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Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale 2020: ‘Numbers’ Exposes Absurdity Through Alienation

Written and co-directed while he was in Russian jail, Oleg Sentsov returns with ‘Numbers’ — a Brechtian critique of authoritarianism.



Numbers by Akhtem Seitablaiev

The absurdity of the authoritarian state is given a Brechtian makeover in Numbers, written by Oleg Sentsov in jail and directed under his instructions by Akhtem Seitablaiev. A truly minimalist allegory, its political elements stimulate while the film fails to engage as a dramatic tale. 

The story behind Numbers is fascinating. A native of Crimea, Oleg Sentsov was jailed by the Russian authorities for “crimes of a terrorist nature” in 2014. To protest his conditions, he organized a hunger strike to demand his freedom and the freedom of 64 other Ukrainian prisoners. Before engaging on the strike he left the screenplay for Numbers, which was written in 2011. Thankfully the hunger strike ended, leading Sentsov to direct Akhtem Seitablaiev behind prison walls through letters. He was released last September, as part of a prisoner swap, and is likely to continue his work as a humans rights activist as well as a filmmaker. 

Numbers is his first work released as a free man. It has ten characters, named from one to ten. They are bound by strange regulations, led by First (Oleksandr Yarema), who clutches a large leather-book with all the rules in them. Every day they eat at the same time, picking up food from a ping-pong table and munching out of bowls while running in a circle. In the evenings, the odds (men) and evens (women) are separated by a rusty fence; leading to dangerous liaisons under the watchful guard of two men wearing black goggles and holding rifles.  


The entire film takes place in what could only be described as a hollowed-out sports hall, with entrances on either side and bleachers covered with wooden slats. The artificiality of the purposefully play-like setting helps to stress the artificiality of the rules. Like a Brecht play, we are constantly alienated from seeing these people as real; further stressed by their highly gestural way of acting.

Zero (Viktor Andrienko) is our stand-in for God. He lives on an artificial balcony above all the other numbers. His balcony has the only vestiges of true humanity; patterned wallpaper, a gramophone, and serene painting. He bangs drums to signify thunder and pours from a watering can to signify rain. First argues that he is merely doing Zero’s will, even though he never actually hears from Zero himself. The other numbers start rumbling, including Seventh (Evhen Chernykov), who wonders whether there is more to the world than the arbitrary rules laid down by First and enforced by the silent judges. Things get more complicated when a new baby is born, forcing the members of this strange community to totally reevaluate their belief system.

The film’s style brings to mind Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, which was even more minimalist in conception, using chalk outlines to stand in for houses. But while Dogville found a way to bring out the emotion of its absurdist tale, Numbers feels delivered at a remove. Ultimately, its lack of cutting dialogue, real-world correlative or emotional through-line makes it better appreciated as an academic exercise than a truly engaging work. 

Numbers plays in the Berlinale Special section of the 70th Berlin Film Festival, which runs February 20th, 2020 – March 1, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

As far back as he can remember, Redmond Bacon always wanted to be a film critic. To him, being a film critic was better than being President of the United States

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Berlin Film Festival

Russia Was Everywhere at the 70th Berlinale

From on-the-ground docs to American stereotypes, both Russia in imagination and reality dominated the Berlinale.




The Best of the Berlin Film Festival 2020

For better or worse, both in the imagination and in reality, cinema from and about Russia dominated the Berlinale. From stereotypical portrayals to idealized versions to documentary depictions, the largest country on Earth was explored in all its fascinating contradictions. 

A Potted Russian History 

From Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog, set at the turn of the twentieth century, through to Welcome to Chechnya, exposing the horrors of the Chechen regime, the Berlin Film Festival offered a mini-narrative of the last one hundred and twenty years of the country itself.

One can start with Malmkrog, which sees the Russian aristocracy heralding in a new global age. It takes place on an estate in the titular town in Romania. Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) is a member of the landed gentry, inviting a group of friends over to play parlour games and discuss concepts of good and evil, death, war, and the Antichrist.  

These are deeply privileged people, with the luxury to discuss such topics. Based on the work of philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, they linger on for a remarkable 200 minutes. As was common for Russians of that era, they speak in French, which makes them both florid conversationalists and, at times, unbearably pretentious. Puiu, founder of the Romanian New Wave, is an exacting aesthete, the very largess and precise camera movements of the film a comment upon the time available for these people to engage in such deep dialogue. 

