February 14, 2014 6:51 pm

Searching for hidden treasure at the Berlin Film Festival

Sophie Kennedy Clark, left, and Stacy Martin in Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’

Sophie Kennedy Clark, left, and Stacy Martin in Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’

For better or worse, the lasting image of the 64th Berlinale is likely to remain that of Hollywood oddball Shia LaBeouf with a paper bag over his head, daubed with the words “I am not famous anymore”.

A stunt that would last a day in Cannes, its longevity will prove two things; one is that, even after all this time, the festival struggles to hold its own in the first division, with fewer and fewer heavyweight films on offer. The second is that the film LaBeouf was “promoting” – the extended cut of the first half of Lars Von Trier’s controversial Nymphomaniac – was one of many movies to prove the strength of the Scandinavian film industry, which continues to punch above its weight.

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Even Cannes and Venice have bad years. For some time, however, Berlin seems to have programmed an uneasy mix of gloss and grit. Superficially it offers mainstream glamour – George Clooney and Co presented his all-star dud The Monuments Men and the festival opened in A-list style with Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – but the competition itself offered few surprises and no clear frontrunner to take the Golden Bear.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s eighth feature and his second Europe-based production after 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Starring Ralph Fiennes as womanising hotelier Monsieur Gustave H, it finds the deadpan American director becoming more adept with plot, even though the dressing remains heavily whimsical.

Paul Schlase, Toni Revolori, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Paul Schlase, Toni Revolori, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

After a false start in the imaginary realm of Zubrawka, it takes place in the early 20th century, where a young writer (Jude Law) gains the confidence of Gustave’s former protégé (F Murray Abraham). The story involves a wealthy widow who dies, leaving a priceless painting to Gustave and cueing an enjoyable, Pink Panther-style romp with cameos from Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Adrien Brody and Edward Norton. Like the other US competition entry, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (imported from Sundance), it was a big audience favourite, if not a dead cert to wrestle the Golden Bear from a maverick jury that includes Christoph Waltz, Greta Gerwig and Michel Gondry.

Another early favourite came from UK-based film-maker Yann Demange, whose debut feature ’71 impressed greatly. Starring the up-and-coming Jack O’Connell – who recently finished shooting the Angelina Jolie-directed, Coen-brothers-scripted second world war drama Unbroken – Demange’s gripping, often visually stunning film tells the story of a British soldier caught up in the sectarian violence of 1970s Belfast. Demange’s roots in hard-edged TV – four episodes of London gang drama Top Boy – help make this an affecting first-person experience, especially in its nightmarish depictions of Belfast as a dystopia run by kids with bloodlust.

Although more visually lush than a Ken Loach picture, ’71 did suggest that many national cinemas were reverting to type this year. Critical momentum gathered behind German director Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross, a stylised account of a girl’s struggle with Catholic guilt. Its theme of religious oppression and teenage confusion recalled similarly austere Germanic entries of previous years, such as Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006) and Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Hope (2013).

The Greek-Cypriot competition offering – Yannis Economides’s Stratos – was also somewhat obvious: is everything out of Greece now in some way about financial crisis and a sense of community crumbling? Trimmed by a half-hour, there might be a decent drama in this story of a hitman who pays to have his brother sprung from prison, but the ironically named Economides doesn’t seem to know that less is more. Not only do his 137 minutes labour the points about Greece’s plight, the film packs in a weaker and seemingly endless secondary story about a neighbour who sells his wife and daughter.

Nevertheless, it is handsomely shot, which can also be said of Brazil’s entry, Praia do Futuro. Karim Aïnouz’s film is a two-location gay love story in which lifeguard Donato (Wagner Moura) emigrates to Germany to be with a former soldier whose friend has drowned on his watch. Formally it is terrific, but as a metaphor – a man from the wild now contained in the city – it’s too obvious, the story itself too slight to make this of much interest beyond festivals and specialist cinema seasons.

In the midst of such a glumfest, Hans Petter Moland’s black comedy In Order of Disappearance stands out. Despite lots of swearing and violence, usually at the same time, it is more than just an attempt at a Scandi-Tarantino movie. Starring Stellan Skarsgård as a man who sets out to find and kill the gangsters who murdered his son, it deconstructs the Nordic noir genre but also packs political laughs, as Serbian gangsters debate the merits of Norway’s welfare schemes.

Moland’s was one of many strong Scandinavian films, spearheaded by Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which dominated the festival even though most critics had already seen the shorter version and couldn’t see much difference. It featured in the Berlinale Special section, alongside the horribly received British-German co-production A Long Way Down, a broad, unfunny comedy about suicide, and the much better Swedish offering The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Based on the cult novel of the same name, Felix Herngren’s film again mixes comedy and crime as the title character absconds from his 100th birthday party and absent-mindedly finds himself in possession of a suitcase full of cash and on the run from a violent underworld gang.

The Scandinavian entries weren’t all genre fare, however. Pernille Fischer Christensen’s fourth feature, Someone You Love, confirms her status as one of Denmark’s more low-key but solid talents. Like her self-explanatory 2010 film A Family, it is a bittersweet domestic drama, with The Hobbit’s Mikael Persbrandt playing a musician – clearly inspired by Leonard Cohen – who returns from LA to record in his homeland. It isn’t especially original but eschews sentiment and pomposity to explore character and situation.

For some, though, the real treat of the festival was to be found tucked away in the Panorama section. Directed by Norway’s Eskil Vogt, who penned two excellent dramas, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, for the gifted Joachim Trier, Blind intriguingly re-invents the relationship drama in the style of a Charlie Kaufman project. Elliptical at first, it presents itself as a story being told by a woman who has recently gone blind, and the events she describes seem to be her own recollections. But over time the details become jumbled – one incidental sequence seems to be taking place in both a café and a bus – to the point where we realise that she is attempting to fictionalise her own life and crises.

Like many of the films here, it won’t trouble the multiplex, but Vogt’s film is an excellent, intelligent arthouse movie, the kind of buried treasure to be found away from the Berlinale’s increasingly underwhelming topline.

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Ends Sunday.

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