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Real Stories: Biopics at Berlinale 2016

A Quiet Passion

The term biopic doesn’t have a particularly good reputation. A poorly made narrative film of true events create a plastic non-reality that offers nothing of value from a perspective of aesthetics and storytelling. You end up with perhaps a Xerox of events. But there’s nothing to add and nothing to make the viewer think beyond that copy and then what’s the point?

milesA well-made fictional account of real historical events, on the other hand, can reveal history to a new audience. And a different take on the life of an artist can put a new spin on a life. Three films at the Berlinale focus on the lives of real people: a couple in the throes of war, and two artists who suffer for their craft within their own environment.

Screening in the the Berlinale special section is Miles Ahead. Directed by and starring Don Cheadle, it is a very jazzy film – and it should be, as it is about – you guessed it – the genius jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. In addition to acting and directing, Cheadle also co-wrote (with Steven Baigelman) the screenplay, which flips the biopic genre on its head.

Here’s where the genius of Don Cheadle meets that of Miles Davis: the story takes place during a period when Davis was dealing with drugs and not making new music. On top of that, the story is a fictional one, a “what could have been” tale of the legend dealing with mobsters, dirty music dealers and more. With Ewan McGregor as a fictional reporter along for the ride, it becomes a deep and rousing gangster flick. A brilliant move makes for a brilliant movie.

A Quiet Passion, is Terence Davies’ meditation on the life of American poet Emily Dickenson. Cynthia Nixon plays the poet with a quiet intensity and steeliness.  Here is a rare example of artist merging with artist merging with artist to create yet another work of art. The film’s placement in the Berlinale special section is a good fit. Dickenson doesn’t need to be in competition with anyone.

Little is known about the life of Dickenson, yet Davies has created a beautiful storyline for her. Nixon is the perfect Dickenson: there is a stillness about her, and also a wicked (for the time) sense of humor, yet her Emily feels the wounds and pricks of life very deeply. Davies films many scenes as if they were still life paintings, adding to the quiet yet vibrant intensity of the film.

alone in berlinAlone in Berlin, directed by Vincent Perez, stars Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as two German parents disillusioned with the Third Reich once their son dies in battle.  Otto and Elise Hampel were a real couple during WWII. They were ordinary people who took whatever extraordinary measures they could because they found themselves in a horrific situation. The film, while fairly ordinary in terms of style, is moving in its depiction of what people are capable of doing when events call for activism. Shown in the Competition, Thompson and Gleeson’s performances are stellar, as is Daniel Brühl’s, as the investigator hot on their trail.

But how good a selection for the Berlinale was this film? English actors, speaking English, in the country and city where these events took place – and, at public screenings for sure, screened in front of a German, and German speaking, audience. Putting it in the competition may have done a disservice to the film and the filmmakers.

The city of Berlin has an immensely deep history; a film like Alone in Berlin could be an important addition to the art that digs into that history. But the film veers very closely to that Xerox effect. A city that symbolizes so much needs a film with a more profound artistic touch.

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