film festival Silver Screen Falls Silent

Aki Kaurismäki, Thomas Arslan and other directors are masterfully returning cinema to its roots with silent films. Otherwise, there is a great desire for dialogue at this year’s Berlinale Film Festival – especially among its American guests.
Quelle: Pressebild
The sound of silence echoed in some of the films but there was more talk off screen.
(Source: Pressebild)

“A grievous error has people believe that language arose in order to facilitate their mutual relations.” This quote by French author Michel Leiris could almost be a motto for the 67th Berlin Film Festival. It feels like this year’s films have conspired with each other to show how language is fundamentally flawed, how words form barriers and how the truth of what is said ultimately doesn’t matter.

“On Body and Soul” by the Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi is a case in point. It is one of the standout films at the festival and underscores the disconnect between yearning and its expression. Ms. Enyedi makes a welcome return to filmmaking after a hiatus, and fans of her breakout film, “My Twentieth Century” – which won her the Cannes Camera d’Or in 1989 – will recognize some familiar themes.

We discover that they both have the same dream every night: Of a stag and a doe wandering through a snowy forest, looking for food, sniffing each other, drinking from a stream.

The film’s two protagonists, Mária and Endre, first set eyes on each other in the cafeteria of the slaughterhouse where they both work. After a brief conversation about things like the consistency of mashed potatoes, the pair find they have nothing more to say to each other. Struggling to express themselves, their words and sentences pile up in front of an invisible wall.

Mária – blonde and uptight – is the new meat inspector at the slaughterhouse. Endre – a haggard man in his late fifties with a lame arm – is in charge of the company. She has been afraid of physical and emotional contact since childhood. He has withdrawn into himself after disappointments in love earlier in life.

We discover that they both have the same dream every night: Of a stag and a doe wandering through a snowy forest, looking for food, sniffing each other, drinking from a stream. The quiet, almost poetic togetherness of the animals contrasts with the sexualized existence of human beings. In the sterile surroundings of the slaughterhouse, conversations regularly revolve around sex and who’s sleeping with whom. The virility of a young employee earns him jealous looks.

Meanwhile the dreams of the unfulfilled lovers have become the only way they can express their feelings towards each other. Ultimately this wonderful film is about cinema itself – about longing and fantasies that are confined within bodies and can only come to light through images on a screen.

In his films, including “Brothers and Sisters,” “Dealer,” “A Fine Day,” and “In the Shadows,” the Berlin director Thomas Arslan has always explored the limits of verbal communication – and insisted on the autonomy of cinematic images.

Four years ago, Mr. Arslan’s Western movie “Gold” played in competition in Berlin. That film was set in the barren landscapes of North America. In his new film, “Bright Nights,” his themes are played out during a summer road trip in the remote woods and mountains of northern Norway.

The plot can be summed up in one sentence: After the death of his father, Michael, played by the Austrian actor Georg Friedrich, travels to Norway, the last place his father lived, together with his teenage son Luis, played by Tristan Göbel. Michael has never bothered to build a relationship with his son, and the trip reveals their missing bond.

In his shots, Mr. Arslan establishes a precise framework for this failed relationship. Their alienation from each other is seen rather than heard: Luis watches his father pack up his grandfather’s belongings – a man who also failed in his paternal duties. After the funeral, Michael organizes a camping trip; Luis has no choice but to come along for the ride, which largely takes place in stony silence.

What could be a healthy bonding experience between father and son is anything but. Neither takes any shared joy from sausages being grilled on the fire – surely the ultimate camping pleasure. Michael wants to talk about his shortcomings and feelings of guilt. Luis refuses to listen and throws a tantrum. Mere words cannot bring back the time they have both lost. And what should people talk about if they lack a common past?

At one point in the film, the camera looks out through the windshield of a drive along a foggy dirt road. After every bend in the road, the viewer expects a valley or some sky to come into view. But the drive continues and the fog gets thicker and thicker. Mr. Arslan’s story is like this drive: An endless journey for the characters, with no destination.

It may be an exaggeration to say it, but Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has always treated cinematic dialogue as a necessary evil – and has been celebrated for his laconic style. So it is no surprise that the plot in his new film, “The Other Side of Hope” is boiled down to its bare bones. A young Syrian man from Aleppo has stowed away on a coal barge in the Finnish capital, Helsinki. He encounters hatred and violence, but also solidarity.

This is not just a film about a refugee. It is about people who are seeking new homes. Khaled has just arrived in Helsinki having fled his war-torn country. Wikström, a taciturn man around sixty, has separated from his wife and bought a restaurant. In order to attract tourists, the menu is switched from Finnish salted herrings to sushi – and soon back again. Behind the garbage cans of the restaurant, the two men’s lives become intertwined. What starts as a fight ends in a mutually beneficial friendship.

Mr. Kaurismäki knows the power of images. The story unfolds in typically muted colors, its quiet rhythm occasionally broken up by live music performances, used to express emotion. A vodka glass on the table tells us that Widström’s wife is a heavy drinker. The sale of the restaurant is completed in just three or four shots, yet the viewer still comes away with the impression of knowing all the employees for years: the doorman with the oversized uniform; the cook who smokes constantly; the blonde waitress with pencil and notepad.

For decades, Mr. Kaurismäki has been trying to return cinema to its silent origins. Now, though, his work might have reached its end. In an interview with the Finnish public broadcaster YLE, he said he wouldn’t finish his planned trilogy of migration films (the first of which was his 2011 movie “Le Havre”), adding he wanted to start living his own life.

Yet while Mr. Kaurismäki embodies the saying that silence is golden, other attendees of this year’s Berlin Film Festival have felt an almost therapeutic need to vent their innermost thoughts. For American guests, overwhelmed by the shock developments back home following the election of Donald Trump as president, there is a real desire to talk.

Actor Richard Gere criticized the way his country’s government appears to be blurring the lines between terrorist and refugee; Laura Linney spoke of how Hollywood can act as a counter balance to the new U.S. administration; and jury member Maggie Gyllenahall said it was a great honor, as an American citizen, to be invited to an international film festival: “Please believe me that there are many people in America who think differently!”

Berlin's International Film Festival was established in 1951 by the U.S. military government at the initiative of an officer called Oscar Martay. The festival’s first ever tagline was “Showcase of the Free World.”

It feels ironic that more than half a century later, it is the Americans concerned about their own freedom, while others prefer to let their films do all the talking.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]