Seeing, Not Seeing, Recognising

Films in the Berlinale Forum 2024. Report by Karsten Visarius

A rich, full life has been transformed into a huge collection: of books that almost fill an entire house, photos, film reels, audio cassettes, paintings and art objects. And of texts and notes written by the Sicilian journalist and author Giuseppe Quatriglio. His daughter Costanza Quatriglio has portrayed him in her film "Il cassetto secreto", with flashbacks to over fifty years of contemporary history, with conversations that she can still have with him at the beginning, in an imaginary dialogue after his death. The treasure of knowledge and memories left behind is transferred to an archive, numbered, labelled, catalogued, packed and transported away. Film and memory resist this transformation and yet can only record, but not stop it. The mummification of time, in which André Bazin recognised the essence of film, is reflected in "Il cassetto secreto" in the process which unfolds in front of the camera.

With a different, no less painful ambivalence operates Romuald Karmakar's "The Invisible Zoo", a documentary about the Zurich Zoo, which follows the concept of showing animals not in cages but in habitats designed to be as natural as possible - and thus making the zoo as invisible as possible for visitors and more species-appropriate for the animals.

Karmakar gives one animal its own story, roughly in the middle of the film. One moment we see a zebra in all its beauty, the next it is killed by a shot off-screen. The film devotes long minutes to the processing of the carcass, its bleeding to death, its evisceration and finally its feeding to the lions. An information sheet calls the process the "cycle of life". And from the staff's conversations, we learn that the zebra, a stallion, suffered from living alone for months without a harem of his own because the search for female conspecifics had been unsuccessful. The whole dilemma of zoo management can be seen in this episode.

Without commentary, Karmakar leaves all conclusions to the viewer's reflection. Not only about the contradictions between animal welfare and institutional zoo logic. But above all about the parallels between going to the zoo and going to the cinema. About the desire to see. Both cinema and zoo spring from this drive. As if he wanted to formulate a cinema axiom, Karmakar prefaced his film with a quote from the Greek philosopher Empedocles. It says that we see water only through water. Earth only through earth, fire only through fire. And the film adds: seeing, and thus recognising, is not possible without guilt, without the control of the gaze.

The Forum, under its new director Barbara Wurm, also screened a number of outstanding feature films: "The Human Hibernation" (International Film Critics' Award) by Anna Cornudella Castro is set in a world in which humans spend the cold season in hibernation. Instead of upgrading their technology, they have learnt from animals. The camera, too, brings people and animals closer together, allowing both long close-ups. A slightly somnambulistic mood colours the film, which is characterised by a desire for less. "Marijas klusums" (Mary's Silence; Prize of the Ecumenical Jury) by Dāvis Sīmanis, shot in black and white, commemorates the Riga-born actress Maria Leiko, who made a career in German silent film, first returned to Latvia after 1933, then travelled to the Soviet Union, started to play theatre again in Moscow and was murdered during the Stalinist purges of 1937/38. The film is probably best understood as a parable about political naivety that is blind to the violent repression prevailing all around.

The Romanian film "Săptămâna Mare" (The Holy Week) by Andrei Cohn is particularly memorable. It tells the story of a Jewish family in a village at the beginning of the 20th century, who are exposed to a toxic and poisonous mixture of racism, religious hostility, sexual projections, envy and corruption on a daily basis. Already the beginning is shocking with the punch of a man who has gone out of control into the belly of a pregnant woman, who runs the village inn together with her husband Leiba. An initially personal conflict develops into a threatening front between the isolated Jewish family and the village's Christian society over the course of the Easter "holy week". Andrei Cohn thus expands the narrow spectrum of films that deal with anti-Semitism before the Holocaust.

On the other hand, Alexander Horwath's "Henry Fonda for President" is a pure, magnificent pleasure, lasting three hours, which places Fonda's biography and family history in the broad framework of the history of the United States, from the beginning of the seventeenth century, when his ancestors immigrated from the Netherlands to New England, to the nomination of Ronald Reagan, whom he hated, as the Republican presidential candidate in 1980. Horwath portrays a liberal America, impersonated unforgettably by Fonda's honest juror in Sydney Lumet's courtroom drama "12 Angry Men", a country which seems to have vanished today. And he succeeds in what film history at its best can achieve: making the narratives and characters of Fonda's films transparent to the world that produced them.

This is an expanded version of an article which was first published in German in epd Film 4/2024. © epd Film/Karsten Visarius