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The weather was a pleasant surprise, not so the official selection, says Nick Roddick, but there were a couple of gems – although not suitably recognised by the jury.

I was wrong about the weather: while England disappeared under water and America froze, Berlin was bathed in dazzling winter sunshine, with temperatures rarely dipping below zero, even at night. After two rain-soaked Cannes, Berlin is beginning to look like the year’s fair-weather film festival.

But, if the sun shone on the city, it didn’t leave much over for the films, at least not those in the official selection. To be sure, there were genuine pleasures to be had in the parallel sections or the Market, notably the Nick Cave documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth – not a rockumentary but a lucid and rewarding exploration of creativity; and The Trip to Italy, a follow-up to Michael Winterbottom’s earlier gastronomic tour-cum TV series-cum-movie, with Steve Coogan and Ron Brydon taking their wonderful impersonations of Michael Caine (and others) on a sun-drenched trip through… well. see the title.

And the Alain Resnais film The Life of Riley, gave me as much pleasure as I expected. ‘Delightful’ seems to be the operative word: not one to put on the poster, perhaps, but a fair response to Resnais’s latest screen adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play. Funny, too. But elsewhere… well, the Official Selection is what a festival stands or falls by; and this year’s Berlinale, while it may not have come a cropper, certainly stumbled.

"a wry, rambling police procedural"

The jury in its wisdom gave the Golden Bear and the Best Actress award to the Chinese film Black Coal, Thin Ice, a wry, rambling police procedural about a murder investigation that kicks off when body-parts start showing up in industrial coal deliveries. Together with No Man’s Land, a Chinese western that spattered gore and special effects over the barren wastes of the Taklamakan Desert (no, neither have I, but it’s apparently in Xinjiang province), it confirmed the emergence of Chinese cinema from the world of endless costume dramas and raised red lanterns. But whether it was quite Golden Bear quality I’m not so sure. Nor, to judge by their reactions, were my fellow hacks.

Still, Black Coal was a lot better than some of the stuff shoved into the spotlight by the selection committee, which was either too small (Jack, a likeable but limited-ambition German portrait of a kid from a broken home), too slow (Argentina’s The Third Bank of the River, which followed an all-too-familiar pattern of nothing much happening for an hour and a half - a trick you have to be Lucretia Martel to pull off) or too dumb (in which I include the meandering Monuments Men and A Long Way Down, an inept adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel which shouldn’t have been allowed within a hundred miles of a film festival).

Equally disappointing was Aloft, the first English-language film from Claudia Llosa, who won the Golden Bear in 2009 with The Milk of Sorrow. Set in a northern Canadian winter, it forced a strong cast – including Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy and Oona Chaplin – to go through some very nasty weather in search of some very unconvincing spiritual healing. Major lesson here for Latin American filmmakers making the trip north: English-language dialogue can be a harsh test of directorial skill.

More promising, meanwhile, was German director Dietrich Brüggemann’s second feature, Stations of the Cross, a series of tableaux echoing the title in which a 14-year-old girl from a fundamentalist Catholic community follows her own painful and personal path to Calvary. Formally austere (the camera moves in only two of the ‘stations’, each of which is made up of a single take), the film never loses sight of its theme – the seductive power of religious extremism – and is anchored by an extraordinary performance by young Lea van Acken. Failing to recognise her achievement amounted to a mortal sin for the Jury, who nonetheless gave the film the Silver Bear for best script.

In Order of Disappearance

Entirely unrewarded. meanwhile, were British director’s Yann Demange’s extraordinary feature debut ’71 and Norwegian veteran Hans Petter Moland’s black comedy/thriller In Order of Disappearance. Set over one night near the start of the troubles in Northern Ireland, ’71 follows a young British squaddie trying to find his way back to barracks after a mission goes spectacularly wrong. Avoiding the confused politics of the era – as the Provisionals split off from the Official IRA – and staying, as it were, at street level, Demange’s film is gripping, visceral and at times almost poetic as moments of beastliness give way to generosity and humanity. And the young soldier’s flight through the streets of Belfast (actually Blackburn, Lancashire) has a nightmare quality to it, making the film an impressive combination of Carol Reed’s 1947 masterpiece Odd Man Out and Paul Greengrass’s documentary-style Bloody Sunday.

In Order of Disappearance, meanwhile, has Stellan Skarsgård as a taciturn, law-abiding snowplough driver whose son falls in – or rather out – with a local drug baron whose path crosses, even more disastrously, with a Serbian crime lord. Ever more ingenious in its choice of weapons of individual destruction and boasting some hilarious dialogue between a couple of bumbling cops, In Order of Disappearance was the Berlinale’s most entertaining film.

It wasn’t the best, though: that honour goes, by a country mile, to Richard Linklater’s brilliant Boyhood, which the Jury thought worthy only of the Silver Bear for Best Director. 14 years in the making, Boyhood follows Texas-born Mason from the age of four through to college, using the same actor (Ellar Coltrane) throughout. Superbly supported by professional performers – notably Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as Mason’s long-estranged mother and father – Boyhood is tender, amusing, uncomfortable, funny, lyrical, life-enhancing and all those other elements of great cinema missing from the rest of the Berlin line-up. Indeed, I can’t help feeling that this is the film Terrence Malick could have made in The Tree of Life if he hadn’t become so over-burdened with metaphor and metaphysics. Boyhood sent me heading to the airport with two reasons for smiling, one for Linklater’s film, one for saying goodbye to the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

Boyhood - "tender, amusing, uncomfortable, funny, lyrical, life-enhancing and all those other elements of great cinema missing from the rest of the Berlin line-up"

Published February 20, 2014

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Nick Roddick

Berlin Preview 2014

From our archives:
Nick's Berlin Wrap/Preview Features:
2010 WRAP

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Stations of the Cross


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