Berlinale 2023 Highlights, Part One: She Came to Me, Blackberry, The Survival of Kindness

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Wings of Desire” imagines Berlin as a city of angels, but, as a first-time visitor, I’ve discovered it’s a city of angles. The major streets run dead straight but never seem to cross at 90 degrees, resulting in a unique form of discombobulation, a seemingly ordered grid that’s inherently askew.

It’s this mix of rigidity and disruption that has long characterized this storied city, one that looms in the imagination for most of my life. I did not live through its most macabre of moments, but witnessed from afar both its divide and subsequent reconciliation, feeling during those heady celebrations of the late-1980s that the world was to get better, with former foes breaking down barriers. I type this meters away from the bricks that mark that former wall on the sidewalk, one of several reminders of the past; some simple, some more dramatic.

As I was a first-time visitor, a dear friend gave me a brief tour, allowing me to check out some of the still-standing concrete barriers, and head to the famed “Checkpoint Charlie” that for decades was a portal from one world to another. While the sign marking the crossing stands, it’s partially blocked by a backlit KFC marker and flanked to the other side by a massive McDonalds. You can head to the souvenir store right beside and pick up a souvenir chunk of that wall, the contemporaneous spattering of graffiti still evident on the surface, or perhaps a shirt with the message on that checkpoint placard.

Walking around the corner on an innocuous street, I saw a small tour group gathered in front of a simple sign held aloft by two poles. In my home city, this type of signage usually indicates that a skyrise is soon to be zoned for that area, but here it’s the only indication that the Führerbunker lay beneath where we walked. The Russians obliterated all traces of the original structure when they controlled the sector, of course, but it remains an unsettling thing to walk over the area where Hitler was cooped up at the final moments of the war, and even stranger to know this is where he shot himself in the head. Even more surreal is that my film-addled mind immediately thought not only of the immense weight of history but the memes, the dozens of re-subtitled clips from Hirschbiegel’s 2004 “Downfall.”

All of these elements lay mere blocks away from the main cinema palace of Berlinale and the festival that for 73 years has been the heart of the German film calendar, easily one of the most prestigious film gatherings in the world. Aside from the vagaries of navigating the annoying transit system of citysubways that decide not to run to the registered stop, entire trains locked out because someone cut a cable months ago, surly bus drivers flat out lying about the route, or randomly changing direction due to the protests about something or other that occur even more regularly than the scheduled rides—when you finally find yourself where you need to be it’s a beautiful oasis to watch films.

The main press venues are frankly stunning, with reclining couch-like premium seating and exceptional projection that shames just about every other place I’ve attended. Entering the Palast is a thrill, a beautiful large space with terrific sound. While few things have started exactly on time, I have nothing but glowing things to say about the state of the big screen presentation at the festival.

The films have, as expected, been a mixed bag. Mere hours after back-to-back red-eye flights from Whitehorse, Yukon, and my attendance at the Available Light Film Festival to the Berlinale, I found myself at the opening film, Rebecca Miller’s “She Came to Me.”

Helmed by this award-winning writer/director/novelist/Lady of the British Empire, Miller’s tale is an odd mixture of comedy, tragedy, and drama, focussing on an ersatz group connected by their larger-than-life foibles and neuroses. Steven (Peter Dinklage) is an opera composer with writer’s block who married his germaphobe psychiatrist Patricia (Anne Hathaway). Their adopted child Julian (Evan Ellison) is hooking up with Tereza (Harlow Jane), whose mother (Joanna Kulig) worries about her own immigration status when speaking up against her court-reporter husband (Brian d’Arcy James), himself a boorish man who deploys his officiousness in his spare time while re-enacting the civil war. A chance encounter between Steven and tugboat captain Katrina (Marisa Tomei) provides the composer with a new outlook, setting into motion a collision that will affect all these characters in ways big and small.

The film is quirky and charming at points, cloying and obvious at others, resulting in something that’s engaging if not always quite successful. Some colleagues were vocally opposed to the selection as somehow beneath the expected standards, but as a film with relatively low stakes and some committed performances, there’s enough to at least recommend if its convoluted storyline is to your taste.

The next morning saw my dive into the art film scene with two back-to-back vérité docs. The first is “In Ukraine,” an extraordinary work that details the surrealism of life during wartime. Polish filmmakers Piotr Pawlus and Tomasz Wolski have a stunning eye for detail, and, despite its languid nature, the movie is both epic and intimate. Surreal shots of families in minivans driving to take family photos atop burned-out tanks are but some of the indelible images captured here, and it’s the powerful way in which the film illustrates how the dullest aspects of our lives continue even in wartime that provides an almost darkly comic lens on the situation.

Rarely has a film captured not only the scars of battle but the way they’re so quickly turned into places to gather, rebuild, or simply admire. We see young kids with plastic guns setting up checkpoints and echoing the adults doing the same, while in a food line a woman paused between dolling out cereal to provide a head-on, bemused look to the still camera capturing her charity for posterity. Another woman in line tries to secure more than her share, and the resulting confrontation is both chilling and pathetic, a reminder of how humans are capable of being assholes even in the most trying of circumstances, ones that should ideally bring out the best of us.

