Berlinale 2013
“My Son Does Not Bother About Me Much Anymore”

At the Berlinale 2013 often the focus was on family themes. Scene from “Das merkwürdige Kätzchen”
At the Berlinale 2013 often the focus was on family themes. Scene from “Das merkwürdige Kätzchen” | © Alexander Hasskerl

Many Berlinale entries this year featured an envelope discretely pushed across the table with the intention of resolving problems. The protagonists were often family members. The “family microcosm” theme was not only to be found in political dramas, however – it cut across all sections and genres.

In the name of the father

A father emerged as winner in two categories of this year’s Berlinale – the Silver Bear Award for Best Actor went to Nazif Mujić for his autobiographical presentation of the desperate father in Epizoda u Životu Berača Željeza (An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker), for which Bosnian director Danis Tanović also received the Jury Grand Prix (Silver Bear). It all started as research into a true event for a documentary film. Oscar prize winner Tanović decided to make a feature film format in which the Roma family concerned played themselves. The film focuses on the father, Nazif. Right at the beginning, we learn about his hard job. In ice and snow, he works hard to dismantle cars to sell the scrap metal. Upon his return from work, disaster awaits. His pregnant wife is writhing in pain. Her unborn child has already died, and only a speedy operation can save her. But what should you do when you have neither health insurance nor money?

For Adam (Andrzej Chyra) in W imie ... (In the Name of; Teddy Award for Best Feature Film), God, the “Father in heaven” is not an empty promise. The Catholic priest only discovered his vocation late in life but now he is all the more committed to looking after troubled youths in the Polish provinces. Soon, however, he can no longer run away from his feelings. Adam is gay, resulting in conflict with his calling to the priesthood and serious repercussions. Courageously emotional, but never voyeuristic, the Polish director Małgośka Szumowska uses stunning images and great actors to address the issue of homosexuality among priests.

Mum is the best

Gloria was loved by everyone – the Chilean entry (director: Sebastián Lelio) was the favourite film of both the audience and the critics. 59-year-old Gloria, a divorced mother of two grown-up children, wants to continue enjoying life. With her great love of life, she energetically faces up to her everyday challenges – selfish children and unfaithful lovers. We joyfully follow her on this journey to herself. Everyone in the Berlinale Palast envied the congenial heroine Gloria for her strength and self-irony and shared the pleasure of lead actress Paulina García at winning the Award for Best Actress (Silver Bear).

Cornelia (Luminiţa Gheorghiu), the main character in Calin Peter Netzer’s entry Poziţia Copilului (Child’s Pose), is also around sixty years old, but she is not congenial. “My son does not bother about me much anymore”, she says at the beginning of the film and we soon realise why he has withdrawn from this monstrous mother. After he was involved in a traffic accident in which a young boy died, she makes an unscrupulous attempt to keep him out of prison at any price and to gain control over his life. This psychopathic mother-son story, a successful combination of private psychodrama and portrait of a cold, corrupt society, won the director the Golden Bear for the Best Film.

In Layla Fourie (Competition), too, director Pia Marais attempts to combine the private and political levels. Lone mother Layla wants to fight for a better life for herself and her young son in contemporary South Africa. But the end of apartheid has by no means done away with society’s prejudices and fears. One night, she is driving her car and has an accident that results in the death of an older white man. She tries to cover it up, but tells her five-year-old son. After that, their future together is uncertain ...

Whether there is such a thing as “a mothering instinct”, on the other hand, is a question that Isabella Rossellini (Berlinale Camera 2013) leaves entirely open in her Mammas (Forum Expanded). In a number of two-minute short films, we see her dressed up in animal costumes as a spider, bird, fish, hamster etc. With irony and wit, Rossellini reveals stereotypes – there is no trace of any naturally pre-programmed “mothering instinct”!

And yet there are women who make such an effort, for example in Halbschatten (Everyday Objects) directed by Nicolas Wackerbarth (Forum section). Merle (Anne Ratte-Polle) wants to be anything but the “bad stepmother” when she goes on holiday in the south of France for the first time with her boyfriend and his children from his first marriage. But she is not welcome. Her boyfriend’s arrival is delayed and, left alone with his teenage children, a psychological power game develops. In the end, she disappears silently and secretly into the half shadows.

A maternal relationship develops in a completely different direction in Die mit dem Bauch tanzt (Dancing with Bellies) (Perspektive Deutsches Kino). As she goes through a rough patch, director Carolin Genreith sets out on a quest for her mother, whose embarrassing involvement with a belly-dancing group in a village in the Eifel region enables the director to rediscover her. The film ends with the two of them dancing in the streets of Paris.

In the moving documentary Einzelkämpfer (I Will Not Lose) (Perspektive Deutsches Kino), director Sandra Kaudelka presents top sportswomen of the former GDR. If you were loyal to the system, you were pumped full of anabolic steroids without being asked, but enjoyed many privileges. If you resisted, like world relay record-holder Ines Geipel, you suffered harsh punishment. The Ministry of State Security kept the regime’s top-performing sportsmen and women under particular surveillance because of their high public profile. Geipel was subjected to forced sterilisation while being told that her appendix was being removed.

