The Novelist’s Film Festival

It’s good to be back in Potsdamer Platz, cinema’s demilitarised zone, for another Berlinale. And it’s a pleasure for Cinema Year Zero to arrive two weeks later, with a micro-issue of writing from the festival. If ever a festival invited a slow-criticism response, it’s Berlinale, whose placement in the unfashionably cold month of February, and passivity towards American/English stars remains an inspiration. The festival has its own hermetic world. 

Artistic Director of the festival Carlo Chatrian is a kind of meme figure here. You hear mutterings of his presence. He appears, Wonka-like, at a few premieres to utter a few poetic aphorisms about the film before us, then whisps back off into the Berlin night. When he and Mariette Rissenbeek took over in 2020, many heralded their sensibilities as the marker of a new direction for the festival: one that would be less interested in American film stars, that would platform experimental and emerging contemporary cinema. 

The creation of the Encounters (Un Certain based Regard) section was the first signal of this direction. It hosts work by major filmmakers that is too contemporary (read: alienating) for the main competition, but is also normie enough to make the Arsenal audience groan. Its size and breadth has gone over rather well, and in 2022, the Chatrian/Rissenbeek vision seems to have come to fruition. This programme was stuffed to the gills with avant-garde and experimental film. 

The breadth and tension of this approach could be seen in the three Austrian films that premiered in Encounters: Sonne (Kurdwin Ayub) – Mutzenbacher (Ruth Beckermann) – A Little Love Package (Gastón Solnicki). You see, Austria was everywhere at Berlinale 2022. From the competition’s much talked about Ulrich Seidl film, to the flood of critics from southern Europe who will bump their nation’s cinema on Rotten Tomatoes at any opportunity. And to be fair, their national heroes came through. Beckermann’s Mutzenbacher was the deserved Encounters winner. While her past films tended to deal with generational trauma and the lingering stain of the Holocaust in the 20th and 21st century, this marvel uses as its starting ground a 1907 novel by the author of Bambi, about an underage girl’s erotic encounters. Beckermann takes us to an extreme elemental and primal space by auditioning a hundred men for an adaptation, but ends up asking them questions about the book and the sexual histories that it brings up. In cataloguing the breadth of male urges, staging quasi-porno scenes, and letting men run their mouths into critical, traumatic, and self-owning spaces, Beckermann’s film has become an instant classic.

Beckermann’s sprightliness was a surprise: her usual austerity goes a long way to defining our notion of the nation’s cinematic formalism. A Little Love Package lives up to that style, barely bothering to thread together its three stories, located in Austria 2019, as the indoor smoking ban is coming into effect. This extraordinarily well framed and lit film has the Apple+ sheen of Berlin School filmmakers, but what it lacks is the utter nonchalance with which Schanelec, Petzold et al pull off their work. They sleepwalk their precision. By the time this ostensible city symphony drags us to Andalusia where Carmen Chaplin has mumblecore arguments with her sisters over the fate of their family home, you long for smoking bans the world over to be lifted – at least you’d have something to do with your hands. 

Sonne, the story of three teenage girls who love REM so much that it causes them to eventually join ISIS, takes that predictable tack for kitchen sink’d teenagers: tactile handheld realism… But add social media! This fast and often very funny film shows both a lack of interest in kowtowing to national cinema formalism, and a global cinema movement that is becoming more homogenised. Not every film about young people needs to be shot in post-Dardenne over the shoulder shallow focus, but one man cannot turn the tide of history, and I am but one voice yelling into the CYZ void. 

The most mainstream film at the festival (apart from whatever the hell Machine Gun Kelly’s Taurus is) was Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film. In black and white, again, and telling the story of some creatives hanging out over a day, again, its repetition felt like the perfect analogue for the festival experience. 

These films feel impossible to write about without seeing them all, without buying in completely. Who wouldn’t want to be Hongpilled? They exit a car and look at their surroundings. Did this happen before? On day 6 in this cinematic metropolis, am I imagining a new film? The festival ambience is hardly conducive to thinking about film, let alone writing about film, and yet Hong slides along with his perfunctory slight romances, double crosses, and callbacks to himself. When a critic declares one better or worse than another, it reflects not the film itself but the critic’s state of fragility. The better a programme, the less likely that he will win an award. Two Silver Bears on the trot is not a good sign, in other words. 

And yet, there is something impossibly comforting about Hong. It’s not the movies themselves, but the work rate. It’s pure kino. Here is a filmmaker who can make three films a year, gain easy access to the top festivals, and never receive a negative review from those in the know. It’s the ultimate geekery for Close-Up Centre bores, people for whom lifestyle porn is trying soju and eating udon. Though, as any critic worth their salt can tell you, in this one it’s makgeolli. Hong’s films represent a finality for the international festival film. 

His current period of black and white digital films shot mainly at daytime is particularly ugly. The contrast is so high that they almost seem not to exist at all. Snail Film and Introduction both benefited from being mercifully short and heavy on the booze. There are very good Hong films (Night & Day – a movie about how scary it is to smoke weed, Yourself & Yours – a movie about how women are schizo), and very bad ones (his entire 2017 trilogy). But that misses the point: His films exist not to be watched, or discussed, but to be made. Similarly, the Berlinale isn’t about the individual films, or that magnificent ident, or even drinking too much makgeolli. It’s about the process. As with Hong’s films, the Berlinale conversation keeps on repeating itself. He really is the critic-proof filmmaker, though that might be a good thing. Watching his film in a festival setting might be the ultimate snake eats its tail experience. No wonder M Night Shayamalan loved it. 

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Both Sides of the Blade by Ben Flanagan

The Kegelstatt Trio by Tom Atkinson

Europe by Kirsty Asher

Dry Ground Burning by Ben Flanagan

Small, Slow But Steady by Cathy Brennan

The Novelist’s Film by Tom Atkinson