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Cathedrals of Culture: Berlin Review

Cathedrals of Culture Berlin Film Festival - H 2014
Wolfgang Thaler

The Bottom Line

The apotheosis of architecture by six auteur directors is sometimes dazzling, sometimes not, but overall makes a pleasing package for uptown audiences.

Venue

Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 6, 2014

Directors

Wim Wenders, Michael Glawogger, Michael Madsen, Robert Redford, Margreth Olin, Karim Ainouz

Six world-famous buildings speak out, in episodes by directors like Robert Redford and Wim Wenders.

Subtitled “a 3D film project about the soul of buildings,” Cathedrals of Culture must rank as one of the most fervent hymns to architecture ever sung, proudly throwing down the gauntlet of high culture to that part of the intelligentsia who attend the movies. Clever, coy, precious, stirring, it’s a film of many moods. And for the right viewer – think opera buff, think seasonal concert subscriber – it is going to hit the spot. The 158-minute theatrical version, available in 3D and 2D, should be much in demand at festivals after its Berlin premiere, while TV viewers can enjoy it in easily digestible six half-hour installments. In the version screened in Berlin, all voice-overs were in slightly accented English.

Berlin: Wim Wenders on How 3D is Drowning 'in a Lack of Imagination' (Q&A)

Wim Wenders was the driving force behind the project. Spurred by his experiments with 3D while shooting his much-admired dance bio Pina and a video installation called If Buildings Could Talk, he and producing partners Erwin M. Schmidt and Gian-Piero Ringel invited Robert Redford, Michael Glawogger, Margreth Olin, Karim Ainouz and Michael Madsen to put filmgoers inside architectural spaces using 3D. But this may be the least interesting aspect of the resulting films. Truth to tell, the 3D results are not all that spectacular or necessary and many may prefer a normal 2D experience without the glasses.

The exception is Wenders’ own half-hour piece on the Berliner Philharmonic, a potent example of organic architecture designed by Hans Scharoun as what the building-narrator (Meret Becker) describes as intersecting pentangles covered by a circus tent roof. At a certain point, the camera takes a seat in the circular hall behind a row of spectators watching Simon Rattle conduct Debussy, and their outlined backs jump out of the screen right in front of the film viewers in an incredible optical illusion. This may well be the most stunning 3D shot in film.

The conceit of having the buildings talk at first seems like a dreadfully fey idea that will soon run out of interest, but the wide diversity of the episodes makes this a non-problem. Robert Redford turns the Salk Institute in La Jolla into something resembling a classic documentary, using multiple voices of scientists who have worked there and a reverent approach that integrates the rough concrete walls into the lightness of clouds floating above their open spaces. He sees Louis I. Kahn’s stark exteriors as creating an open space that focuses the mind, a home for the worship of science and nature. This hymn to the human spirit hovers on the edge of the glorifying and celebratory, but is beautifully photographed by Ed Lachmann, whose rhythmic camerawork fluidly blends into Moby’s music.

If Redford and Wenders grabbed the best buildings, the laurels for soulfulness go to Austrian Michael Glawogger, and for offbeat choices to Danish director Michael Madsen. The iconoclast Glawogger (Workingman’s Death, Whores’ Glory) is every inch a professional documentarian and his choice to film the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg is nothing short of inspired. As Wolfgang Thaler’s camera restlessly roams the empty stacks of this immense building perched above Nevsky Prospect, the insinuating Russian-accented voice of narrator Gennadi Vengerov reads from Gogol, Dostoevsky and Joseph Brodsky. The few human beings are almost all women – older ladies who tend card catalogues, younger readers plunged into the labyrinth of words Glaswogger weaves around the long winding corridors, photographed like the scene of a crime. There is no sign of a computer in the entire library and barely a light switch, positing it as a place out of time, like the Kafkaesque reading room.  Here 3D mainly comes into play to stress depth of field.  

