At the Berlin International Film Festival • Dreaming of a kinder world

The Berlin International Film Festival is run on dreams, as TEODOR RELJIC finds out during a trip to the German capital where he celebrated the art of cinema with an international group of varied but largely like-minded filmmakers and cineastes

Though centralised in the glittering and ultra-modern Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin International Film Festival takes place in cinemas across the entire German capital
Though centralised in the glittering and ultra-modern Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin International Film Festival takes place in cinemas across the entire German capital

We shut the doors to the taxi and look up; we are in the spaceship in the middle of the city. Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz is a hyper-modern commercial centre of the German capital, rising like a glass-and-metallic Phoenix from a post-war scorched earth. It is also the unofficial seat of the Berlin International Film Festival, for whose 68th edition I’m graciously invited by the German Foreign Office’s erstwhile cultural outreach arm, the Goethe Institute.

A well-curated grassy mound framed by blue water pipes separates our hotel from the backside of the Platz commercial core. One of our friendly and diligent guides would go on to explain that no, the pipes aren’t an art installation – Berlin simply has to organise its municipal plumbing in this way because its groundwater level is just too high. Yes, this vibrant and cosmopolitan European capital – a capital of culture all year round, in so many ways – is basically a swamp. But it’s clear that a tenacity to simply make things happen is what helps it rise out of that same swamp day in and day out. It’s a tenacity to dream, even if the stark skin of the city appears to be an affront to the twisting, winding idea of what we expect dreams to be like: the phantoms of our subconscious that create indelible images. In short, the very heart of cinema, which we have all been gathered here to celebrate.

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Part of the Goethe Institut delegation on a trip to the Filmhaus museum space at Potsdamer Platz
Part of the Goethe Institut delegation on a trip to the Filmhaus museum space at Potsdamer Platz

The hotel has a soundtrack. True to the Nordic provenance of its brand, its corridors are draped in wallpaper evoking endless leafy forests populated by tall, thin trees. But a random array of ambient noises will envelop your ears as soon as you exit your room – chirping birds and hooting owls, the occasional rustle of leaves and that calming “OooooOooooh” effect that’s the universal marker of the meditative state. I’ve always hated flying, and even the roughly three-hour trip from Malta to Berlin is enough to bring on effects akin to jet lag. I emerge into the forest-corridor for a second time – I forgot my festival pass the first time around – and just as I’m about to head down for the elevator, I spot one of my would-be delegate colleagues.

We would have seen each other on a booklet diligently (that word will crop up again and again) prepared for us by the Institut a week or so prior to the trip, and I spot this guy as being the Bosnian of our group. We greet each other in a common tongue – I made it clear that I’m of Serbian origin on the WhatsApp group that’s created for us upon arrival – and I can’t help but slot him in as a typical specimen of his breed of ex-Yugoslav: approachable, impish – always rearing to make a good-humoured joke.

We descend down to the lobby to meet the others for dinner, and when a young Saudi Arabian filmmaker apologises for her lack of knowledge of the region, she asks, “But aren’t you guys neighbours?”

“No,” my new Bosnian friend shoots back, a wry grin having settled all but permanently on his face, “We hate each other”.

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The group, we soon learn, is almost comically diverse – a United Colours of Benetton-style global gathering which would view any kind of tribally-mandated suspicion of the Other as being ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. To hammer it even more closely to home, at dinner I find myself seated next to a Croatian counterpart who, being one of the only other members of the press in the group, ends up being my main film-going companion for a couple of screenings that fateful week. For the rest, I’m flanked by the Italian and Turkish representatives – a fact that gives our Bosnian friend another chance to crack a joke.

“The Mediterranean people just gathered together... come on, guys, this is so boring!”

That’s just before our hosts clink the glass for our attention... only to evoke every more national stereotypes in jest.

“Well, the good news is that you’re all in Germany. And we’re so glad to have you and host you here. The bad news is... you’re in Germany. Which means that tomorrow’s 08:30 appointment will in fact start at 08:30.”

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And so it goes. Our dreams are interrupted early, to be remembered as faint images over a bountiful breakfast buffet; while we discuss the previous day’s events and any film screenings we manage to sneak into in between. (This becomes something of a running joke: the fact that we have to squeeze films in between other activities when we’re here for a film festival). It soon becomes clear that the group is united in its love for film but varied in its priorities. Us film critics are keen to just see what’s out there that we can report back home about, but the filmmakers and festival organisers are on the lookout for Berlinale parties... one night it’s the Portuguese, one night it’s the Serbians. As someone who writes about film and is only just starting to experiment with writing for film, I feel somewhat disconnected from this networking rigmarole. So when I’m not watching films, I’m taking in the city.

And one thing becomes abundantly clear pretty early on as we explore Berlin: it’s a city resistant to dreams in more ways than one. Or at least, Berlin’s dreams are not dreams as we know them. This only has a little to do with the city’s stark architectural designs, as I mentioned earlier (meaning that they’re closer to the dreams of the mathematical blockbuster mind of a Christopher Nolan – whose ‘mind-heist’ film Inception will have us believe that concave-twisting glass buildings are the extent of dreamy psychedelia). Sure, the classically German adherence to efficiency is very much in evidence, even as the wintry woodlands that ring parts of the city – with trees stripped bare of foliage and caked with the remnants of last night’s snow – evoke Grimm’s fairytale imagery or, to bring up a more recent but just as pungent reference, the creepy and time-bending German Netflix series Dark, whose showrunners were also at the festival to deliver a talk on story structure – one of the many events I failed to nab tickets for in time.

But for all these hints of mystery, it’s deliberate and clear-eyed human impositions which engulf the city, in ways that are often inspiring and beautiful but which leave little room for the imagination. And if we are to speak of dreams from the lens of one of their most famous and enduring philosophers – Sigmund Freud – contemporary Berlin stands as precisely a rigid, assertive bulwark against the kind of subconscious demons Freud wrote about.

The fallout of the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall are memorialised and dissected in public, with informative, accessible and – above all – harrowing displays which appear to state in no uncertain terms that, “No, we do not want the repressed to return.”

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But for all of their fetishisation of accuracy and punctuality, the Germans can in fact mine the trenches of the dreamlands like it’s nobody’s business. And their pioneering pedigree in the world of cinema bears this out with unique force. The legacy of what was subsequently dubbed the era of German Expressionism gave us hallucinatory, haunting masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Murnau’s vampire classic Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Stark, black-and-white silent films that play like gilded, carved-out nightmares put on beautiful display.

Our contemporary desire for naturalistic representation, exacerbated only by the obsessive and constant filming and recording of day-to-day minutiae on mobile phones – a reality exploited beautifully in one of my favourite Berlinale 68 films, Jenna Bass’ South African body swapping young adult dramedy High Fantasy – often makes me nostalgic for a time when the German Expressionist style was in fact the norm.

The graphical, poster-like clarity of these classics has a truly transporting effect. The actors are over-powdered puppets miming exaggerated emotions – eyes bulging through thick eyeliner before the inter-titles cut through the scene to explain what’s going on. The sets are little more than labyrinthine stage constructions built with little heed for realism but that match the inner lives of the characters perfectly. But all of this heady, deliberate artificiality only serves to tap into something ancient, powerful, and – dare I say it? – universal.

Need proof? “It looks like Gojira,” the Japanese representative in our group says, pointing at a still from Fritz Lang’s adaptation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle depicting the dragon Fafnir, as we tour the legendary Filhaus museum in Potsdamer Platz...

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But it’s not just the undisputed classics of German cinema that can provide us with an entryway into these same dream-worlds. One of our quirkiest outings during the trip was a visit to the Zeughauskino to catch a ‘Retrospektive’ screening of Robert Reinert’s Opium (1919) – a silent film morality tale about the dangers of the titular drug, replete with now-unacceptable Orientalist tics – including yellow- and black-face – set to live piano accompaniment and stuffed with its own dream-like fugues.

Reinert’s idea of what an “opium dream” would look like draws on bucolic, pagan imagery – a woodland scene of nymphs and satyrs cavorting in the wild. It is this kind of anarchic bliss that is presented as being the foil to civilization and wholesome living, and it continues to resonate with a vivid painterliness to this day, especially when set to live piano accompaniment. These are the moments in which we are reminded of the true, raw alchemy of cinema – of “movie magic”. The comparatively crude images of silent cinema, brought back to us in a charming, choppy prints worn with age, and the sound provided live from across the room.

