Arthouse veterans add an extra dimension to Berlin

Films about food didn't sate cinephiles' appetites at the 61st Berlin Film Festival, but the new movies by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders thrill in 3D, says Geoffrey Macnab

The 61st Berlin Film Festival has been a contradictory affair. The city has been buzzing. There has been plenty of star wattage. Madonna was in town to show international distributors footage from her directorial debut feature, W. E., at a private screening. The King's Speech bandwagon passed through. Bob Geldof and Sean Penn have been in Berlin, although it's not clear why. The paparazzi and publicists have been scurrying around in frantic fashion. Potsdamer Platz, the festival's futuristic headquarters, is a hive of activity. Parties abounded. The trade press has been full of announcements about new projects – among them a biopic of Marvin Gaye, yet more Scandinavian crime drama in the vein of Stieg Larsson and an odd-sounding film called Blind Bastards Club starring Mickey Rourke and the rock star Lenny Kravitz "as guys who live life on the edge despite being blind".

As they try to cope with the overload of information, only slowly have visitors realised how deeply disappointing the programme is. "Great festival, shame about the films," was the consensus among the critics and programmers exposed to a competition comprised largely of lacklustre fare by first- and second-time film-makers. Dieter Kosslick, the festival head, promised "a festival of discovery," but many of the movies unspooling in the vast Berlinale Palast would have been better left to languish in obscurity.

It was telling that by the middle of this week, with the competition screenings close to complete, the most favoured film on critics' polls was still J C Chandor's Wall Street thriller, Margin Call, starring Kevin Spacey. This wasn't a world premiere. It screened in Sundance a month before – so Berlin could not take credit for launching it.

"The problem of Kosslick is that the selection is not interesting for him. The films are not interesting. What is interesting him is to have [sponsors] Mercedes, Audi and the city all happy," one leading French producer grumbled. The part of the programme that seemed to most excite Kosslick, who once wrote a history of the bagel, was the "culinary cinema" sidebar. This threw up some very interesting movies about food. "Let's give food a chance to become the focal point of our lives again and not poisonous junk disguised as food," Kosslick declared at the start of the festival – a rousing mission statement, perhaps, but of precious little relevance to festivalgoers more interested in cinema than gastronomy.

On the food front, Britain's Nigel Slater was in Berlin for the festival screening of Toast, the film about his troubled childhood that screened on the BBC over Christmas.

The Berlin market also included several films about food, among them Gereon Wetzel's El Bulli – Cooking in Progress. This is a documentary about the Catalonian restaurant celebrated for creating dishes that provide taste sensations: seaweed-flavoured ricecrackers, mango leaf, freeze-dried bananas and the like. Wetzel's film is a corrective to anyone who expects films about restaurants to be brash affairs featuring egomaniacal chefs. As Wetzel tells us early in the film, the restaurant is only open for six months. For the rest of the year, the chefs are "researching" in the lab. We see men in white coats earnestly experiment with liquids and strange-looking solids. Overseeing their experiments is Ferran Adrià, El Bulli's owner and necromancer-in-chief. Wetzel's fascinating documentary depicts a world far removed from Hell's Kitchen clichés.

A few good movies about food weren't enough to make up for the gaping holes in the festival. The Golden Bear, the festival's main award, has become devalued in recent years because the films that win rarely go on to enjoy glittering international careers. Recent winners such as Grbavica, Tuya's Marriage, The Milk of Sorrow and Honey – all respectable movies – are fading from memory. The competition serves only to highlight the increasing divide between esoteric art-house fare and the mainstream.

One pleasant revelation offered in Berlin, however, is that 3D doesn't need to be a gimmick. It's very easy to be cynical about the 3D phenomenon. Cinemas love the format because they are able to add a surcharge on tickets of up to 40 per cent. Since Avatar, many second-rate studio movies have used 3D in tokenistic fashion. In Berlin, two magnificent movies, Wim Wenders' Pina (about the German choreographer Pina Bausch) and Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, both shot in 3D, have shown the possibilities that 3D offers when used in an inventive and artistic way.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes viewers inside the recently discovered Chauvet caves in the South of France, showcasing their extraordinary cave paintings. Herzog claimed that shooting in 3D was "imperative". "Since my film in the cave may be the only film ever to be permitted to be shot there, because the climate in there is so delicate, you had to bring the audience into the cave itself," the director said.

The director is using the most modern cinema technology to bring images more than 30,000 years old to life. The 3D gives us the illusion that we are walking in the cave beside him. "That's the funny thing. With almost all audiences I've met after a screening, nobody talks about having seen a movie," he reflects. "They all speak about having been in a cave. That is the perfect response for me. I am very proud of that."

The 3D in Pina is used in equally magical fashion. As Wenders films some of Bausch's most celebrated productions, mounted by the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch ensemble, he is able to give his images an extraordinary depth of focus. Dancers float in front of us, or race out of the shadows. A feature doc about an avant-garde German choreographer who died two years ago doesn't seem like a commercial proposition. However, fans of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan should relish Pina. Bausch's productions were characterised by the same intensity, violence and eroticism that made Aronofsky's film so startling.

Neither Pina nor Cave of Forgotten Dreams were competing for the Golden Bear. Toward the end of the week, the competition titles started to spark the interest of critics and distributors. Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus was a raw and very bloody reworking of the Shakespeare play. The new Béla Tarr film, The Turin Horse, lasted for more than two and a half hours and featured only 30 or so shots. Critics seemed to warm to its bleak, Beckettian humour.

An Iranian film, Asghar Farhadi's Nader and Simin, a Separation, gave the international art-house distributors something they wanted to buy. A drama set in contemporary Iran, dealing with divorce and family rupture, it received an ovation after the press screening.

Berlin 2011 won't be remembered as a vintage festival. Critics described the competition as one of the most threadbare in recent memory. Nonetheless, one of the glories of the festival is its size and carnivalesque energy. There were plenty of intriguing films to be discovered in the margins. For example, Michael R Roskam's Bullhead was a dark gangster thriller set against the backcloth of illegal hormone smuggling in the Belgian agricultural world. Its star Matthias Schoenaerts, a slender actor who plays a hulking Flemish farmer caught up in a smuggling ring, revealed to the press that he ate more than 3,000 tins of tuna and several hundred chickens in the space of a year. He pumped iron every day, too, as he beefed himself up for his role. This was method acting taken to extremes.

There is unlikely to be much fanfare when the winners are announced at the weekend. Golden Bears no longer count for much. However, even if its competition provokes indifference, the Berlinale as a whole remains as lively as ever.

FROM CAVES TO WALL STREET: four festival hits

Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes' debut feature as director is bloody and violent, but with great narrative drive and a stand-out performance from Vanessa Redgrave.

Margin Call

J C Chandor's drama about an investment firm in meltdown was favourably compared to Oliver Stone's 'Wall Street 2'. Many are calling this the definitive film about the financial crisis.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's masterly 3D feature doc about ancient cave paintings is eerie and fascinating. The paintings themselves, done thousands of years ago, defy interpretation but are very beautiful.

Happy, Happy

Anne Sewitsky's small-scale Norwegian comedy-drama, set in a remote and snowbound suburb, is a funny and perceptive tale of infidelity and jealousy. As it looks at the lives of two very different couples living next door to one another, the laidback storytelling style recalls Lukas Moodysson's equally well-observed 'Together'.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker