Clash, screened at the Arab Film Festival
Berlin, Film, Life in Berlin

Clash at the 8th Arab Film Festival Berlin

Last night Mohamed Diab‘s Clash, set against the backdrop of Egypt’s 2013 revolution, screened at City Kino in Wedding as part of the Arab Film Festival.

Clash, screened at the Arab Film Festival

The story follows the journey of a police van as it travels through the riotous streets of Cairo during the chaos of 2013. The van becomes filled with people from all sides; Muslim Brotherhood protesters, anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters and everyone else caught up in between.

The van becomes a microcosm of Egyption society, and like Egyptian society, it is fraught with divisions and violence. As the van moves along, picking up young and old, male and female, the heat inside rises. At one point it becomes so hot that the people trapped in it risk suffocation — a frequent occurrence during the revolution.

Those inside the van, like the audience, have no idea where the van is going. Limited to the tight, crowded view from the inside with only the narrow windows and grate in the roof providing glimpses to the world outside, we feel as powerless and apprehensive as the characters. The van moves relentlessly on, pelted by rocks, targeted by shooters, and rocked by protesters and helpers, even though there seems to be no destination. The prisons, after all, are full.

Egypt, like the van, is undergoing a violent upheaval, and the people in it have no choice but go with it. Families are split up, friendships broken, and new alliances are formed. In the end, however, all descends into turmoil, confusion, and tragedy.

The 8th Arab Film Festival Berlin runs from 31st March to 7th April 2017. 

art, Berlin, events, Film, Life in Berlin, politics, science

STATE Festival Berlin: The Sentimental Machine

Berlin’s second STATE Festival, which brings together leading scientists, innovators, social-scientists, artists and members of the public to explore one topic took place recently at Kühlhaus in Gleisdreieck. The topic in question was emotions.

Emoji balloons at the State Festival Berlin, 2016

Emotions are a fundamental part of being human, and our understanding of them not only illuminates our experiences and interactions but also raises important questions about our growing reliance on machines and the nature of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

We often think of emotions as immaterial and internal, but the festival demonstrated how physically palpable and measurable they are. Adam Anderson from Cornell University’s Department of Human Development and Human Neuroscience Institute talked about how our sight and emotions are linked. Emotions, like colour, are created by the visual regions of the brain and everything we see is affected by emotion.

The Festival’s screening of Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Film, in which the prominent designer embarks on a navel-gazing journey in the search of happiness confirmed the strong link between the body and emotion. Sagameister pursued happiness using three methods; meditation, therapy and drugs – and drugs was the most effective. The chemical changes they affected in his body made him deliriously happy to the point of falling in love and almost getting married within a matter of weeks.

The link between the emotion of love and physicality was put to the test at the festival’s interactive Sniff and Date session, in which participants did an aerobics session, captured their sweaty scent on a small patch of material, then sniffed out a potential partner. Although smelling numbered patches of sweat felt dubious, it worked! I matched with a lovely Romanian artist with whom I had a lot in common. Yes, it was a woman, who was there with her boyfriend, but it was nice to have a drink with her.

In such social situations, the hormone oxytocin plays a big role. It helps in social bonding, sexual reproduction, birth and nurturing as well as increasing the recognition and mimicry of facial emotions. Neuroscientist Sebastian Korb explained how he used electromyography (EMG) to detect facial mimicry which is so fast and subtle that it is difficult to inhibit. Facial mimicry is important to social interaction as it is key to feeling empathy (therefore procedures such as Botox, which restrict people’s facial movements, impact their ability to empathise).

As we become more dependent on technology, the ability of machines to understand and respond to our emotions will become more important. The Android game Emotion Hero demonstrated what computer recognition of facial emotion could look like. Naturally, this led to questions about whether machines would eventually be able to experience emotions themselves and what the implications of this would be.

If machines could feel, would they be granted the same rights as people? As it stands, scientists use the human brain as a model to make intelligent, self-learning robots. Of course, companies like Nvidia, Google and Intel are nowhere near creating something as powerful as the brain with its 100 billion neurones and 250 billion synapses, but the possibility is on the distant horizon. Toby Walsh, one of the world’s leading experts on AI, said he did not think the Singularity – the point where robots overtake humans – was coming any time soon.