Who would have thought that Halden maximum security prison in Denmark, known as the “humane prison,” would provoke a fascinating architectural discussion? Director Michael Madsen opens with a quote from Foucault about the dismaying similarity between prisons, factories and schools. As narrated by the prison psychologist Benedicte C. Westin in one-syllable Anglosaxon English, Halden describes itself as “huge, tall, long”, relieving its inmates of their individuality while its 1,000 eyes keep vigilant watch over everything they do. On the plus side, it replaces bars with plate glass windows boasting spectacular views of a virgin forest. “People who have done terrible things also have a bit of good in them,” notes the building. Memorably, guards hose down an isolation cell where a prisoner has written obscenities on the walls with excrement.

That leaves Margreth Olin’s lyrical ode to the Oslo Opera House and Karim Ainouz’s affectionately critical view of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, less transgressive in their viewpoints but both full of curiosities. The Opera House is an immense modern work rising on the Oslo waterfront, a sparkling glass behemoth covered in ice that offers a home to the creativity of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet. “I am a house” is the metaphor narrated by Olin herself and co-written in lilting poetry by Bjorn Olaf Johannessen. “I am an immigrant, an intruder on the edge of your fjord.” Oystein Mamen’s camera goes for the big white spaces inside and outside to very arty but pleasing effect.

Of all the six buildings, the Centre Georges Pompidou is likely to be the most familiar to viewers and maybe this is why the concluding episode has a touch of the banal. Brazilian-born director Karim Ainouz skips the French rhetoric around the extravagant tubular structure in the heart of Paris, a shocker when it was built by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1977 and compared to an oil refinery or a steel Gothic cathedral. Today it has been overtaken by time, its modernism no longer a scandal or even terribly remarkable. Yet its energy is palpable as thousands of visitors and tourists flow through its hall and exhibition spaces like in an airport. Narrator Deyan Sudjik aptly calls it a “living, breathing culture machine” and speaks of “the nostalgic charm of the steam engine,” which most will agree with. One wonders what the director would make of Brasilia today.
 

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 6, 2014.
Production companies: Neue Road Movies in association with Final Cut for Real, Lotus Film, Mer Film, Les Films d’Ici 2, Sundance Productions/Radical Media, WOWOW, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg
Directors: Wim Wenders, Michael Glawogger, Michael Madsen, Robert Redford, Margreth Olin, Karim Ainouz
Producers: Erwin M. Schmidt, Gian-Piero Ringel
Executive producer: Wim Wenders
Sales Agent: Cinephil
No rating, 158 minutes

THE BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
Director/screenwriter: Wim Wenders
Producers: Erwin M. Schmidt, Gian-Piero Ringel
Director of photography: Christian Rein
Editor: Toni Froschhammer
Narration: Meret Becker
Music: Debussy, Bach

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF RUSSIA
Director/screenwriter: Michael Glawogger
Producers: Tommy Pridnig, Peter Wirthensohn
Director of photography: Wolfgang Thaler
Editor: Monika Willi
Narration: Gennadi Vengerov
Music: Wolfgang Mitterer
Artistic collaboration: Viola Stephan

HALDEN PRISON
Director/screenwriter: Michael Madsen
Producers: Anne Kohncke, Signe Byrge Sorensen
Director of photography: Wolfgang Thaler
Editor: Janus Billeskov Jansen
Narration: Benedicte C. Westin
Music: Karsten Fundal

THE SALK INSTITUTE
Director: Robert Redford
Screenwriter: Anthony Lappe
Producers: Laura Michalchyshyn, Sidney Beaumont
Executive producers: Robert Redford, Jon Kamen, Justin Wilkes
Director of photography: Ed Lachmann
Editor: Jim Helton
Music: Moby

THE OSLO OPERA HOUSE
Director:  Margreth Olin
Screenwriters:  Olin, Bjorn Olaf Johannessen
Director of photography: Oystein Mamen
Editor: Michal Leszczylowski
Narration: Margreth Olin
Music: Gluck, Stravinsky, Olga Wojciechowska

CENTRE GEORGES POMPIDOU
Director/screenwriter: Karim Ainouz
Producer: Charlotte Uzu

Director of photography:  Ali Olcay Gozkaya
Editor: Toni Froschhammer
Narration:  Deyan Sudjic
Music: Al Laufeld