Most fascinating of all is the character of Edouard (Ugo Broussot), who believes that with the unification of major countries across Europe, and the relative piece of the era (the Boer war isn’t seen as a real conflict) that Russia will soon be accepted into a part of the European community. But these people don’t acknowledge their own privilege, the working-class Hungarian-speaking staff treated like ghosts; a shadowy precursor of what will happen to Russia in the next twenty years. 


While Malmkrog explored Russia coming into the European community, despite the ironic threat of communism lurking constantly underneath, DAU. Natasha shows that the country went into the complete opposite direction: a hermetically-sealed Soviet world rife with oppression, depression, and paranoia. It takes place on a huge recreation of a Secret Soviet Facility as it would’ve existed between 1938-1968, with actors actually living in this area, including scientists carrying on their research. This exacting verisimilitude gives the film an incredibly menacing power, especially as the titular Natasha finds her freedom coming into crushing contact with the full weight of the totalitarian state. While I missed the six-hour DAU. Degeneration, initial reports suggest that it is an even more immersive experience than Natasha, making it a true must-see event. 

But how did Russia get into such a position? The allegorical Numbers from Oleg Sentsov renders the revolution in abstract terms. While the Crimean director, who spent several years in Russian jail following their invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula, claims that the film, based on his 2011 play and co-directed while he was still in prison, is not based on any government, in particular, its cynical vision of societal change echoes the failures of the Russian revolution to effectively replace the aristocracy. In this respect, it plays like a highly Brechtian version of the events of 1917. 

History Repeats Itself 

The remaining Russia-focused films of the festival take place in the present and represent a fascinating contrast between the country as it exists in the imagination and its reality. 

Let’s take Abel Ferrara’s Siberia, one of the most abstract and strange films to play in the Berlinale competition section. Named after the Eastern Part of Russia, which by itself would still be the largest country in the world,  the film uses the region’s vastness to fully render what constitutes a man. A place known for exile, repression, secret prisons and the gulag. Ferrera, a director of extremes, uses this extreme climate as a means to represent the extremities of Clint’s (Willem Dafoe) soul. The sins of the past weigh upon both the individual and the nation, inexplicably and strangely tied up together. 

Ferrera isn’t interested in true accuracy. He is an American indulging in both stereotypical Russian and Soviet Union imagery for exotic effect; an approach that ultimately works thanks to the film’s far, far kookier concerns. 

In Deep Sleep, which played in the Forum sidebar — known for its commitment to experimental cinema — makes for a fascinating, more local companion piece. Directed by Maria Ignatenko, it tells a story of immense grief, and how it can invoke a state of somnambulism. Like in Siberia, a forbidding wintery tone covers every scene, the film taking a far more pessimistic vision than Ferrara’s schizophrenic tale. 

The stereotypical slow-cinema approach people may associate with Russian cinema, popularised by Alexander Sokurov, Alexei German, his son Alexei German Jr., and Andrei Tarkovsky, can be found here. A very Russian film in terms of faces and places, camerawork and scenery, In Deep Sleep is still another dreamlike exploration of extremities, the severe climate once again used as a means of exploring the inner depths of man’s soul. 

Reality is different, with the Russia-focused documentaries of the Berlinale offering two pessimistic visions and one bittersweet. Yet all three find possibilities of resistance, community-building, and hope, even under the most adverse of circumstances. 

Welcome To Chechnya, like Siberia, is another American look at a very different extreme of Russian culture: hardcore religious fundamentalism in the deep south. Allowed to prosper by Vladimir Putin’s uncaring leadership, the closed-off region in Chechnya — ruled by vicious warlord Ramzan Kadyrov — has been systematically targeting members of the LGBT community. The film takes a harsh eye at this world, showing us intercepted footage of gay men beaten, raped and even left for dead.

David France, taking an investigative, serious look at this culture, avoids clichés, crucially allowing the leaders of an LGBT network in Moscow to speak for themselves. In some of the most bone-chilling, yet undeniable thrilling, scenes of the film, he accompanies these modern heroes as they dive into the area and rescue gay people under threat of imprisonment and death. The film is both enraging and invigorating, a plea for action as well as a necessary document of resistance tactics. 

While Welcome to Chechnya dominated the Panorama section, won Best Documentary Feature, and the Best Activist Teddy Award, it overshadowed two fascinating yet very different depictions of Russian culture from two Russian directors. 

