Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Home Away from Home

Food at Cafe Morgenrot as seen through a foggy lens; photo by Val Phoenix
I have always loved the idea of being a cafe-goer, someone who lounges in a favourite corner, espresso in hand, cigarette blazing away, whiling away hours reading avant-garde literature while discreetly people-watching. The fact I don't smoke and coffee upsets my stomach has dealt this fantasy an almost-fatal blow. Nevertheless, I have visited a handful of cafes during my stay in Berlin which fulfill a social as well as gastronomic function.

First up, tucked away in Neukölln is The Dumpling Cafe, serving the titular product, much to the bemusement of patrons. When I visited at least three people stopped in just to ask what a dumpling is. Still, it's good to have an air of mystery, even for such a lowly foodstuff as the humble dumpling. The name alone conjures up the ultimate in comfort food. I well remember as a child visiting a certain cafe on the Lower East Side of New York once or twice a year to get my fill of blintzes and pierogis, the dumpling's eastern European cousin. These dumplings are on the small side but quite tasty. Other attractions are wi-fi access and a chess set. Reading material is less avant-garde and more lefty-feminist-queer, with a definite US slant: Mother Jones, Curve and Anschläge among them. The patrons, too, number quite a few expats. I heard a lot of English being spoken. It's a bit of a queer social space, with occasional performances and readings tucked into the small, cosy space. And on Wednesday nights, they show Cagney and Lacey.

Heading a bit north to Kreuzberg, one finds Tante Horst, a collectively run space which is quite friendly. Aside from tea, coffee and cake, one can also enjoy DJ performances. Reading matter includes Siegessäule and Stressfaktor.

And finally, up in Prenzlauerberg, there is the redoubtable and collectively-run Cafe Morgenrot, quite a large space. The service is a bit daunting. One orders at the counter and then the staff shout out the patron's name when the order is ready. One feels a bit like the naughty child in class being called before the teacher. Reading matter is definitely eclectic: Konkret, daily papers and the odd out-of-date music mag. There are also film screenings in the evenings.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Berlinale: Experimental Films

Poster for Winter Ade film series at the Berlinale; photo by Val Phoenix
Today, the closing day of the festival, I attended a screening of John Cook's Langsamer Sommer, shot in the '70s in Vienna. Cook, a Canadian, put himself and his acquaintances at the heart of his film, then indulged in self-referencing and navel-gazing, as he agonised (on-camera) about finishing the film and about his relationship with his ex, "the beautiful Ilse". Christ, it was dull.

Cook is an unsympathetic character, seemingly unaware (or is he?) of his relentless self-pity and casual misogyny, while his "friends" Helmut and Michael have their own problems. By the end, when Cook declares the film finished, I could only breathe a sigh of relief. Was it fiction? Documentary? Fictionalised reality? Frankly, I didn't care.

Experimentalfilme, a programme of shorts encompassing work from the USSR, Hungary, DDR, BRD and Poland, screened as part of the Winter Ade series. This proved to be a mixed bag. Gerd Conradt's Ein-Blick, 12 hours of surveillance across the Wall from West Berlin into East Berlin, was revealing and witty, while Thomas Werner's Sanctus, Sanctus, shot during the 1988 May Day parade in East Berlin, offered a poignant glimpse of long-gone rituals.

The two shorts from the USSR, Lessorub and Schestokaja bolesn muschtshchin, were baffling. The first a series of group hijinks in the snow, the second a kind of socialist-realist-brutalist lesson.

Z mojekgo okna, by Jozef Robakowski, offered a glimpse through his Lodz apartment window, as the view changed from 1978-2000. What started as a collective square traversed by workers and the odd dog walker became a parking lot cluttered with the latest western imports. Progress, eh?

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Berlinale: No Country for Young Folk

Poster for Die Koreanische Hochzeitsruhe; photo by Val Phoenix
As, Grafinjata (Petar Popzlatew)
Hayat Var (Reha Erdem)
Dorfpunks (Lars Jessen)
Ein Traum in Erdbeerfolie (Marco Wilms)
Die Koreanische Hochzeitsruhe (Ulrike Ottinger)
Chan di Chummi (Khalid Gill)

Today's theme is youth and its discontents. How society treat its young tells a lot about its values. In the Bulgarian film As, Grafinjata, the state and family conspire to crush all life from the spirited and rebellious Sybilla. Her individuality and opinionated nature are not valued in a state that demands uniformity.

Hayat Var is a film that revels in its tediousness, as the titular character, a 14-year-old girl on the outskirts of Istanbul, retreats into her own head to escape the mundanity and casual violence that lurk around every corner of her extremely proscribed existence.

The teenaged boys of Dorfpunks seek a way out of the tedium of 1980s German suburbia by forming a band but find their inadequacies are only magnified by the process.

