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Ghosts in the Machine: Highlights of the 2019 Berlinale

Cinema to afflict, unsettle and just plain weird us out reigned supreme at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, giving rise to the idea of an uncanny cinema to process and resist our politically surreal times, found Gorilla Film columnist, Carmen Gray

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” Franz Kafka once wrote in a famous letter. He called for works that affect us like a disaster, and aggrieve us, like the death of someone we love, or banishment into a forest far from everyone.

The kind of psychic assault called for by the Prague-born, Jewish literary giant when we snuggle down with a novel doesn’t do much for reading’s rep as a chilled-out holiday pastime, but it does point to art’s power to shake us from complacency. And the best films at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival tapped into an appreciation for the art of unsettling disorientation: Uncanny movies for surreal times, you could say, for what better way to contend with a climate of clownish leaders, alt-right avatars, weather catastrophe and forsaken caravans than a strange cinema of alienation, which throws our perception out of whack as the horrors of the past return?

SYNONYMS

Maddeningly oblique, fractured, and shifting between ambiguous registers of consciousness in an episodic delirium, Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms leaves us scrabbling to work out what the hell is going on. It’s not a film that’s easy to synthesise - but it sure gets under your skin. After a few days of it swirling around in my mind, I became convinced that this highly innovative vision of cultural dislocation and national identity was the most fearless and politically trenchant film in the Berlinale competition. So did the jury, giving it the top Golden Bear award.

Tom Mercier plays Yoav, who has just arrived in Paris. Having given up on Israel and (he thinks) the militarism he despises, he’s instantly condemned to reinhabit the trace territory of Europe’s dispossessed Jews. He awakes in a beautiful but empty apartment to find that his sleeping bag and backpack have been stolen. His appeals to the neighbours for help unheeded, he passes out naked and freezing in the bathtub. When he comes to, he wonders aloud if he has died. Seemingly not, but what follows retains the unmoored confusion of a dream state.

He’s been rescued by the cute French artist couple who live above, who bestow upon him a pile of money, some hip clothes and their friendship. He begins to reconstitute himself, realising in the process that Paris is a city as intent on exploiting him as charming him, on mortifying him as much as assimilating him. If this all lacks literal credibility, no matter: we are in a language-obsessed realm, rife with stereotypes and cultural fetishisation, a mess of signals that needs sorting and translating to anchor the at-sea self.  

Lapid drew on his own experience of moving to Paris when he was younger. Certainly, the intense frustrations and sensory tumult on screen feel like a cathartic working-through of his own deep ambivalence to his homeland. Refusing to speak Hebrew, Yoav walks the city reciting French synonyms to master a tongue in which to describe the world anew, just as Lapid has turned to cinema to express his way out of the conundrum, or at the very least, submerge us in it along with him.

GHOST TOWN ANTHOLOGY

A Muslim psychologist appears in an insular Quebecois village to counsel its inhabitants after the apparent suicide by car crash of one of their own. She’s met with a less than a warm welcome in the local diner, and the Mayor breezily insists on the townspeople’s stoic adaptability. But the denial that cloaks the town as thickly as the winter snow can’t contain an even more alarming intrusion of otherness: the dead are returning. They materialise in the fields and houses where they once resided. The youngest play games in carnivalesque masks.

Denis Côté has never been a director keen on explaining his mysteries, and Ghost Town Anthology remains as elliptical as it is eerie. But there’s no doubt that what’s at stake here is collective memory. The town is barely able to hang onto its inhabitants, who are leaving for the cities. For all the Mayor’s lip service to efficient coping, psychic unrest runs deep. A funeral scene is a tour de force of the awkwardness surrounding the taboos of mortality, mental illness and grief. Unable to bear her own fright, the most skittish villager resorts to levitating above the ground. The warning hangs like cut crystal in the air: if you deny the horrors of the present, and turn your back on otherness, history will conspire to revisit their pains upon you.

THE CHILDREN OF THE DEAD

Lapid and Côté go for ambiguity in their films of the bizarre and unassimilable, playing with our desire for a consoling narrative in which everything has its place and we understand the laws in operation. Kelly Copper and Pavel Liska opt for a more in-your-face version of the breakdown of social veneers in their critics-awarded The Children of the Dead. A loose adaptation of Austrian Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, it links Austria’s Nazi past with today’s right-wing resurgence and hostility toward refugees in the form of a Super-8 zombie B-movie peopled by Nazis, Holocaust victims and Syrian poets. That might sound in bad taste - but that’s exactly the point. The grotesque is mined for a pitch-black social satire on xenophobia.

The directors are the founders of New York’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, an art and performance venture that gets its name from the theatre promising work for everyone in Kafka’s novel of immigration alienation and absurdist persecution Amerika. A Styrian guesthouse shows its hostility to foreigners, and the dark underbelly of the nation’s idyllic postcard pretensions. It remakes itself as a Michelin-starred Syrian restaurant when a tourist bus accident unleashes more walking dead. Those feeling at saturation-point with worthy documentaries on the refugee crisis might newly connect with an issue that is just as urgent as ever, through this caustic lampoon of all that’s sacred about Austria’s self-image. As the Theater’s catchcry says: “All welcome!”

Carmen Gray is a freelance film programmer, critic and journalist who was born in New Zealand and now lives in Berlin. She is interested in the intersection of art, politics and collective history.

Picture credit: © Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

Uncanny movies for surreal times, you could say, for what better way to contend with a climate of clownish leaders, alt-right avatars, weather catastrophe and forsaken caravans than a strange cinema of alienated return?

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