The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan) has a particularly dark vision of where the country is going. Compiled of countless YouTube videos in which citizens of Russia directly lay their concerns with the nation to Vladimir Putin himself, it provides a blistering look at failure across the country. Whether its the inability to build roads to rural areas, deal with sewage, provide ramps for disabled people, give pensions for the elderly, provide suitable accommodation for war veterans, reasonably price gas or have lights that turn on in the street at night, it shows that the average person is completely fed up with the direction the country is going in.  

The director, Andrey Grzavev, feels that there is a sense that history is repeating itself, believing that the country is descending into Soviet Union 2.0. It’s more or less the same problems, but with the Orthodox Church perhaps replacing communism as the central ideological pillar of the nation. The film is named after Andrei Platonov’s 1930 novel, a dystopian look at the Russian’s proletariat sinking deeper into its own huge foundation pit: he even recycles that same image as a metaphor for the modern state. Nonetheless, the inspiring anger of these people — as found in the film inspired by last year’s protests following the Moscow State Duma elections — and the possibilities of the internet to organize resistance, suggests that the fight isn’t completely lost yet. 

Individualism over State

Then again, if one cannot win, one can at least carve out one’s own small space to be free. Central to Russian culture, especially Russian masculinity, is the garage: a place away from the house, away from work, away from authority, to work on oneself. Garage People, directed by Russian-German director Natalija Yefimkina, takes place in the Far North, in a remote town where a large mining company is the only employer.

Just outside of town is a collection of boltholes, where the town’s citizens, mostly men, find a space that they can call their own. Some work on carving icons, others form bands, while one man builds three floors into the ground. For the latter, this is his life’s work. Now in his 70s, he has been constantly improving his space since he was in his twenties; showing that, despite everything else going on, there are still opportunities to succeed on a personal level. 

This film is the humblest of the lot, and easily the most uplifting, seeing how, even under adverse circumstances, man can carve out his own slice of happiness inside the individualist space of a garage. Through simple observation as opposed to the wide-swinging theatrics of Malmkrog, Siberia or Dau. Natasha, this keen documentary, like The Foundation Pit, allows real people to speak for themselves, showing the huge gap between Russia in the abstract, idealized version, and Russia in the prosaic reality. 


Berlinale is one of the best Russia-friendly film festivals, as well as a brief window into the immense variety of Eastern European cinema on offer — Radu Jude had two films, and there were also offerings from Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Croatia. This year’s Russia selection was their best yet: creating a deeply complex portrait of the nation as it arguably enters into even bleaker circumstances. This is what great film curation can do; peel back simple clichés to reveal a far messier truth. 

With so much humour found in the creative swearing, extensive drinking and fully-rounded humanity of the garage-dwellers, YouTube-oversharers, and oppressed citizens, it shows that Russia can also find humour in even the worst of times. It begs for a fully-fledged comedy to cross over into Western festivals. After all, if you can’t laugh, what can you do? 

Five Favourite Films at the Festival:

  1. Siberia
  2. DAU. Natasha
  3. Malmkrog
  4. Onward
  5. There is No Evil

These films all played at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, which runs February 20th, 2020 – March 1, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale 2020: ‘Curveball’ Is Way Behind The Curve

Swerve this one




Taking a comic approach to Germany’s role in the Iraq war, Curveball is decidedly behind the curve. With Vice already putting the final nail in the Bush-satire-era coffin, Curveball breaks no new ground for the genre. Uninteresting, un-involving, and unimportant, Curveball is a deeply inessential film, representing the worst excesses of the Berlinale Special Section. 

The film begins in the late 90s with Dr. Wolf (Sebastian Blomberg) and Leslie (Virginia Kull) in Iraq as part of a UN delegation hired to inspect whether or not Saddam Hussein is hiding nuclear weapons. He is there with the BND (German Federal Intelligence Service), while she is a member of the CIA. Whether it’s through boredom or attraction, they’re having an affair. But the UN are called off, as no weapons have been found. When she tells him that he can go back to “fucking his German wife,” he comes clean: he never had a wife — he was just saying that so she wouldn’t think he wanted to get to close to her.

