Karlovy Vary 2023

Festival report by Peter Paul Huth

It was a good year for the festival in the Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary. A top-class competition with exciting films.

Since Corona and the war in Ukraine, the formerly omnipresent Russians have disappeared from the cityscape. According to locals, 80 % of the hotels are still in Russian hands. As early as the 19th century, Karlovy Vary was a popular spa with Russian guests, as evidenced by the lavishly restored Russian church. During the festival, the entire spa zone is transformed into a 24/7 party location. The venerable privy councillor Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who visited Karlovy Vary a total of 13 times, would probably have fallen out of bed at the constant musical accompaniment. Or maybe he would have pulled an all-nighter with 19-year-old Ulrike von Leventzow, his last great love. After she finally rejected his repeated offer of marriage, he left the city disappointed in September 1823 and never came back.

It is different for the visitors of the film festival, which takes place every year at the beginning of July. They tend to come back every year to enjoy the special atmosphere of the place and to be infected by the Czech audience's enthusiasm for cinema. The screenings are sold out, and afterwards there are discussions with the filmmakers. In addition, Karlovy Vary always manages to invite international stars. This year it was the Australian Russell Crowe who gave a concert with his band at the opening; the Swede Alicia Vikander as the leading actress in the opening film "Firebrand", the Scottish American actor Ewan McGregor who presented a film he had made with his daughter, and the American Robin Wright who lent the award ceremony her glamour. Each was bestowed with an honourary award by the festival president.

Cinematically, it was a good year in Karlovy Vary with an impressive competition. Right at the beginning, "Empty Nets", the feature film debut of Berlin-based Iranian Bahrooz Karamidzade, set a strong tone. Amir (Hamid Reza Abbasi) loves Narges (Sadaf Asgari), but he cannot marry her because he doesn't have enough money for the dowry. When he loses his job in a restaurant, he signs on with a fishing company on the Caspian Sea. Rough customs prevail here. The fishermen are mercilessly exploited, and at night they fish illegally for sturgeon. A journalist critical of the regime tries to flee across the sea to Azerbaijan. Not much is left of the Islamic Revolution's promise of justice; everything revolves around money. A youth without any perspectives. The fact that the film seems so authentic is partly due to its great leading actors, but certainly also to the fact that it was actually filmed in Iran. Whether it can be shown there is another question. "Empty Nets" deservedly won the Special Jury Prize. The German-Iranian co-production will be released in January 2024 (in Germany).

It might be more difficult to find a distributor for the American black and white drama "Fremont". The work of Iranian-British director Babak Jalili already attracted attention at the Sundance Festival and won the director's prize in Karlovy Vary. Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) worked as a translator for the American army in Afghanistan and now lives in the industrial city of Fremont in an apartment complex with other Afghan refugees. She works in a factory for Chinese fortune biscuits, where she writes the texts. She spends her evenings alone in an Afghan restaurant. Because she suffers from feelings of guilt and insomnia, she seeks out a therapist. The film gently tells the story of how Donya gradually finds her way out of her loneliness and becomes increasingly self-confident. "Fremont" has a lightness that never becomes sentimental and reconciles with a hopeful ending.

Lead actress Anaita Wadi Zali from Afghanistan was one of the favourites for the best actress award. But it went to Bulgarian Eli Skorcheva, who in 'Blaga's Lessons' plays a retired teacher who is defrauded by phone scammers of the money she had set aside for her late husband's grave. Stephan Komandarew's film was the big winner at the awards ceremony, not only winning the Crystal Globe but also the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. In his acceptance speech, the director dedicated the film to his parents' generation, who were among the losers of the new market economy in post-socialist Bulgaria.

In its psychological realism, "Blaga's Lessons" is an impressive social portrait, but one has the impression that it was primarily the important theme that won the award here. The screenplay is constructed for the purpose of creating an effect of compassion and does not seem very plausible. It is hard to believe that the strict teacher and widow of a policeman is so naïve as to follow the telephone instructions of a fake commissioner without contradiction and throws all her money, including her wedding ring, off the balcony. The fact that she later changes sides and becomes part of the criminal organisation has the appearance of a script construction imposed on the protagonist to present a moral dilemma.

