2023 | Artistic Director's Blog

The Tamer of Dreams

Gabriel LaBelle as Samuel Fabelman and Judd Hirsch as Boris Podgorny

Carlo Chatrian was Artistic Director of the Berlinale from June 2019 to March 2024. In his texts, he takes a personal approach to the festival, to outstanding filmmakers and the programme.

Independent cinema has become increasingly intertwined with current events. Perhaps it is a natural response to social media’s erosion of news, whereby a film now offers that slice of reality that has been taken from us. So, while festivals do become antennae capable of gauging the undercurrents as well as the major shakeups hitting the planet, we also miss films that are capable of taking discourse to another level. In that sense, a Steven Spielberg film acts as a healthy counterpoint. We know it will take us far away from a harsh, oppressing reality, taking flight via the wings of dreams. We know John Williams’ music will balance crescendos and quieter moments, conveying a feeling of perfect breathing, with our heartbeat matching that of the story. And we know Janusz Kaminski’s camerawork, imbued with unreal fluidity, will alternate close-ups and wide shots to create the illusion of us being invisible spectators of a special moment.

Scene from The Fabelmans

And yet, none of that happens in The Fabelmans. Or rather, it’s not the only thing that happens. For while the usual magic resonates throughout the story of the Fabelman family, Spielberg’s latest film is also painfully real. The American Dream, which finds its perfect match in the coming-of-age genre, has always had a concealed darker side: the pain, strain and sacrifice every dream entails and demands. As successful, secure and cheerful as Sammy’s family may appear, upon closer inspection it seems different: more complicated, and also more truthful. The film’s plot unfolds on a dual track of real life and movies, and despite appearances it’s arguably Spielberg’s richest and most complex film to date.

Mateo Zoryan as Samuel 'Sammy' Fabelman

Little Sammy fears those huge images his parents describe as a pleasant, unforgettable spectacle. And the only way the child is able to accept the spectacle of disaster is by recreating it, by trying to understand its inner workings. As (re)constructing makes for a valuable filter between the viewing and the emotional experience, knowing how images are created and looked at opens up new possibilities for the young boy, who will become a sturdier man, but also a more fragile one. Moving images, as Spielberg famously claims, show us what we do not wish to see, and take us to places we do not want to be. Fear and desire. The images of cinema, captured on a two-dimensional screen, may appear distant, but they always find a way, as if by magic, to reach our comfortable armchair. And once they’re inside you, you have to deal with them.

Michelle Williams as Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman

The dream of cinema is, first and foremost, a nightmare: a vision that leaves our eyes wide open – and our eyes have been exactly that, wide open, for a while now, regarding the events that take place in Eastern Europe. Cinema’s intrusion in young Sammy’s life is violent and unstoppable. He will try everything in order to tame those gigantic images. And yet, understanding the mechanism and figuring out how to create the illusion of the real cannot protect him from life’s speed bumps, which cinema enhances. Instead, it allows him to see through the layers of things, through the surface of a life. And so, the coming-of-age becomes melodrama. The feeling that we own the world turns into acknowledging that not everything in life can be fixed. The binary language of computer science and the artisanal one of editing are not the language of feelings. The world is devoid of logic, and making movies – besides mastering a skill – means also to bear witness to this absurd, incoherent matter. Much like a tamer putting their head inside a lion’s mouth, filmmakers know their acrobatics don’t come with a safety net.

Carlo Chatrian