Berlinale 2019: The Classics section finds a place for James Cameron as well as Carl Dreyer

Baradwaj Rangan

Jan 24, 2019 10:43:20 IST

Many of us consider Terminator 2: Judgement Day a classic, but it’s heartening to know the Berlin Film Festival thinks so, too. The digitally restored 2K DCP version (in 3D) of the James Cameron blockbuster was world-premiered at the 2017 edition of the festival, whose film-history programme is called Retrospective. It’s curated by the formidable-sounding Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen (German Cinematheque – Museum for Film and Television), but the organisation, clearly, is not snobbish about what films are a part of “film history”. Since 2013, the Retrospective has been complemented by the Classics section, which concentrates on premieres of new restorations. Another “classic” that was premiered the same year in a restored print? George A Romero’s groundbreaking zombie thriller, Night of the Living Dead.

This year, the Classics section is relatively sober, though not exactly all chin-stroking art-house fodder, either. There is the director’s cut of Dominik Graf’s 1994 action-thriller, Die Sieger (The Invincibles, German), which is about the head of an SEK team (the German equivalent of SWAT) who gets embroiled in crime and corruption. It was a troubled production. Graf did not get the funding he wanted for his “dream of making a glamorous genre cinema featuring stars, while nevertheless remaining unyielding and resisting any political correctness.”  The film, which has been compared to Michael Mann’s work, was a disappointment at the box office (Graf felt it was too dark), but it has its defenders. Daniel Kasman, writing in MUBI, called Die Sieger “ a panoramic revelation that slits the underbelly of German political corruption.”

The cut that will screen at the Berlinale is nine minutes longer than the one that opened 25 years ago. But what fascinates me, every time, is the process of breathing new life into these old films. From the Berlinale web site: “The restoration crew from Bavaria Film took three scenes that had not survived on 35mm from a videotape of the longer rough cut and incorporated them into the initial theatrical release version. The challenge was to process the additional scenes to match the high-quality 4K digital material. The audio restoration required particular attention from the director and restorers, since the additional scenes had never been mixed.” I wonder if there will come a time when this sort of restoration becomes a regular feature in Indian cinema. Balu Mahendra lamented that no print of Moondram Pirai (1982) exists. Imagine if someone could take one of the many copies of the film floating around on YouTube and restore the film to its pristine state.

I haven’t seen some of the other films in the Berlinale Classics section this year: Im Kwon-taek’s Jagko (Pursuit of Death, 1980) from South Korea, Márta Mészáros’s Örökbefogadás (Adoption, 1975) from Hungary, and Edith Carlmar’s Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl, 1959) from Norway. But I’ve seen George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939), a very entertaining Western with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, though Graham Greene (yes, the novelist; he wrote reviews, too, in The Spectator) was not impressed. He called it “a rather tired Western with a rather tired Dietrich. They have tried to turn Time back and put her exactly where they found her, before the slinky dresses and the long cigarette holders, in the tough husky world of The Blue Angel. But time tells ungallantly in the muscles of the neck: there is no falling in love again, even if we wanted to.” Ouch!

Then, there is the world premiere of the digitally restored version (in 4K DCP) of Danish legend Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word, 1955), which won the Golden Lion at the 16th Venice Film Festival. This is surely one of the most overtly religious movies of all time. Every character is linked to faith. Mikkel, the eldest son of the Borgen family, is a non-believer. As though to compensate, Johannes, the middle son, thinks he is Jesus Christ. He roams about issuing proclamations like this: “Woe unto you who do not believe in me, the risen Christ.” The film revolves around a miracle, and almost every character chimes in about this phenomenon. The doctor who tends to Mikkel’s wife Inger, for instance, says, “l believe in those miracles which my science has taught me.”

Johannes, of course, is a wholehearted believer. (He is Christ, remember?) He tells the pastor of the local church, “People believe in the dead Christ, but not in the living. They believe in my miracles from 2000 years ago, but they don’t believe in me now.” The pastor’s take is more surprising. He says, “Naturally miracles are possible, since God is the creator of everything and everything is therefore possible to Him, but… 0n the other hand, even though God can perform miracles, he does not do so.Because miracles would break the laws of nature, and naturally God does not break His own laws.” And what about the miracle of Christ? The pastor concedes, “Those were under special circumstances.” My favourite explanation comes from Inger, who says, simply, “l believe a lot of little miracles happen secretly. God hears people’s prayers, but he does it kind of secretly, so as not to have too much fuss made about it.”

I admit I prefer Ingmar Bergman’s explorations of faith — especially Winter Light, a devastating drama about a doubting pastor — but I remain intensely moved by Ordet and what its ending suggests. I won’t spoil it for you, but let me add that technically, too, the film is fascinating. See the 360-degree pan in the clip above: the illusion is that the characters are stationary but the room is spinning around. François Truffaut said, “The sequential shots are highly mobile and seem to have been inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Rope.” The connection is unsurprising, given that Truffaut was a great admirer of Hitchcock and dissected the Master’s films through a book-length series of interviews. But it also loops back to how this column started, blurring the line between the art-house and the mainstream. In the end, it’s all cinema.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 10:43:42 IST