The Berlin Wail

Very Serious Stuff At the 69th Berlinale

You might reach for the heavens or wallow in hell, but either way you’re fucked. Literally. That’s the big takeaway from the 69th Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin, otherwise known on the film festival circuit as the Berlinale. Two films over the weekend dealt with devastating sexual assault in very different ways: one with analytic dignity, the other with a gutter-grime gag reflex.

François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, an urgent and still-ongoing investigation of pedophilia in the Catholic church, won widespread acclaim for being bracingly current and impeccably restrained. Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove, a relentlessly grim look at a pathetic serial killer in 1970s Hamburg, won near-universal derision for being gratuitous, irrelevant, and impossibly rancid. Both, though, eerily resonated off each other as jaw-dropping condemnations of trust in humanity.

A Stranger’s Just a Friend You Haven’t Met

And those weren’t the only signs of stranger danger. How ironic that the Berlinale’s opening night film was Lone Sherfig’s melodramatic pablum The Kindness of Strangers, an insipid roundelay of hangdog souls and their improbably interlaced lives. Ostensibly set in New York, but shot mostly, and rather obviously, in Toronto and Copenhagen, The Canadian-Dutch co-production traffics in an ethos as superficial as the film’s location scouts. The message? Be kind. Um, okay.

 

In the film, Zoe Kazan plays a wide-eyed waif from Buffalo who takes her two boys and flees down to Manhattan in order to escape the clutches of a physically abusive cop husband. Tahar Rahim, fresh out of prison after taking the fall for someone else’s crime, tries to make a new life overseeing an ersatz upscale Russian eatery. Bill Nighy is the restaurant’s face, nattily dressed and spewing a fake accent. And well-meaning but oddly inept Caleb Landry Jones is effectively unemployable until he stumbles into a volunteer serving gig at a soup kitchen.

Andrea Riseborough weirdly pinballs among all of them, as a nurse who tends to one of Kazan’s kids, eats borscht under Nighy’s benevolent eye, moderates a forgiveness seminar that includes Rahim, and also helps organize the soup kitchen that gives Jones his redemptive chance. Don’t you see? Being mean is a bummer, people! Polished production values make The Kindness of Strangers appetizing. But the surfeit of ridiculous contrivances will make this well-meaning head-shaker hard to swallow for even the most generous viewer.

But for the Grace of God

Image from By The Grace Of God

That kick-off film seemed like even more of a half-hearted feint once By the Grace of God unspooled. The potent docudrama targets real-life Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret), current Archbishop of Lyon, and his role in covering up hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse stretching back over decades. His trial is due to get its verdict on March 7, which has prompted his lawyers to try and get Ozon’s movie blocked from its release in France next month. What’s more striking is that Barbarin is merely a powerful but essentially marginal figure in this film. Ozon much prefers to focus on a half-dozen men, their tortured admissions of molestation by local priest Bernard Preynet (Bernard Verley), and how they band together to fight back.

Writer-director Ozon is a protean filmmaker who started out his career vacillating between neo-Hitchcockian thrillers and deliciously broad camp comedies, infusing light and dark themes alike with a gay sensibility while also keeping them broadly entertaining. He’s an unlikely choice for a high-minded, sober look at sexual predators in the clergy. But in a way, so many of his gifts serve him well here.

By the Grace of God changes from epistolary thriller to family melodrama to police procedural, punctuated by disarming humor, shocking revelations, curt lies, and clear-eyed candor. If anything, the subject of pedophile priests conjures a cauldron of emotions, especially in a Catholic country like France. That dissonance, especially of a paradoxical yearning to stay in a religion that protects such evil, makes for a riveting experience. And while Ozon points out the contradictions, he never condescends to mock, insult or dismiss. It’s an impressive high-wire act. He pulls out cinematic pathos with great dexterity and extends an empathetic dignity to all even while maintaining a steady undercurrent of righteous indignation.

Hell’s Inner Circle

While Ozon’s cathartic exposé is elegant and eloquent, Akin’s descent into the inferno is anything but. Based on Heinz Strunk’s 2016 novel, The Golden Glove follows the exploits of serial killer Fritz Honka, who between 1970 and 1974 killed and dismembered at least four haggard hookers in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg. A greasy troll of a man, Honka (Jonas Dassler in heavy prosthetics) sports a lazy eye, a gnarled broken nose, and a rotten front tooth. His hunched-over gait and narrow frame belies a coiled intensity: he could explode with tremendous force. And so he does, bitch-slapping the dentures out of a zaftig whore and fatally face-slamming another wretched woman into his tabletop. In one scene, he takes four empty bottles of schnapps and smashes a woman’s head into a bloody pulp.

A typically heartwarming scene from The Golden Glove. Photo by Gordon Timpen/Warner Bros Ent/EPA.

Still reading? It gets worse. Ensconced in a two-room attic hovel, with a dank hallway toilet littered with shit and empty toilet paper rolls, Honka occasionally ventures out to the local pub, the film’s eponymous Golden Glove, for what passes as a social life. That seedy joint, bleakly fluorescent, dotted with overflowing ash trays and populated with rough barflies, is a prime hunting ground for Honka, ever searching for a woman to take care of him.

His power move: lure derelict, alcoholic prostitutes back to his lair with the promise of free booze. And then he rapes them as they lie in a drunken torpor. “What’s that awful smell?” people ask him repeatedly. He blames the stench on the pungent meals of the downstairs Greeks. But it’s really the rotting flesh he’s wrapped up and packed behind a poorly-sealed wall panel. Honka’s concession to the odor are a clutch of pine-tree air fresheners he hangs from his ceiling and gamely tosses on the growing pile of limbs.

The film is very nearly unwatchable, yet it’s a trenchant, visceral and frankly impressive evocation of hopelessness and despair. So much self-hatred, self-pity, and self-destructive behavior permeate nearly every character. These are society’s refuse, consigned to their own private hell and willfully resigned to their infernal fate. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

An unflinching director, Akin has made films of emotional intensity before, and even won Berlin’s top prize in 2004 for the gut-wrenching romance Head-On. But The Golden Glove is a new high in cinematic lows. Place it alongside the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salo, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as an expression of nihilism that holds almost talismanic weight. I hope never to watch The Golden Glove again, but I doubt I’ll ever truly shake it from my mind.

 

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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