film Market, the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin is a behemoth, and over the past several years the consensus around its creative direction under Dieter Kosslick has turned decidedly sour. The job of a festival this size is, perhaps, less to reinvent cinema than to provide a tent capacious enough to accommodate all types of cinematic output. In this capacity, the 70th edition proved impressive enough, housing everything from Margaret Honda’s immaculate Equinox (2019), a 21-minute fade into and out of monochromatic gray on 70mm, to 500 minutes of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s distended multimedia pageant DAU (2020), with enough room for a comprehensive retrospective of the films of King Vidor.
Some progress was in evidence in the festival’s main competition, which was conspicuously light on perfunctory crowd-pleasers. The standout of the competition was, by some measure, Tsai Ming-liang’s Days (2020), his apparent “return” to the cinema after a pseudo-retirement and a slew of more gallery-centric ventures. Boasting even less of a discernible plot than his last fiction feature, Stray Dogs (2013)—a point telegraphed by an opening title card that explains that the film was left “intentionally unsubtitled” (cue groans from the press)—the experience of the film was, expectedly, viscerally overwhelming: from its sustained shots of Tsai’s main man Lee Kang-sheng sitting, breathing, and staring off into space to its fragments of a young Thai man methodically preparing som tam. This basic setup is not uncomplicated by the asymmetry of the two subjects’ class positions, but this vein is more subtle here than in Tsai’s other work. The focus instead is on the various permutations of (self-) care, via pleasures that are alternately meditative (staring into space or at a cinema screen, cooking) or more questionably transactional (sex tourism). Both rigorous and reassuring, Days implies that both sex and cinema share in the mutual care of the body through the durational sharing of space and time, both in paying spectatorial attention as well as in administering an intensively rendered ass massage.
The crowd-pleasers in the main slate came in somewhat unlikely forms: in Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran (2020)—a film that boasts the funniest in a long line of funny Hong zooms—and in Petzold’s goofily romantic, anomalously light Undine. Petzold’s only funny film, it also marks the first the director has made entirely without the input of his mentor Harun Farocki, who died in 2014, but whose presence remains in evidence through 2018’s Transit. Hauntings are a feature of many of Petzold’s films, but here the past’s inescapability is mapped onto a meet-cute between Franz Rogowski’s industrial diver and submarine turbine repairman and Paula Beer’s lecturer on Berlin’s architectural history. The juxtapositions are sharp and occasionally a bit clunky: tales of a giant supernatural catfish named Big Günther, a gag involving the Bee-Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” and echoes of Splash! are interlaced with parenthetical allusions to neoliberal Europe, the AirBnB-ification of Berlin, and contingent freelance labor, all harnessed in Petzold’s crisp, neo-Hitchcockian system of shot-reverse shot and POV continuity. It’s a gamble that mostly pays off—but whether it represents a new direction (or “progress”) for Petzold remains to be seen.
The presence of Chatrian and his team from the Locarno Film Festival was most keenly felt in the addition of a new competitive section, Encounters—“a platform aiming to foster aesthetically and structurally daring works from independent, innovative filmmakers,” per the festival’s propaganda. Among the strongest—and most baffling, and most exquisitely pleasurable—was Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella (2020). Returning to the director’s fondness for games, puzzles, and rituals, the film also boasts sections of vividly colorful abstraction in the form of a miniature Turrell-ian maquette which later manifests as the set for an elaborate stage production (one of Piñeiro’s key milieux). The film features more romantic partner-changes than a coming-out ball, with a few of the director’s favorite players (including María Villar and Agustina Muñoz) pirouetting around each other in circular, minutely choreographed situations of seductive misdirection.
By any measure, the section’s (seemingly inevitable) top award-winner certainly meets the programmers’ criteria for formal chutzpah: C. W. Winter and Anders Edström’s 480-minute The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin), presented in an all-day marathon with a few coffee and lunch breaks, is in many ways a very tiny and intimate film housed in the body of a behemoth. Ostensibly a portrait of the title character (actually Edström’s mother-in-law) and her days caring for her ailing husband while also cultivating daikon over a full cycle of seasons, the film drifts between—or, more precisely, wholly elides—any distinction between narrative and non-fiction cinema, restaging its dialed-down central drama with Shiojiri, her family, and the filmmakers present in what film scholar Ivone Margulies calls “in-person reenactment.”
There is a certain modality of The Very Long Film that suggests a project of holding time itself out for examination, and The Works and Days does just that, as its title hints. But unlike the long-take longueurs of so-called “slow cinema”—that non-genre that critics like to point to as the sacred antidote to cinematic fast food—Winter and Edström’s film is curiously, steadily rhythmic, comprising what must be many hundreds of shots of fields, roadside vegetation, dim interiors, placid rural roadways, punctuated by a few inebriated family dinners. Edström, who is also a noted photographer, seems to have shot this film almost as a visual diary of near-still images, moments that cluster and accumulate almost like – and I’m sure the filmmakers will hate this comparison—an Instagram profile. Barely developing or even flagging the relation between the characters, much less (for the most part) their inner desires, the film rather functions as a densely visualized charting of time’s passage—not as highs and lows, climaxes and sojourns, but as a steady drip. Critical reactions differed wildly about whether it needed to be eight hours or if four would’ve sufficed; which section put the viewer to sleep and which hooked them back in; at which point the viewer figured out how the characters in the film were actually related to each other. Across the film’s workday screen-time, and deploying a richly composed soundscape of field recordings and a who’s-who of 20th century minimalist music (Éliane Radigue, Phil Niblock, Folke Rabe), the film builds a kind of arm's-length intimacy through the time spent sitting, watching, thinking, and listening in these spaces with these people.
Sound’s place within the cinema was a parallel theme in the Forum and Forum Expanded, festival sidebars organized by the independent film institute Arsenal. This was evident in Joshua Bonnetta’s lush and watery The Two Sights, a fragmentary psychogeography of the Scottish Outer Hebrides assembled from images of gray-green seascapes and a polyphony of local (human and non-human) voices. These voices tell of a haunted environment, a place of visions, paranormal phenomena, interspecies communications, and strange portents of terrible events. This portrait of what locals call “a Thin Place … with little distinction between heaven and earth” foregrounds listening as a privileged sense akin to a second sight, one better attuned to ghostly ephemeralities than the fogged and blurred vicissitudes of vision.
Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati’s Expedition Content seeks an even further extreme, advancing the possibility of a purely sonic cinema. An archival exploration of sound recordings from a 1961 Harvard-Peabody expedition to Dutch New Guinea to study the Hubula people (led by filmmaker Robert Gardner, author Peter Matthiessen, and anthropologist-heir Michael C. Rockefeller), the film is nearly imageless but for a single photograph and a good deal of explanatory text and subtitling. What emerges from long passages of field recordings of beast grunts and noises, recording artifacts, and ambient sounds (many with labels such as “sounds of men digging in the garden,” “sounds of banana leaves,” “sound of woman washing hickory in a ditch”) is a complex, often horrifying sense of the inequities between the wary Hubula and the Boston brahmins who have come to study—and patronize them. The film thus foregrounds the (re)construction of sonic spaces as an inherently political act, both as the acquisition and labelling of anthropological data and as the forensic project of bringing buried, untranslated, and frequently silenced voices to the fore.
Another, more narrative exploration of intensified sound—and the film that has lingered longest in these months of isolation—was Song Fang’s The Calming, only her second feature after her exquisite 2012 debut Memories Look at Me. An extremely simplified autofictional story of a filmmaker making the rounds of friends, family, and professional engagements in the wake of a break-up, The Calming is a vivid and achingly precise rendition of grief and loss, yes, but also of the shifting sensory processes of healing. As the protagonist Lin distracts herself with pointless travel (to Japan, to check in on her aging parents in China, to screen a film in Hong Kong), she also explores models of care, as in her mother and father’s lifelong companionship of mutual attentiveness, doing errands, feeding each other, tending each other’s illnesses. Mostly, though, Lin’s process of healing is interior and solitary—being sick alone and wandering by herself through foreign locations—and it’s here that Songye Lu’s meticulous, yet simply compositions and especially Zhang Yang’s dense sound design of sub-tropical fauna, low drones, leaf rustlings, and distant traffic combine to form the title’s lulling sensory envelope. Song, at the film’s premiere, remarked coolly that “When you lose someone, there is no help from other people. You have to deal with it yourself.” While this may sound like the cruelest kind of social distancing, it also suggests a process with an ending, a moment of awakening, a return.