This is a sad man. But as one of the best bio-weapons experts on the business, he is seriously concerned about the threat of anthrax attacks, with one sequence laying out in carnivalesque detail the ways in which the deadly poison can wipe hordes of people out in seconds. When a refugee (Dar Salim) turns up from Iraq claiming to be a chemical engineer from one of Saddam’s plants, Wolf quickly tries to get the man to confess. But is this man to be trusted? You can guess the rest. 

The acting is strained, with the film’s awkward switches from English to German complemented by the film’s uneven mixture of factual elements and fictional flights of fancy. Praise should must go to the production design, which manages to bring to life Germany’s post-reunification interiors with kitsch bravado. These settings are undermined, however, by a screenplay that doesn’t really know what to do with Wolf’s character. 

His real motivations remain mixed; does he want to go back to Iraq to genuinely look for weapons, or because he believes the mission will reunite him with his ex? A film that goes broke for the latter might be more cravenly hilarious, but Curveball also tries to find serious moral lessons — Adam McKay-like — within its weak-tea comedy. (Naturally, it ends with a deadly sombre postscript). Just like the American director’s latest film, the result is deeply patronising, with no real introspection behind its stupidity. 

While the faults that led to the Iraq War deserved to be looked at from every possible angle — including Germany’s crucial role in the misbelieved notion that Hussein was hiding deadly chemical weapons — the satirical approach, tried and tested (and failed in the USA), is quickly wearing thin. Perhaps even less than Hollywood — which hides true evil beyond silly theatrics — Germany didn’t need to add their take, and especially not in this superfluous fashion. Therefore, while Curveball may have some limited success in German-speaking countries, this bilingual comedy is unlikely to impress audiences anywhere else. 

Curveball plays in the Berlinale Special section at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, which runs February 20th, 2020 – March 1, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale 2020: ‘The Roads Not Taken’ Is Absolutely Dreadful

This fictional trip to the dentist is more painful than an actual trip to the dentist



The Roads Not Taken

Ponderous, portentous and plodding, the enervating, cringe-inducing, soul-destroying The Roads Not Taken is a complete disaster from Sally Potter. Despite boasting an all-star cast of Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Selma Hayek, and Laura Linney, the film is a failure in almost every single way.

Perhaps as a concept, the construction of The Road Not Taken is solid; a triptych of tales of key moments in Leo’s (Javier Bardem) life. In the first story, Leo, now a severely mentally challenged man (although we never know the actual cause), lies in bed in his apartment in New York, muttering nonsensical words his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) cannot decipher. She is taking him to the dentist, an ostensibly simple task that spells utter disaster for her professional life. 

Perhaps visiting the dentist yourself would provide more worthwhile pleasure than these passages. Definitely better conversations. In the second story, he is in Mexico, where it is immediately evident his child from a previous marriage is dead, although this is weirdly portrayed like a big mystery to be solved although its pretty obvious right from the beginning. It’s also obvious they’re not referring to Molly, because there’s no way that Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem could ever produce Elle Fanning. In the third story, he’s in Greece, creeping on a German teenager just trying to have a good time. She reminds him of Molly apparently. It’s just all very strange.

The Roads Not Taken

The three stories interlink, bleeding into each other as Leo’s mind wanders from place to place. While in the first story Javier Bardem’s character barely makes sense, he’s still a mopey wreck in the other two; meaning there are little compare and contrast between the different parts of his life. It just gets worse, worse and worse. The intercutting between stories could’ve been symphonic in better hands; here they offer a revolving door of cringe.

Bardem is a great actor but he’s in terrible form as Leo, his portrayal of a mentally impaired man more offensive to people suffering from such diseases then genuinely affecting. His pauses are painful, undercutting any meaning the story should’ve had. One guesses these pauses had to stay. Take them all away and the 85-minute film probably would’ve lasted 20 minutes. 

The title is a reference to the Robert Frost poem, which ends with “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” Yet the road Leo takes in this film makes no difference at all to the quality of the film, which seems doomed from the very first frame. Containing multiple mysteries in its construction, The Roads Not Taken answers few of them, preferring to take a poetical approach that is both nonsensical and un-engaging.

The film briefly picks up when Laura Linney arrives from another movie, gets all the good lines, hopefully, a solid union paycheck, and leaves. Objectively, Laura Linney can’t be bad, unlike the rest of the cast, who are, sorry to say, hopeless. This is a road you don’t need to take. This is one of the worst films to ever play in the Berlinale competition.

The Roads Not Taken plays in Competition at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, which runs February 20th, 2020 – March 1, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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