Behind the Screens: Kevin Spacey's latest tragedy

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Cathrin Schaer, a New Zealand journalist living in Germany, blogs from the 61st Berlin International Film Festival

On Friday the Berlinale, one of the world's biggest film festivals taking place in the German capital this week, began properly. Movies screened all day in dozens of venues and around the central city's Potsdamer Platz, where most of the festival cinemas are based, it quickly started to feel like some sort of village, a village populated by a very special kind of individual. You could call them: The Accredited.

To get accredited - that is, to be an official visitor - at the Berlinale you must throw yourself through a series of bureaucratic hoops to prove that you are doing business at the event, perhaps in the media or maybe in movie marketing. If you're a journalist, you may also have to pay the princely sum of EURO60 (around NZ$110) for the privilege of attending. But after that, you get to see any movies you want, a whole bunch of public relations people want to be your friend and you get free bottles of fizzy water from the festival's sponsor. It's a pretty good deal.

And it's easy to spot the accredited. For one thing, although they come in all shapes and sizes, they all have one distinct marking: they wear swing tags indicating their status. For another, they exhibit certain characteristic behaviours. They like to stand in long queues loudly discussing what they thought of the last film they saw. They can often be found in quiet corners gazing intently at pieces of paper covered in markings and coloured squares - what they are actually doing here is trying to work out how they are going to see all the films they want (or need) to and still have time to go to the press conference and ask some good looking actors some stupid questions.

They also tend to leave movie theatres before the films have finished. This is usually for one of two reasons - either the movie sucks or they didn't pay for their ticket and they need to get to that press conference with their stupid questions, so they don't really care about the ending.

Kevin Spacey's Tragedy

Anyway, let's get back to why we're all here: the movies. There are so many different kinds of films playing here but Friday was a good day for potential blockbusters. First up today Margin Call, which has been billed as a "financial thriller" and stars some of the biggest names in Hollywood: Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany and Penn Badgley (best known as Dan Humphrey in Gossip Girl) even gets to have a crying stint in the men's loos in this movie. Basically it's the story of a range of different characters working in an investment bank on the verge of the financial crisis that almost crippled the US financial system, then affected the rest of the world, including New Zealand. And during the course of 24 hours, the various players all react differently when faced with the results of their work.

Director J.C. Chandor labelled his debut feature a tragedy. "It's a total misuse of our smartest minds," he said at the press conference held afterwards. "This film is a thriller but in the end it's also a tragedy. The people you are seeing essentially realise they have wasted a lot of their lives."

The erudite and left leaning Kevin Spacey, who is so good at giving speeches he should probably run for US president one day, noted that the German finance minister was invited to the red carpet premiere and said seriously that he hoped the film might offer some lessons for future financial management.

Margin Call was all about capitalism with a human face, as one German journalist put it. "It's about these people, it's about personalities," Bettany explained during the press conference that took place after the screening. "Some react morally and some react more amorally."

Dominic's Devilish Double

Clearly morals were not a problem for the next potential blockbuster screening in Berlin. The Devil's Double is the latest film by New Zealand director Lee Tamahori. Tamahori, the director of 1994's Once Were Warriors, is well known for his action films this century and there is plenty of action in this film although it is more of the gruesome, stomach turning kind as well as the naked sort. The movie is based upon a book written by Latif Yahia, who, because of his resemblance to former Iraqi ruler Sadam Hussein's eldest son Uday, was forced to become Uday's body double. And Uday was not a very nice guy. Apart from torturing, raping, pillaging, abducting schoolgirls off the street for his own evil ends and just general bad behaviour (like shooting his gun into the ceiling at parties!) it turns out he also had a pretty creepy relationship with his mother. Figures.

But even more of a revelation in The Devil's Double is actor Dominic Cooper. The Briton plays both the sadistic Uday and the unfortunate Yahia and about ten minutes into the film, when you stop wondering how all the camera tricks were executed, the two Coopers really do seem like two completely different people. Along the way, poor old Yahia, who is not an evil chap, is forced to witness so much sadism and horror, and then has to pretend he's the guy that did it all, that he almost goes nuts.

Identity issues were also a theme in Griff The Invisible, an Australian feature that opened the Generation section of the Berlinale. The film festival has around eight very different sections, all organised separately, and Generation targets the young and young-at-heart. Don't call it the children's section though - New Zealander Maryanne Redpath, who's been living in Berlin since 1985 and in charge of the section since 2008, might tell you off for that. Out of 1,200 films in the running for the festival, Redpath said, 13 features and 14 short films were selected to be shown. New Zealand director Taika Cohen is on the jury judging as to which will win prizes.

On hand for the premiere of Griff the Invisible was the director Leon Ford and actors Maeve Dermody and Ryan Kwanten: the latter is probably best known as the six-pack-bearing Jason Stackhouse in the vampire television series True Blood. The Australians received an enthusiastic greeting from around a thousand-strong audience, most of whom were in their teens.

The film itself is about a lonely young man who thinks he's an action hero. Sounds like fun but actually, the story covers a wide mixture of subject matter - from potential mental illness to bullying to true love to coming of age and the question of when we should grow up - and it does so with varying degrees of success. Despite the uneven path Ford's first feature seemed to take - from whimsical and charming to troubled and even kind of weird - the German high schoolers seemed to follow the storyline faithfully and they applauded even more loudly when the Australian cast and crew rose for a question and answer session.

Director Ford admitted that the superhero of his youth came from the cult Japanese television show, Monkey. "I used to dress up in my Mum's red dressing gown and fight demons in the back yard with a bamboo stick. And I'm proud of it," he laughed.

Then one German adolescent asked whether Kwanten had had any trouble relating to the role of the geeky freak he plays in the film. After all, the versatile Australian actor has recently played a number of very different roles, including a rookie cop under fire in an outback town in the Australian action film, Red Hill.
In reply, Dermody laughed and teased her co-star: "I think he wants to know how unusual you are."

"Highly unusual," Kwanten said, before quoting some poetry and saying that he was going to keep his favourite childhood superhero a secret.

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