Veteran documentarian Claire Simon brings “Our Body” to Berlin, a stark and intimate portrait of the patients and healthcare workers that attend a gynecological hospital in Paris. We see young women grappling with decisions to terminate a pregnancy, while others are struggling to conceive. We witness the beginnings of new lives in petri dishes, while others are finding out the news that will prove to be terminal. At 168 minutes, it’s a lot to take in, but, thanks to the unflinching gaze Simon and her collaborators set on the subjects, we’re truly treated to a unique look at the multifaceted nature of women’s health, from hormone treatments for those transitioning to the fountain-like streams of fluid that celebrate Caesarean births. Some of the stories are quite harrowing, others quite uplifting, but all are expressed in such astonishing detail that it’s hard not to be swayed by the power of the project by the end.

Another film that pleasantly surprises is Matt Johnson’s bold, brash “Blackberry,” a tonally complex tale that documents the smartphone manufacturer’s meteoric rise and the steps that led to its eventual market collapse. I was fully confident that Johnson, best known for his darkly comedic mock-docs, would be able to pull off the nerdiness and funniness of the tale, but there’s real dramatic sophistication at play that provides the film with even more impact.

Jay Baruchel is absolutely stellar as the film’s founding CEO, Mike Lazaridus, a quiet, nerdy genius who genuinely believes building a superior, efficient product that does a better job will result in a winning strategy, and seems lost when something shinier and sleeker steals their thunder. Glenn Howerton plays Jim Basilie with stunning precision, a larger-than-life brash business bro that easily could come across as two-dimensional. There’s a sense of fear behind those piercing eyes and brash demeanor, a young kid clinging to childhood dreams wrapped in a fancy suit, trying to overcome his small-town beginnings and play in the truly big leagues even if that means corners need to be cut.

As one of the few Canadians here, I became a focus for some colleagues to express their warm thoughts on this particular project and was amused that it was news to many that this took place in my country at all, indicative of how Canadian successes are either globally ignored or so often conflated with being merely “American” in nature. I lived through this era, bought the products, visited Crackberry.com daily, and even continue to be a shareholder in the company (stocks are now 90% down from when I purchased, showing similar predictive ability for mass adoption of a superior product rather than the shiny, annoying-to-type-on upstart as those on screen). So while I know every twist and turn and liberty that was taken, I also know that on a deep level, this is not just about one company; it’s about the almost Shakespearean conflicts between these characters, and the unique culture of the early internet that fed their successes.

My worries that it would play as provincial, both in the sense of being a local story and one only of interest on a nerdy level, were unfounded. Thanks to some pretty great filmmaking and absolutely stellar performances that both milk the comedy and make you feel deeply when things go awry, “Blackberry” is one of the great films to come out of this year’s competition slate.

On the other end of the quality spectrum, Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufman’s “Superpower” is ostensibly meant to shine a light on the war in Ukraine and its remarkable leader, a person absolutely deserving of a clear, nuanced look at the rise of the comedian to the leader of his people. Instead, Penn himself tries to suck almost all the oxygen out of every conversation, even when demonstrating mea culpa about how wrong and ignorant he was prior to the start of the latest round of hostilities. Almost every interview is framed to include both participant and Penn, reminding us over and over just who the actual subject of focus is. If the point is to show that celebrity can bring attention to a cause, this is the wrong venue for that, as it’s not as if Volodymyr Zelenskyy is camera-shy or reticent to conduct interviews.

Penn chain-smokes and surrounds himself with half-empty bottles of gin and tonic throughout, and looks to the camera flanked by cinderblock columned bookshelves, extolling a point of view rather than allowing its subject to truly come to the fore. It’s aggravating when the narcissism is allowed to be fueled; it’s downright infuriating when you see him demanding to be led to the front or to overstay his welcome. Then there’s the way they abandon luxury hotels without a thought for those who cannot leave, or discard cars roadside near the border like crumpled-up cigarette cartons. There are backlit shots of the actor wheeling his carry-on bag with a nauseating triumphalism.

As an antidote to all of this is Rolf de Heer’s triumphant return after almost a decade, “The Survival of Kindness.” This dense yet immensely rewarding fable, set in the Tasmanian desert, is anchored by a brilliant debut performance from Mwajemi Hussein (who is credited as “BlackWoman”). The dream-like film’s metaphoric nature may seem superficial at first, perhaps even problematic. But this is a deep, nuanced fable about humanity’s capacity for harm and our desire for escape, no matter the cost, twisting the very mechanisms of stereotype and prejudice on its head in often startling ways.

From sunbaked deserts to scummy industrial lots and everywhere in between, this is a work that feels both timeless and immediate. The surrealism of both the untranslated yet coherent use of language adds to the unease, as does the costuming, particularly the World War I-era gasmasks, dead-eyed mannequins dressed in almost comically stereotypical colonial wear, or the stark simplicity of boots of the dead half sticking up from the windswept sandy floor.

De Heer and his remarkable collaborators illustrate that an art film can both challenge and energize; its quiet pace is earned rather than being a lazy alternative that eschews plot or character development. “The Survival of Kindness” is both vital and raw, made by someone with a keen eye for the vagaries of human behavior and the stark beauty of a desiccated landscape. There are images that won’t soon be forgotten. From the opening cutting of a cake to the ending that is made no less effective given its inevitability, this is exactly the kind of rich cinematic experience one travels to the other side of the world to experience in the best way possible.

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