Adoption by Márta Mészáros

Márta Mészaros Berlinale

“Never adopt a child. Abandoned children are all wounded.” The quote sounds like it could be lifted from Systemsprenger, but is actually from Adoption (Örökbefogadás 1975). The line is spoken by Anna, a girl from a boarding school, to Kata who is considering adoption. Mészáros’ film was the first Hungarian film competing in Berlin and won The Golden bear in 1975, as well as a bunch of other awards, which made her the first woman ever to walk away with the main prize of the Berlinale. In 2019, a restored version of the film was screened in Berlinale classics, with Mészáros in attendance.

Kata (Katalin Berek) is a 43-year-old factory worker who lives alone. The film starts out, almost like a British sink realism film. We see Kata wake up, take a shower and make breakfast. Then we follow her when she goes to work where we also see her perform her monotonous tasks.

She has a lover, Jóska (Godard regular László Szabó). She wants a child with him, but he rejects the idea. When she later meets Anna, the idea of adoption comes to her. Anna moves in with Kata to be able to meet her boyfriend Sanyi, and an unexpected friendship begins.

Márta Mészáros befote the screening of Adoption
Márta Mészaros before the screening of Adoption. Berlinale Classics 2019.

The director co-wrote the script with frequent Jancsó collaborators, Gyula Hernádi and Ferenc Grunwalsky. It paints a bleak portrait of Hungary in the mid-seventies, notably for women. This fact is demonstrated in scenes that are uncomfortable to watch, but still quite understated. Mészáros, thankfully, never becomes overly didactic even though the film can clearly be labelled as a feminist work. The thing that stands out the most is maybe the frank and unsentimental depiction of a woman’s situation in the seventies in Hungary. The style is unfussy but focused and give the actors plenty of space to shine.

Márta Mészáros may not be one of Hungarian cinema’s most inventive stylists, but there still are moments of cinematic ingenuity. For instance in the meeting between Kata and Jóska, discussing the child. The scene starts with them sitting at a table outdoors with the camera slowly circling around them, mirroring the calm discussion they are having. Then the scene continues inside (since Kata says she’s cold) this time the discussion gets slightly more heated, which is depicted with cross-cutting.

The restoration was performed under the supervision of the cinematographer, Lajos Koltai. He would later work for directors like Péter Gothar (Megáll az idö 1982), Pál Gábor (Angi Vera 1979) but maybe he is best known for his work with István Szábo, in particular, the Klaus Maria Brandauer trilogy: Mephisto, Oberst Redl and Hanussen. The film holds up well after 44 years. Even though Mészáros may not rank among the top tier of Hungarian filmmakers, the film is worth seeing for its honesty alone.

Mr Jones by Agnieszka Holland

In 2017 Agnieszka Holland presented Pokot (Spoor) in the Berlinale competition. Based on Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s book “Drive your plough over the bones of the dead!”, it was a mess. However, it was, in part, messy in interesting ways. Even though I didn’t feel that the film worked on any level, I left the screening, pondering over some of the elements in the film. There was nothing there, that prepared me for the 2019 competition entry, Mr Jones, that covers the important, and criminally neglected, topic of the man-made famine in Ukraine, that starved millions of people to death called Holodomor.

Whereas Pokot certainly had its weird moments that made me shake my head in disbelief, Mr Jones is a completely different animal, and as we know, some animals are more equal than others. 1The version screened at Berlinale clocked in at 141 minutes, whereas the version later released in the US was trimmed to 119 minutes.

James Norton and Vanessa Kirby in Mr Jones by Agnieszka Holland.
James Norton and Vanessa Kirby in Mr Jones.

One of many strange choices in the film is to include George Orwell as a framing device. The first character we meet is, in fact, Orwell (Joseph Mawle) talking about how to find the truth in a mess of lies. Granted, it might be the case that Animal farm arose out of the writer’s disappointment with Stalin’s policies and that Gareth Jones was an influence on Orwell. It’s also a fact that “Mr Jones” are the first words in Animal Farm, but the relationship is still a strained one.

First time writer, Andrea Chalupa , clearly felt strongly about the subject but didn’t manage to form a cohesive screenplay. She actually wrote a book called Orwell and the Refugees: The untold story about Animal Farm. Her Grandfather was tortured during the Holodomor but survived and lived to tell his tale, so the story has obvious personal connotations for the writer. A book I haven’t read. However heartfelt the topic might be, killing a few darlings might have helped the script.

Holodomor for dummies

The first part, set in Moscow wallows in clichés with ex-pat reporters, including NYT writer Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard on autopilot), living a life of debauchery. Duranty is now infamous for denouncing the famine in Ukraine and being one of Stalin’s defenders. With his status as a Pulitzer prize winner, his influence was massive. However, it’s in the section set in Ukraine where the film really sinks into tastelessness that is quite atypical for the director. The depiction of the starvation has its moment of apt horror, but mostly it is overwrought and distancing at the same time. A children’s choir is particularly distasteful.

Obywatel Jones 1 fot. Robert Palka
James Norton in the Ukraine section of Mr Jones.

In the final section of the film, Gareth Jones is eager to tell about the horrors that he had seen. Duranty who mostly wants to secure his posh position in Moscow becomes his arch-enemy. Again this is a section rife with clichés that wouldn’t be out of place in a Spielberg film. And then Orwell appears once again. Holland also tried to keep things topical at the press conference at the Berlinale when she said that “Stalin made Russia great again”. One of the all-too-many attempts to link current politics to previous horrors.

Anything that sheds a light on this dark time in history is welcome. However, I don’t feel that this is the film that would accomplish that. I won’t even include a trailer in this review. Instead here is a clip where Anne Applebaum recounts the real tale. It’s also told in her book Red Famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine. I suggest reading that book instead.

