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Berlinale 2013

Helen Whittle, BerlinFebruary 15, 2013

In the German capital, a showcase of documentary films at this year's Berlinale illustrates the medium's potential to reclaim the past and envision the future, says DW's Helen Whittle.

A scene from Walter Ruttmann's "Berlin: Symphony of a City"
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

There are very few cities in the world so inextricably tied to the history, seduction and cathartic power of filmmaking than Berlin.

Late 19th-century film pioneers Max and Emil Skladanowsky invented the Bioscop movie projector here in 1895. Some of the most iconic movie stars of all time, Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Asta Nielsen, once padded around the studios in Weissensee, Woltorsdorf and Babelsberg.

Here is where Walter Ruttmann directed "Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis" - based on Dziga Vertov's theory of "Kino-Pravda" ("film truth") that reality can best be represented through cinematic "artificialities." In semi-documentary style, the silent film with a musical score portrays the life of a city.

Ruttmann was not alone in creating masterpieces either. The likes of Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Georg Wilhelm Pabst made their mark in the Golden Age of German cinema during the 1920s as well. And great thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer grappled with the meaning of these new mechanical, magical, moving images.

And then history took a catastrophic turn - with a Nazi dictatorship that took German cinema into its grip as well.

A still from Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" Land: FRA 1985 Regie: Claude Lanzmann Bildbeschreibung: Auschwitz Sektion: Hommage Datei: 20137306_2.jpg © Les Films Aleph/Why Not Productions
Claude Lanzmann described his 1985 documentary film "Shoah" as a "fiction of the real"Image: Les Films Aleph/Why Not Productions

Commemorative culture

This year, as the world's best attended film festival draws to a close, Berlin once again finds itself steeped in images from both the Golden Age and the catastrophic turn that followed. The Berlinale Retrospective, this year entitled "The Weimar Touch," is devoted to the cinema of the Weimar Republic era.

The Berlinale Homage section pays tribute to the work of French director Claude Lanzmann, renowned for his nine-and-a-half-hour documentary film "Shoah" (1985). He spent over a decade making the film - interviewing Holocaust survivors, perpetrators, bystanders and eyewitnesses. A total of 350 hours of raw footage were edited down to form the final documentary classic on the genocide of European Jews.

Born to Jewish parents in Paris in 1925, Lanzmann's magnum opus was first screened at the Berlinale to an avalanche of critical acclaim. To this day "Shoah" - what the director has described as a "fiction of the real" - remains an unparalleled masterpiece of documentary film and commemorative culture.

The truth in fiction

Lanzmann is the first documentary filmmaker to be awarded an Honorary Golden Bear since the Berlinale was founded in West Berlin in 1951, but the festival has a long tradition of being a showcase for politically and socially engaged documentary film. As part of a special strand of the Panorama section, Panorama Dokumente constitutes a platform for 16 documentary films from all corners of the world.

Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" takes audiences to Indonesia, where following the military coup of 1965, pro-regime paramilitaries of the Pancasila Youth and sadistic criminals killed up to one million alleged Communists. Since killers rose to power and some remain there, the genocide of 1965-66 has been all but erased from history.

After learning about the genocide while filming "The Globalization Tapes" (2003) in the country, Oppenheimer said he felt entrusted with the historical, moral and political importance of making the film and set about interviewing as many killers as he could.

A scene from "The Act of Killing" Panorama 2013 DNK/NOR/GBR 2012 REGIE: Joshua Oppenheimer © Anonym ***Die Nutzungsrechte der aktuellen Filmfotos gelten ausschließlich für die Festivalberichterstattung*** ***Für eine Verwendung nach dem 15. März des jeweiligen Festivaljahrgangs müssen die Rechte vom jeweiligen Rechteinhaber eingeholt werden*** ***Bei der Verwendung von Fotos in Sozialen Netzwerken ist darauf zu achten, ob das entsprechende Material vom Rechteinhaber für diesen Verwendungszweck freigegeben wurde***
Staged scenes in "The Act of Killing" represent a greater emotional, poetic and political truthImage: Anonym

Oppenheimer didn't know the form his movie would take when he began his research in 2004, but the result is a multi-layered documentary film about killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built.

In order to explore how these men, these killers, see themselves and how they want to be seen, Oppenheimer asked them to reenact the murders for the film. "I wanted to create an observational documentary of the imagination," Oppenheimer said in conversation at the Berlinale Talent Campus.

At the beginning of "The Act of Killing," we meet Anwar Congo, one of the leaders of Indonesia's Pancasila Youth paramilitary movement. Right there, on a rooftop where he murdered 1,000 people, Anwar Congo breaks into the cha-cha. Later, in that same place, Congo is seen doubled over, retching uncontrollably as the memories of what happened there take hold like nightmares. 

And so "The Act of Killing" became a film about the making of a film, whereby the fictional scenes staged by the killers begin to represent a greater emotional, poetic and political truth than the documentary itself.

A scene from "Fifi Howls from Happiness" Panorama 2013 USA 2013 REGIE: Mitra Farahani ***Die Nutzungsrechte der aktuellen Filmfotos gelten ausschließlich für die Festivalberichterstattung*** ***Für eine Verwendung nach dem 15. März des jeweiligen Festivaljahrgangs müssen die Rechte vom jeweiligen Rechteinhaber eingeholt werden*** ***Bei der Verwendung von Fotos in Sozialen Netzwerken ist darauf zu achten, ob das entsprechende Material vom Rechteinhaber für diesen Verwendungszweck freigegeben wurde*** ***Die Weitergabe der Fotos an Dritte ist nicht gestattet. Eine Missachtung dieser Vorgabe kann die Sperrung des Zugangs und einen Entzug der Akkreditierung zur Folge haben***
With "Fifi Howls From Happiness," Mitra Farahani saved Bahmann Mohasess the historical abyssImage: Berlinale 2013

Redemption song

The diversity of the documentary films screened at the Berlinale affirms the medium's ability not just to access the past, but also to produce something new, to interact with the world in creative ways.

One such film is "Fifi Howls From Happiness" by Iranian filmmaker Mitra Farahani, documenting the last two months in the life of legendary Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess. Born in Rasht on the Caspian Sea Coast in 1931, Mohassess enjoyed a successful career in the 1960s and 70s, gaining commissions for important works of public art from the Shah and the Empress Farah Diba.

But after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the majority of Mohassess's artworks were removed from public display or destroyed. The artist traveled discreetly between Iran and Italy until the death of his brother in 2006, when, unable to tolerate the state of culture and social environment, Mohassess left the country for good. Before he left, Mohassess destroyed most of the works that remained in his studio.

Now virtually unheard of in Iran, Mohassess teetered on the brink of the historical abyss until Mitra Farahani traced him to his self-imposed exile in Rome. 

"Bahman Mohassess was of such huge importance for modern art, but it was like only the tips of his fingers were protruding from the wave of history … and I had to pull him out," Farahani said in an interview.

The ever brilliant and witty Bahman Mohassess died unexpectedly during the making of the "Fifi Howls From Happiness," but not before Farahani could save the man she describes as a mysterious, contemporary Diogenes from the jaws of history through the medium of film.

The power of film

Indeed, from the "Shoah" to the "The Act of Killing" and "Fifi Howls From Happiness," the documentary films screened at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival are a testament to the power of film to reclaim what would normally be lost from history. 

The Berlinale cinema screens scattered across the city are not just windows on the world, but historical counter-archives against forgetting, as well as mirrors for imagining a different future.