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Cinema is, in fact, made up of various moving parts, all of which have to be dreamed up and then put into action in as regimented a way as possible. “It’s a miracle anything gets made at all”, is a standard watchword for the industry worldwide, and the trip to Berlin – where I got to hear the challenges filmmakers and festival organisers from various parts of the globe face – the practical necessities of dreaming – the hard work hidden under the fugue – was also made evident to me.

Some face greater challenges than others. Our Turkish delegate, Esra Özban, organises an LGBTIQ film festival in her native Ankara – a fact made all the more difficult in recent years owing to political upheavals.

“Well, the first thing I’d like to say that it was never illegal to be gay in Turkey – and that there is a long history of LGBTIQ activism in the country,” Özban tells me as we settle in for coffee between our Goethe Institut-mandated sessions. “I really don’t like to project this notion that Turkey was a complete no-go-zone for LGBTIQ people...”

That said, the Pink Life Queer Festival which she helps organise was recently compromised by an emergency decree imposed by the municipal government of Ankara, under which all cultural activities somehow related to LGBTIQ are banned, indefinitely.

“Of course, it’s all pitched in the language of preserving public peace and morality,” Özban says. “And they even had the nerve to present it as something that’s in place to supposedly ‘protect’ LGBTIQ people – because, according to them, we trigger certain sensitivities just by being who we are.”

Unsurprisingly, however, the real fallout of all of this is that tension and violent reprisals have been on the increase. “Some of those who help us out with the festival are trans workers, for example, and it’s clear that this ‘state of emergency’ has only made their lives more difficult.” Worse still, it appears as though this new dispensation is starting to feel like the New Normal.

“The only reason this ban is in place is because of the state of emergency. It would not have been legal otherwise. But the problem is, that it can be reinstated indefinitely...”

Still, the festival will go on, even if its true origins have to be occluded from the authorities. “They’ve banned it, but it’s getting even more widespread in some ways.” LGBTIQ associations across the country have helped to ensure the Pink Life Queer Festival has ‘sanctuaries’ in other cities, and Özban reveals that funnelling some films online has helped them reach an audience that would not have otherwise been possible in the physical realm.

The tenacity of dreams is real.

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Like many others in the delegation, I fall ill at the tail end of the trip. This is a bit annoying, though the experience of having to weave in and out of screenings while nursing a flu only accentuates the dream-like atmosphere of this whole trip (and yes, the Singing Hotel Corridors only gain a keener edge as the ambient noises reverberate through my medicated skull).

A little itch at the back of my brain pushes me to ask, “What does this all mean?!” as my fellow delegates aggressively follow through on their own screenings, business meetings and parties – so many parties! – about which we’re all routinely updated on a collective WhatsApp thread.

As the days in Berlin whittle down while I try to keep the illness from ruining it all, I corner Martin Jabs – one of our guides – to give me an insight into what the Goethe Institut really aims to get from these trips.

“Speaking as a mere guide, the best I can offer is an observation, culled from ten years on the job,” Jabs says. “Basically, what I think the German Foreign Office wants to achieve with these trips, using the Goethe Institut as a platform, is to make German culture visible abroad by inviting all sorts of visitors in, by fostering a sense of peace and understanding.”

Creating a buffer zone for this kind of free-flowing exchange of dialogue feels pertinent in this day and age, Jabs adds, given how “so many politicians are pushing the limits of provocation right now”.

“I think what the Goethe Institut has really managed to achieve is to create a clever bridge between the cultural world and the political world. Politicians can’t perhaps be as outspoken in public as they want to be, but artists can speak up, and sometimes get in trouble for it. By creating a space where artists, and even critical journalists, can meet and discuss these issues across international lines, the Institut exists in between both worlds, while ensuring the discussions that ensue are relevant, and can reach out to the right people”.

Jabs quickly laughs off some of the above formulations as being too cautious and diplomatic in a lot of ways, but I would hazard to say that the week which went by did manage to fulfill the Institut’s stated aims.

Especially when one considers the opening film of the 68th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival. Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a parable about totalitarian regimes and the marginalisation of the Other – in which a talking pack of dogs are thrown onto a rubbish heap island after being banned by the dictator of an imaginary Japanese state. Anderson’s trademark blend of storytelling whimsy and symmetry-obsessed visual tics breathes a typical jolt of inspired life to the director’s second foray into stop-motion animation.

But its endearing overlay, challenging us along the way with some truly heart-rending moments, regales us with that precious thing – hope. The hope that we can dream a kinder world into existence.

Photography by Xaisongkham Induangchanthy