Film Reviews: At the Berlin International Film Festival — Diamonds, Drugs, and Sex

By David D’Arcy 

Diamonds, drugs, and sex — the stuff of movies.

A scene from the documentary Nothing Lasts Forever.

Diamonds are the stuff of movies, from Marilyn Monroe to James Bond. They are at the core of fashion. For those who can’t afford them, which is most of us, diamonds are all the more desirable, and just as powerful as symbols.

Is it all a fraud?

In the documentary Nothing Lasts Forever, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, Jason Kohn examines the threat to the “diamond mystique” with the arrival of synthetic diamonds, which can be made at a tiny fraction of what it takes to mine the genuine articles out of the earth. This means that diamonds can or could be sold for a fraction of a fraction of what they cost today.

Not only that. It turns out that diamonds are abundant, anything but rare.

Pity the poor diamond dealers. We see the industry running scared in Kohn’s clever, skeptical, and wildly entertaining film. But don’t sell your jewelry … yet.

Kohn visits all parties in this matter. We watch the mining of diamonds in a vast pit in Botswana operated by the firm De Beers, referred to as a cartel in the film. We meet an executive of this giant diamond company, whose name is synonymous with opaque established power, the closest link in the film to the world of James Bond. Kohn goes to India’s diamond city Surat, north of Mumbai, a crucial center for diamond processing, and to China, the world’s largest producer of lab-created, or synthetic — or as Kohn prefers to call them, ‘new’ — diamonds. He goes to New York, where the rocks are still sold on 47th Street and where the avuncular diamond trader Martin Rapaport warns of the rise of synthetic diamonds.

Here is the film’s central dilemma. After centuries of charisma and value, diamonds could lose their magical appeal because of synthetic diamonds. The “new” diamonds are indistinguishable from the mined stones, which are called natural. Already, we’re told that some five percent of “natural” diamonds are really synthetic. Some experts say it’s 20 percent.

At the core of Nothing Lasts Forever is an elemental truth. According to the eloquent and irreverent jeweler Aja Raden, the only value diamonds hold is what someone is willing to pay for a rock that has been dredged up by a bulldozer from a pile of dirt. You won’t hear that wisdom from any marketing department.

There’s even a precedent for the diamond decline, says the physicist John Janik, a specialist in synthesizing gems. At the top of the Washington Monument’s obelisk is a nine-inch pyramid made of aluminum, a costly metal when placed there. Once aluminum could be mass-produced, its value plummeted. Janik suggests that diamonds are the new aluminum. He also tells another story. He recalls giving a former fiancée a synthetic diamond. She demanded a larger stone. Dreams die hard.

“Or do they?,” Kohn asks. As value drops — or is perceived to drop — tales of diamonds being “discovered” then sold at auction for record prices lose their allure, degenerating into a parade of punchlines, especially when scored with the kind of music Kohn found in spy movies.

In past films, like 2007’s Manda Bala (“Send a Bullet”) about bloody kidnappings and killings in Brazil and 2017’s Love Means Zero, on the grueling training of professional tennis players by the Salieri of the modern game, coach Nick Bolletieri, Kohn explored secretive or previously unpenetrated worlds. Along the way he usually eviscerated some moral assumptions. The director has a knack for finding unlikely images that make his point. Here it is a vast pit of dirt — wide enough to film Dune — that was dug for the sake of finding stones in Botswana. Besides that, he always entertains. His films are suspenseful, unpredictable, and watchable.

This new one is also quotable. Dusan Simic, a gloomy Serbian-born specialist who distinguishes between natural and new stones, says that “theoretically, based on my knowledge and my experience, I think that everything could be faked. Everything could be made the same as a natural piece. Some people want something that really belongs to the earth, and is not made in some lab. But from a gemological point of view, there is really no difference.”

Rapaport tells Kohn that “the diamond is a symbol of commitment. It has to contain value. The woman projects the value of the diamond onto herself. ‘He’s giving me something of great value, because he values me greatly.’ ”

From plain-spoken Aja Raden, author of 2015’s Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World, Kohn learns that “the truth about diamonds is that they’re all exactly the same, and none of them are really worth anything.”

Back to the warning that it may be early to unload your jewelry. Rapaport warns Kohn that the rise of synthetic diamonds will put the engagement ring industry out of business. As Rapaport waits for his prediction to come true, there’s enough interest in an exposé about diamonds for Nothing Lasts Forever to be distributed around the world. It will eventually play on Showtime.

Robe of Gems, Natalia Lopez Gallardo’s film in competition in Berlin, might refer to diamonds if we went by the title alone, which is never explained. No matter; the austere debut feature from Mexico won the Silver Bear Jury Prize.