Their East Berlin counterparts in Ein Traum in Erdbeerfolie sought to express themselves through fashion and performance and in so doing, found themselves enemies of the state. Eventually, the state fell, but 20 years later, as middle-aged people in reunified Germany, they miss the excitement and danger of their youth.

Which brings me to two docs which shed a bit of light on the differing expectations of boys and girls. Die Koreanische Hochzeitsruhe is Ulrike Ottinger's examination of Korean wedding rituals. Leaving aside the clumsy attempt at placing it within some kind of mythology, one is left with numerous shots of shops and teeming streets. The film really comes to life in the ceremony, excruciatingly regulated and staged, with a strange Fix-It woman constantly adjusting the bride's dress and issuing instructions to guests as the ceremony progresses. Nobody, including the bride, looks happy.

The Khusra community of Lahore is a grouping of people who might be called intersex and MTF in western society. Historically, they were held in high regard, admired for their dancing and connection with spirituality. But, as shown in Chan di Chummi, modern society regards them as freaks, misunderstood and cast out by their families for not being proper men. Living in the margins, they eke out a living through dancing and prostitution. Celebrating the birth of boy children in neighbourhood homes, they seem unaware of how they are actually reinforcing the gender roles that so oppress them.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Berlinale: Panelstory

Director Vera Chytilova, left, and her interpreter; photo by Val Phoenix
Full title: Panelstory aneb jak se rodi sidliste (Prefab Story). This astounding film was made by Vera Chytilova in 1979 and showed as part of the Berlinale strand Filme Vorboten der Wende, which includes Soviet, Bulgarian, Polish and East and West German films, as well as this Czechoslovak entry.

Chytilova was part of the Czech New Wave and endured her share of troubles with the authorities. A rare woman in a male scene, she had a distinctive vision that still seems fresh and modern.

The opening title sequence alone is mind-blowing, as a taxi driver tries to find an address on a giant housing estate in which all the buildings look the same, and he is told to find the number by the colourful laundry on the balcony. The estate is under construction and the cranes and rollers impede his progress. As various residents pick their way through the muddy paths, it becomes clear that the building of a socialist paradise has come unstuck, and that the project is crumbling as quickly as it is being built.

Chytilova's handling of the multitude of characters--an array of workers, housewives, errant children and corrupt officials--is as sure-footed as her eye for a shot. A series of absurd situations is intercut with shots of the cranes lifting the various panels of the building into place. Nothing works and everyone is on the make--a brilliant metaphor for society.

Earlier in the week, Chytilova sat on a panel (see pic; she's on the left) discussing the theme of films that appear to pre-sage the end of state socialism. She spoke of her run-ins with the government and the various strictures in place. Unfortunately, this panel, as with her remarks at the film screening, was not translated to English and I understood little. This is curious, as the subtitles for the film were in English. I asked the moderator about this oddity and he explained it was to do with "Grenzen" and "Logisten". Perhaps appropriate, considering the subject matter.

Happily, Chytilova, a small woman wearing Yoko-type glasses and clearly made of stern stuff, is still working. She has two films underway, one of them about men and women. So, still critiquing the state of things.

This year, Berlin is celebrating 20 years since the end of the Wall. On Potsdamer Platz, where the wall used to stand, is a strange-looking structure, a combination of viewing platform (to see what?) and exhibit about the peaceful revolution. Polls suggest that a large percentage of Germans remains unsatisfied with reunification and that easterners, in particular, feel let down. One wonders if in 10 years' time there will be a slew of films on 30 years of unfulfilled promises.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Berlinale: Pez + Ghosted + Chat

Cast and director of Un Chat, Un Chat, left, plus Berlinale representative, await questions at the Berlinale; photo by Val PhoenixThree auteurs. Three visions of relationships.

The best thing I've seen so far at the Berlinale is Sophie Fillieres' Un chat un chat, a sophisticated comedy starring Chiara Mastroianni (see pic for cast and director). Amazingly, Mastroianni had never before done comedy and was in a panic a week before shoooting, but her performance as Celimene (or Nathalie or Natasha), a writer suffering writer's block that masks a deeper crisis, is note-perfect. The expression on her face when her well-meaning friends offer her books as birthday presents is priceless--no words are needed.

There's so much that's right about this film--intriguing leads, a good set-up (the writer is stalked by a lonely teenager), snappy dialogue and space to let the film breathe. Not much happens but a lot develops, including Nathalie and her pursuer.

Monika Treut's Ghosted sets up a triangle, as artist Sophie travels to Taipei hoping to lay the ghost of her dead lover Ai-Ling to rest. Instead, she meets the mysterious journalist Wei-Ming, who takes a more than professional interest in her. Why is Wei-Ming so intrigued? How did Ai-Ling die? And can Sophie let go? A co-production between Germany and Taiwan, the film travels back and forth between Hamburg and Taipei as Sophie and Wei-Ming try to settle unfinished business.

