My first screening came on opening weekend, at the Kino International, a gorgeous theater built in the 1960s. I saw was the German premiere of Cobain: Montage of Heck, a documentary about late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Cobain’s life and struggles have been extensively documented elsewhere, but never in such intimate fashion. Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow, and Frances Bean Cobain, his daughter, gave director Brett Morgen completely unfettered access to massive amounts of Cobain’s personal materials that no one had seen before: notebooks filled with journal entries, doodles, drawings, cartoons, letters, paintings, spoken word, “sound montages,” private recordings. The result is as complete a picture of Kurt Cobain as we’ve seen, and it’s hard to see this as anything other than the definitive Kurt Cobain documentary. Montage of Heck lets Cobain’s own material tell his story, rather than extensive interviews with outside parties. It reminded me a lot of the fantastic Senna in that regard: very few talking head interviews, lots of archival footage, letting the subject speak for himself. We see words write themselves in his journals, doodles come to life, all backed by Cobain’s own recordings. Everything we see and hear was Kurt. (Bonus points for lullaby arrangements of “Lithium” and “All Apologies” during Cobain’s childhood videos, a string quartet arrangement of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” during one of Cobain’s recorded anecdotes, and a haunting chorale arrangement of the same during a montage of the song’s famous music video.) Seeing everything come together, watching this artistic genius rise and explode onto the scene and fall so dramatically is heartbreaking to watch; it’s all so clear looking back. When she saw the final cut of the film, Courtney Love said it was like she had had two more hours with Kurt, and I can’t help but feel the same way. It does such a fantastic job of not just focusing on Cobain’s work, his childhood, his disenfranchisement as a teenager, but putting it all together and letting him tell his own story. Montage of Heck was clearly put together with a lot of love, and the end result is beautiful and heartbreaking.
After the film, director Brett Morgan gave a short Q&A, where he thanked Courtney Love (who was there with former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe! They sat a few rows behind me and I was kind of totally star-struck for a second okay I’m done) for allowing such total access to such personal materials. He told us that he didn’t use a lot of interview footage of Cobain because in his view this was the least genuine source available. He was putting on his public face, Morgan said. He notoriously hated interviews My one gripe I had with the film was the total lack of Dave Grohl. There wasn’t a single interview with the Nirvana drummer. Someone asked Morgen about this, and he said that their schedules just didn’t line up. (Which, okay, I get, but you were working on this thing for eight years, dude. You’re telling me your schedules didn’t line up once during that entire span?) He also said something I found interesting: that he didn’t feel like he needed to interview both other members of Nirvana to get a full picture of Kurt Cobain. (Which, okay, I also get, Cobain wasn’t just the frontman of Nirvana, but come on. Nirvana was a huge part of his life and Dave Grohl is fucking Dave Grohl.) Apparently Morgen and Grohl did end up sitting down for an interview, and Morgen was working hard to edit in his interview into the final cut to be screened on HBO in May.
The second film I saw was at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, another beautiful theater built in the 1960s. The Look of Silence, which was one of my most anticipated films for 2015 because it’s the sequel of sorts to one of my favorite films of 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer’s excellent, gut-wrenching documentary The Act of Killing. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s on Netflix. Warning, though: it’s difficult to watch.) While The Act of Killing focused on the perpetrators of the terrible genocide in Indonesia in 1965, The Look of Silence turns its focus to the victims, specifically one family. Mercifully, The Look of Silence is easier to watch (though not by much), and brings the Indonesian genocide down to a more human, intimate scale. We see one family’s struggle with mourning their dead, having to deal with seeing his murderers daily in the village and the constant threat of living under their shadow. The meat of The Look of Silence, though, is protagonist Adi’s confrontations with the very people who murdered his brother 50 years ago. Under the pretense of an optical exam, he visits killer after killer and asks them about what Indonesia is like now and what has changed before dropping the bombshell that his brother was one of the victims. There are scenes so riveting and so disgusting that I was almost physically nauseous. After seeing The Act of Killing, I was shocked and disgusted, and I was sure that this was the end of the story. After seeing The Look of Silence, it’s impossible for me to view the two films as anything other than a pair, each requiring the other. The two of them together highlight such an important historical event and raise incredibly difficult questions about politics and human morality. What does it mean for a country to undergo such a tragedy and not have that healing process or open dialogue afterwards? What happens to generations afterwards if the political situation in that country doesn’t change? The Act of Killing introduced those questions, and The Look of Silence brings them down to a more personal, more human scale.