Anne Applebaum about Holodomor.

Bait and Cinematic form

Mark Jenkin is an unusual director in this digital age. To begin with, he has a cutting room, and that room has a floor. However, he doesn’t leave anything on the cutting room floor. That is one of the things we learned during the Q&A of his film Bait when it had its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum. It is shot on 16 mm, incidentally not the first feature I saw in that format during the festival. Denis Cotés competition entry, Répertoire des Villes Disparues (Ghost Town Anthology) was also shot on 16 mm (one of my favourite films in the competition.) Bait, however, turned out to be the standout of all the entries I saw during the week.

Bait is set in a fishing village in Cornwall. Martin is a fisherman whose life has been overturned by the tourism trade. He has been forced to sell the cottage where he was raised, to a London couple. His brother Steven, on the other hand, has embraced the new reality and has started to use the former family fishing boat to take semi-drunk tourists on cruises. Martin, who is intent on making his livelihood on fishing, catches whatever he can and is set to save money to get his own boat.

There is an obvious theme of old vs new, city vs countryside, and the film is highly topical in these Airbnb times. If one is so inclined one might add analogue vs digital to the mix. It’s worth noting though that the film doesn’t get overly didactic. Even though we might sympathize with Martin, does it mean that we have to resent his brother for adapting to the new circumstances? And while the Londoners may not come off as the most sensible people, Jenkin is still far from the simplistic moralizing that the tale might have slipped in to.


We’re working in an art form that is 120 years old, and we already seem to have given up on the discussion of what the form should be.

Mark Jenkin

If the characters are not black and white, the cinematography certainly is, with strong contrasts. Bait is not only shot on 16 mm but also hand-processed, which obviously lends a vintage feel to the project. Still, it feels more archaic than nostalgic. Critics have mentioned Russian cinema and Kuleshovian montage. I guess it’s a veritable Rorschach test which directors that come to mind while watching the film. I clearly understand the references made to Eisenstein and also to Vertov’s The man with the movie camera (in particular the contrast between work and leisure.)

Bait French Manicure

To me, though, the most obvious reference is Jean Epstein. Partly because his films occasionally used the sea as a location (La Tempestaire (1947) for instance) but most of all because of the cinematic means employed. Not merely his use of close-ups but also the editing, including the use of flash-forwards. In Bait a flash-forward including handcuffs is particularly memorable. I also thought of Marcel L’Herbier and his use of montage in L’argent (1928). Whether that says more about me then about the film is an open question. In any case, the film is much more than the sum of its cinematic lineage.

Mark Jenkin Q&A Bait Berlinale
Obviously, the Q&A at the Berlinale was in high contrast black and white as well.

British Handcraft

It is refreshing with a director who is clearly interested in the formal aspects of cinema, and who is not afraid to make bold choices. At the Berlinale Q&A, Jenkin lamented the lack of experimentation in contemporary cinema. Something that was all too visible in this year’s rather lacklustre edition of the festival. It was a long time ago that I saw a film where every frame felt so purely cinematic.

The grainy visual texture of the film with the jarring editing and extensive use of close-ups felt like a breath of fresh air in a rather disappointing selection. At the risk of overlooking what Jenkin wants to say about class, power and gentrification, to me, Bait is first and foremost a love letter to cinema, and it’s clearly handwritten.

Trailer for Bait.

An interview with Mark Jenkin

Systemsprenger

Berlinale 2019

This year’s Berlinale competition, the last one under Dieter Kosslick’s reign, didn’t look so promising on paper. My first dive in was Systemsprenger (System crasher) by Nora Fingscheidt. The script for the film already won numerous awards. Anyone lead to believe that it’s about a nine-year-old hacker, that breaks into Deutsche Bank to untie their connections with Donald Trump, will be disappointed. It is about a nine-year-old girl though, and a very troubled one at that. Benni is the system crasher of the title. A term that refers to children that constantly break the rules, and don’t fit anywhere in the welfare system.


The idea of the film being about a hacker came from this tweet by Alex Billington.


Dardenne, German style

Benni (who doesn’t like her given name Bernadette) creates chaos wherever she goes. She commits violent acts frequently and gets booted out of every institution. Due to a childhood trauma involving diapers, she doesn’t allow anyone to touch her face. Her aim is to be reunited with her mother, who is actually afraid of Benni and doesn’t want her back. We follow her, as well as different social workers who are doing their utmost to help her. One of them, Micha (Albrecht Schuch), is getting closer than is professionally warranted.

Berlinale

The most obvious strength in the film lies in Helena Zengel’s performance as Benni, even when the script is less than subtle. The acting is solid throughout with Gabriela Maria Schmeide being particularly memorable as a childcare worker who never seems to give up. The best scene in the film comes, when she breaks down after yet one more of many failures, and Benni is the one who tries to comfort her.

The cinematography by Yunus Roy Imer doesn’t offer much more than realistic colours and drab settings, in the Dardennes brothers vein, occasionally broken (smashed) by some cinematic flourishes, often in pink. The film also oscillates awkwardly between psychological realism and cheap thrills. An example of the latter is a late scene, involving the above-mentioned trauma. A scene that could have offered an opening into Benni’s warped mind, but instead, the director chooses to ramp up the tension, almost to horror levels.

Even though it is a work that may provoke thoughts and discussions about the subject, it does not really work as a coherent whole, and the repetitive violence becomes numbing after a while. I wouldn’t be surprised if Helena Zengel walks away with a Silver bear though. Hopefully, she won’t throw it into the crowd, as Benni would have done.

A different take on the film.