Bonding as they sweat

Lars Kraume also takes us to Paris in Meine Schwestern (My Sisters) (Panorama section), telling a story of a journey at the end of which death awaits. The three outstanding actresses – Jördis Triebel (Linda), Nina Kunzendorf (Katharina) and Lisa Hagmeister (Clara) – ensure the sisters’ trip is anything but depressing. Linda is terminally ill and would like to spend the last days before her heart operation with her two very different sisters, control freak Katharina and failed artist Clara. These ingredients might have made the film slide into sentimentality. But Kraume and his ensemble keep the balance and show how the estranged sisters have to face up to their family structure, thus building their relationship anew on this last journey.

Sebastian Merz also sets out on a journey to death in Metamorphosen (Perspektive Deutsches Kino), a documentary in which he leads us to the southern Urals. An area of 23,000 km² around the Majak nuclear facility is believed to be the world’s most severely contaminated area of radioactivity. Merz approaches the polluted Techa River with a Geiger counter. All that can be heard is the warning signal that becomes louder and louder as the counter’s needle moves off the end of the scale. Using the concentrated aesthetic effect of expressive black-and-white pictures, Merz presents the dying landscape and its courageous inhabitants. When they say where they come from, they have no chance of finding a marriage partner. Anyone who can leave does so – it will not be long before there are no sons and daughters here anymore.

Yaki and Shaul, too, protest against suffering. They can no longer watch their kind, depressed father suffering and the family falling into social decline. In Youth, the feature film debut of Israeli director Tom Shoval (Panorama), the sons get to work with a will – they are going to save the family! They think that kidnapping a girl from a well-to-do family will solve their problems. But the fraternal alliance leads to disaster.

In contrast, how about cheerfully clapping along with the end credits music? Are we in a German folk music show? No, it’s the press screening of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradies: Hoffnung (Paradise: Hope) (Competition). In the third part of his Paradise trilogy, Seidl takes us along with his teenage protagonist Melanie (Melanie Lenz, like Silver Bear winner Nazif Mujić, an impressive amateur performer) to an idyllically located Austrian diet camp. Seidl’s analysis is, as usual, razor sharp but never contemptuous. When at the end we clap along ironically to If you're happy and you know it, clap your fat, we wish that these congenial youngsters, who have bonded as they sweated together, will be more successful at getting their lives into shape than their parents who sent them to diet hell.

Keeping it in the family

The protagonist in Exposed, a documentary by the New York underground artist Beth B., would never go to a diet camp. The focus here is on otherness - consciously being different. Her own sexuality is used politically as an alternative to a society that lays down a conservative system of values and norms with its ideals of beauty and political conformity. Representatives of the neo-burlesque scene show provocatively and self-confidently how one can use one’s own body to make a political statement. Transsexual, overweight, disabled, “normal” – social labels play no role here. A strong family of her own choosing.

That is something we also encounter in Workers by José Luis Valles (Panorama section). When tyrannical, rich Doña dies, she leaves her inheritance to Princesa, a pampered greyhound. Only when the dog dies a natural death are the caregiver, housekeeper and chauffeur – who have selflessly looked after the mistress and her dog for years – to come into the inheritance. Since they have no family of their own, this situation forges the relationship of the domestic staff into a substitute family. They trust one another, make plans together, and take effective revenge. With dark irony, the film shows survival strategies in the unjust society of contemporary Mexico.

The two mothers in Zwei Mütter (director: Anne Zohra Berrached / Perspektive Deutsches Kino) are not yet a family, but they would like to become one. This winning film in the Dialogue en perspective section tells in a semi-documentary manner of a lesbian couple’s difficulty in planning a family. Here, too, family happiness has to be fought for against society’s unjust rules, a situation that places an almost unbearable burden on their intimate relationship.

At first sight, it appears to be an ordinary Berlin family that Ramon Zürcher presents in Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (The Strange Little Cat) (Forum section). We experience a weekend with the family and their pets and by the end of the film it is clear that the little cat of the title is the only one that behaves normally. A mother (Jenny Schily) harasses her screaming daughter Clara by making remarks like, “All those poor sparrows will die because of you,” glass bottles explode in a cooking pot, and the dog is melancholy.... all this in a chamber play that is orchestrated down to the last detail. You do not know whether to laugh or cry and you are in for some surprises.

The curtain falls, leaving everything up in the air

Jafar Panahi also uses the structure of a chamber play in Pardé. Pardé means closed curtain and nomen est omen. The director, who was banned from practising his vocation for twenty years and sentenced to six years in prison dared to make the film anyway. He spent just three days secretly making the film in a villa by the Caspian Sea. The film, focusing on a man, a girl and a dog, is a succinct metaphor of the political situation in Iran. Panahi acts in his own film – a moment of hope – pulling open a curtain. But when we flee with the lead actor and the dog to a secluded hiding place, the screen darkens again, the director’s laconic commentary on his own situation. While the Silver Bear for Best Script pays tribute to Panahi’s unbroken creative spirit, the curtain remains closed – Kamboziya Partovi (co-director and lead actor) and Maryam Moghadam (lead actress) had their passports confiscated upon their return to Iran.

In 2013, the jury awarded nearly all the prizes to younger directors in recognition of the new perspectives they bring to cinema.