by Harlan Kennedy


Dateline Berlin. February 2009. I fly in low over a city whose waterways are mirrored with ice, its rooftops wedding-dressed with snow, its parks and gardens laced with frost and mist. The plane touches down with a skid, inhales with a roar and screech, then slows to a speed comprehensible to humanity. Purring with cushioned thumps it taxis towards the terminal. Another flight survived. Another cold, enchanted arrival in Berlin. 

We have all heard of being given the keys to a city. It happened to those brave air-folk who put their passenger plane down on the Hudson River.  The world relived their heroism each time it picked up a newspaper, gasping at the ungraspable. Indeed our gasp exceeded our reach. For while barely able to comprehend or credit the unfolding, we marvelled at was, indisputably, an actual event. Captain Chesley Sullenberger was duly given the keys to New York. So, rightly, were his brave cockpit chums on Flight 1549.     

But what if, on arriving in a major city in Europe during its annual and world-important film festival, you are presented not with the keys but with the locks – or a precious selection of locks – to that burg and that cultural beanfeast that we call Berlin?

Thus felt I on encountering one magical movie and two magical piano recitals. Each held a clue to the soul and identity of Berlin, also of the world. Each event was a mystery wrapped in a melisma. And I felt more privileged being brought to the sites and portals of a puzzle than if I had been given unpicking tools – those keys – without knowing where exactly to insert them.

For that is the snag, isn’t it, with getting the keys to a city? What do they unlock? Into what hole or holes does one put them? But with a lock you know exactly where you are. You are at the opening of the heart and core and essence. All that is to be puzzled over is how to enter it.

So let us start with Manoel De Oliveira’s ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE GIRL. We all know this Portuguese auteur was 100 last December, making him the world and history’s oldest working filmmaker. He has gone so far beyond predictability that with the approach of each new movie we ‘expect’ the unimaginable, the weird, the mad, the futuristic-antiquarian, the visionary.

The new film sets new – or old – parameters from the start. A man in a railway carriage starts telling the story of his recent life, a story of romance, of tragedy, to a gracious and responsive lady passenger at his side….  

The man (Ricardo Trepa) recounts how his office window, above the bookshop owned by his uncle for whom he then worked as an accountant, looked across to a window in which there stood each day, in an aureole of darkish-blonde hair and with lips as ripe with romantic promise as the filled sails of a ship, a beautiful teenage girl. He fell in love; his uncle threatened to cut him off without an escudo; he tried to make his fortune with a trip for another businessman to Cape Verde. He succeeded, was tricked, lost everything, regained it, but finally met the cruellest reversal of all.

De Oliveira tells the story with barely a single expressionistic inflection, yet allows emotion to surge through it like water filling a delta at high tide. (If the film had been in competition, rather than showing in the VIP sideshow ‘Berlinale Special’, it would surely have had a shot at the Golden Bear). The hero is tormented; his rail-carriage listener is concerned and enthralled; the beautiful girl is a siren born to lure men onto rocks. (The main ‘rock’ here is a diamond ring integral to the plot’s denouement). The film presents these episodes as neutrally and formalistically if they were the pages of the book – which makes the film, paradoxically, as tingling as if it were the lock to a safe. We cannot open it, but we feel we know what is inside: important questions with invisible answers. Questions such as. Why do men hazard everything for love? Why do other men – and women – deny them the fulfilment they pursue? Might it be, attributing the finest motives for that frustration, because the consummation of a dream or desire will simultaneously be the death of it?

We can only pursue what must be pursued, the film asks us to conclude, with conviction even if simultaneously with despair. The famous Portuguese actor and screen veteran Miguel de Cintra appears as himself, in the film, at a high-toned soiree where he recites a poem. “To exist clearly,” says the poet, is the sum of our aims. The soul must always sing, even if no one applauds and no orchestra arrives to accompany it. To make the point clearer, De Oliveira hires another Portuguese artistic luminary, the pianist Maria Joao Pires – possibly the greatest pianist in the world and legendary as a piano teacher – to show that the silent eloquence of music, and of this particular instrument, is the austere affidavit of integrity of feeling.

So it is with Alban Berg and Johann Sebastian Bach. If ECCENTRITIES OF A BLONDE GIRL makes the case for individual feeling, and the costly pricelessness of keeping faith with that feeling in a world blown about by correctness, pragmatism and consensus, two composers do that and more in two great works. A piano’s ivory hammers are called “keys” because they unlock things: sounds, feelings, ideas, individualities of vision.

There couldn’t be two more contrasting players than Martin Stadtfeldt and Mitsuko Uchida. The Japanese performer played Berg’s only piano sonata – his first opus number and first atonal brainstorm – with proper courage and awe, as if on one of those boats that go up to the foot of Niagara Falls and are then swirled away, their engines cut, by hurricane wind and spray.

