Berlin Viewing 4

By Robert Koehler

The Turin Horse begins with a micro-fiction by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, reminiscent of both Donald Barthelme’s short fictions placing historical figures in fictitious situations and W.S. Merwin’s prose-poems which combine many different values, but frequently stress two: radical brevity and openness. Krasznahorkai wrote “The Turin Horse” micro-fiction in the early ’80s, and his friends Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitsky first heard it in a public reading at that time. The story simply tells of a horse in 1888 being mercilessly beaten by its frustrated owner for not budging, and how Nietzsche, passing by on the street in Turin, leapt in to shield the horse from further abuse. The incident left Nietzsche fundamentally altered, ultimately mute and possibly mad, until he died about a decade later. “Of the horse,” the story as well as the third-person on the soundtrack concludes, “we know nothing.”

The Turin Horse, the film, subsequently provides an answer to this open question, and just as suitably, concludes with another open ending: Of the fate of the aging Hungarian farmer, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) and his unnamed daughter (Erika Bok, reappearing on screen after her debut as an 11-year-old in Tarr’s Satantango), we know nothing. Knowledge is a difficult thing to ascertain in the world of Tarr/Krasznahorkai/Hranitsky, which is most vividly characterized and defined by movement and the ritualized behavior of everyday human life. This has been the dominant factor since Tarr’s Damnation, though more exactly it was with the director’s previous and crucial film, his adaptation of Macbeth, that he threw out a hyper-realist filmmaking approach influenced by John Cassavetes for a montage of extended plan-sequence takes—arguably the most elaborate camera schemes in cinema since Theo Angelopoulos and Tarr’s fellow Hungarian Miklos Jansco—which involved often nearly invisible choreography of the camera and the bodies in front of, behind and to the sides of it. It’s this choreography that begins to answer the unknown at the end of Krasznahorkai’s story: Fred Kelemen’s black-and-white camera, as important a factor in a film’s final effect as any recent work by any living cinematographer, gazes on….The Turin Horse, living on past 1888 somewhere in Hungary and trotting down a road and driven by Ohlsdorfer, a Beethovian dance of horsepower observed by Kelemen with a constantly moving, roving camera that tracks the horse with intense curiosity, passion, eroticism even—Beethoven, like we say. And with this, the immediate announcement of Mihaly Vig’s chamber score, a circular dirge for small chamber setting (with Vig, Tarr’s “permanent” composer, as are all his fellow partners, “permanent,” leading on organ, which he also plays in his rock band) that becomes one of the film’s two essential audio features. Kelemen’s camera (Kelemen operates himself, and is thus the key dancer in the film’s visual choreography) doesn’t simply move in reverse in front of the horse—though, classified technically as a reverse moving shot, it’s one of the greatest in film history—but around it, to its sides, roving, wandering around her body, considering her power, locomotion, pure movement for movement’s sake, exactly Degas’ obsession with the physique in (frozen) motion unfrozen. This is only one of two times in the film where the horse (played in the opening by a horse with no name, and played subsequently by a horse named Ricsi) works.

The rest of the time in The Turin Horse, the humans work. Unlike Damnation, Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies or The Man from London, there are no larger stories, nor greater communities surrounding the characters. These are people directly from Samuel Beckett, but translated by Krasznahorkai into a fully grounded setting not too far from the world of Satantango, which is embedded in a fully captured Hungarian farming community and stresses, like The Turin Horse, a specific choreography of bodies through defined physical space, sometimes repeated many times, always daily, the days defining their lives. (The narrative of The Turin Horse is divided into six days, each identified by a place card in front of each section, like a thriller or horror movie.) Ohlsdorfer has a bum arm and hand, so he’s badly dependent on his daughter to help him with chores, and chores are all that fill their days, with rest periods in between of staring out their home’s main window—almost certainly what farm folks in the pre-electric age would do for entertainment, with the window as a screen.

Their ritualized day goes something like this. The daughter usually rises first, with the father shortly after, fully clothed in PJ’s with socks (and usually viewed at an angle echoing Mantegna’s “Dead Christ” which becomes quite amusing through repetition. The Turin Horse, contrary to everything you may have read up until now, can be a pretty funny film, especially when seen more than once.) He swings his legs around the side of the bed, and she helps him take off his bedclothes, which are as many garments as the daytime clothes she also puts on for him like a patient nurse. This establishes a certain complicated patriarchy, but made vulnerable, and the critical role the daughter plays in making everything in the house and the farm function.

In fact, she does most everything: She preps all of the food—largely potatoes, boiled, served in a wooden bowl with no utensils—tends to the oven, the gas lamps, the laundry, refreshing the hay in the horse barn, retrieving water from the well that looks about 50 yards from the house’s front door. Dad, on the other hand, can’t get the day going without two swigs of his preferred booze, palinka, a type of Hungarian schnapps that looks as strong or stronger than vodka. (You know things are going bad on the farm when he doesn’t stop at two swigs, but chases it with a bigger swig straight from the bottle—with Kelemen and Tarr holding on the bottle as he sets it down for an extended still life shot, a vision of possible doom, and one of the moments in The Turin Horse that truly takes the viewer directly back to Satantango, and its extraordinary fascination with drinking and bottles.)

But the father does work, in the stable with the horse, which has decided to stop working. This is the beginning of the film’s Beckett effect, where characters (there are three, with a fourth who enters dramatically at the film’s unforgettable midpoint) are at the beginning of the end point. In Beckett, as in both the fiction and film versions of The Turin Horse, things never actually end, though an end, perhaps The End, seems as though it may be on the horizon—or not, and what may follow is a repetition of what happened before, suggesting an ending that never comes. This is why it’s wrong to label the film or anything in it as “apocalyptic,” a term that we’re getting too used to. (The 2012 effect, maybe.) The horse refuses to budge, again, and Ohlsdorfer, sitting on his rickety buggy and unleashing his whip on the stubborn, tired creature, is repeating history, or Krasznahorkai’s history within the fictional world he’s made up. The horse is re-living her past life all over again, and now, the father and daughter are going to be living five days that repeat themselves with strange constancy, broken up by only two key intruders/incidents. The daughter, playing Nietzsche, steps in and stops Ohlsdorfer from beating the horse, which then exacts her revenge by refusing to eat for the following days.

This ushers in the film’s most overwhelming effect—a raging wind, so ferocious that it makes a kind of strange musical sound (the audio track of the wind is steadily looped for extended sections) and creates a new environment. The wind is already there in the opening shot, but soon, it’s a malevolent force that some will be tempted to interpret as either God or the Devil. (Which it would be if this were a Bergman film; fortunately, The Turin Horse is as far from Bergman as an Adam Sandler movie.) Griffith’s desire of a cinema for the feeling of wind through the trees is amplified here to operatic lengths, and provides the film with a sense of tremendous enormity, paradoxically co-existing with its deliberately claustrophobic sense of a small farmhouse in which two people are barely ekeing out an existence, and frequently can’t step outside. Rituals get reduced: Tending to the stove, sewing, picking through the potatoes, staring out the window, sleeping. Only outside runs to the well are possible in the increasingly horrific weather, which becomes worse when the well runs mysteriously dry. The world, so huge and sweeping in the opening bravura dance and in Kelemen’s giant landscape views of the nearby hills and a lonely tree, feels like it’s caving in.

Then, he arrives. We never know who he is, a neighbor most likely, somebody Ohlsdorfer feels comfortable inviting past his threshold. He’s here, of course, for some palinka; Ohlsdorfer, clearly, is the local go-to guy for palinka. But he soon is clearly here for another reason: In the film’s only monologue, and its only notable chunk of dialogue (the father and daughter talk in the short, clipped language of people who’ve worked back-breaking labor their entire lives), he delivers a warning to them, that any chance for a life of “excellence” and “good” is over, chased out by nameless barbarians who’ve ruined everything. He’s not Nietzsche, but rather a Nietzschean character, like the horse herself, as if Krasznahorkai had returned to his original story, snared a possible character from a possible fiction shadowed by the presence of Nietzsche and deposited him down in the midpoint of the film. He’s a pivot point, a man facing defeat, certainly a foreshadowing of the European disasters to come, but also a universal warning of the collapse of culture. This scene will surely be examined exhaustively by critics and writers, since its one of the rare scenes since Satantango in which Tarr and Krasznahorkai place their thematic cards on the table in something other than purely cinematic terms; it’s an aria in an otherwise nearly wordless opera. But it’s also undermined in an instant by Ohlsdorfer, who’s been patiently listening to his verbose friend, stops him, calls it all “rubbish” and orders him out the front door. Open readings and possibilities characterize The Turin Horse from start to finish, and this scene is no exception: The man, plopping his hulking body down at the dinner, could be a parody of every movie drunk opining about the world (or Beckett character who whips enough energy to muster a speech), seeing nothing but darker and darker prospects with every progressive swig, or he could be the kind of visionary who circulate through the worlds of Tarr’s films, phony or not, with some perception of the way the world actually is. Beyond his conclusions that any chance is dashed for the forces of good and excellence to triumph over the forces of rottenness (an interesting argument to hear on the week that certain forces of good in Egypt triumphed over medievalists and autocrats), he’s here to deliver the word: God is dead.

This may be why, even subconsciously, some rejected The Turin Horse in Berlin, and will do so as it trots through one festival after another toward a deservedly legendary position as a key film of our time. (And not just because Tarr claimed to my face that it’s his last film, which I also don’t believe for a second.) The notion, even within a design of open filmic narrative architecture, that a film would present a case for the non-existence of God is unpleasant to many people, even people at film festivals, where you’re more likely than in many other walks of life to run into atheists. There are the obvious reasons why some (many?) even hate the film: Its repetitions, the almost never-changing music (I spotted on two watching/listenings not just one music track by Vig, but a pair), the elongated pace, the sustained depiction in black-and-white of a mercilessly bleak existence, the rejection of “drama,” maybe even just the sight of people eating boiled potatoes again and again with their hands, the sheer “pointlessness” of it (an emotion that seeped out of several reviews by frustrated critics). But the fundamental Nietzschean concept of life with a God is as frequently despised now (perhaps now more than ever before) as it was in the author’s time.

I’ve mentioned two specific reference points to Nietzsche in The Turin Horse. Sight and Sound critic/editor Nick James helpfully mentioned another one to me: The man at the beginning of Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” who observes a candle going out as proof that God is dead. The critical turning points in the film begin with the horse refusing to work; the wind; the man and his monologue; the unwelcome visit of Gypsies who urge the father and daughter to join them on their way to America (not, under the circumstances, a bad idea; in fact, the entire film can be prosaically read as a demonstration of why people fled Europe for North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and leave the daughter with a strange book; the attempted departure of the farm, only to make a U-turn just over the ridge of the nearby hill (the film’s biggest mystery—what makes them turn back?); and, on the fifth day, and into the sixth, the gas-lit lamps in the house failing to work anymore, like the Turin Horse. Inside of this are more slices of Nietzsche: The candle/lamp going out, and the large tome from the Gypsies read out loud by the daughter (in what amounts to her only monologue, of sorts), with the passage she reads describing how the churches are being closed by the priests because too much sin has been committed. Tarr refers to the book, a pure invention of Krasznahorkai’s, as an “anti-Bible.” The fascination with this scene, both in the kind of reverential way that Kelemen lights it and frames the daughter and the book, is that the slightly inattentive viewer might actually think that she’s reading from the Bible, but just perhaps an obscure chapter that only Biblical scholars know well. It is, in fact, the third fiction which Krasznahorkai has implanted in the film, the first being the micro-fiction, the second being the film narrative meant to answer the story’s open question, and suddenly, this unexpected kind of meta-fiction masquerading as scripture that’s actually a repudiation of religion.

