A lot of the time, festival film-going can be a drag. The lines, the sleep-deprivation, the overlapping screenings and often-pointless Q&A sessions defined by thoughtless questions such as "What inspired you to make this film?"
But one of the meatier pleasures of any major film festival is the retrospective programming, offering a chance to explore older material typically presented in pristine conditions befitting the most discerning cinephiles. The 66th Berlin International Film Festival, for example, included an homage slate dedicated to German cinematographer and frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus, surveys of classic movies from old East and West Germanys, and a screening of Fritz Lang's 1921 silent film Destiny, with a live score provided by a symphony orchestra.
This year's most remarkable retrospective offering was a restored 35-mm print of James Whale's 1937 drama The Road Back. A sort of sequel to the Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (both are based on books by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque), The Road Back follows German soldiers after the First World War, struggling to reintegrate into their communities as they dealt with the fallout of their experiences. Add to this the depiction of political radicalism and authoritarian figures as war profiteers, and it's no shocker that the movie was drastically re-edited to play in Hitler's Germany – a move that effectively soured the career of Whale, one of the most inventive filmmakers of his era.
The Road Back is a film about defeat and disenchantment, but it's not cynical. If anything, it shows the duplicitous German authorities as the true cynics, exploiting nationalist sentiments and postwar confusion to serve their own capricious goals. In one scene, restless citizens gather in a town square late at night for an impromptu meeting. Instead of a call for action, authorities offered nothing more than mushy promises and empty patter. Summing up the film's sense of postwar vexation, a soldier wonders, "You mean we came all this way to hear that?"
This sense of mistrust lives on in one of the festival's Competition entries. Vincent Perez's truly awful Alone in Berlin stars Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson as Second World War-era Berliners who begin pamphleteering against Hitler's Reich after their son is killed on the front. While Alone in Berlin is moronic, sappy and poorly made, it dovetails nicely with a central theme from Whale's film from nearly 80 years earlier, and of this year's Berlinale itself. Sometimes the promises of security, prosperity and a better life are just pacifying lies. Sometimes our homes feel not at all like home. Sometimes the road back leads nowhere at all.
Those feelings of displacement and despair crop up repeatedly at the Berlinale, as if in response to our current geopolitical moment – one defined by news stories about forced migrations and refugee crises. Rafi Pitts's Competition title Soy Nero is about a young Mexican who sneaks across the border to the United States only to – in a cruel cosmic joke – be drafted into the military and air-dropped into the Middle East in order to qualify for a green card.
Forum title Les Sauteurs (Those Who Jump) unfolds on the border separating Morocco from the autonomous Spanish city of Melilla. The film follows co-director Abou Bakar Sidibé, an aspiring émigré from Mali, as he and other hopefuls plan their assaults on the looming border fences. Cutting between vivid, slice-of-life images of life on the borders and alienating, impersonal surveillance footage, it's as radical in form as it is in content. (Gianfranco Rosi's Competition doc Fire At Sea also traces migration routes from Africa to Europe, albeit by water instead of land, and is poised to be a major documentary this year.)
The most memorable migrant narrative to emerge at the Berlinale, though, is Philip Scheffner's and Colorado Velcu's And-Ek Ghes… (One Fine Day…). Premiering in the Forum, the messy, affecting, and in places inspired film follows Velcu's extended family as they move from Romania to settle in Western Europe. While it initially plays like a home-movie diary, more profound concerns begin to emerge. Colorado, the family's de facto patriarch, becomes obsessed with creating a narrative of his experience, first through diaries, then a song, and finally through the film itself.
As And-Ek Ghes… progresses, the filmmakers reveal that much of the material has been staged in one way or another. It's as if these new arrivals are performing not just for the camera, but for a culture they're trying to fit into. It's a smart, funny commentary on immigration and integration, and one that uses its mishmash of home movies, re-enactments and pop-music fantasia to suggest that no one migrant narrative defines the experience of global displacement and statelessness.
And there's no one road – whether it's heading back home or toward a new one.