Still, the warnings of prominent people such as Stephen Hawking, who said AI “could spell the end of the human race” and Elon Musk, who compared developing AI to “summoning the demon” were at the forefront of many discussions. Clearly, AI and its implications must be thought about. In fact, people are already thinking about it, but they belong to an elite with commercial interests. For example, those developing the self-driving car are already making ethical decisions such as who the car should kill or injure in certain crash situations.

One of the most interesting interactive sessions was the critical thinking workshop AI Ethics and Prosthetics run by Marco Donnarumma, an artist who explores human-machine corporeality. The conversation took interesting turns, exploring questions from “Would you live with an autonomous prosthesis?” to “Where does the fault lie if a machine is responsible for killing a human?” The conversation raised more questions than answers, highlighting the complex nature of this crucial time in human history.

What was unique and fulfilling about this festival was how it hit all senses – with music, sound, visual art, films, talks, discussions and physical activities. It stimulated anxiety about a machine-filled future, passionate debate, and joy at the meeting fascinating minds – an important, emotional experience.

This year’s STATE Festival took place between 3-6 November.

art, Berlin, Film, Life in Berlin

Short Film: Rhino Full Throttle, A Berlin Love Story

This beautiful, award-winning short film Nashorn im Galopp (Rhino Full Throttle) directed by Erik Schmitt plays with a bunch of crazy filming techniques and perspectives all over Berlin.

Check it out:

art, Berlin, Film

Elixir at the 5th Down Under Berlin Film Festival

If the 1920s surrealists were alive today, where would they be situated? Berlin, naturally.

This is the premise of Australian director Brodie Higgs’s Elixir, which opened the 5th Down Under Berlin Film Festival last night.

Elixir filmOf course, he’s right. Berlin is a city of pallid men with thin mustaches who take themselves very seriously, artists dressed in black, and cavernous buildings where people from around the world come to be creative without worrying about paying the rent.

The film focuses on one building in particular – the Glass House, based loosely on the Parisian house of the same name and the group surrounding Andre Breton that gathered there. It starts just after the death of one their members, Jacques Vache, and the arrival of Lexia, a troubled artist. Lexia stirs up tensions between Andre, the writer who runs the house, and Tristan, who plans to violently disrupt a pop artist’s upcoming show.

Between these two plots is the art; late night photo sessions, poetry readings, games to access the subconscious, a man wearing a pig’s head saying ‘I am bored.’ These scenes are both ridiculous and magical, stylistically shot by cinematographer Michal Englert, and wonderfully scored by Daniel Wohl. But while the artists are frolicking, the bills are piling up. They risk losing their space, which provides an apt comment on gentrification in Berlin but also pulls the film in yet another direction.

The number competing story-lines and characters leads to a lack of focus. Who, exactly, is Lexia, and what does she represent? What are the relationships between these people? What is the role of art in our world? These questions are touched upon but never fully explored. Similarly, the film seems caught between its own surrealist elements and its traditional narrative drive, never fully embracing either.

Elixir looks fabulous and has some funny moments, but, like the surrealist movement of the 1920s, ends up feeling fractured.

The Down Under Berlin Film Festival is showcasing features and shorts from Australia and New Zealand at Movimento Kino in Kreuzberg from 16th – 20th September 2015.

Berlin, Film, Life in Berlin

Film: Victoria

“Victoria (2015 film) POSTER” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

When someone first told me about this Berlin film shot in one continuous take, I flat out refused to see it. It will be rubbish I said. How is it possible to make a good film in just one take? Editing exists for a reason you know. And so on…

Then, more people talked to me about it, and I decided to go along and see what all the fuss was about. Yes, I am easily persuaded. It has led to many bad decisions. The muttered answer to my mother’s question, “If everyone jumped off a bridge would you do it too?” was always, “Yeah, probably.”

Luckily, seeing Victoria was not a bad decision. In fact, it turned out to be a unique and powerful cinematic experience.

The film opens with strobe lighting, pumping music, a camera pushing through a crowded dance floor until it settles on a girl dancing with abandon – in ecstasy or agony? It’s hard to tell.

This is Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman who ended up in Berlin after realising she hasn’t got what it takes to be a professional pianist in the highly competitive world of classical music. Now, she works at a cafe in Mitte during the day, and parties at night.

As she heads out of the club, she encounters four young men; Sonne, Blinker, Fuss and Boxer. They are Berliners, who can’t get into the club. They invite her to accompany them so she can see the ‘real Berlin’, which, as Sonne (Frederick Lau) puts it, ‘Isn’t in the clubs, where any Spanish person can get in.”

Victoria goes along. Like me, she is easily persuaded. We follow with a sense of trepidation: Do these boys pose a threat, or will they be some fun company for this lonely girl?

They turn out to be a good bunch. The dialogue is funny, with that quality of long nights and early hour conversations. But the film continues to play on that edge between lightheartedness and darkness. Like when Victoria stands too close to the edge of a rooftop. She is exhilarated – young and free – but she is also reckless. After all, the pianist dream she has been training for since childhood has been taken away, leaving an abyss.

All this sets up her character for what follows: Victoria is drawn into a criminal plot with the boys. Although this provides a welcome spike in pace and tension, it introduces a few implausible plot developments and characters –  most notably the villainous mastermind, who looks like he got lost on his way to a James Bond film set.

This is where the power of the single take works its magic – the camera relentlessly pulls us along – we, like Victoria, have little pause for doubts or distractions. We’re along for the ride whether we like it or not. That tension, between everything turning out fine and everything being damned keeps us engaged. We are rooting for these characters. Inevitably, however, the plot twists towards a final, dark ending after a fatal police shoot out.

Throughout all this, the camerawork, by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen who won a won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale for his extraordinary artistic contribution for work on the film, is stunning – not to mention the tireless work of the talented actors. After two hours and twenty minutes, when Victoria finally walks away from the camera, leaving us behind, we feel the ache of separation. We want to continue, to see where she will go, what she will do.

The main character of the film, despite its title, is not Victoria, but Berlin, where the action plays out – from techno clubs to blocks of flats, spätkaufs to car chases along Zimmerstrasse. However, the city is not just a setting – it is the basis for the film’s preoccupations and themes. What is the ‘real Berlin’ and how is it changing?

The last image, of a Spanish girl walking past a Rolex shop towards a horizon towering with cranes at the dawn of a new day, holding a bag of money in her hands – hands that used to make art when she played the piano but are now stained with the blood of Berliners – speaks for itself.

Victoria is showing at Hackesche Hoefe Kino with English subtitles.

art, Berlin, Film, music

AV Postcard Berlin

Filmmaker Ismar Badzic and musician Sam Hanlan have recently come up with a way to reboot the postcard, from a physical card with a limited choice of landmarks on the front and limited word-space on the back that takes ages to arrive, to a digital, audio-visual experience.

And the first AV postcard is from Berlin!

What do you think? Does it capture Berlin better than a traditional postcard?

To explore the individual sounds, images and interviews that make up this postcard, and for more information, check out the Audio Visual Postcard website.

Berlin, Film, Life in Berlin, theatre

Guest Post: Training day with the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, by Pat O´Day

Have you been seeing posters like this all over Berlin? Wondering what it’s all about? Guest-blogger Pat O´Day investigated…

nature theater of oklahoma posters

The New York-based experimental theatre company Nature Theater of Oklahoma is in Berlin for the Foreign Affairs Festival. The critics love them. I remember having seen one of their shows at a different festival some five years ago. It was the remake of a Rambo movie shot in the apartment of the sole actor, who played along on stage.

The origin of the company’s name comes from Kafka´s incomplete first novel Amerika, in which a company of the same name promises employment for everybody. Repeating this promise to the citizens of Berlin, anyone interested could come along for an interview at a set date. More than 120 people turned up.