The post-film Q and A session was amusing. Most directors come over all coy, allowing the Berlinale staff to shower them with praise and field questions. Not for the formidable Treut, who took control of the stage, setting up her own personal chat show, introducing the actors and discussing the problems of finding the money.

At least five funders' names and logos were listed at the start of El Nino Pez, Lucia Puenzo's follow-up to XXY. Adapted by her from her own novel, the film is something of a throw-back--a kitchen sink melodrama of forbidden love, as spoiled rich girl Lala (Ines Efron, who also starred in XXY) and housemaid Aylin plot their escape with the family loot. But the course of true love never runs smooth. Nor is it clear whether this is true love, as Aylin also has entanglements with Lala's father, as well as with others. Is she simply using Lala to better herself? When the father is found dead, the strength of their relationship is tested.

As with XXY, I was a bit disappointed with this film. I wanted to really like it but found it lacking dramatically. Pondering a crucial plot point, I found myself asking: "why are they taking the dog? That makes no sense." A pity as it's beautifully shot and acted. I just didn't quite buy the maid character. If she is untrustworthy, the audience's sympathy is compromised.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

Berlinale: Human Zoo

Director Rie Ramussen holds court after the screening of her film, Human Zoo, at the Berlinaledir Rie Rasmussen

This one had it all: drama, controversy, dramatic entrances--and that was off-screen. The film was pretty good, too.

It all started when the woman introducing the screening announced that director Rie Rasmussen was not attending and that there would be no post-screening discussion.

OK, so on to the film, which was a disturbing, violent affair asking (but not answering) a lot of questions about morality. Adria, a Kosovo Albanian, escapes certain death at the hands of the Serb Army in 1998, then falls in with a deserting Serb soldier and embarks on a life of crime. Intercut with this are scenes from her present-day life as an illegal immigrant in Marseilles (how she arrives is never explained), as she fears deportation and cuts herself off from emotional entanglements. After meeting nice guy Shawn, she dreams of a new life but then finds herself dropped back into violence.

Part war drama, part jet-black comedy, part romance and part social commentary, the film is wildly uneven in tone. In Serbo-Croat, French and English, the dialogue varies from astute to embarrassingly obvious. The film takes a wild left turn when the heretofore timid, restrained Adria suddenly turns into The Terminator and starts chopping off hands and shooting up strip joints. Most bizarre.

The director, who also played Adria, has very strong views on gender roles and I think somewhere in this picture is a comment on violence and strength but I found the ending a huge copout.

With the film over, I waited to leave. But then Nick Corey, the actor who played Shawn, jumped on-stage (with the lights still down), and the drama became a farce. He told us the director was outside the screening room and wanted to speak to us. The woman who had done the introductions appeared with a mic (and a spotlight) and explained there was no time for a post-screening discussion.

Cue Rie Rasmussen (see pic), who strode on stage. No messing with her. She and Corey traded insults directed at Luc Besson, who is credited as producer but apparently hated the picture. She also said the story had personal resonance, in terms of the immigration and trafficking theme (a sub-plot of the film), as her adopted sister's mother had been trafficked to Russia.

Extraordinary stuff, but it was cut short to make room for the next screening. Corey repaired outside and continued slagging off Besson and bigging up Rasmussen, who mortgaged her house to make the film. Then she held court. I was quite interested to hear her views on the reversal of gender roles in the film, with Adria taking an all-action stance while Shawn is a support. Once she started talking about women's natural function being reproduction, I rather lost interest--biological determinism is so 20th century.

But, the Human Zoo continues in various locations throughout Berlin for the next week or so. Ba-dum-bum.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


Gustav at the Volksbühne, Berlin; photo by Val PhoenixVolksbühne

A bit late with this one but I was dog tired when I got home. Not that the performance was enervating--far from it--but it was a long day.

And a curious one, surely for Viennese performer Gustav, who turned up without her guitarist Oliver Stotz. Imminent fatherhood kept him off the stage, with the result that the band advertised was keyboardist Elise Mory. Gustav commented on the situation a few times, with comic asides.

I was surprised at how powerful the songs were in a live setting and especially with a German-speaking audience, with whom she had great rapport. Gustav's two main expressions were furrowed brow (singing) and beaming (fiddling with her laptop). The contrast between her very light, almost babyish, voice and the content of her songs is stark, but the right balance was achieved on this night. (And if one is any doubt as to the ferocity of her opinions, check out this blog posting).

Because of the missing guitar, some songs were dropped and "We Shall Overcome" was reprised for an encore, but the setlist was well-executed, a mix of songs from her first album Rettet die Wale and last year's follow-up Verlass die Stadt.

Mory and Gustav had great chemistry, and I was amused to see the singer clamber on to the piano for a well-subverted torch version of "Rettet die Wale", while Mory tickled the ivories with a straight face.

And the baby, delivered two hours after the gig, was a boy.

Gustav will be taking part in the Audio Poverty conference this weekend.