Following the film there was a Q&A with Joshua Oppenheimer (!) and executive producer Werner Herzog (!!!). They discussed the safety, or lack thereof, of Oppenheimer, his crew, and the subjects of the film; Oppenheimer can never safely return to Indonesia, he said. He also commented about the first time he came to Indonesia, at the start of the project some ten years ago. He said it was like stepping into Germany 40 years after WWII, except the Nazis were still in power. That gives you a sense of just how insane and incredibly dangerous this project was. He commented on what allows people to commit such terrible acts; in his view, there has to be a certain amount of selfishness and shallowness. Herzog himself also commented on what separates documentaries like this from pure journalism. There’s a certain amount of artfulness to the way in which things are presented in the two films, scenes that aren’t necessary to the story Oppenheimer is telling but that add to the atmosphere and get the audience thinking. Oppenheimer also repeatedly referred to the two documentaries as a diptych, while Herzog chimed in that they really form a triptych, with the third part being the literally thousands of hours of footage Oppenheimer and his crew shot that are going to be made readily available to historians, researchers, and the general public in some form.
The third and final film I saw at the Berlinale came on the closing night of the festival, at the Berlinale Palast. This was the theater where they also had the award ceremony the day before. The film was Love & Mercy, a biopic about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The movie has an interesting structure, at least for a biopic. It jumps back and forth between “past” Brian (played by Paul Dano) in the early 1960s, as he’s writing Pet Sounds and Smile and slowly declining into a mental breakdown; and “future” Brian (played by John Cusack) in the late 1980s, constantly on antipsychotic meds and under the constant watch of Dr. Eugene Landy. It’s a unique way to tell a true story, and it’s fitting for a man with a unique and multi-faceted as Brian Wilson. It just never comes together the way it should.
The “past” scenes are excellent, bolstered by a fantastic, pained performance from Paul Dano. He plays Brian beautifully as a genius emotionally strained by the people around him and tortured by the demons in his head. You can almost feel the songs waiting to burst out of him. The script is over-explain-y at times—there’s more than one instance where Dano literally says how revolutionary his new songs are and how they’re just flowing out of him—but the 60s atmosphere is airtight and watching Wilson descend into hard drug use and mental illness is affecting and fascinating. Which makes it all the more painful that the “future” scenes just aren’t as good. First of all, it’s not as interesting a story watching the old music icon enter a courtship with a Cadillac saleswoman. Elizabeth Banks is great in her role, and Paul Giamatti chews a heck of a lot of scenery as the fiery Dr. Landy. The problem, then, is John Cusack. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a great actor, and he’s proven that. He’s just not right for the role. It wasn’t like watching an older Brian Wilson dealing with past issues and trying to scape a domineering doctor; it was like watching John Cusack playing a character with mental issues and a past drug habit. And not having that center character forces the “future” scenes slightly off-kilter. I felt like I was watching a different story altogether than the “past” scenes, and not in a good way. Maybe that was the point. You know that moment in Memento when the black and white slowly fades into color, and everything we’d seen before snaps into focus? I was waiting for that moment in Love & Mercy, and it never came. By the end of the film, it still felt like two disparate stories that never quite converged.
Never in a million years did I think I’d be able to go to a film festival, let alone one of the most renowned in the world, and my experience at the Berlinale was one I won’t soon forget. I had the opportunity to see parts of the city I hadn’t before, rub elbows with some celebrities, hear filmmakers talk about their work intimately, and see some fantastic films too.