This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.
This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.
The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma).
The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.
The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?
Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.
This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.
The Imitation Game has provoked strong views about cinema. The film is doing excellent business, mainly with older audiences. But it has also been the subject of attacks about historical accuracy and ‘authenticity’ some of which are misguided because those making the attacks don’t understand film culture all that well.
The screening I attended was quite busy for a Saturday night with an audience mainly over 50 who seemed to enjoy it. The older audience is not a surprise given the subject matter about the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in World War II. The central focus is on Alan Turing and the film’s title is taken from the name given by Turing to the exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and how to define it. The two factors which mean that the film differs considerably from the Michael Apted thriller Enigma (UK 2001), set around the same historical events, are that Turing was a singular mathematician and a gay man in the 1940s when homosexuality was illegal – and the character is played by the star du jour, Benedict Cumberbatch. Given the strong box office there must be plenty of the younger Cumberbatch fans (some of whom are female fans known by the unflattering description ‘Cumberbitches’) who have turned up to see an extraordinary performance.
The attacks on the film – apart from a few clueless media reviewers who don’t understand why the film works – are represented by online pieces like the Alex von Tunzelmann one in the Guardian entitled ‘Inventing a new slander to insult Alan Turing’. At the time of writing this had attracted 745 comments. The ‘new slander’ inserted into the script sees Turing not reporting a Soviet spy in the codebreaking team because he fears exposure as a gay man and the spy knows this. This is the only real charge against the script – the other changes to the historical record are not so important given the difficulty of condensing a long story into a film under two hours. (This length issue too has been challenged since Harvey Weinstein’s talons are around the film for a US release and he has a track record of trying to cut European and Asian films that he acquires.) There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘Alan Turing story’ would need a ten part TV serial to cover all the ground in sufficient detail. There have been several films and TV fictions as well as documentary programmes which have covered the code-breaking activities during the war but this is the one that will reach the widest audience – the audience which before the film will know little or nothing about Alan Turing. And for that reason I think its historical ‘conveniences’ are excusable.
The ‘Soviet spy’ incident (which as far as I know is completely fictitious – although the historical character who was subsequently suspected of spying did work at Bletchley he didn’t work with Turing)) is interesting but I don’t want to spoil the film’s narrative by analysing how the plot works. What I can note is that the film focuses on three crucial periods in Turing’s life, as a public schoolboy of 16 in 1928, as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park from 1939 to 45 and as a gay man in 1952 accidentally caught up in a police investigation. The Russians aren’t mentioned in 1928 (although Turing did want to go to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and he did go to Germany) but by 1942 they were British allies, so spying activities were part of the complex power struggles between the allies over the conduct of the war. In 1952 the ‘Cambridge spies’ Burgess and Maclean had made headlines by ‘disappearing’ and their stories would become part of the Cold War debates about spies, double agents etc. over the next thirty years. The history of interest in the Soviet Union and Marxist political thought at Cambridge in particular during the 1930s is an important context for Turing’s own development but the film narrative doesn’t have time to explain this fully. (The Cambridge spies were also associated with a gay community in the university.)
The best compliment I can give the filmmakers is to say that after the screening I rushed home to find my copy of Andrew Hodges’ book, a detailed biography by a gay mathematician about a fascinating Englishman and his tragic death. Alan Turing the Enigma of Intelligence in its 1983 edition is over 500 pages of very small print with a huge reference section. It’s a phenomenal piece of writing and has deservedly been re-published. The author’s website has all the relevant publishing details.
The film’s script by Graham Moore is based on Hodges’ book and it’s one of the two main American contributions to the production (the other is editor William Goldenberg) – which is a truly global affair with a Norwegian director (Morten Tyldum), a Spanish DoP (Oscar Faura) and a French musical composer (Alexandre Desplat). British production designer Maria Djurkovic describes her work on the film in a BFI interview and, of course, the cast is British. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing very well – but then it’s almost like a Ken Loach casting decision, he fits the part so well in terms of background. The rest of the cast is good too and in terms of entertainment value, Charles Dance as the bone-headed naval officer in charge at Bletchley and Mark Strong as the MI6 man are priceless. Keira Knightley often seems to get criticised but she is actually a hardworking actor who takes a diverse range of roles and she’s very good here. Praise too is needed for the boys who play the younger Turing and his schoolfriend.
I was surprised that I enjoyed the film so much. I thought the narrative was well-constructed, moving smoothly so that there isn’t really time to think about the historical inaccuracies. My only criticism about the production is that the inauthentic shots of the railways aren’t needed and the presumably quite expensive shots of bomb-damaged London streets could be represented by newsreel footage playing in a cinema. The film is quite conventional overall and that helps it to reach a wide audience. But it also made two good points about wartime Britain and the concept of total war, i.e. the idea that everyone is involved in the war effort. In terms of Bletchley Park this meant that all the brightest mathematicians and cryptanalysts were brought together (though I suspect that the film underplays the important roles of the women in this operation) but that the young men must have faced a great deal of public criticism as they were not in uniform and seemed not be doing anything for the war effort at all (because it was all secret).
So, the story is being told about the wartime work. But the last episode about Turing in Manchester in the early 1950s is not really adequate – either about Turing as a gay man or about what he was doing in terms of artificial intelligence. The title of the film does refer to both the ‘Turing test’ and to the fact that Turing himself had to imitate a heterosexual man throughout his life, at least in public. Perhaps we can have another film about Turing in the post-war world?