ÜUsually the debates in the Cannes jury are at least as secret as the codes of the French nuclear warheads. Decades later, one only finds out how the decisions came about in the memoirs of a juror. Not so at the 76th Film Festival. This has to do with the German actress Sandra Hüller.
Sandra Hüller, already written in the Cannes annals by “Toni Erdmann”, was in the competition with two films. In “The Zone of Interest” she plays the wife of the Auschwitz commandant, in “Anatomie d’une Chute” (Anatomy of a Case) she is accused of the murder of her husband. She is outstanding in both roles, once a master of repression in the face of mass murder, once a woman whose secrets are being snatched away bit by bit. Whoever was asked was certain that the actress palm could only go to Hüller. And then she went to someone else.
The explanation lies in the mechanics of the price rules. The festival awards only seven awards in the competition, refusing price inflation such as the Oscars, where there are more than 20 categories. In Cannes, the rule says that a film can only get one of the seven prizes, no accumulation, others should also have a chance.
Now it was also clear to everyone that Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” had to receive one of the big prizes, it was the most aesthetically daring competition film. But “Zone” would have an acting award for Hüller – one-price rule! – Excluded from the highest orders. The same was true of Justine Triet’s Anatomie d’une Chute, another favorite. As with “Toni Erdmann”, Sandra Hüller ended up unpriced.
Best Female Lead went to Turkey’s Merve Dizdar, who also excels in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Kuru Otlar Üstüne (Dry Grass), as a teacher reassessing her ‘value’ as a woman after a leg amputation; a twenty-minute duel between her, a socially committed woman, and a resigned intellectual is one of the highlights of the Cannes year.
For many, the question of the Palme d’Or seemed to have been answered early on, and “The Zone of Interest” made such an impression. Jonathan Glazer tells the story (based on a novel by Martin Amis dedicated to Paul Celan) of the Auschwitz death camp – without showing the annihilation. His film consistently stays outside the wall, in the concentration camp commander’s house and garden, where his wife has created an idyll that only works because she and her husband and children consistently block out the horror – although they hear and smell it and of course need to know. It is an extremely strictly conceived film, partly due to the trick of depicting what is happening only through cameras permanently installed in the house and garden, which prevent any emotional contact with the characters.
Eight years ago, the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes went to “Saul Fia” (son of Saul), which is now seen as the extreme point of the Holocaust narrative; One cannot show more of the unseen than the Jew Saul, who has to clear out the gas chambers and burn the corpses. In a way, “Zone” is a reaction to this, an acknowledgment that the imaging of the Shoah has reached its limits and must look for new ways of mediation, as does the narrative of the Shoah with the death of the last witnesses.
At the end of “Zone” Glazer jumps to the present, shows a cleaning crew in the Auschwitz Museum in front of the mountain of clothes and shoes, with which he wants to say: “Beware of new genocides”. The problem with his film is that he has absolutely nothing to say about How people can be consumed by inhumanity; the unbelievably bad is simply unbelievably bad with him. The language after Auschwitz, says Celan, had to go through its “own unanswers”, through “terrible silences”, the “thousand darknesses of deadly speech”. In the end she was allowed to reappear, “enriched by all that”. At Glazer, she’s still mute.
Glazer is not the first director to tell Auschwitz from the perspective of the commander’s family. In 1977 Theodor Kotulla shot “From a German Life” with Götz George and Elisabeth Schwarz; the film is forgotten, the Federal Republic wanted nothing to do with it until it was shaken awake by the “Holocaust” series. One should put “Zone” and “Life” together to understand what Glazer’s film lacks, which is at least a rudimentary explanation – which would be important given Cambodia, Rwanda and Ukraine.
A vintage full of old masters
Perhaps similar thoughts prevented the Cannes jury from entrusting the Palme d’Or to The Zone of Interest. There were certainly alternatives. There were many old Cannes habituees in the competition, from Kaurismäki and Loach to Wenders and Moretti to Breillat and Bellocchio, and their films were consistently respectable. Aki Kaurismäki received the Jury Prize for Kuolleet Lehdet (Autumn Leaves), an archetypal Kaurismäki film about lonely people, alcohol, cinema and precarious work (but with a rare happy ending). Wenders’ “Perfect Day” received the award for the best leading actor, the Japanese acting legend Kōji Yakusho. Farewell was in the air, some of these old masters will not return.
The average age of the jury under the double palm winner Ruben Östlund (“Triangle of Sadness”) was (for Cannes) young 44 years. This was a sign – and also an order for a generation change. The jury could have awarded Jessica Hausner’s “Club Zero”, about fateful prophets. Or Kaother Ben Hania’s “Les Filles d’Olfa” (Olfa’s daughters) about the fatal connection between poverty and Islamism. Or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Kaibutsu” (Monster) about fateful teacher/student relationships.
Instead, the jury chose Justine Triet’s “Anatomie d’une Chute”. At first glance, an amazing choice, because “Anatomy” has nothing of the zeitgeist that has been speaking out of the winners of major festivals for years: At Cannes in previous years, for example, “Triangle of Sadness” (rich versus poor), “Titane” (gender), “Parasite” (class struggle), “Shoplifters” (new family forms), “The Square” (social media), “I, Daniel Blake” (the inhuman social system).
“Anatomie d’une Chute” has other, almost timeless topoi. What is respect, what is selfishness in a relationship? How do spouses grow apart? How does a child perceive that? Above all, what is truth? How can it be established? By those involved? witnesses? Media records? “Anatomy” is a stylistically absolutely conventional film, but the content is all the more ambitious. Justine Triet (she is 44!), the fourth female Palme winner, is more on the side of the Sandra Hüller character than on that of her film man, but even the resolution that she presents at the end still leaves room for doubt. That is life.
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