There’s a bit of a gender-inclusion dialectic going on at this year’s Berlinale. On one hand, the international jury is composed evenly of men and women. On the other, the head of the jury, Juliette Binoche, opened the festival by calling for an end to the public condemnation of Harvey Weinstein. And while the festival is proud that seven of 16 films in the main competition are directed by women (that’s up from four last year), and has pledged to “work for” the proportion reaching 50% next year, the most prominent German film that premiered at this year’s festival, The Golden Glove, features some of the seediest, most relentless depiction of violence against women in recent memory.
Nevertheless, there’s a good chance that a female filmmaker will walk away with the Golden Bear for the second year in a row. Among the aforementioned seven films in competition are three of the slate’s most impressive: Teona Strugar Mitevska’s God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, a claustrophobic black comedy about a listless and unemployed Macedonian woman who spends an entire night under police interrogation for participating in a men-only religious ceremony; Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath My Feet, a tightly controlled psychodrama which subtly draws the viewer into a woman’s growing sense of paranoia and suspicion of her own senses; and Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, a raw, affecting—but not oppressively dark—portrait of a young girl with severe emotional disturbance.
Interestingly enough, God Exists and The Ground Beneath My Feet open with nearly identical shots: extreme close-ups of a woman hiding under her bedsheets, hesitant to confront the outside world. Once they emerge, however, each woman reveals herself to be a starkly different person, and at the center of a starkly different production. A former history major interested in the integration of communist economies with democratic principles, God Exists’s Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva) is, it’s almost needless to say, unoccupied in impoverished, post-communist Macedonia. And The Ground Beneath My Feet’s Lola (Valerie Pachner) is a Type A, over-occupied professional who practically sweats German efficiency. Petrunya rebels, externalizing her frustration at handsy hiring managers and patriarchal traditions, while Lola internalizes the stress of her merciless schedule and strictly compartmentalized life, coming to doubt her sanity and the motives of the people around her.
Mitevska’s camera stays close to its protagonist, the tight frame becoming another way in which Petrunya is confined by her circumstances. An annual village tradition has the local priest toss a wooden cross into the freezing-cold river, and a herd of young men dive in after it; Petrunya does an end run around them, grabs the cross for herself, and makes off with it. As the town erupts into furor over the “theft,” neither the police nor the priest can coerce the intractable Petrunya into returning the cross. “Am I under arrest?” Pentrunya persists, and the answer is yes and no. The police can’t arrest Petrunya, but God Exists shows what at first an indolent millennial’s arrested development to be the product of an arrested social position.
God Exists creates a sense of intimacy with Petrunya through its close-ups, but Ground Beneath My Feet manages to put us in its main character’s distorted state of mind even while maintaining a tone of cool distance. Lola’s mentally ill sister, Conny (Pia Hierzegger), has been hospitalized after a recent suicide attempt, and Lola, who strictly divides the personal and professional, keeps getting calls from Conny claiming that the institution is abusing her. But after Lola is informed that Conny couldn’t be making those calls, her entire reality seems up for question. The film doesn’t use visual abstractions to illustrate Lola’s burgeoning breakdown, instead relying on manipulations quietly executed by Kreutzer’s screenplay and precise mise-en-scène to make us, like Lola, question everything we see on screen.
Like its protagonist, The Ground Beneath My Feet is lean, fit, and highly effective within the bounds it sets for itself. For this reason among others—including its Austro-German specificity—its chances at the Golden Bear seem rather distant. With a more unique tone and a more universal feminist theme, God Exists likely has a better shot. But the best of this bunch—and perhaps of the competition slate thus far—is Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, which might be referred to as a social-problem film, though it abstains not only from didacticism or easy solutions, but also from fetishizing victimhood or sentimentalizing childhood.
Beautiful but anything but tender, System Crasher is awash in pink: its titles are in spray-painted, neon-pink scrawl; its nine-year-old protagonist, Benni (Helena Zengel, who, if the film were English-language, would already be a sensation for her performance), is always garbed in the color; and the screen becomes a swatch of bright pink whenever the emotionally disturbed child breaks out into one of her characteristic rages. Saturating the film in pink isn’t just an appropriation of the archetypically girlish color to signify female rage and rebellion; it’s also just another way that Fingscheidt’s film is loud. Benni’s genuinely frightening fits of uncontrolled fury, which often turn violent or end with her running away from those who want to protect her, are accompanied by raucous, percussive music that helps immerse the viewer in Benni’s subjective, chaotic swirl of perceptions.
What these three films have in common is their exploration of a female psyche impacted in some way by oppressive conditions. In System Crasher and God Exists, that’s specific forms of violent patriarchal power, and in The Ground Beneath My Feet, it’s the “always on” information-age capitalism that dominates schedules, minds, and bodies. The films share a sense of concreteness, a foundation in the everyday stressors in the place each is set. It’s not quite a “Frauen-Berlinale” here in Berlin, as documentarian Barbara Rohm described the festival to the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, but it’s easy to see why these three powerful films might make one think otherwise.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man