Know Thyself: A Report on the 69th Berlin International Film Festival
At this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms (2019) walked away with the Golden Bear for best feature film. Drawing on his own experiences as an expatriate, Lapid’s film was celebrated for its darkly comic investigation into the fractured identity of an Israeli exile living in modern-day Paris. Self-conception and self-perception were a recurring theme at this year’s event, especially in the Forum sidebar where three films stood out for their use of personal correspondences to explore the complicated relationship between individual experience and the social construct of nationality.
Highlighting how history often obscures as much as it reveals, these films offered new perspectives on events that continue to shape and define cultural identities. Perhaps the most impressive of these was German director Thomas Heise’s essay film Heimat Is a Space in Time (2019). Using diary entries and letters written by his family, Heise reconstructs his genealogy as social history, with these correspondences chronicling over one hundred years of German history. Starting in 1912 with the childhood diary of his grandfather Wilheim Heise, the film moves chronologically through the economic catastrophe of the Weimar Republic to the Jewish persecution of WWII, before ending in the Socialist German Democratic Republic where Heise was born.
During the post-war years, the Heimatfilm became the most successful genre of cinema in Germany. Usually shot in the Alps or the Black Forest, these tales of love, friendship, and family were used to suggest a world untouched by the war. But in 1984, as many young Germans were beginning to challenge the nation’s collective guilt over the crimes of the Third Reich, Edgar Reitz released Heimat, the first in his trilogy of Heimatfilm about life in Germany from the 1840s to 2000. Initially described as a post-heimatfilm, his radical approach to the genre was viewed as a satirical study of identity in a divided, post-Holocaust Germany. Heise’s film continues were Reitz left off, exploring the intersection between personal testimony and history in an attempt to understand what national identity means in a country of shifting borders.
Conjuring painful images out of plaintive language, the often-banal conversations in these letters allude to something intangible and enormous outside the frame. Allowing the audience to feel like they’re experiencing the slow unfolding of history firsthand, Heise juxtaposes these correspondences with black-and-white images of bustling cities like Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden, where the letters were originally written. The result is a haunting study of how the history of a place is quickly forgotten by its inhabitants, but continues to reverberate through its architecture. However, the strongest moment in the film sees Heise combine these personal testimonies with historical documents. In a devastating sequence from the 1940s, increasingly fearful letters between Heise’s family discussing the new laws that prohibit Jews from buying tobacco or riding the tram, quickly intensify as rumors begin to spread about mass deportations. The sound of steam trains and a long scrolling list of names accompanies these letters with the effect relentless and cumulative, as the contrast between images, sounds, and language build to a gut-wrenching conclusion.
Letters from the past also inform the narrative of Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s MS Slavic 7 (2019). Bohdanowicz has quietly been making a name for herself by creating some of the most interesting films on the festival circuit, many of them built around her own family history. Her latest feature continues this trend and is based on the discovery of letters sent between her great-grandmother, the Polish poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa and the Nobel Prize-nominated author Józef Wittlin. Zofia’s poems first appeared in Bohdanowicz work in her short film, “Dundas Street” (2012), in which a polish refugee living in Toronto struggles to find meaning in a city that feels alienating. One of approximately 64,000 Polish exiles and refugees who came to Canada during the Second World War, Zofia’s letters are organized around a vivid sense of loss for a nation that no longer exists, illustrating how home can develop different meanings to those who are deprived of it.
Named after the Harvard library reference number where the letters were originally discovered, this playful piece of meta-fiction sees Campbell star as Audrey Benac, a recurring character from Bohdanowicz’s previous films Never Eat Alone (2016) and “Veslemøy’s Song” (2018). Audrey travels to Harvard to study her great-grandmother’s letters with the intention of one day curating an exhibition. The film’s cold, digital aesthetic mirrors the mundanity and sterility of the library’s reading rooms, but also allows these material objects to be studied with a meticulous eye. At first, Audrey doesn’t appear particularly interested in the content of these letters, instead the camera patiently observes her as she becomes increasingly fascinated with their tangibility; how the letters feel, how they were folded, and the envelopes they were sealed in, as if somehow trying to recreate the sensation they might have transmitted when originally opened, something she later tries to recreate in a hilarious post-coital letter reading season with a translator.
An intimate appraisal of history and biography, these letters reveal a perspective of the Holocaust often ignored. Living in exile in North America, Zofia writes that “the country inside is the only place where a writer can be free,” and this desire to belong is inherited by Audrey who struggles to integrate with her family during a 60th wedding anniversary for her distant polish relatives. Exploring how identity is attached to a sense of belonging, usually through family ties or deep emotional connections to place, MS Slavic 7 is a gentle meditation on the fragility of nationhood and the search for identity in a world that doesn’t always recognize you.
Without letters or memoirs to work from, Chinese-born animator Lei Lei attempts to understand the traditions of his mother’s generation through the stimulation of unconscious memory in his debut feature Breathless Animals (2019). An ambitious cinematic essay, Lei Lei combines voiceover testimony from his mother with a collage of animated images from old magazines and photos of the 1950s to create a rich reflection of China’s past and present. Born in China in 1985, but now based in America, Lei Lei understands how difficult it is to form memories in a nation where hyper-urbanization means new identities are always forming.
A unique work of memory and imagination, the film charts the director’s attempt to chronicle his mother’s memories of growing up during the Cultural Revolution before they fade into history. He listens to her as she talks about her upbringing with the probing silence of a psychoanalyst, but feels inclined to interject when she begins describing how she would always fall asleep in front of the family’s old black-and-white TV. “What did you dream about?” he asks, “I had such terrifying dreams!” she replies, before describing the gruesome nightmares she had about animals and their violent demises. Accompanied by old photos sourced from flea markets and clothes catalogues, Lei Lei brings these stories to life through experimental styles of animation, moving images backwards and forwards to the sound of an old cassette tape being rewound, as if trying to find something hidden in his mother’s testimony. As her dreams become more vivid these images begin to take on multiple meanings, allowing this deeply personal oral history to expand into a wider study of the eclectic mix of identities that emerge in a rapidly changing world.
At a time when nationalism and extremist politics are on the rise, the way we see ourselves and the way others see us can often be radically different. By projecting these concerns through multiple perspectives, this year’s Forum explored the role personal histories play in constructing a sense of who we are as individuals and as a society; celebrating cinema’s ability to create a nurturing environment to foster thoughtful and liberating conversations about identity.
The 69th Berlin International Film Festival took place from February 7 to February 17.