When judges lose the plot

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What is it with Berlin Film Festival juries? At the end of every recent Berlinale, I have felt as if I were trapped in the final reel of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Mad people in authority are making mad decisions and telling me it is on my behalf.

Does the best film ever win at Berlin? No. At the Potsdamerplatz Clinic for the Seriously Potty, tough love demands that the Golden Bear goes to the wrong movie each February. This year it went to the wrong Chinese movie, while the runner-up Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor Bear both went to an Argentinian film slaughtered by every critic.

Wang Quan’an’s Tuya’s Marriage is about life on the Mongolian steppes for a family beleaguered by modern life and the creeping trend of urbanisation. It is plain, old-fashioned, occasionally touching. But it has less bravura and spiky poetry than the Korean-Mongolian movie on a similar theme, Zhang Lu’s Desert Dream, and far less innovative zest than the Chinese movie all thought a likelier victor, Li Yu’s Lost in Beijing.

Li made the mistake (though not, perhaps, for her) of saying that a festival prize would harm her film. It would bring more attention from the censors, who had told her to make 15 cuts in the film, though it was shown unexpurgated in Berlin. There we were, watching graphic Chinese sex scenes, plus a few unmistakable digs at bureaucratic corruption. In a clever, vividly acted comedy-drama, a rich husband and wife “buy” a baby from a poor younger couple, only for the characters to find the bargain comes with emotional strings. In a land where baby export has been a government-encouraged business, the film dares to suggest that human lives and relationships are not market commodities. Lost in Beijing can now go back to China – happily for Li, sadly for admirers – with “Lost in Berlin” slapped across its poster.

Why the jury gave two prizes to Ariel Rotter’s El Otro (The Other), a dour tale of existential imposture, I have no idea. The average Argentinian film moves slowly; this one is practically static. And only the flies on the jury-room wall know why Israel’s Joseph Cedar won Best Director for the unremarkable war film Beaufort. At least Nina Hoss was a fancied choice as Best Actress, winning the award for her young businesswoman with a dark secret in Germany’s slight but skilful drama-thriller Yella.

Happily, for 10 of the Berlinale’s 11 days, we could enjoy the event without giving a cuss about prizes. We could follow our instincts, which for a critic are always more reliable than a jury’s. Best crowd pleaser? Irina Palm, an Anglo-Belgian social comedy about a granny going on the game, with Marianne Faithfull as the sex-club hostess coining cash for a grandson’s operation.

Best period weepie? François Ozon’s Angel, turning a romantic novel by Elizabeth Taylor (the book-writing one) into a sweeping epic of love, loss and longing.

Best movie in the category, “Don’t mention the cold war era unless you’re going to win an Academy Award”? The Lives of Others. Germany’s Oscar-nominated tale of Stasis versus civvies in pre-unification East Berlin, shown on the festival fringe, is cool and clever and will come to non-Teutonic cinemas soon.

There were two deftly constructed films about criss-cross passion. In Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe, based on Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais, wounded soldier Guillaume Depardieu and aristocrat Jeanne Balibar burn with a flame that keeps passing from one to the other. In every romance (didn’t someone say?) one person loves and the other is loved. Here they keep alternating the roles. Likewise in the gay love story No Regret. This hit Korean weepie, now moving west from Asian adulation, generated the longest queue I saw in Berlin. We all got in, to experience a lush if loopy tale of rich boy/poor boy passion in which the torch of besottedness keeps passing from hand to hand.

The most joyous film at Berlin, shown out of competition in the Forum sideshow, was Guy Maddin’s Brand It on the Brain! Maddin is unique in world cinema. While other directors build ever more sophisticated engines, or try to, to drive their narratives, this Canadian writer-director devotes himself to re-inventing the wheel. He has been at it, with a defiant genius, for 20 years. His black-and-white palette, silent-era-style visuals, jumpy cutting, grainy textures and coaxing of artfully hammed performances – hammier here than in Maddin’s great Careful (his Alpine drama of superstition, coalmining and incest) – suggest a movie scientist possessed, demonically, by his own primitivist invention.

Brand It on the Brain! is the mock-autobiographical tale of “Guy”, returning to the offshore lighthouse-orphanage where he was raised by a despotic mother and inventor father. His childhood explodes in flashbacks, accessorised with headlong mood music, deadpan-surreal intertitles (“Mother used suicide threats as her primary teaching aid”) and a voice narration delivered with imperious aplomb by Isabella Rossellini.

It is a wild spoof of DW Griffith, Louis Feuillade, Fritz Lang, Leni Blue Light Riefenstahl: just about every brainstormer who wielded a movie camera before 1935. Simultaneously, the film is passionately serious and poetic. The landscapes lashed by waves of chiaroscuro are elemental. The figure of Mother, rasping parental orders as she sits enthroned on her revolving, gimballed viewing deck (and resembling in facial appearance some deranged Mount Rushmore makeover of Harpo Marx), is indelible. So is the sense of delirium and cabin fever wrought by a filmmaker exorcising – we assume – some powerful childhood memories.

Maker and master of his own cosmos, Maddin says he shot this film in nine days. That is three days longer than God took to create the world, but the extra 72 hours were worth it.

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