Berlin Film Festival - Braced against the big chill

Gloomy films and icy weather have dominated this year's Berlin Film Festival, but the line-up hasn't been without warmth and diversity, reports Geoffrey Macnab
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The 60th Berlin Film Festival has been feeling the cold. The thick layers of ice made the streets around the Potsdamer Platz, the festival's main venue, treacherous in the extreme. A chill was felt in other ways, too. In spite of the presence of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island out of competition and of Roman Polanski's The Ghost, this has been a very low-wattage festival.

The crowds have been here in the same numbers as always but there have been many obvious signs of a new austerity at the Berlinale. Diekmann, the restaurant of choice for many producers and distributors attending the festival, has closed down. There have been far fewer parties than in previous years and the ones that have been thrown have been far less ostentatious.

The big-name auteurs in Berlin had mixed fortunes. Shutter Island (screening out of competition) provoked mixed feelings among critics, dazzling them with its formal virtuosity but generating annoyance at what some considered to be a tricksy storyline. Zhang Yimou's A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop was an ingenious, exhilarating reworking of the Coen brothers' Blood Simple, even if some reviewers were put off by its slapstick elements. The Ghost was much better received than had seemed likely when the Polish director was arrested last September. This was an old-fashioned but superior thriller with far more political bite than had been anticipated. Noah Baumbach's Greenberg was a skilled piece of filmmaking but tough to like, largely because the main character (played by Ben Stiller) was so deeply unpleasant.

The British director Michael Winterbottom has won prizes in Berlin before for The Road to Guantanamo and In This World. His film noir, The Killer Inside Me, screens at the end of the Festival. Advance word after its Sundance premiere last month suggests it is violent in the extreme but brilliantly acted by Casey Affleck. Whatever else, it will give Berlinale audiences a jolt.

Early speculation had suggested that Berlin might launch with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. In the event, the opening film was a Chinese title, Wang Quan'an's Apart Together. This was a drama about a man returning to his native city of Shanghai after 50 years spent in Taiwan. He was in search of the first love of his life, Qiao. The film was respectfully received without generating much in the way of excitement.

The Jury President this year is the maverick German director Werner Herzog. Throughout the festival, one of the trade magazines has been running a column called "Werner's Wisdoms", which lists some of Herzog's recent sayings. One of the more memorable was: "Frankly speaking, I consider the awarding of prizes a delicate issue. It's more appropriate for dog shows." Herzog has a point. This year's Berlinale has featured a wildly diverse selection of films which will be very tough to choose between.

Among the more arresting titles in competition was Koji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar, an allegory about Japanese Second World War militarism and machismo that played like a very gory and surreal version of Coming Home. Caterpillar, based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, is about a Japanese soldier who loses his arms and legs in the war. He comes home to his remote village quite literally a stump of a man. He can't move and he can't speak. The villagers treat him with awe and reverence, as if he is the ultimate war hero and even god-like. His wife is disgusted but that doesn't stop her making love with him again and again in scenes that are deliberately grotesque. The twist here is that the disfigured soldier is not at all a sympathetic figure. When he had his arms and legs, he was a wife beater and a rapist. Now, he is powerless and limbless. His sword hangs on the wall, as does a photo of the revered Emperor Hirohito, the leader in whose name the Japanese atrocities were committed. There are resonances here that only Japanese audiences will fully understand. Caterpillar was a divisive film, which was to be welcomed given that so few other competition films provoked strong emotions.

There were few outright duds in the competition. Every movie seemed to have its champions. The Russian director Alexei Popogrebsky's dour How I Ended This Summer was admired by some for its chilly Arctic authenticity. It was shot in a Russian polar station. A philosophical action thriller (albeit without all that much action), it is about two men on a deserted island, working at a weather station, measuring radioactivity. The older Sergei is exasperated by his much younger colleague Pavel, who listens to rock music while jumping about on old jerry cans. The attrition grows between the two men. This is a film about waiting, watching and enduring the cold – all experiences that Berlinale festivalgoers could identify with this year.

If How I Ended This Summer was static in the extreme, Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber didn't know how to stand still. This was based on a true story of an Austrian marathon runner who moonlighted as a bank robber. Rettenberger (Andreas Lust) steals money and then scarpers. The best sequence, reminiscent of a Buster Keaton chase from an old silent movie, is when he is almost caught but races away on foot through the city, crossing streets, parks and walkways, and vaulting walls as he goes. It's exhilarating and dynamic filmmaking. The problem, though, is that we never know what makes Rettenberger run. Why an otherwise well-adjusted young Austrian athlete has turned violent robber is a mystery the film doesn't even begin to unravel.

As has been widely reported, Scorsese came face to face with the maverick Dane Lars von Trier in Berlin this week. Their brief encounter provoked frenzied speculation among the Danes that they were going to work together, perhaps on a sequel to Taxi Driver, for which Von Trier would set Scorsese all kinds of hurdles – as he did with Jorgen Leth in The Five Obstructions. Whether the mooted collaboration ever comes to anything remains to be seen. Equally intriguing from the British point of view was the prospect of Scorsese coming to Britain. The American master is due to shoot a good part of his next film, Hugo Cabret, in London, perhaps at Elstree.

While films were premiering in the Berlinale's vast Palast, film-makers, producers and distributors were busy trying to hatch new projects in the Berlin market. One young director who seemed confident of financing his first feature was Barnaby Southcombe of Embargo Films. Southcombe may have been a newcomer but financiers were queuing up to support his film, I, Anna, which has a cast headlined by Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne. It might have helped, of course, that Rampling is Southcombe's mother.

Also in town, drumming up support for his directorial debut feature, In Embryo, was the Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen. The moody Dane, best known for films such as Festen and The International, was promising sex and violence, albeit tinged with lyricism. His film will be a love story about a drug dealer "trapped in a world of sleazebags and easy women".

Given the darkness and violence of so many of the films screening in competition or being financed in the market, a comedy-drama such as Nicole Holofcener's Please Give (screening out of competition) came as a relief. The film reunited Holofcener with her regular collaborator Catherine Keener, who plays a New York antique dealer and would-be philanthropist. In its own gentle way, the film's storytelling is barbed and very ironic. Keener's do-gooder can't pass a homeless man or anyone who looks as if they might be homeless without thrusting a few dollars in his hands. At the same time, she makes her living by preying on the families of New Yorkers whose relatives have recently died. She buys their furniture and bric-à-brac, and then sells it at a huge mark-up. All of the other characters in the film, whether Keener's philandering husband (Oliver Platt) or her neighbour's granddaughter (Rebecca Hall), combine good intentions with selfishness and neurosis in equal measure. Please Give is low-key but very funny. Holofcener conveys affection for her characters, something which very few other film-makers in Berlin this week have shown convincingly.

These are difficult times for film festivals. Sponsorship is growing ever hard to access and budgets are therefore shrinking. The Hollywood studios have closed down many of their "speciality" arms – their more adventurous offshoots, which used to make the films that festivals loved to show.

In the past, festivals such as Berlin and Venice were launch-pads for art-house and studio movies alike, which would subsequently be seen all over the world. That has changed. Many of the films shown in Berlin's competition and in the other strands of the festival won't be coming to cinemas near you.

Distributors are increasingly cautious about what they will dare release. This, though, heightens the importance of festivals. If you want to see contemporary cinema in all its guises, at its best and worst, Berlin is still one place where you can encounter it.

Who will win the Golden Bear?

This year's Golden Bear competition is hard to call, partly because there have been few truly outstanding films and partly because it's impossible to guess what will appeal to Werner Herzog, the jury head, and his team, which includes Renée Zellweger. Critics were respectful toward Roman Polanski's 'The Ghost' but it may be too conventional a thriller to carry the festival's main prizes. Florin Serban's 'If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle', about a young offender from a juvenile detention centre who falls in love with his social worker, has a strong chance of carrying on the recent prize-winning tradition of new Romanian cinema. The shock tactics of 'Caterpillar' (below) may appeal to Herzog more than they did to squeamish critics. Films screening late in the festival may also come into the frame, among them Oskar Roehler's 'Jew Suss – Rise and Fall', a drama set around the production of the notorious Nazi anti-Semitic film 'Jud Suss', and Michael Winterbottom's reportedly very bloody foray into film noir, 'The Killer Inside Me'.