Tarr’s cinematic design begins with elaborate camera dances, the pure celebration of cinematic movement through space, and ends with absolute stasis and darkness. By the arrival of day six, the storm has ended, the apocalypse hasn’t happened. But this meticulously observed choreography of human beings at work and in everyday life, absolutely materialist and fixed by the clock and the course of the sun rising and setting and rising again the next day, gives way to a disturbing metaphysic without God, a darkness (Kelemen’s images manage as close to pure blackness as I’ve seen in a film since the final scene in Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry, perhaps more so since we are watching black-and-white 35mm film) that forces the father and daughter into a Beckett space of motionlessness and the elimination of language. (“What is this?” the daughter says as the light goes out. There can be no real answer.) It’s an extension of the dread at the heart of Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” only drained of light. What we’re watching at the end of The Turin Horse is the beginning of the end of lives as they are, though not possibly death. The storm is over; maybe, as Ohlsdorfer urges his daughter at an especially dire point, they’ll try again tomorrow. The potatoes can’t be boiled now, but we’ll go on. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.

Berlin Viewing 3

The Residents

By Robert Koehler

The Berlinale is stumbling, bumbling along through its final days, and here’s what can definitively said: Even with more than enough films that don’t belong in a major lineup, the competition isn’t completely bad, and Forum is–with a few exceptions–a bust. While not quite a reversal of fortunes, the relative rise of the competition and decline of Forum is what the 61st edition of the Berlinale is going to be remembered for–that and the premiere of The Turin Horse, Bela Tarr’s last film. (Or so he claims, as of today.)

Berlin’s competitions haven’t been memorable or meaningful for years, and like last year, almost no films that premiere there are films remembered at the end of the year. Put another way, Cannes’ competition, as compromised as its been recently, runs rings around Berlin’s. But with all of the competition films now premiered and red-carpeted, it’s clear that Tarr’s Horse, Koehler’s Sleeping Sickness, Asghar Farhadi’s Nader and Simin, A Separation and Joshua Marston’s American-made-in-Albania drama The Forgiveness of Blood (a surprise, given its late position in the schedule, usually slotted for lesser entries) are the class of the field. The lineup is still full of work that doesn’t rank as considerable festival cinema–that is, either as films that will stand the test of time, films that will have a good life on the festival circuit, or films that will shift from the circuit to general distribution.

In that context, it’s pretty safe to say that only Tarr and Koehler are really major cinema, triumphs of a marriage of ideas, narrative and form. Farhadi’s film is a case of a finely honed screenplay (with a few devices that begin to bother you in the days after you see the film) but perfectly bland as cinema, with a brilliant cast and filmmaking that’s no better than the standard commercial Iranian movie. The many lesser competition films deserve no more than passing mention: Seyfi Teoman’s Our Grand Despair, about a woman getting over the sudden death of her parents by living with a couple of buddies in Ankara; Paula Markovitch’s El Primio (The Prize), which impresses as an observation of childrens’ behavior under stress, but is much too obvious as a political drama set during Argentina’s “Dirty War”; Margin Call, a dull and talky debut that would be fine on AMC by a hack director named JC Chandor about a Wall Street brokerage house’s internal financial meltdown that’s briefly brought to life by the entry of Jeremy Irons; Miranda July’s pointess exercise The Future, unfunny and lacking in the handful of memorable moments that sparked at least parts of her first film, Me and You and Everyone We KnowMe and You and Everyone We Know; Lee Yoon-ki’s disappointing Come Rain, Come Shine, which liberally borrows from both Antonioni’s Eclipse (the opening sequence) and Tsai Ming-liang’s rain-soaked films as it putters its way through an over-extended dramatization of a married couple’s last night and day together (or not) with a painfully cute errant kitty; Rodrigo Moreno’s meandering doodle, Un Mundo Misterioso (Mysterious World), while a bit better than his debut, El Custodio, finds a world in the city of Buenos Aires but doesn’t seem the least bit interested in the mysteries of the world of Portenos.