It’s a story set amid conflicts stemming from drug dealing, hardly a new topic in Mexico or in Mexican film, but divorce, betrayal, class conflict, and kidnapping also find their way into the drama, which unfolds around a family’s home in the countryside.

Lopez Gallardo has been a film editor up to now, working on films by her husband, Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Silent Light). Robe of Gems borrows from his playbook — a camera that lingers on people and places, a rough proximity to faces and bodies that projects a vision of grotesquerie the closer it approaches its subject, and a peculiar twist on the interplay between light and dark. Light can illuminate, but more often it overexposes. Darkness provides cover for misdeeds and secrets at any time of day or night.

Robe of Gems has a hard, close gaze. Isabel, a woman of European descent, is divorcing. Her mother is present in what look like flashbacks. Her maid, whose sister has disappeared, is mixed up in narco transporting, involving teenage trainees like Adán, a boy who talks and dresses the part of a narco-in-training. Adán’s mother is a tough-minded police officer, who’s appalled by his new look. Yet the police bosses are in on the crimes.

Familiar stories of the toxic drug plague in Mexico can be refined by infusing them with careful observation and detail. Lopez Gallardo does this visually, with probing close-ups in a landscape of scrub vegetation. Yet the script is so fragmentary that you’re left wondering what the connection might be from one incendiary scene to the next. The effect is a series of montages and atmospheres, some of them stunning. Maybe the director thought her public knew the world of drugs and violence so well that she didn’t need to supply any explanation — so we get characters floating in or hovering above pools (or in this landscape’s case, thickets) of corruption.

Yet these tableaux, to return to the comparison with Reygadas’s visual meditations, are no less dramatic. Are they a sign that we’ve reached a tipping point? In parts of Mexico have family and local bonds become so frayed that the only reliable institution is the drug network, which seems to sustain everyone? Are we being shown that humanity survives only in bits and pieces? Perhaps, but sometimes a powerful metaphor, like that of decay and disappearance, can’t cover gaping gaps in a story. Still, in a first film, you can do a lot worse.

The narrative’s fragmentation wasn’t enough to deter the Berlin jury. Robe of Gems joins last year’s Noche de Fuego (“Prayers for the Stolen”), Tatiana Huezo’s vision of women and girls trapped in a drug-throttled rural town, as additional evidence that a number of talented female directors are emerging in Mexico. It’s a promising debut. (Berlin press conference with director Natalia Lopez Gallardo.)

Mutzenbacher, the playful documentary by the Austrian veteran Ruth Beckermann, revives the name and the notoriety (for those who know it) of Josephine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself, a memoir from 1906 by a young Austrian woman, long attributed (but no longer) to Felix Salten, who also wrote Bambi — yes, Bambi. It’s still thought that Mutzenbacher was written by a man. You can find the book on Amazon in German and English.

Beckermann didn’t film an adaptation. The film observes a casting call for men who are auditioning for roles in a film version of the book that Beckermann places in the sex memoir tradition of Fanny Hill. We see about a hundred of them — reading lines from the frank and relentless text of a young girl detailing her initiation into sex by older men, women, priests, and almost everyone else she meets. This is the land of Sigmund Freud, after all, which had a thriving fin de siècle market for pornography.

“This book is a fantasy, not a documentary account of a child who had sex with men,” explained Beckermann in interview filmed before the festival began. She has also directed the poignant 2015 film Those Who Go Those Who Stay about immigrants in and around Europe and The Waldheim File, a soup-to-nuts documentary about the Austrian Nazi, UN chief, and Austrian president Kurt Waldheim.

Males sitting on the “casting couch” in Mutzenbacher.

Mutzenbacher doesn’t take us back to the memoir’s time, but stays in the present. The men, most of them nonprofessionals, of all ages (16 up to 99, as stipulated in Beckermann’s casting call for the audition), read the lines from the memoir to each other (an opera singer sings them), sitting most of the time on a pink “casting couch.” They offer their own opinions on the book, which was legally published in Germany in 1969. They recite passages as a group, shouting en masse. It’s comic, and it shows the men (almost all of them) in a vulnerable state that they don’t seem to have expected. What they did expect isn’t clear, but there they are, yelling at the top of their lungs.

Drawing them in with promises of enacting a male fantasy, Beckermann turns the tables. Did her stratagem fool these men? Some of the males seem uncomfortable in interviews with Beckermann, but most seem to be enjoying every minute of it, eager in the dark days of COVID (spring 2021) to try out for what they thought was a role in a pornographic movie. The only thing they didn’t do was remove their clothes. Go figure.

Mutzenbacher never intended to explore what is now a classic text in Viennese history and popular culture. What it does explore is male fragility and what looks like a yearning for some type of recognition. It’s nothing if not a novelty, a curiosity that the Berlinale couldn’t pass up. This odd forum for sexual politics is sure to get it on screens in this country.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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