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:
- DAU. Natasha
- There is No Evil