Word on the street is generally bad on other competition films, including Victoria Mahoney’s Preciouswannabe Yelling to the Sky; Andres Veiel’s Germany-in-Autumn drama, Wer Wenn Nicht War (If Not Us, Who); Michel Ocelot’s Les Contes de la nuit (Tales of the Night), which reportedly just continues his usual silhouette animation technique (a truly acquired taste which I’ve never bought), this time with the inevitable 3-D cream on top, which Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick has licked up mightily considering the presence of this and two new 3-D films by those German giants, Wenders (the bad dance film, Pina, easily the most overrated film of the festival) and Herzog (his effortlessly fascinating and ultimately mad exploration of the ultimate caveman’s cave, Cave of Forgotten Dreams).

I haven’t talked to anyone who’s seen Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut starring Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus in the bloody Balkans circa 1990s, which is an early sign that it’s leaving little impression. (In the States, thanks to the Weinstein Company, we’ll have plenty of opportunity to catch up with it.) That leaves out Alexander Mindadze’s generally well-received Innocent Saturday (which I haven’t seen), about Soviets reacting the day that Chernobyl released its deadly nuclear scourge. As the Bear approaches, expect a jury dominated by Isabella Rossellini and Guy Madden to focus on Tarr, Koehler and Farhadi, with a possible nod to Marston. With the smallest total of films in memory–16, suggesting that Kosslick and the Berlinale had to reach far and wide just to fill in the lineup, and couldn’t find a round number of 20 titles (the usual number).

Forum failed to deliver to a disturbing degree, with a seemingly endless roster of films (double the number in competition) rife with problems. I just went through Forum’s alpha index list, and could find only seven titles to check mark as worth mentioning. One of these (Hirohara Satoru’s Good Morning to the World!) is old news from Vancouver (which I wrote about extensively on Film Comment‘s online edition). Another (James Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes) is a minor work from a major filmmaker, wonderful as a miniature but a certain footnote in his overall body of work. Another (Marcela Said’s and Jean de Certeau’s El Mocito) is a modest, intelligently made study of a man in his 50s trying to overcome and perhaps absolve himself of his sins for being part of Pinochet’s torture machine during the Chilean coup of the early 1970s; a nice entry in the growing movement of Chilean non-fiction, but, again, hardly a major work.

That leaves four new noteworthy films in Forum: Volker Sattel’s Under Control elegantly captures the rise and fall of nuclear power facilities in Germany and Austria with a precision that recalls Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter; Bujar Alimani’s Amnesty presents a brilliantly ironic narrative paralleling the lives of a man and woman whose respective spouses are behind bars; Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is an intoxicating, fluid work (largely narrated by former Throbbing Gristle star Genesis P-Orridge) about the great, tragic love of his life, Lady Jaye, and their project in pan-sexuality–literally attempting to remake their bodies into twins–and Tiago Mata Machado’s The Residents, which is more like the kind of cinema you expect from Forum: formally challenging, thematically subversive, real cinema (and in 35mm!). In fact, Machado’s film is the only Forum film I saw that suggested something genuinely new, even as it portrayed/dramatized/documented (possibly all three, so fluid and elusive are the sources) a performance art project designed to “kill” art.

Machado’s second film (I haven’t seen his first, though I hear that it’s similarly radical) is inspired in part by Godard’s La Chinoise and the Situationists, while expressing the dizzying vigor that’s often on view in the non-fiction cinema by younger Brazilian filmmakers. (And why is it that Brazilian non-fiction films are, in general, so vastly superior to Brazilian narratives?) It presents a group of squatters in a big city zone who engage in everything from innocent horseplay to kidnapping to staging actions that block city traffic–pure anarchism, as it’s rarely depicted in films, and certainly not with this kind of visual control and beauty, which is another connection to Godard, as well as a sense of word play, as when the letters of the word “AESTHETICS” are spray-painted on locker doors, which are then opened and closed to subsequently read “STRETCH” and then “ETHICS.” The film itself is anarchistic, which is partly why it’s impossible to determine (and not clarified in the Forum’s extensive catalog notes) whether Machado captured an actual performance art collective doing its thing, or wrote and staged it, or created some kind of fusion of both. Besides, demarcating between fiction and not is irrelevant to The Residents, which is ultimately about the uselessness of art regardless of what form or nature it takes. The final images in a film that seems at points to be a love letter to Godard’s longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard capture the (actual) demolition of the buildings which have been occupied by the Residents throughout the film; even the architecture which the viewer has begun to grasp in this remarkably vertiginous film dissolves before our eyes, a reminder that everything is possible when nothing is stable.

