BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Berlin, Germany, February 9-19. berlinale.de.
Berlin -- I saw old naked bodies writhing on a bed. I saw the Moroccan Amores Perros. I saw maggots crawl out of a woman's arm. I even saw a white man walking down Potsdamerstrasse in full blackface and an Afro wig.
But that wasn't in a movie. That was just one more inexplicable Berlin moment.
The flock of film freaks has descended once again on the German capital, and of course the city takes it in stride. Berlin absorbs the Berlinale as the long nights here swallow errors of judgment.
This is both the most progressive big film festival in the world and home to the hard commerce of the European Film Market. It accommodates both George Clooney on the red carpet and full-room video installations about Israel's occupation of Palestine.
But that still doesn't explain Snow Cake . Handed the prestigious and treacherous opening-night slot, Marc Evans 's winter-set story of uplift launched Thursday to collective shrugs. Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman posed gamely on the soggy red carpet, but onscreen it was depressing to see two normally ferocious actors so completely robbed of bite.
Weaver plays an autistic whose daughter died in a car Rickman was driving. Life lessons ensue. Evans, a Welsh director working in Wawa, Ontario, does stage a very good winter crash scene, but the whole film is hobbled by Weaver's mannered performance as a high-functioning "autistic." You could call it Rain Mom, except that raises expectations.
Robert Altman 's A Prairie Home Companion got a warmer reception, although its homespun charm looks weirdly exotic in Berlin. Garrison Keillor weaves a very loose mortality tale from the threads of his long-running radio program. Meryl Streep, Lili Tomlin, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly play folksy musicians on the final night of Keillor's show. Lindsay Lohan hangs around backstage as Streep's suicidal daughter, but the real comedy comes from Kevin Kline , playing one of the best idiots he's yet committed to screen
Berlin hosts American stars and auteurs as if they were minor gods - Clooney was practically licked clean by journalists at his press conference; even Al Jazeera asked a softball question. But the festival reserves its serious consideration for the European and Asian directors poking into bizarre corners of life.
Exhibit A: Lukas Moodysson . The director of Show Me Love and Lilja 4-Ever has perfected the depiction of shitty little lives in Europe. His new film, Container , makes even bigger demands on his viewers, not least because of Jena Malone . She is the voice of the one and only character in the film, a little girl trapped in the body of a fat, depressive man.
On screen, grimy-glittery black-and-white images show the fat man moping and lurching around, sometimes with a small Asian woman riding on his back. It's like finding a lost Kenneth Anger film, with the unique addition of the American star-baiting for which Scandinavian directors have become so well known. It's brilliant. Container is the source of those old, naked bodies writhing on a bed, which was entrancing.
Walk out of that film and the crush of people in Potsdamer Platz begins to look like performance art. Japanese sales troops cross paths with Viennese intellectuals, American buyers and hundreds of tall Berliners, covering acres with each stride.
Outside the Berlinale Palast, a guy parades around in a huge fake beard and a Viking helmet. He holds up a placard that reads, "We Are All Danes." Topical, but off-base, because the Berlinale's motto is more likely to be "We Are All Muslims."
Even Jews can be Muslims in Berlin. Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai is here with News From Home/News From House , the summation of a 25-year project documenting the shifting ownership of a house in West Jerusalem. Seized from Palestinians with the birth of Israel in 1948, it's now home to the memories of families divided by religion, culture, language and class.
The most powerful effect of the film is echoed over at the massive art bunker of the Kunst-Werke gallery, where Gitai has flipped the title and fractured the images for a full-room, 20-screen video installation, News From House/News From Home .
Though the projects elicit sympathy for both Jews and Palestinians, the sheer time scale favours the evicted Muslims. One man notes simply that he can't build on land his family owned for generations, although "any Russian immigrant can."
If broad strokes would paint Gitai's film as pro-Palestinian, then Moroccan filmmakers Swel Noury and Imad Noury have somehow made the most impressive Mexican film of the year. Heaven's Doors puts together three connected stories, and, although the jittery camera work makes you wish they'd sprung for a tripod, this is some confident, kick-ass filmmaking.
The maggots? An Australian short called Fish . Best thing I can say for it is that it played in a program with a trenchant camp satire from Toronto filmmakers Kent Monkman and Giséle Gordon . The idea red man deconstructs white man's gaze. The title Group Of Seven Inches . It fit in perfectly in Berlin.