Notes Towards a Spatial Reading of a Contemporary Film Festival

By Richard Martin

Wings of Desire

Wings of Desire

1. “I can’t find Potsdamer Platz. Is it here? This can’t be it. This can’t be Potsdamer Platz. I will not give up as long as I haven’t found Potsdamer Platz.”

Wings of Desire (dir. Wim Wenders, 1987).

2. Film festivals are all about brutal juxtapositions, which sometimes enable beautiful contradictions to emerge. Films follow each other with no regard to their predecessors. Festival programmes contain giant geographical shifts and impossible temporal leaps. One moment you’re witnessing Indonesian gangsters boasting of their murderous past; the next, you’re seeing a Viennese melodrama from the 1940s. There’s one contradiction, though, that’s harder to overcome. The contemporary film festival now depends upon cinema’s nemesis: the multiplex. A place which spends 51 weeks of the year plugging overpriced popcorn and dubbed blockbusters becomes, for a brief moment, an annual showcase of international art-house fare.

3. The multiplexes of Potsdamer Platz are the central locations of the Berlinale, the 63rd incarnation of which has just run its course. The semi-pornographic names of these multiplexes – CineStar, CineStar EVENT Cinema, CinemaxX – attach a desperation to movie-going. Is seeing a film enough of an event in itself? Need it be gilded with screaming capital letters? Are all these escalators, potted plants and neon signs part of the cinematic experience?



4. Visitors to Potsdamer Platz are encouraged to associate the current version of this area, the subject of massive construction since German reunification, with its glorious cinematic past. There’s a square dedicated to Marlene Dietrich, a restaurant named after Billy Wilder and a low-rent walk of stars. It’s not convincing. Here, as elsewhere, the multiplex is twinned with the shopping centre. Attending the Berlinale means negotiating a mall in Potsdamer Platz feebly lined with red carpet, ticket booths and merchandise stands. Even Marlene would struggle to find any glamour here. A basement food hall provides the festival’s main source of sustenance; bringing a packed lunch feels like revolutionary resistance.

5. Cinema, at its best, is a model of collective urban experience. If Potsdamer Platz were a film, what kind would it be? Most likely, a CGI vision of urban life, all shiny surfaces and special effects, laced with nostalgia and product placement. During the Berlinale, a temporary L’Oréal salon, offering cosmetic improvements to festival-goers starved of natural light, sits in the centre of the square. It’s the perfect match of brand and location. Much of the festival’s architecture is similarly provisional: pop-up ticket desks, advertisers’ huts, racks of leaflets, a champagne stand, information boards, ubiquitous banners. Not all of these spaces are accessible to everyone. More than cinephilia, the film festival’s main religion is the cult of accreditation. Those whose necks are encircled by a magic pass can slide through barriers, occupy reserved seats, access hidden networks.

6. Many of the most interesting films at this year’s Berlinale were concerned with spaces characterised by waste or decay – the wreckage of contemporary life. Dark Matter (dirs. Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti) documents, without explicit comment, Europe’s largest weapons testing site in Sardinia, a landscape marked by bullet casings, rusting artillery and malformed farm animals. Sieniawka (dir. Marcin Malaszczak) was the most boring and brilliant thing I saw at the festival, a piece of dissonant genius reminiscent of Antonioni, Beckett, Tarkovsky and late Godard. The film is about damaged landscapes and damaged minds in rural Poland. Shots of industrial remains and abandoned homes bookend a long section on mental illness in a shabby institution. It contained the Berlinale’s finest line, designed, perhaps, to shake its slumbering audience: “Stop your fucking fidgeting!”



7. Film festivals are now an established part of urban cultural policy around the world. They apparently exist to encourage well-heeled visitors to ‘discover’ a city, spend their spare cash and return with more ‘investment’ in the future. But what kind of city do these visitors experience? The BMWs lined up outside the shopping mall in Potsdamer Platz, all with tinted windows, take executives from the multiplexes to the chain hotels, and to the airport.

8. “A city whose empty surfaces were completely developed […] would also just be a mediocre city. There is nothing more boring and discouraging than spending one’s life in a mediocre city. That’s really worse than in a prison.”

Daniel Libeskind, Radix-Matrix: Architecture and Writings (1997).

Richard Martin


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