Berlin Diary: Birds of a feather

Posted on February 9, 2015


Other journalists. Plus, a needless update of material that was much better served by Buñuel.

Jabba the Hutt. Princess Leia. These aren’t names you expect to hear at a film festival. And yet, here this man was, one seat away from me at the screening of Isabel Coixet’s Nobody Wants the Night, talking about… I don’t know. He was speaking German to the woman seated between us, and I had to wonder if he had inside news about JJ Abrams offering a sneak peak at the new Star Wars movie. Don’t scoff. Stranger things have happened. But it turned out that the man was just talking about someone he knew, someone who looked like Jabba the Hutt. “And just as evil,” he smiled.

The woman – Barbara Miller – and I got talking. She edits the culture section in a newspaper named Schwäbische Zeitung. (The man was her colleague, but they work in different cities, so they were catching up at the Berlinale.) When she said she’d been coming here for 25 years, I asked her what had changed. She said that the festival had become bigger. There were more people. And the decision to make Potsdamer Platz the nerve centre of the festival had made it much easier to organise one’s day, as all theatres are within walking distance. Earlier, the screenings were in theatres located in different parts of the city.

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There are still screenings all over Berlin, but what she meant was that it’s possible to see most films without moving out of the Potsdamer Platz area. “After all,” she said reasonably, “how many movies can one person watch?” She wanted to focus on the movies in competition, because she was here for only four days. The newspaper, which has a circulation of 2,00,000, wouldn’t (or maybe couldn’t) pay for a longer stay. “It’s a difficult time for newspapers everywhere,” she said. When I asked her what kind of stories she’d write, she said she’d write about the atmosphere and about the summaries of films, along with an interview with a German film personality. “Our readers prefer articles with a German connect,” she said. I asked if there was any film she was looking forward to in particular, and she mentioned Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. But she wasn’t happy about the inclusion of Fifty Shades of Grey in the festival. “That’s just a compromise for Hollywood.”

* * *

Buñuel thought he could bring something – a wink, a wicked gleam – to Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel Diary of a Chambermaid that the earlier film version by Renoir didn’t. At the Berlinale, French director Benoît Jacquot offered his take on the material. After the film, you may wonder why he bothered. What was shocking in Buñuel’s time is routine in this anything-goes era, and we have to look elsewhere for stimulation. The plot, about an upscale maid (Léa Seydoux) who suffers at the hands of a prissy mistress, takes a turn with an anti-Semitic subplot and the murder of a child. But despite flashes of humour, the chilly filmmaking keeps us at an arm’s length. And the open-endedness is frustrating. We don’t ask for spoon-feeding, but what to do when the meal itself is half-cooked?

* * *

While waiting for Diary of a Chambermaid to begin, I struck up a conversation with the man in the next seat. His name was Wolfgang Popp, and he was a radio journalist with Ö1, a state-run Austrian radio station. We first spoke about India. He’d visited Nainital en route to China some 25 years ago. Now, he’s a “cultural journalist,” talking about movies, music, literature and art. He’s been attending this festival for five or six years, and he too said he watches only the films in competition. He’d like to see films in the Forum and Panorama sections, but there’s just no time. He carries with him a laptop and recording equipment. After a day or two of watching movies, he records his show – comparing films, naming his favourites. He said he loved Andrew Haigh’s 45 years. He predicted that Tom Courtenay, the protagonist, would win Best Actor.

I asked him how long his show was. He said – are you ready for this? – three minutes. “You have to be really concise,” he said. “You don’t really have a lot of time on the radio” – especially when you’re not your own show but part of a bigger news programme. He complained good-naturedly that he doesn’t get too many interview slots as a radio journalist. “The film industry still thinks that TV and print are better when it comes to publicity.” I asked him if he thought radio was better. He said yes. “The auditory medium is intense while telling people about movies. There’s only commentary, no picture. So the picture emerges in the mind of the listener, and that’s stronger than any picture on a screen.”

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign