The Power of Sound: Listening to the 70th Berlinale

What happens when - if only a flickering moment - you close your eyes and listen to the sounds echoing at the Berlinale?

by: Jakob Åsell

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 a lack of visual splendor on the screens. But after relying heavily on stills from films for making my own program selections, I decided to challenge myself: to let my ears guide me through the rest of the festival. Striving to pay some 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: 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 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 Gemüse Kebap. The tense semi-silence as the credits were rolling and crowds left the Competition screening of Kelly Reichardt’s FIRST COW (USA). Who would be the first to ask, and when – “So what did you think?” And of course, if this Berlinale soundtrack had actual songs, it would include Prince’s ”When Doves Cry” filling the crowded dancefloor of the Locarno Film Festival party, encapsulating the Berlin club scene in a cultural space that never truly left its 80’s peak – just like some of the German haircuts.

During a large international film festival like the Berlinale, 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 Oscar for Best Original Score for her work on Todd Phillips' JOKER (USA). Listening to her talk on stage during an event for film composers 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 for even the most accomplished women in the industry to be heard.

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 the celebrated HBO miniseries CHERNOBYL and JOKER. Despite being a part of the department whose artistic work always gets pushed to the end of post-production, Hildur’s collaborative way of composing her orchestral score influenced Todd 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 very physical Oscar-winning performance moved in tune with her music. Just seeing the large number of female sound artist and composers in line to take a selfie with the somewhat shy Icelandic artist after her talk underlined her symbolic stature.

But you don’t actually have to be an Icelandic Oscar-winner to contribute to a soundtrack. 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 us look away. Having hundreds of people twisting and turning in their seats hoping not to hear how the nail pierces through her flesh, the audience itself collectively completed 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 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 started thinking about what Hildur said on 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 to portray, through the music, the invisible thing which essentially is the core of the whole story – radiation. Listening to the Berlinale for the past few days fortunately hasn’t exposed me to any radiation, but similarly opened my eyes to experiences and perspectives that were hidden in, or maybe by, plain sight. 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 it.