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Exhausted crowd cheers 8-hour epic at Berlin film fest

Hundreds of movie lovers emerged bleary-eyed but enthusiastic Thursday after the longest competition contender in the 66-year history of the Berlin film festival, shown in an eight-and-a-half hour marathon screening with just one break.

Exhausted crowd cheers 8-hour epic at Berlin film fest
Alessandra De Rossi. Photo: DPA

Daring Filipino director Lav Diaz had told AFP before travelling to the German capital that his historical epic “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery” would be a “struggle” for the audience.

But as the curtain closed at the 1,600-seat Berlinale Palace theatre, more than half the audience was still present and rewarded the 57-year-old filmmaker with warm applause and cries of “bravo”.

The ambitious film is one of 18 films vying for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded by jury president Meryl Streep Saturday.

Streep and her seven-member panel including British actor Clive Owen attended the sole screening of the film, which was sold out and packed to the rafters Thursday morning.

Security staff confiscated water bottles and required audience members to check their bags before they immersed themselves in the rich revolutionary history and mythology of Diaz's impoverished homeland.

Some audience members were toting inflatable pillows and smuggled in granola bars as they entered the cinema, shaking hands in solidarity with their seat mates before the screening began.

Gerhard Reda, a German amateur filmmaker who says he watches 10 to 15 movies each week, called the screening a “personal test of courage”.

He said he had started to watch another of Diaz's notoriously lengthy films last year but had to give up after an hour.

“He can have a 45-minute scene that just has people talking or walking through a field,” he warned.

“Some love him, some hate him but he's always a challenge.”

About an hour in, the 44-year-old quietly rolled a cigarette while still in his seat so he wouldn't miss too much when he popped out for a smoke.

Like a video game

As the lights came up Thursday night, Taiwanese film critic Yun-hua Chen said that she was “doing absolutely fine”.

“It was an amazing experience — totally worth it,” she said.

“The film really needed to be this long so the audience can submerge in the story.”

Enrico Cehovin, a 27-year-old Italian, said that playing long video games had prepared him for the experience, which he admitted was “only for cinema lovers”.

“Some games take eight to 10 hours to play and you don't even understand where the time has gone — they can be like long movies,” he said.

“But this was an experience unlike any I'll have again.”

Development worker Carla Schraml, 36, admitted she did not know much about the Philippines' revolution going into the film.

“Despite its length, I wish I had learned more,” she said, criticising a meandering story that was only partly accessible for an uninitiated audience.

But Hubert Speich, a critic for German public broadcaster SWR, called the picture “superb”.

“Diaz has his own signature poetic style and the images are just sublime,” he enthused.

“He needs a canvas this size to tell the story he wants to tell in all its complexity — in its historical sweep there is not a single shot that is excessive.

“Diaz shows what cinema is capable of.”

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WOMEN

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)

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