The Berlinale is the most political of the big film festivals. This claim is repeated ad nauseam every year, not least by the festival itself. But is it justified? What does it even mean for a film, for a festival to be political? These were two of the questions put forward in the organizers’ opening speeches at last night’s launch of the Berlin Critics’ Week, an independent program of screenings and subsequent discussions that runs in parallel to the Berlinale.
Born as a staunchly cinephilic counterpart to the heavily commercialized main event, the Critics’ Week has made impressive strides in the two years since its inception. The quality of the program has improved each year, and the attendance numbers have risen accordingly. The launch of the inaugural edition had been a modest affair held in a medium-sized cinema, whereas last night’s event took place in a large auditorium that was packed to the brim, with many sitting on the floor and lining the walls to watch the panel discussion between filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, former head of the Istanbul Film Festival Azize Tan, Cahiers du cinéma critic Joachim Lepastier, philosopher Alexander García Düttmann, and Carlos Gerstenhauer, a producer and buyer for the broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk.
Beyond introducing this year’s program, the stated aim of the evening was to reframe the definition of political cinema. That was perhaps a tad too ambitious, but it did give rise to some lively debate, particularly between the ever-combative Tsangari, who’s expressed her aversion to the word “political” in pretty much every interview she’s ever given, and Düttmann, who enjoyed riling her without, however, always managing to maintain the upper hand. A specific definition of what constitutes political cinema was not put forward, despite repeated entreaties by the moderator (Tsangari: “This discussion is wrong—we should not be asking this question!”). More agreement was found on what political cinema is not: films with preconceived and inflexible convictions; films that elucidate rather than question; films that commercialize facile morality; films that eschew genuine criticism and affirm the viewer’s beliefs, providing consolation instead of instigating anger. Anger—the blind kind of outrage sparked by injustice that impels an artist to create—was singled out as the necessary stimulus for making a political film in the first place, whereas the intention of making a political film, of labeling a film as such, is automatically depoliticizing.
These criteria fueled several swipes taken at titles like Dheepan, I, Daniel Blake and Fire at Sea—all recent recipients of the top award at Cannes and Berlin—for being topical rather than political. Most speakers contended that these two attributes were in binary opposition to each other, something that Tsangari effectively refuted with two perfect counterexamples: Cemetery of Splendour and The Other Side, both films that are explicitly topical yet manage to transcend their respective topics. It’s transcendence, Tsangari argued, that defines cinema, political or otherwise.
It’s safe to assume that no one on stage last night would consider the opening film of this year’s Berlinale, Étienne Comar’s debut feature Django, to be a political film. Or a good one, for that matter. An account of the Romani jazz musician Django Reinhardt’s escape to Switzerland from Nazi-occupied France after he refuses to go on a concert tour of Germany, Django is the epitome of the insipid if well-intentioned historical drama. The image has that boring smoky, somber look that Oliver Hirschbiegel also uses in his WWII films and Comar’s direction is so flat, he proves incapable of injecting Reinhardt’s flight with the requisite urgency, or even of shooting the music scenes with any rigor, which could have been Django’s saving grace. The best we get is a cheesy, offensive climax in which a fancy SS party momentarily risks turning into an orgy when Reinhardt ignores the directive not to play any “nigger music,” instantly bewitching the unsmiling SS officers with his groovy tunes. It doesn’t help that Reinhardt, at least as played by the usually reliable Reda Kateb, is a character with zero charisma, or even much of a personality.
Although Django is a mediocre and thoroughly redundant film, it feels fitting that it should open the Berlinale following last night’s attack against the festival’s much-coveted reputation as a politically engaged event. At the opening ceremony tonight, the Berlinale’s director Dieter Kosslick will undoubtedly call Django an important and long-overdue tribute to the Romani who were persecuted during the Holocaust. Maybe he’ll even contextualize his decision to open this year’s festival with the film by proclaiming it a timely allegory for the refugee crisis and, why not, Trump’s America. While the tuxedoed and begowned glitterati sit through this two-hour bore, those attending the opening screening of the Critics’ Week, happening simultaneously a few kilometers away, will be treated to Eduardo Williams’ phenomenal (and, yes, consummately political) The Human Surge. I know in which cinema I’d rather be sitting.