THIS YEAR’S BERLINALE Festival—the 67th—featured a wide-ranging selection of curiosities from decades past, from thwarted epics to camp relics to vast, inscrutable psychedelia. These are a few of the highlights, followed by a more complete list below.
ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)
While Andzrej Żuławski is best-known for Possession, his French-produced, Berlin-filmed blast of body-horror psychodrama starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, his unfinished sci-fi epic On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie) eclipses that film’s scope, transgressiveness, and intensity. The production, based on a novel by Żuławski’s grand-uncle, was initiated during a relative thaw in Polish state censorship. Set on two planets, it uses an incredible range of filming locations (including Crimea, the Gobi Desert, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland) as backdrops, coupled with heavy lens filters that give a silver-blue cast to many of the shots. The costumes, particularly those of the “bird people”, transcend their campiness with their commitment to the film’s overarching vision of futurist tribalism, and many of the set pieces evoke the primeval horror of The Wicker Man and Hammer films like Demons of the Mind and Fear in the Night.
This and top: On the Silver Globe
The 1977 rise of the conservative Janusz Wilhelmi as head of the ministry of cultural affairs saw the production abruptly halted, and the sets and costumes ordered destroyed. Żuławski returned to France and abandoned the project for the next decade while he made other films, including Possession. He returned to the project in the 80s, eventually completing it—in the sense that he assembled the existing reels and produced new footage (mostly consisting of landscape shots and his own voiceover) to fill in the gaps in the story.
Unlike On the Silver Globe, production on Fernando Birri’s experimental epic was never interrupted—it simply took 11 years to complete. This anti-film uses over 26,000 cuts (all of which had to be done by hand with scissors and tape), at times hundreds within a single “shot”. The result is a test of the limits of narrative: what makes sense on a scale of seconds evaporates after minutes or hours, while the broader hours-long arc (based loosely on a story by Thomas Mann, itself based on an Indian legend) is constantly thwarted by the unending fusillade of sensory data pouring from the screen.
While incredibly beautiful at times (especially during the first half of its 3+ hour run time, which focuses on its three undeniably attractive and dynamic leading actors), it nonetheless becomes one of arthouse cinema’s more grueling marathons—particularly during its minutes-long stretches of alternating noise and silence with no visual component whatsoever. It’s a film that begs to be freed from the confines of the cinema, and it would make far more sense (and be far richer delivering its gem-like moments of startling beauty) in an installation, gallery, or even outdoor setting. This is not a roundabout way of reducing the film to a curiosity: on the contrary, it should play to an audience that is as free from constraints and boundaries as the film itself.
KAMIKAZE 1989 (1982)
The visuals of Wolf Gremm’s West-German cyberpunk curiosity Kamikaze 1989 would be enough to make it worthwhile viewing for cult film fans. The unexpectedly strong performance of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (known for directing vastly superior films in the same vein, particularly World on a Wire), however, gives a surprising depth to the character of Lieutenant Jansen, who is tasked with solving a case of murder and corporate espionage.
Based on Per Wahlöö’s 1964 novel Murder on the Thirty-First Floor and set in a near-future where unhappiness and troubling dreams have been eradicated, it’s a shoestring-budget dystopian Dick Tracy filtered through the camp futurism of The Apple. The film uses the curious postwar architecture of West Germany to full effect, particularly the office building that serves as the central focus of the film’s action, and features a wide range of vehicular outliers that range from motorized tricycles to graffiti-covered cars to ambulances that transport patients for mandatory “happiness conditioning”. The vision of Kamikaze 1989 is bolstered by a strong soundtrack from Tangerine Dream, as well as by video screens that glow from elevators, cars, and the incredible police gym/roller disco where Lieutenant Jansen unwinds, alternately broadcasting police orders and the corporate-sponsored “laughing contest” that lasts the duration of the film.
Accompanying both the Berlinale’s showing and the DVD edition of the film are John Cassavetes’ unhinged radio ads for its original release, in which he (perhaps drunkenly) rants about Fassbinder’s “big fat belly” as well as the film’s most recognizable feature: the ubiquitous leopard pattern that bedecks everything Jansen owns, from his suits (above) to his revolver to his car’s upholstery.
ROPACI / THE OILGOBBLERS (1988)
This 20-minute faux documentary, made during the last years of communism, follows a crew of scientists in search of the Ropáci, a previously-unknown species that lives in the toxic oil fields of northern Bohemia. The creatures themselves are brought to rubbery life with a variety of models, including both adult and baby puppet versions, as well as full specimens that sit forlornly on cliffsides and drainage pipes.
Add in a score laden with synthesizers and soaring saxophones, and the result is a film that certainly has campiness to spare. Its commitment to not just describing, but illustrating, the creatures’ habitat and behavior makes it an ultimately engaging piece. There’s plenty of humor sprinkled throughout, and the darkly comedic final message—that rare as the Ropáci may be, they’re sure to thrive in the increasingly toxic future—resonates more with each passing year.
In addition to major sci-fi offerings like Alien and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this year’s Retrospective had numerous older and rarer prints, including a strong selection from the former Soviet bloc. Here’s a more complete list:
The War of the Worlds (USA, 1953)
Ikarie XB1 (Czechoslovakia, 1964)
GOG (USA, 1954, in 3D)
Eolomea (East Germany, 1972)
Seconds (USA, 1966)
World on a Wire (West Germany, 1973)
Test Pilota Pirxa (Poland/USSR)
On the Beach (USA, 1959)
Warning From Space (Japan, 1956)
1984 (UK/USA, 1956)
THX 1138 (USA, 1971)
A Trip to Mars (Denmark, 1918)
Algol, Tragedy of Power (Germany, 1920)
A Day After a Hundred Years (Japan, 1933)
O-bi, O-ba: The End of Civilization (Poland, 1985)
Letters From a Dead Man (USSR, 1986)
Warning From Space
The official Berlinale site
An in-depth look at On the Silver Globe at mubi.com
Andzrej Żuławski fan site
The official Kamikaze 1989 trailer
The shorter “commercial” release of ORG on YouTube
Ropáci on YouTube
Unless otherwise indicated, images are stills from the films noted and are intended for use under Fair Use criticism. No copyright is claimed or suggested.