While people waited to be interviewed, cameras swarmed around them and a cast member drew their portraits. She did not look at the drawings at any point during the process. Therefore, it was not surprising that some bore only a slight resemblance to their subjects, but rather turned out skewed and cross-eyed as if they had been inspired by Picasso´s Weeping Woman series.

Then we had some one-on-one time with a video camera. It was not quite Andy Warhol´s fifteen minutes of fame. We had four minutes and twelve seconds to spontaneously answer questions about ourselves and what we thought the company could do for Berlin. It almost felt like a regular job interview.

I received an email the next day, inviting me to return to the venue an hour later. The organisers must have just told everybody who went through the process to come back. They could not possibly have found the time to watch all those casting videos, which will also provide footage for upcoming art projects.

During their time in Berlin, the company are staging shows almost every night, most of which are based on almost 16 hours of a cast member’s phone conversation recordings. As well as this, they are putting on two marathon events of up to fifteen hours, during which food prepared by the crew will be served, creating a completely new stage production, and making a feature-length film from scratch in a matter of weeks. Tickets have already been sold for both events. Other projects comprise a remake of Warhol´s unwatchable eight-hour slow motion documentary Empire as an animation film, and a collective diary on the whole creative process of the Berlin stint.

Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the married couple who run The Nature Theater of Oklahoma © Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the married couple who run the company © Nature Theater of Oklahoma

The organisers, dependent on the support of volunteers who can commit to several hours each day, admitted being scared of not achieving everything in time. It’s not just skills-based tasks on offer, like video-editing, providing backing vocals and setting up podcasts in the theatre foyer. According to the company, seemingly mundane tasks such as food-shopping, greeting people and ushering could be turned into art just by having somebody record these activities.

For the first day of serious work, we set out to make a music video clip featuring all volunteers, which was to be an integral part of the film. There were about forty to fifty of us. Most volunteers were in their 20s and 30s, with a fair share of internationals and people with backgrounds in the performing arts – and a female preponderance. Some volunteers looked as if they had just fallen out of their beds. The female director probably did not want to create this impression by keeping her curlers in till midday in order to maintain her somewhat weird hairstyle.

Warm up exercises began in the courtyard of the theatre. It was still a bit chilly, but when people started doing jumping jacks, they took off extra layers of clothing. The warm up culminated in dancing along to a piece of choreography intended for the video clip. It had everybody moving in sync like gingerbread men, wiggling bottoms while getting down and up again, pumping the air, hopping while turning, and pretending to be cheeky chickens stepping out of water. People took it seriously though, and tried to follow the lead as best as possible while leaving enough space for the cameras.

Next, the director tried to figure out how to shoot the whole seven minute clip without any cuts. He experimented with ways of getting people to move behind his (this time imaginary) camera as soon as they had passed so that he could find and record them in different places again.  It was more about moving the crowd and dividing flows of people than guiding people individually. Personally, I found it rather tedious to pace up and down the courtyard dozens of times. Some people developed individual mannerisms and personal routines, which the director neither encouraged nor sanctioned. Perhaps it was still too early for him to be concerned about these minor aspects.

After a short break we practiced the dance we had tried during the warm up. This time it was more serious. In harmony with company policy, a different person, who normally acts as production manager, took the lead. He was not yet familiar with the moves though. So he taught and learned the choreography at the same time.  Some exceptional female volunteers, who had managed to remember the routine from the warm up, were able to correct him. These ladies were also eager to discuss specific details and suggest changes. Unused to this kind of activity, I was happy to just follow along. New difficulties surfaced when the choreography, which for whatever reason we had first practiced to a waltz, was carried out to the original quadruple time song. Again, the ladies mentioned above knew how to adjust. For my own part, I was not too disappointed when this activity finally stopped.

During the break, some people were picked to help set up a vegetarian buffet for everybody. While waiting, we all received free T-shirts with the company logo. Individuals with specific skills, like video editing, were singled out to have their tasks set out. Others used the break to practice the group choreography and take notes. I left.

So what remained at the end of the day? Or rather, who would have profited and who would have loathed it? The experience certainly would have been a nightmare for anybody suffering from camera shyness. Conversely, it would have been perfect for somebody in need of a watertight alibi with cameras constantly pointed at them.

