Last updated: February 18, 2012 2:37 am

Bear essentials

The FT’s film critic reports from a beguiling Berlin Film Festival where there’s been something for everyone

Each new day at the Berlin Film Festival has begun with a mass striptease. The audience arrives for the morning screening, padded and cladded against the snow, and then starts disrobing. Scarves, coats, jackets, sweaters, overshirts, leggings ... The Filmpalast’s hospitable fug demands it. The spectacle only needs some bump-and-grind music and it could become a paying attraction.

The real meaning of this folie à deux milles is surely allegorical. It represents the act of going naked before cinema: stripping off our preconceptions, exposing our quivering sensibilities. In the festival’s first days there were a lot of those. We bared ourselves to Angelina Jolie, director, as she bombarded us with gore and bullets in her Bosnian love/war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey. Bob Marley survived an assassination attempt, before dying young of cancer, in Kevin Macdonald’s epic documentary Marley. Convicted killers talked of murder and mortality in Werner Herzog’s non-fiction magnum opus Death Row, a multiparter for US television previewed on the Berlin big screen.

Best of all for chastening mayhem was Captive, Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza’s vivid re-enactment of a true group-kidnapping event from 2001. Back then you couldn’t believe that the hostage marathon, which began with mass seizure in a hotel, would last the course it did: months on end, including a trek through the jungle. On screen you cannot believe that a motley group of co-production actors, led by Isabelle Huppert playing a social worker, will make the story credible over again.

They do. Throw enough snakes and scorpions at us; skilfully rush the violent early scenes so we are still in a post-traumatic whirl when the script slows down for speeches; reap the aesthetic rewards. In previous films (Serbis, Kinatay,) Mendoza has been a poster-boy for arthouse flash. With longer playing time we get richer ambivalences. We start to hate the hostage-takers; we rage, fear and plot along with the victims. But at moments, as in a brilliantly played late dialogue scene between Huppert and a boy terrorist, we also feel that queasy, vulnerable moment when we start to understand our persecutors.

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner? Not quite. We understand but do not pardon the atrocities related by the death-sentenced killers in Herzog’s Death Row. The German director’s patient voiceover – that needling, pedantic, spell-casting near-whisper – is as hypnotic here as in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Dreams are fished for again, Herzog dipping his hook in the killers’ subconscious minds to discover – what? Contrition? Shame? Despair? Fear of death? A bit of each. We take away a lot of haunting baggage, as we did from Captive. In both films it’s as if we have picked up a wrong suitcase at life’s luggage carousel and find ourselves opening up, shocked but curious, another cargo of human motives and emotions.

Comic relief came to Berlin with Jayne Mansfield’s Car, directed by actor Billy Bob Thornton. It doesn’t sound promising: a mash-up of Steel Magnolias and Crimes of the Heart. Deep South folk swap crises. Paterfamilias Robert Duvall interacts with three variedly dysfunctional sons, all war veterans, in 1969 Alabama. Wackiest son, played by Thornton himself, is a former flying ace who needs every therapy he can get, including the love of a visiting Englishwoman (Frances O’Connor) who strips naked for him and recites “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

The screwloose tragicomedy builds. There is a very funny double act between Duvall and Limey guest John Hurt: the one a bluff, uptight relic of old American money, the other a piece of brittle, endearing pottery fallen from the decaying kiln of Empire.

No film looks a certain winner yet. The Golden Bear scratches its furry head as I write. Two German films have been admired. In Hans-Christian Schmid’s Home for the Weekend a family falls apart when depression-medicated mum stops taking her pills (and then disappears). The film is taut, nuanced, observant, if a bit humourless. In Christian Petzold’s much-praised Barbara, set in East Germany in 1980, an insecurely rooted romance grows between a young medic (Nina Hoss) set on escaping to the west and her unsuspecting boss. The story is cleverly paced, the acting good. But to me it felt a little like a soap with aspirations: ER gone arthouse.

Perhaps the gilded grizzly will lay paws on China’s White Deer Plain. It was certainly the longest movie: 188 minutes of love, war, sex and changing ideologies, over two decades in the postfeudal early 20th century. Director Wang Quan’an won Berlin’s top prize five years ago for Tuya’s Wedding. Here he seems to be pushing, boldly, the limits of Beijing’s tolerance. No one, from the Guomindang to the proto-Communists of the Peasants’ Union, gets a good word. The “heroine” is a sex-mad serial polygamist; the “hero” is a rebel who goes native with the oppressors. Spectacularly filmed on a wide screen, the story ends in swashbuckling incoherence, perhaps the price of adapting a novel (by Chen Zhongshi) that needed five hours instead of three.

Spiros Stathoulopoulos' 'Meteora'

Spiros Stathoulopoulos' 'Meteora' tells an unlikely love story

The Golden Cuckoo award for eccentric films with the call and freshness of spring – if there were one – would be fought over by Meteora and Tabu. They come from eurozone countries willing to go broke for life and art: Greece and Portugal. Director Spiros Stathoulopoulos hoists his lead actor and actress to the top of his country’s monastery mountains, there to fall in love and test the limits of religious tolerance. The Charterhouse of Parma meets Viridiana – except that even those sanctity-versus-profanity narratives do not have Meteora’s beauty of scenery or bewitching interludes of Greek-icon-style animation.

Miguel Gomes’s Tabu is a multipart shaggy-dog story: one of those shaggy dogs you would like to shoot. What will the heroine, seen at different ages, get up to next? Now she’s an old biddy with a gambling compulsion; next, in flashback, she’s a young planter in Africa falling for a caddish white heartthrob. Shot in 16mm black and white, the film resembles one of those archive-footage makeovers with comical speech-dubbing. Surrealism is never far away: a rock band playing Phil Spector around a decayed swimming pool; shape-changing crocodiles. Bewitching, annoying, and persistent, it just might win the prize.

Outside the competition, the variety has been no less keen. Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, though it opened and closed quickly in the land of dollars and hamburgers, is an honourable directing debut. Only the Muslim/Christian love story seems confected – Romeo and Juliet go Balkan – amid the realism of the Bosnian war scenes. Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War stops at honourable intentions. For an hour, this truth-based tale of Chinese Catholic schoolgirls rescued from Japanese-overrun Nanjing by an unlikely American (Christian Bale, overdoing the drunken roistering) resembles The Sound of Music without the songs. Then we get the songs. In all senses, baleful.

Marley is much better. We learn a lot in Macdonald’s trawl through the story of singer-songwriter Bob. The director rounds up every suspect, including band members with whom Marley had terminal spats. Weirdest detail is the bookending of the Jamaican rocker’s life by two quasi-pukka Englishmen: the horseback-riding officer/gentleman/scoundrel who begat him and then deserted the family; later Chris Blackwell (deridingly referred to as Chris Whitewell by one former Wailer), the posh-voiced, penny-pinching (so alleged) Anglo who set up Island Records, Marley’s label.

It has been a busy, beguiling festival. Something for everyone; though it remains to be seen if there was enough for that singular and demanding taste-master, the festival jury.

Ends February 19. Nigel Andrews reports on the last days of the Berlin festival in Monday’s FT

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