In comparison, the Swedish debut film "Hypnosen" (The Hypnosis) impresses with an intelligent script and subtle humour. Vera (Asta Kamma August) and André (Herbert Nordrum) are a couple. They have developed an app to offer assistance to women all over the world who are having health problems. As founders of their two-persons start-up, they attend a coaching event with the telling name 'Shake Up' to prepare for their pitch to potential investors. At first, everything goes according to plan. But when Vera undergoes hypnotherapy and gives free rein to her suppressed impulses, nothing is the same anymore. Uninhibited, she says what she thinks, with no regard for her friend and partner André.

With satirical lightness, the film exposes the rituals of professional self-promotion as well as the catchphrases of the trendy business vocabulary of false 'authenticity'. How Vera manages to shake up the whole event as well as her coach Julian is staged with a brilliant sense of comedy. Herbert Nordrum won the award for best actor, director Ernst De Geer was awarded the Europa Cinemas Label, the European Programme Cinemas Award, and the FIPRESCI Prize of the International Critics' Jury.

Perhaps the best film of the competition was left empty-handed at the awards ceremony. "Les chambres rouges" (Red Rooms) by Philippe Plante is an exceptionally unsettling thriller. Possibly too disturbing for the jury. The American film magazine 'Deadline' characterises it as a "disturbingly brilliant psychological horror". The 34-year-old Franco-Canadian director Philippe Plante uses the serial killer genre for the psychological study of a mysterious young woman whose motives remain obscure until the very end.

Kelly-Anne (Juliette Gariépy) works as a model and lives in a glassed-in one-room flat in an anonymous high-rise. We follow her to the courthouse and see her as a spectator watching the trial of a man accused of torturing and brutally murdering three young girls between the ages of 13 and 16. He has been streaming the acts live on the Dark Net. When two of the videos are shown in court, we don't see any of it, but only hear the screams of the victims similar to those in "Benny's Video" by Michael Haneke. What is missing to convict the suspect is the third video. The way Kelly-Anne tracks down this crucial piece of evidence and what she intends to do with it is suspensefully staged. Juliette Gariépy embodies the ambivalence of the character so brilliantly that she became another favourite for the acting prize. It would be desirable if "Les chambres rouges" were also shown in Germany.

With the German-Lebanese production "Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano", the reality of Lebanon breaks into the fictional world of cinema. Director Cyril Aris documents the shooting of the film "Costa Brava, Lebanon". The preparations have just been completed. In a few days, the shooting is to begin. Then, on 4 August 2020, there is a gigantic explosion in the port of Beirut with over two hundred dead, more than 7000 injured and the destruction of entire city districts. Director Mounia Akl and the whole team are in shock. Cameraman Joe Saade almost loses an eye. The catastrophe has caused the Lebanese pound to plummet in value. The budget has shrunk dramatically. The banks are blocking the production's deposits. Everyone is desperate and on the verge of giving up. But then they decide to continue despite all adverse circumstances.

The film also documents how the inhabitants of the city take to the streets and demand an explanation of the catastrophe and the replacement of the corrupt political elite. With a tremendous effort, Mounia Akl, the actors and the team manage to finish their feature film. The work becomes a collective manifestation of meaning and therapy. One is tempted to believe in the magical power of cinema that triumphs over all obstacles. It seems like a sentimental happy ending that "Costa Brava, Lebanon" is invited to the Venice Film Festival and celebrated there.

Karlovy Vary is a place where after the difficult Corona years the collective enthusiasm for cinema could be felt again  Apparently, streaming platforms cannot replace the sense of community and attention that can only be experienced in a cinema theatre. The festival raises the hope that this will continue to be possible in the future.