Next up in Berlin Viewings: Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. (And will it win the Golden Bear? We’ll learn in a few hours…)

Berlin Viewing 2

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye

By Robert Koehler

Some small items, as it gets colder and colder in Berlin….

Barring a miraculous upset at the last moment, expect the first significant prize out of the Berlinale from the International Film Critics Federation (FIPRESCI) to go to Bela Tarr’s extraordinary, Beckettian competition film, The Turin Horse. More on Bela’s horse in an upcoming posting…

The eight-day schedule of press screenings for the Forum section ended yesterday, exactly as it began: With a genre film that may have come straight from the head of Tony Scott. The first Forum film screened was the delirious, violently entertaining and sexy noir from Congolese director Djo Tunda Wa Munga, Viva Riva!, and the last was the delirious, violently entertaining policier from Hong Kong’s Dante Lam, The Stool Pigeon. Neither are exactly “Forum films,” leaning more toward the commercial tendencies of the Panorama section, where, right after watching The Stool Pigeon, I saw another movie involving a police informant, Michael R. Roskam’s huge Belgian box office hit and skillfully made debut, Bullhead, which will be long remembered for its excruciating scene of a boy getting his testicles bashed to bits by a creepy bully wielding two rocks…

The Americans have barely registered at this festival (Miranda July’s The Future appropriately and predictably went over like a lead balloon in the competition) but they dominate one’s eating and snacking choices after you leave the cinemas for the breezy chill of the Century City-like Potsdamer Platz. If you’re not sucked into the Starbucks (where I’m writing this–free wifi!), you may be lured by the Tony Roma’s or even the McDonald’s, where they’re celebrating Mickey D’s 40th year in business in Germany by giving away free Big Macs during February. As the guys in Wenders’ Im Lauf Der Zeit (remember when Wenders actually made good films?) observe, “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious….”

A big hit in Forum is Marie Losier’s superbly fluid and piquant The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye–expect this one to play a huge festival slate throughout 2011–and Genesis P-Orridge is continuing the good vibes with a concert with his and/or her (Genesis being a self-described pan-sexual) group Psychic TV tomorrow night at the HAU (Hebbel am Ufer) here in Berlin. It’s sold out, I’m told…

A quiet backlash against the overwhelming love fest for Asghar Farhadi’s awkwardly titled Nader and Simin, a Separation, has begun. Considered the slam-dunk favorite for the Golden Bear since it first screened for the press earlier this week (to by far the most enthusiastic round of applause of any competition entry), the classically conceived drama involving a clash of families living in the wealthy north of Tehran and its poorer southern district just may not win in the end anyway. Consider that the dynamic duo of Isabella Rossellini and Guy Maddin are on the jury, and likely to dominate the deliberations; they aren’t likely to favor the strong but conventional dramatics of Farhadi over, say, the pure cinema of Tarr and Ulrich Koehler with Sleeping Sickness. (Guy, we understand, likes a few other competition films as well, some not being talked about much.) So, expect upsets and results that go against Conventional Wisdom when the prizes are announced tomorrow….

Berlin Viewing 1

By Robert Koehler

Good, the first controversy at the Berlin film festival. Why “good”? Controversies keep you warmed up, which you need to do in Berlin, where the snow fell today for the first time since Thursday’s opening with the Coens’ wonderful and genuine Charles Portis adaptation True Grit.

But to the real stuff: Don’t believe the trades on the first excellent competition film, Ulrich Koehler’s Sleeping Sickness. (No, there’s no relation–not that I know of.) In the least problematic of the three English-language trade reviews, my Variety colleague Boyd Van Hoeij incorrectly observes that the film “mostly seems content to just observe the lived-in perfs and impressive location work” and later in the review reiterates this notion that “Koehler simply observes.” Screen International critic Dan Fainaru appears to have it in for Koehler anyway, since he classifies him in a clearly sarcastic mode as “a follower of the passivity school which seems to be popular among German arthouse directors,” wrongly terming the film as “politically correct to a fault” and slamming it as “dramatically limp throughout.” Fainaru further gets things wrong by complaining that “none of the characters exude any kind of distinct personality or show any real determination to reach their goals.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ray Bennett issues a doozy of a review that convinces me that he didn’t see the film: The film “lacks a clear point of view,” (wrong) with “much of it filmed at night” (way wrong), that the African-French doctor Alex Nzila (played by the excellent Jean-Christophe Folly from Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums) is “urban, gay and very French” (a real mischaracterization of a much subtler character creation), that the film is bad because there’s “little suspense” and that the film deals with Euro aid to Africa and the role of NGOs–in fact, the very heart of the film and its subject–but that, without explaining it in his review, claims that it does so “without addressing either topic” (which is impossible, since it’s precisely the context upon which the entire film is built).

As a critic, I hesitate referring to fellow critics’ reviews as stupid, but the latter two of these reviews tempt me to issue the term. The reviews are particularly damaging since Koehler has made his first feature in five years, since his superb Windows on Monday, and since he now stands as one of the very finest German filmmakers and deserves nothing less than the most intelligent and incisive critical conversation. He hasn’t received what he deserves for Sleeping Sickness, and the time has come to defend this film without hesitation.

This points to an essential truth about the responsibility of the film critic: In this case, it’s not mandatory that one must term Sleeping Sickness a masterpiece (I’m not even ready to do that), but it is fundamental to the nature of the film’s seriousness and intentions that the critic must engage with it, and conduct a reasonable conversation with it. For Bennett to state that the film was largely filmed at night is to raise great suspicions that he even saw it…or was awake. To report such a false item in a review is akin to stating that much of La regle de jeu takes place during a rabbit hunt.

I personally consider this kind of response to such a sensitively and adventurously conceived film as Koehler’s to be less of an outrage (although I was genuinely angry when I cracked open the trades yesterday morning here) than it is a tragedy for critics. It can’t be overstated how much import and attention is paid to the trade reviews during a festival-market such as Berlin; perhaps even more so in Berlin than, say, Cannes, where the trade coverage is sometimes counterbalanced (either aesthetically or in terms of temperament) by the French critical press, which is in general several light years beyond the German film critical press. (For instance, there isn’t a single daily paper or critic in Germany whom everybody–German-speaking and non-German-speaking alike– tunes into during the festival. Such is not the case during Cannes.) And because the trades during the Berlinale carry greater weight, the critical responsibility is heightened.

I’m extremely aware of this since I’m in the position of filing Variety reviews during the hothouse atmospheres of Sundance, Toronto and Cannes, in which we must view our assigned film as early as possible and file as soon as possible, in order to have the Variety review earlier online–a reflection of today’s intensified web-based editorial competition. So I more than sympathize with my trade colleagues during the deadline-intensive setting of the Berlinale. (A Variety colleague confided to me last night that they were already four reviews behind in their filing, a typical situation if your schedule forces you to catch four assigned films on the same day. We’ve all been there.)

Accentuating the realities of the rapid turnaround deadline pressure is that many of the films being reviewed are as far from commercial fluff as is possible in world cinema; some of them demand the utmost concentration and total sensory engagement. And as the trade critic, you must then process what may be a mountain of a movie, translate it into a critical response, an analysis of its market and festival viability and convey to the reader a sense of the film’s content, feeling and texture, as well as its technical aspects. Not easy, I can tell you.

Sleeping Sickness is such a film. I won’t regurgitate its storyline and plot; that you can get plentifully elsewhere on the web at this point. More crucial is to suggest its shape-shifting qualities, qualities which prove key to the film’s meaning. While the opening section indicates a somewhat conventional drama about a German doctor (Koehler’s parents worked for awhile in the very Cameroon medical facility in which he films, heightening the sense of autobiography one step removed) whose wife has had it with life in Africa and whose departure points to a major life change for the doctor, the ensuing sections (the film is constructed in sections rather than sequences per se, although some sequences deliver extraordinary results) move the film into more mysterious and unsettling areas and tones.

As always, Koehler’s camera is calm, composed, slightly detached though not excessively so. I didn’t ask Koehler (when I ran into him last night, as one always seems to do in Berlin) if Antonioni’s The Passenger was at all on his mind during the conception, filming or editing phases, but Antonioni in general and The Passenger in particular resonated greatly to my eyes when viewing it. In both cases, Westerners in Africa are in secure professional positions which become destabilized, though while the mid-section of the Antonioni is where he deceives you with slightly more conventional film grammar, Koehler does this at the start, and moves toward stranger territory. Antonioni’s fascinations with the exchange of identities between characters, with the fundamental unknowability of a landscape and its culture to the visiting outsider (something he raised to operatic heights in his profound document of Maoist China, Chung Kuo Cina), with the radical project of de-dramatizing events and with the instability of narrative reflecting back on the instability of vision and a character’s identity are all richly woven into the fabric of Sleeping Sickness. Although I’ve never discussed Antonioni with Koehler (who may even possibly dislike his work), these aspects are distinctly there, and without any sense of imitation.

Like his colleagues in the so-called (and now retired) “Berlin School” (those Germans in Fainaru’s review deemed part of a “passivity school,” whatever that means), and maybe especially with fellow writer-director Maren Ade (who served as a producer on Sleeping Sickness), Koehler’s sense of cinema is as a medium of acutely attuned observation, not so much of placing people in a petri dish to note their reactions to fictional circumstances as a project of great sympathy and kindness without a shard of overt sentiment. There’s a scene when Folly’s Dr. Nzila has followed the grizzled doc Eddo (Pierre Bokma) to an unfinished property development overseen by some European capitalist operators: The physical space is open land, some if it covered in plywood and partial construction, suggesting the outlines of a major development but far from completion–and even very possibly never to be completed. Koehler’s framing foregrounds the plywood, as it extends to a distant point at which it stops abruptly, taken over by wild forest, the same forest where the film ends, where the pair of Europeans Nzila and Eddo become lost and ultimately transformed in different ways, a forest that can’t be tamed.

Sleeping Sickness is, in a classical sense, a comedy, since each man finds escape and relief (and definitely not death) in the end from an oppressive situation, and since their efforts are driven by the comic irony that Eddo’s efforts to stem debilitating sleeping sickness among villagers is so successful that he’s effectively worked himself out of a job. (In one of the film’s several funny lines of dialogue, Nzila jokes that, as the guy assigned to analyze the impact of Eddo’s efforts, he “hopes” there’s still some sleeping sickness around to monitor.) Koehler flips the old, tired scenarios of white-people-in-Africa movies on their heads: Rather than a failed attempt at “white man’s burden,” in the Conrad sense, the film actually observes what’s in effect a medical success, albeit a Pyrrhic one, and the white man is no longer just white–Nzila, who’s black, is European-born and educated, while Eddo, who’s white, has been in Africa so long that he’s comfortable nowhere else, even though he soon finds that he has nowhere to live, impregnating a woman whose family members treat him with a little less than love. The men are flipped, reversed, mirrored, contrasted and finally split, a process of separation, coming together and separation again. It’s this dynamic that informs the huge portion of the film, and amplifies Koehler’s extraordinary use of physical interior and exterior space to convey an unstable phenomenon, yet with a camera that remains firmly grounded and rigorously precise. Exactitude about questions which can’t be answered: This is the beginning point of ideas in Sleeping Sickness, quite possibly the year’s first truly great film.