BERLINALE ’11 wrap-up

Last Updated: July 30, 2011By Tags: , ,

Two highly anticipated late competition entries in this year’s Berlin Film Festival which wrapped up yesterday scooped up awards at Saturday’s award ceremony. American director Joshua Marston’s “The Forgiveness of Blood,” an Albanian-language dramatic thriller nabbed the Silver Bear for best screenplay. Andres Veiel’s feature film debut “Wer Wenn Nicht Wir” (pictured; “If Not Us, Who”), a German production about the origins of the West German terrorist organization The Red Army Faction, was awarded the Alfred Bauer prize –named for the festival founder—for unique contribution to the art of cinema. In the opinion of this critic, both prizes were undeserved.

Marston, whose only previous feature “Maria Full of Grace” was a critical favorite (and Berlinale competition entry) in 2004, wrote the screenplay to “Forgiveness” with Andamion Murataj, based on hundreds of interviews with ordinary Albanians for this story of familial loyalty, honor and retribution. The plot centers on Nik, a teenager in northern Albania who dreams of starting an Internet café and winning over the prettiest girl in school. These modest ambitions are dashed when his father becomes embroiled in a land dispute that culminates in a murder. Suddenly, it falls to Nik to protect his family and uphold their honor.

I have no doubt that the representation of the rigid laws that govern the lives of Marston’s impoverished villagers is accurate. Like “Maria,” “Blood” is an extremely detail-oriented, politically relevant film. Where it differs from that earlier work is in the surprising tedium and insipidness of the drama. Marston doesn’t seem to be able to sustain the tension and conflict after he has set all the wheels in motion. The film’s most captivating scenes are not those of threat and aggression, but rather the insights into the Kanun, the traditional set of Albanian laws that regulate familial disputes. And yet, it often seems that we’ve been dropped in the middle of this blood feud without sufficient background. We do, however, learn enough to know that such disputes can often only be resolved through honor killings. The film is, however, less about this eye-for-an-eye peasant justice and more about the generation conflict between Nik and his father, and how entire societies are imprisoned by values that no longer apply in today’s world. The problem here is that Marston sides so completely with his young protagonist that the pernicious forces governing his fate seem almost implausibly ghoulish. Where is the law to protect Nik and his family? How do the police intervene in these disputes? Or do they, out of respect for the Kanun, let families resolve their feuds with the blood of forgiveness? “Blood” often seems like an important, infuriating film. A great film, however, it is not.

Andres Veiel’s historical drama “If Not Us, Who” charts the explosive love-hate relationship between left-wing German intellectuals Bernward Vespers and Gudrun Ensslin. Vespers, the son of a writer celebrated by the Nazis and the provocative Ensslin become part of the revolutionary movement that in the late 1960s brought their parents’ generation to task for Nazi war crimes and the Holocaust. Whereas Vespers confines himself to changing the outside world from within his small publishing house, Ensslin grows convinced that radical action is that only answer. The central drama of the film is her journey from intellectual activist (and mother) to terrorist member of Andreas Baader’s gang.

“If Not Us, Who” is so replete with explosive themes, characters and situations that it is astonishing how dull and confusing the film often is. The lopsided script tries to tackle far too many hot-button topics of contemporary history–Germany’s coming to terms with the past, the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, the student protest movement, sexual liberation, left-wing terrorism—which remain poorly dramatized. Often, they either distract from the plot of the film or threaten to derail it altogether. As the main couple, August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis have excellent onscreen chemistry, but are often unhinged and histrionic. Watching their unbridled, self-destructive behavior, one wants to take them by the arms and walk them to a shrink.

Throughout the film, I had the thought that Veiel had conceived his film as an antidote to Uli Edel’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” an action-packed 2008 blockbuster [ed-this film has been discussed at length in Screen Comment in reviews and an essay] about the origins and operations of the Red Army Faction that was widely criticized in Germany for glamorizing these bright young terrorists. Veiel certainly refuses to make Ensslin and Baader (Alexander Fehling in a surprisingly controlled performance) into a Bonnie and Clyde-type couple, but his film tips in the other direction and contains much repetitive debate and non-essential historical context. Vespers and Ensslin’s relationship and the main tragedy of Ensslin’s conversion to terror are consequently obscured. Tired and befuddled, I left the theater thinking, “Somewhere in that two-hour-long mess was a good film.”