Berlin & Beyond Festival: Recommended Weekend Films, 1/16-18

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[Phillipe Graber as Emil in The Friend.]

Of the films playing in the Berlin and Beyond festival tonight and over the weekend, I’ve only had a chance to screen a few. But among them were a couple of genuine gems:

First, The Friend, which screens at 6:30 PM tonight, was an innovative and interesting film with a very unconventional premise: Emil (played by Phillipe Graber, pictured above) has a crush on Larissa, who sings in a local bar. Soon after they meet, Larissa asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend for her parents’ sake. He agrees, perhaps because he thinks it might lead somewhere. But after a few days of silence, he calls her number only to reach Larissa’s sister Nora. She tells him that Larissa has died. “Were you her boyfriend?” Nora asks. Emil gulps, and not knowing what to do, says yes, he was. Soon he is invited to meet the family and finds himself helping to plan the funeral and memorials for this girl he only met once — all the while pretending to everybody that he was Larissa’s boyfriend. That’s messy enough, but things get even messier when he begins to fall in love with Nora. It’s really pretty wonderful. The film was selected for the festival’s Maurice Kanbar Award for Best First Feature, and it’s easy to see why they chose it. It starts with a delightful, unpredictable story, and then that story is told with real subtlety and emotional range. All the actors are good, but Phillipe Graber is really good — he reminds me strongly of Michael Cera, and it was easy to imagine an English-language remake starring him. Let’s hope some indie producer picks it up and does it right.

The other great film I had a chance to see was Bird’s Nest, which screens at 4:15 PM on Saturday. It’s a documentary about the five-year process of the design and construction of Herzog & de Meuron’s beautiful Bejing National Stadium. (In case you didn’t know, the architects also designed the De Young in conjunction with Fong & Chan Architects.) It’s really a must-see for anybody with an interest in architecture, urban planning, China, or Herzog & de Meuron.

Actually, the title is a little misleading, because it’s not so much about the stadium as it is an exploration of all the things the firm was working on over this period (including an entire urban development near Shanghai), with the progress of the stadium serving as a narrative to pull you through the whole film. Along the way, we have a chance to become familiar with the architects as individuals and learn a great deal about their sensibilities, plus the film explores the nature of business and construction in China, the promise of urban planning, the vagaries of cross-cultural exchange, much about the artist Ai Weiwei (who advised the architects on cultural matters), and more.

Don’t expect an expose, though. Bird’s Nest largely avoids the dark side of this subject, addressing it only in asides and allusions, and stays positive, mostly exploring how the architects themselves made peace with the contradictions inherent in their position. “To tell them that they have to do their homework first,” Herzog says, alluding mostly to the PRC’s undemocratic nature, “and only then we will build for them, would be incredibly arrogant of us.” De Meuron seems to find a more aesthetic reconciliation: “We didn’t want to practice monumentalism, to glorify a system” with the stadium. Similar to the Eiffel Tower, which was built for a single event but has continued to function as public space and public sculpture ever since, they tried to make “a stadium that was anti-monumental, something for people, with a human dimension.”

But in the end, those are probably just rationalizations to cover their real motive: to create beauty in a prominent construction that will endure. At one point in the film, Herzog says to a television reporter: “What is beautiful? … I don’t speak of taste, but of something that attracts you. It has a magic that you cannot always explain. Some projects do have that, other projects do not have that. So in a very strange way, we do not always know what we do.” And then he goes on to cite the Forbidden City itself as a supreme example of architecture that has this mysterious beauty.

There are twelve other films playing this weekend (schedule here), and though I’m sure many of them are awesome as well, I’ve heard especially good things about A Hero’s Welcome, which plays at 9:00 tonight after The Friend, Cloud 9 (check out Nicole Gluckstern’s review of it in the SFBG) and Revanche on Saturday night, and Evet, I Do! on Sunday afternoon. The weekend rounds out on Sunday night with the Wim Wenders classic, Kings of the Road, which was a great inspiration for Jim Jarmusch.

[This post is second in a series about the Berlin and Beyond Festival. The next installment will be published Sunday.]

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