But what did it mean? On the surface it was an unusual day in the sun. We could do callisthenic exercises and recharge our batteries with free healthy food in friendly company. Although the organizers applied a non-authoritarian leadership style, they did not provide space for differing views. It was not about the volunteers rising to stardom or expressing individual creativity in the artistic process. Nor was there too much of an intellectual challenge, unless you find it in sorting out your dancing steps.

And then I have also been taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch, which may also be true for free T-shirts. I wonder how and where the recorded material will turn up. Most of all, I wonder how this atmosphere of creative chaos can give rise to anything worth watching in such a comparatively short period of time, that both critics and audiences might appreciate.  Maybe this is reason enough to monitor the projects’ progress and see where everybody’s enthusiasm originates from and whether it is justified.

For more, check out the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma Facebook Page or read this recent Guardian review.

The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is calling you! – A Movie is being screened on Thursday 11th July 2013 at HAU 1, Stresemannstr. 29, 10963 Berlin.

Berlin, Film, Life in Berlin

Is the CineStar in Potsdamer Platz the worst cinema in Berlin?

Yes, it is. I went to see the new James Bond film, Skyfall, there yesterday, and remembered why I stopped going there about a year ago.

They play over an hour of adverts before the film starts. First, they played normal adverts, then trailers, then they switched back to normal adverts again! It’s enough to make you lose the will to live, or, if you’re susceptible to advertising like I am, run out and buy everything in the entire world, from a Kinder egg to a Mini.

As if that wasn’t enough, they randomly stopped the film in the middle for an interval, so that people could get up and buy drinks etc, thus disturbing the audience’s suspension of disbelief and spoiling the flow of the film. I’m sure director Sam Mendes, the screenwriters and the hundreds of people who worked on the film intended it to be watched in one sitting.

A cinema – already packed and making money hand over fist – that starts interfering with the viewer’s experience to make even more money is an insult to everyone involved – creators and audience alike.

To see OV or Omu (original language, i.e. English) films, go to Hackeshe Hoefe, the Odeon or one of the cinemas in the Yorck group for an enjoyable experience.

That’s it – rant over…

Berlin, Film

Making a short film in 48 hours…

This weekend I took part in Shoot and Run, a Berlin-based project in which you and your team have just 48 hours to make a short film.  It’s a regular competition, which focuses on a different area of Berlin each time.

The theme / genre that we were given at the 7pm registration on Friday evening was “Bicycle Road Movies” and the setting was Charlottenburg.

Off we set, brainstorming ideas, scripting, planning, shooting and editing the movie in order have it finished and delivered to the organisers at the location of the screening in Charlottenburg by 7pm on Sunday evening.

Working collaboratively with a wacky group of amateur film-makers, all of whom met for the first time on Friday evening, was an incredible creative experience.

I know you’re curious, so here’s our Charlottenburg-based bicycle-road-movie:

Two prizes were awarded at the end of the screening: The Jury Award and The Audience Award. Our film won the latter.

It was a brilliant experience, but badly organised; the screening details on the website were incorrect; the actual location of the screening was outdoors, which, considering the cold, rainy weather yesterday was a stupid idea, on top of which the organisers made everyone wait around in the cold for almost two hours before actually showing the films.

Of all the films shown, the only one without a bicycle in it won the Jury Prize. Why? Because after we’d been told the theme, that team came along and complained about the ‘bicycle’ bit (like getting hold of one in Berlin is akin to getting hold of a Bible in Saudi Arabia or something), so the theme was changed to suit them, and no one bothered to inform us…I would express exactly how I feel about that, but then this site would need a password due to excessive use of outrageous obscenities.

P.S A few people have asked, so here’s the link to the film that won the Jury Prize, and managed to get the rules changed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2IHvoHf6R4

Film

Film Review: Unknown

Want to see Liam Neeson eating a currywurst? A car chase down Friedrichstrasse (which, in typical Berlin fashion, involves a lorry full of beer)? A bomb go off in the Hotel Adlon? It’s always fun to see an action thriller set in the place you live…

Unknown film
Unknown: A taxi flies off the Oberbaumbrueke in Berlin

Neeson plays Martin Harris, who arrives in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. At the hotel, he realises that he has left his briefcase at the airport and jumps into a taxi, driven by Bosnian immigrant Gina (Diane Kruger), to retrieve it. The taxi is involved in an accident, careers off the Oberbaumbrücke, and lands him in a coma for four days.

At this point, the mystery, which has so far concerned a friendly customs officer (when have you ever been welcomed to Berlin?!) and a nonsensical taxi route from Tegel Airport to Hotel Adlon, thickens. He wakes up to find that his wife no longer recognises him, and that another guy claiming to be Dr Martin Harris has replaced him.

The plot is gripping, almost to the end, when it becomes predictable and cheesy.  Although there have been a number of ‘I’ve lost my identity’ action thrillers (e.g. Bourne), the genre is kept fresh in a number of ways; the relationship between the protagonist and his female counterpart (Gina is always saving Martin), the not-so-black-and-white portrayal of the good guys and bad guys (an example is the brilliantly portrayed character of Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former Stasi officer whose help Martin enlists to figure out what the hell is going on), and the location.

Berlin is the perfect setting for a film concerned with identity, memory and harsh pasts.  Not Berlin in the summer of course, when everyone is lounging around drinking beer, but Berlin in the winter, when the frozen streets are tense with cold, covered in forgetful snow (yes, Berlin in the winter always reminds me of Eliot). If you live here you’ll probably appreciate this above the adreneline-pumped action. Watch the trailer on YouTube.

And if you’re into film,  Berlin Film Central is a new site which publishes film reviews, news about the film industry in Berlin and once in a while, through the BFC Channel, videocasts with interviews with filmmakers and personalities involved in the film industry in the city.

Film, Life in Berlin

Short Film evenings: Monthly screenings at Cafe Hilde and Sputnik Kino

Here in Berlin, every second person I meet claims to be a film-maker so it is no wonder that there is a continuous stream of films being made and displayed in the city.

Two free monthly film screenings have recently cropped up; A Night of Short Film Wonderment run by The Privateer at Cafe Hilde in Prenzlauer Berg, and Testbild at Sputnik Kino in Kreuzberg.

They are very different – probably a reflection of their very diverse locations.

Night of Short Film Wonderment at Cafe HildeA Night of Short Film Wonderment at Cafe Hilde is all very sophisicated; the crowd, dominated by ex-pats, sip on cappucinos and beers whilst being entertained by a range of high quality films (including BAFTA, Oscar and Berlinale winners and nominees) that centre around a certain theme (last week’s theme was music). You can normally see the programme of films that will be shown beforehand at Cafe Hilde’s website.

With Testbild on the other hand, you never quite know what you’re getting. Film-makers turn up with their films half an hour early and hand them over to be played. The crowd is mostly German, although many international film-makers have shown their films there and a number of films are in English.

As can be expected with such a format, the films vary vastly in terms of quality – from surprisingly good to astonishingly bad…

The vibe in the kino bar is relaxed; people come and go and there is usually a dog running about. What’s really special is that after each film is shown, the film-maker gets the chance to talk about their film and the audience can ask questions.

It’s great if you are a film-maker because it’s a chance to interact with other people in the business and see what they are doing, which is often more useful than watching highly polished pieces made with higher budgets.  And if you are a film-maker (or a creative of any discipline) you’ll understand when I say that there is also a deep satisfaction to watching somebody else’s failures; it boosts our delicate egos, and gives us a chance to bitch at someone else’s work rather than our own.

Film, Life in Berlin, News

Daylight Robbery

The big news in Berlin at the moment is the daylight robbery that took place at the Grand Hotel Hyatt this weekend – and no, I’m not referring to their room prices.

Armed gunmen stormed into the hotel in Potsdamer Platz on Saturday afternoon and plundered the PokerStars European Poker Tour. There ensued much confusion over how much money they actually got away with; on Saturday evening it was €800,000, on Sunday morning it was €100,000 and by Sunday evening it was €200,000. (I think the final figure is €242,000 – the BBC News website still has the wrong figure.)

Police Chief Rainer Wendt claimed that the gunmen were amateurs anyway, and would soon be caught…yet more confusion, as another police spokesman said that they didn’t really have any leads. And was it four gunmen or six gunmen? Ah, bless the Berlin Police Force, who don’t come across much crime in this city. Here, even the Punks queue up nicely at ATM machines, and in most cafes, kebab places and bagel joints, you pay for your food or coffee after you’re done. Sometimes, they even ask you what you had. So much trust…it would never work in London.

At the same time as all this was going on in Potsdamer Platz, I was round the corner in the cinema (I have the ticket stub to prove it), getting robbed of €8 to see Men Who Stare at Goats. The film is based on the book of the same title by Jon Ronson, about his investigation into the US Military’s attempts to incorporate New Age concepts. Ewan McGregor plays journalist Bob, who reacts to his wife leaving him by going off to cover the war in Iraq where he meets George Clooney’s character Lynn, who claims to be part of a secret paranormal unit of the army.

As sometimes happens when adapting a non-fiction book into a fiction film, the story suffers. And in this film, the story didn’t really go anywhere; it felt like a series of expositional flashbacks showing one quirky bit of history after another.  Sure it had all the obligatory character arcs and so on, but these felt contrived and made the film soulless.

Another big problem was the lack of humour. Okay, there were some funny bits, but these were ALL in the trailer (which is below to save you from watching the entire film). I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t laughing at this so-called comedy. In a packed cinema, few giggles could be heard. As luck would have it, the only idiot laughing loudly all the way through was sitting next to me (yes, Row K, seat 9 – you know who you are). He also had the annoying habit of repeating the last line of dialogue in every conversation OUT LOUD. That’s the kind of person who would enjoy this film.  

I have no idea how such big stars were drawn to this project. It’s a shame for Clooney, who’s done a run of good films lately such as Up in the Air. Spacey, who is involved in the Old Vic and TriggerStreet should know a thing or two about good drama. McGregor gives a particularly bad performance; the biggest question about his character was What kind of accent is that? See if you can figure it out…

Film, Life in Berlin

The Berlinale: Metropolis and Shutter Island

It’s that time of year in Berlin when glitter balls shimmer, red carpets are rolled out and the stars come to town. Kate Winslet is staying in Hotel Adlon, Tilda Swinton is in the Hotel Ritz Carlton, Keanu Reeves, Renée Zellweger and Michelle Pfeiffe are in The Regent Hotel (not together of course), Ben Stiller is in the Hotel de Rome, but as usual most of the actors, directors and Berlinale lot are in the Hotel Grand Hyatt conveniently located in Potsdamer Platz.

Metropolis PosterThe highlight of the festival was Friday night, when Fritz Lang’s Metropolis premiered in full for the first time since 1927 in Friedrichstadt Palace and at the Brandenburger Tor. As we were not special enough to be able to get into Friedrichstadt Palace nor one of the 2000 people brave enough to watch it outdoors in the snow, we watched it on Arte.

Metropolis, the first Sci-Fi film ever made, and influence on everything from Tim Burton’s Batman to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is set in a dystopian world where the poor work tirelessly in an underground maze of machines while the rich live luxuriously in high towers above ground.

Freder, the son of Johann Fredersen, the wealthiest man in the city, leads a blissful life until the evangelical Maria enters his garden one day with some worker children and tells him that they are his brothers. Freder follows Maria to the underworld, where he is so moved by what he sees that he swaps places with one of the workers there. Meanwhile, his father visits mad-scientist Rotwang to enlist his help in thwarting a workers revolution led by Maria. Rotwang creates a robot in her exact image, which causes havoc in the city but ultimatley leads to the dawn of a new era in Metropolis.

It’s incredicle to think that this film was made in 1927; its visual effects, set design and expressionist camera work are so sophisticated and its themes still pertinent – perhaps testament to the fact that it was not only the most costly UFA film ever made, but also the most expensive silent film ever. However, it flopped when it was released more than 80 years ago, which led to the film being cut by 25 minutes. It was believed that the original verison of the film was lost forever until 2008 when a full version was discovered in Argentina. It took two years to restore the 16 mm film, and the process relied heavily on the original film score by Gottfried Huppertz, which was annoted in detail.

Leonardo Di Caprio at Shutter Island premiereYesterday, what did get us out into the cold was the opportunity to see Martin Scorsese, Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio et al trot down the red carpet to the premiere of Shutter Island. The scene was dominated by girls screaming “Leo!”, but apart from him, Ben and Martin, we caught a glimpse of Mark Ruffalo, Wim Wenders, Mario Adorf, Hannes Jaenicke and Detlev Buck. 

I cannot wait to see this film set in 1954, which follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels on his investigation to track a missing murderess who escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane on the remote Shutter Island. It releases in Germany on the 25th Feb 2010 – here’s the trailer and a some interviews:

Film, Life in Berlin

British Shorts Film Festival at Sputnik Kino

Nicknamed Berlin’s highest cinema, you’ll find Sputnik Kino on the fifth floor of a 19th century business complex in Kreuzberg. The climb to this intimate art house cinema and bar, however, is worth it. It has two screens, a 1950s style bar scattered with sofas and old film artefacts, and a balcony with a view that overlooks Berlin.
British Shorts film festival poster

This weekend the cinema hosted the British Shorts film festival in Kino 1, whose bricked seat rows were filled to capacity for most screenings. The festival is now in its third year and showcases an eclectic range of British films (the loose definition of which seems to be those either made by Brits, set in Britain, or made with British funding and support) from documentary to animation.

The most interesting piece of the festival came from the Gob Squad , a unique British-German artist collective who do performance, video and installation art projects and everything in between.  Live Long and Prosper is a split screen film which aims to bring death into public view. Not only does death occur mostly out of sight in modern society, banished to hospitals or homes, but the actual moment of death is seldom seen in films.

Consequently, the Gob Squad took seven death scenes from seven movies and recreated them in different public places around Berlin. So for example, the scene where Spock dies in Star Trek is recreated in Pfennigland. Although the recreated version is done in earnest – by the performers as well as the film-makers, who attempt to get the camera angles, set and costume details down to a tee, the juxtaposition between the original and the recreated scene provoked much laughter. Eventually however, the laugher died down, and a more contemplative, serious atmosphere pervaded the cinema; it became a meditation on the moment death, and the ongoing movement of the modern world in the background of the recreated scenes became depressing. If you do get the chance to see this film, grab it.

A couple of acts that combined music with video also stood out. Dirk Markham, a Berlin-based Scottish musician mixed electronic music with interesting visuals in the bar on Friday night, and Éda Manó Meggyesházi performed on Saturday – her songs filling the cinema like those of a woodland spirit, reflecting the images of the crooked winter trees that accompanied them.

The selection of short films were of a very hight standard – many of them student projects from the London College of Communications, Edinburgh College of Art or University of Bedfordshire (the festival has links to the University of Bedfordshire). You can see a full programme of all the shorts shown here.

Film, Life in Berlin

Premiere of The Line, Kastanianallee 77

Former Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit described Berlin as “poor but sexy”, and there is nothing poorer or sexier in Berlin than its film-making community.

Berlin has provided the inspiration for films such as Cabaret, Wings of Desire and The Lives of Others, and is home to over 100 cinemas (see list) and the Berlinale.  In Berlin, film-makers even get their own little places to hang out, such as Cinema Café in Hackescher Markt or Filmcafe in Prenzlauer Berg.

The Line PosterLast night Xavier Agudo premiered his short film The Line at the very sexy, very intimate cinema at 77 Kastanienalle, which has a cool basement bar and is decorated with Truffaut and Bergman film posters.

The film was very ‘Berlin’; made with hardly any money, an international cast and crew and inspired by The Wall. It’s a beautifully shot little film about divisions – the line between east and west, past and present, the living and the dead. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who’s interested in watching it – it is due to be shown at HHU Filmfest Düsseldorf shortly – but here’s a teaser.