Since she wore the music’s heart on her sleeve, it was apt, if unplanned, that the pertaining sleeve – the left one – kept unscrolling as she played, necessitating frequent lightning-fast adjustments. Berg builds the same pattern of spray-notes into countless figurations and crescendi, into falls and shimmers and explosions. The lock that Berg’s key(s) open is the lock to terror, wonder and discordant beauty. (And yes,all eyes were on the sleeve!)

A few days later in the same hall, the Kammersaal of the Berlin Philharmonie, it was Martin Stadfeldt playing Book One of Bach’s WELL-TEMPERED KLAVIER. Keys to the city? Well re-summoned phrase. Each book in this two-volume masterwork gives us the keys to the city of music: all the keys, extended into major and minor forms and then re-doubled to tally 24 Preludes and Fugues.

And what does Bach unlock with these keys? The mystery of sound, the secrets of harmony, the soul and sensibility of auditory beauty.

Bach himself had an encounter, a literal one, with locks and keys a few years before composing Book One. He was put in jail for a month by his patron, to prevent him moving, for innocent career reasons, to another city. In 1719, between the slammer and the start of writing KLAVIER ONE, he made one of his only two visits to Berlin, heart and setting of this report. His object? To purchase a harpsichord. So Berlin, more than possibly, gave him the particular klavier (keyboard) on which he composed history’s greatest  workout for the generic klavier.

Soon the harpsichord evolved into the familiar piano, as played by the practitioner of our Berlin performance, Martin Stadfeldt. A tall darkhaired 28-year-old wearing a large-buttoned frockcoat, Stadfeldt looked as if he had emerged from Bach’s time himself. (Either that or from modelling as a dashing descendant of Nosferatu). As the infinite material keys – the ivories – clamoured away at the finite abstract keys – A to G and their variants – it was impossible not to hear the sound of a thousand or a million locks being opened, loudly and softly, violently and placatingly, sweetly and ineffably. The spirit of grace, energy, beauty, reach and imagination. Isn’t this the spirit that opened the doors, or broke the seals, to the freedom that men dreamed of – and more than dreamed of, begat and actuated – after the Enlightenment?

Isn’t it, also, the spirit that opened or broke the locks, 20 years ago to this twelvemonth, to a prison half of Germany lived in and all of Europe lived with?

For, yes, 2009 is the year in which we celebrate the two-decade anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That great tremor of liberty proved that no locks can keep out the human spirit and no keys can fail, finally, to pierce the doors that try to exclude or to incarcerate the love of freedom.



There are folk in Berlin who are only here for the Bears.  Being at a film festival they want to know, for some reason, about the films.  Which will win Gold, which Silver, which Bronze?

So a critic must put pedal to metal.  Here in précis are the prize-winners.

The Golden Bear for Best Film went to Claudia Llosa’s THE MILK OF SORROW (LA TETA ASUSTADA), the story of a woman with a potato in her vagina.  Magic realism goes thataway in this Peruvian movie, its first-time writer-director favouring an in-your-face sur-realism at once deadpan and tragicomical.  The heroine’s fight against sexual intrusion is inspired by folk beliefs that women hand down sadness in their breast milk and that the next generation’s best defense against ravishment is to weaponise – even potato-ise – their pudenda.  Weird, whimsical, promising.

The Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize was shared between Germany’s EVERYONE ELSE (ALLE ANDEREN) and Spain’s GIANT (GIGANTE), two love stories with a twist.  In the first a couple bicker towards breakup, during a Sardinian holiday, as the impish heroine (brilliantly played by Birgit Minichmayr) realizes that her boyfriend, a careerist architect, is not the macho-man she hoped but a slave to self-advancement.  In the Spanish film, slight but sweet, a hypersized security guard in a hypermarket finds love and fulfillment – kiss kiss amid the bang bang.

Minichmayr won Best Actress for EVERYONE ELSE.  Best Actor went to the Burkina Faso-raised Sotigui Kouyate, quietly powerful as the parent of a victim of the 1975 London Tube bombings in the Anglo- French  LONDON RIVER.

The Silver Bear for Best Director went to Iran’s Asghar Farhadi.  ABOUT ELLY interrogates Iranian society through the tale of a woman’s death by drowning.  Her demise, on a sea-bathing break with friends, uncovers a life of secrets and lies that bears witness against a repressive regime.  Deservedly a critics’ favourite, and for a while the bookmaker’s too.

But the sky is streaked with red and gold and snow.  The banners are being re-furled, the last trumpets sound.  My plane is departing, after I have briefly streaked (He’s at it again!) into the Ventura paintings exhibition:  very fine, very Spanish and no potatoes.

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin.  It is February 14th, I blow the German people a Valentine.  I shall return.  Tomorrow is another year.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved