2020 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Berlinale 2020 and the Power of Sound

Berlinale 2020 - Sound at the German Film Festival

“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.

A constant sizzle from the burger grill keeps me company while waiting for the next film screening. It’s my first visit to the Berlinale, and I’ve given myself a mission: to close my eyes. Not that there isn’t beauty to gaze at in this cultural metropolis, nor is there a lack of visual splendor on the screens. But after relying heavily on stills while making my program selections, I decided to challenge myself: to let my ears guide me through the rest of the festival. I strived to pay attention to the overlooked other half of our beloved audiovisual art form and look — I mean, listen — for meaning in the dark theatres and streets of Berlin. 

This is what I heard at Berlinale 2020. The impenetrable carpet of conversations in Italian, German and broken English in the lines for tickets and coffee at The Grand Hyatt press center. The sudden silence inside The Berlinale Palast, just minutes after the roaring applause has echoed out of a gala screening, as efficient cleaners move along the 1,750 empty seats to prepare the next screening. The lawn mower-esque humming from the generator that helped project a film on the side of a building above the famous line at Mustafa’s Gemuese Kebap. The tense semi-silence as the credits were rolling and crowds left the Competition screening of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. Who would be the first to ask “So what did you think?” If the Berlinale 2020 soundtrack had actual songs, it would include Prince’s ”When Doves Cry” filling the crowded dance floor of the Locarno Film Festival party, encapsulating the Berlin club scene in a cultural space that never truly left its 80s peak — just like some of the German haircuts.

During a large international film festival like Berlinale 2020, with all of the major players attending, sound is also closely connected to power — power measured in the audible distance between its guests. During a social event, I ended up sitting across the table from the artistic director of Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. I wasn’t able to exchange a single word with him. Turned sideways from the table, he had a stream of industry people coming up to him, talking very closely, mouth to ear, which drew an invisible border between them and the rest of the table. Who gets to come that close with a question and who has to raise their hand from the back of a crowded theatre during a Q & A? The answers measure your rank in the festival’s internal hierarchy.

But on the production side of the industry, there are ways for sound to break down old power hierarchies. Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir recently became the fourth woman to win the Best Original Score Oscar, for her work on Todd Phillips’ Joker. Listening to her talk about how sound engineers in the traditionally male-dominated craft still tend to explain to her what an XLR-cable is makes you realize that we still have a ways to go, even for the most accomplished women in the industry to be heard.

At Berlinale 2020, what is Guðnadóttir’s response to this mansplaining? “I’ve tried to be stubborn and not listen to a lot of the crap,” she replies. “Growing up in a country where a single mom was president, the thought of me pursuing whatever career I wanted felt natural to me.” Guðnadóttir has had quite an impressive year with Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe-awarded scores for both Joker and the celebrated HBO miniseries Chernobyl. Despite being a part of the department whose artistic work always gets pushed to the end of post-production, Guðnadóttir’s collaborative way of composing her orchestral score influenced Phillips to flip the order of production and follow her lead. Guðnadóttir told the Berlin audience how Joaquin Phoenix’s famous dance scenes were shot using her soundtrack on set. This way, Lawrence Sher’s camera movement and Phoenix’s Oscar-winning physical performance moved in tune with her music. Just seeing the large number of female sound artists in line to take a selfie with the Icelandic artist underlined her symbolic stature. 

But you don’t actually have to be an Icelandic Oscar-winner to contribute to a soundtrack. At Berlinale 2020, I experienced this during the Panorama screening of the punky Swedish documentary portrait Always Amber (Alltid Amber), which brings its audience so close to its non-binary protagonist that the experience becomes physical. During the prolonged close-up of 17-year-old Amber piercing her own upper lip in front of a dirty bathroom mirror, the camera never lets the viewer look away. With hundreds of people twisting and turning in their seats, hoping not to hear how the nail pierces through Amber’s flesh, the audience themselves were collectively completing the film’s soundtrack. “Ouch!” Amber cries as the nail is halfway in, realizing the painful consequences of her DIY-procedure, and the girl next to me mimics her experience by saying “ouch” and holding her own upper lip. The intentionally “shitty” sound quality of the film carries a promise of unfiltered presence. And through the live soundtrack around me, it all became even harder to sit through.

In the process of mentally arranging all of the tracks in my Berlinale 2020 soundtrack, while paying extra attention to how the sound of an 80s saxophone solo fills the empty hallways of the Gleisdreieck U-Bahn station, I start thinking of what Guðnadóttir said about composing a musical soundtrack using only field recordings from a physical space. In her case: Chernobyl’s sister power plant Ignalina in Lithuania. Her task was, through the music, to portray the invisible thing which essentially is the core of the whole story — radiation. Fortunately, listening to the Berlinale for the few days hasn’t exposed me to any radiation but similarly opened my eyes to previously-unrecognized experiences and perspectives. Whether on a screen, all around me in the theatre or right across the table, I honestly didn’t need any knowledge of XLR-cables to connect to the power of sound at Berlinale 2020.

Jakob Åsell (@jakobasell) is a freelance film journalist and film editor based in Stockholm. He is part of Talent Press at Berlinale 2020.