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Berlin’s selection of mostly small, slow, narrow-appeal films makes it look like the incredible shrinking film festival which urgently needs to redefine its priorities, says Nick Roddick.

It was chilly in Berlin this year, on screen and off. The city itself was buried under a foot of snow, its pavements murderous skating rinks. The Film Festival, meanwhile, celebrated its 60th birthday with a preponderance of small, slow films. It was appropriate, then, that one of the smallest and slowest - Semih Kaplanoglu's Turkish-German co-production Honey - should take the Golden Bear.

The third part of Kaplanoglu's trilogy, after Milk (2008) and Egg (2007), Honey is the first in chronological order, dealing with the childhood of the central character, Yusuf, and the death of his adored father, the only person with whom he is really able to communicate. Exquisitely shot, hauntingly paced and totally absorbing, Honey is an almost archetypical arthouse film, requiring the kind of concentration and patience that mainstream audiences simply don't possess.

"a heartbreaking charade of normality"

The same could be said of the Silver Bear-winner, If I want to Whistle, I Whistle directed by Romania's Florian Serban. Content for much of the first hour to record the day-to-day reform-school life of teenage delinquent Silviu, Serban's film only reveals its stage-play origins in the second half, as Silviu holds social worker Ana hostage. But, again, this is not a prison drama in the Hollywood mode: the hostage stand-off is certainly tense, but the climax is more wistful than cathartic, as Silviu escapes in the warden's car only to take Ana out for a coffee - a heartbreaking charade of normality - before turning himself in.

Other Silver Bears went to the Russian film How I Ended This Summer (Best Actor, Best Cinematography), Japan's Caterpillar (Best Actress) and China's Apart Together - all small, slow, beautifully made and with strictly limited audiences. Indeed, in the case of Caterpillar, a film about the return home of a quadruple amputee, the word 'limited' may be too generous.

The only exception was the Silver Bear for Best Director, which went to Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. A Hitchcockian thriller in the vein of Chinatown and Frantic, The Ghost Writer served as a reminder that, when he gets his hands on the right material, Polanski is a master of suspense. The film's story is of a writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to improve the autobiography of a retired British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan, gleefully channelling Tony Blair) as a scandal about British involvement in Iraq breaks. The series of car chases, encounters in motel rooms and gradually uncovered clues to a conspiracy is nothing short of masterful. Polanski, still on remand in Switzerland, was unable to attend.

"Firmly booed"

Firmly booed, meanwhile, were Michael Winterbottom's hyperviolent The Killer Inside Me and local maverick Oskar Roehler controversial Jew Suss, about the making of the infamous Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda film. The latter starts out as a rather dull historical drama, before veering off via a totally ludicrous sex scene set during an air-raid into the bonkers territory of weak characterisation, clunky dialogue and 'shocking' sex scenes that Roehler, whose films somehow always make it into the Berlinale line-up, has made his own.

Despite the Silver Bear, The Ghost Writer was respectfully rather than ecstatically received by the assembled critics (the same could be said of Martin Scorsese's out-of-competition Shutter Island which, for me, is the film of the year so far), pointing to an increasingly acute identity crisis facing the Berlinale.

The only one of the three major film festivals (Cannes and Venice being the other two) to take place in a major city, Berlin ought to have at least as much glamour and pizzazz (despite the frozen sidewalks) as it does cinematic innovation. Instead, the Berlinale selection committee seems to be focusing its attention more and more on small arthouse films like those mentioned above. Not that it is entirely to blame. Disney reportedly turned down the Festival's bid to secure Alice in Wonderland for the 60th opening night. But the decision to open with Wang Quan'an's Apart Together was puzzling in the extreme. It's not that this is not a good film: it's just that the selection committee for a small local festival would think twice about opening with it.

Elsewhere - call it the Prophet syndrome - films about guys getting out of jail seemed to crop up at every second screening. Of these, only Benjamin Heisenberg's austere crime drama The Robber really managed to bridge the gap between physical incarceration and psychological alienation. Lead actor Andreas Lust (last seen in Revanche) deserved the prize for physical commitment: his character Johann is a marathon runner, and Lust seemed to be constantly in motion, albeit on a hiding to nothing (or a road to nowhere).

"Amid all the smallness and miserabilism, one film shone out"

Amid all the smallness and miserabilism, one film shone out: Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are Alright, starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple whose grown-up kids discover and build a relationship with the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who engendered both of them. As Laurel Canyon showed, this is territory Cholodenko can chart like few others. Funny, warm and finally very moving, her film shone a ray of light on the wintry city. Out of competition because it had already been at Sundance, The Kids Are Alright won the Teddy Queer Film Award, which is quite a big deal in Berlin.

But if Berlin is to remain a big deal on the international festival circuit, it's going to have to redefine its priorities.

Published February 25, 2010

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Nick Roddick


If I want to Whistle, I Whistle

How I Ended This Summer

The Ghost Writer

Shutter Island

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