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Berlinale: 11 days in film heaven

Here it is! Your insider's preview of the world's most audience-friendly film festival, February 11-21. We know which indie flicks to catch and which celebs to stalk. And don't forget about our blog!

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Clockwise from top left: “Hail, Caesar!”, “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery”, “Boris Without Béatrice”, “Aloys”

What to expect, what to watch and with whom to take a selfie at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, February 11-21. Here’s our primer and don’t forget to watch out for our Berlinale Blog running throughout the festival.

Love it or hate it, the Berlinale’s back and it’s the biggest cultural event of the year. For its 66th edition, more than 400 movies from around the world will be screened, the red carpets will be rolled out and parties will be thrown across town (don’t miss ours on February 17 at Konzulát!). 

With half a million tickets on sale for showings at venues from the giant Friedrichstadt-Palast to your cosy local Kiezkino, this festival’s famously not just for the glitterati. Everyone gets to be part of the conversation, with Berliners of all stripes camping out to get their hands on coveted premiere tickets, comparing notes on which little-seen miracles they’ve discovered or unbelievable bombs endured and sharing stories about running into festival fixture George Clooney in the streets of Mitte. 

Selfie alert!

Yes, Clooney and fellow perennial Berlinale-goer Tilda Swinton will quite probably be returning to Potsdamer Platz for the premiere of the Coen Brothers’ ensemble comedy Hail, Caesar!, which kicks off the festivities on February 11. Also in the cast: Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes… that would do for star power, no?

We can probably also expect Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Colin Firth to show up for Genius; Emma Thompson and homegrown favourite Daniel Brühl for Alone in Berlin; Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver for Midnight Special; and French screen legends Isabelle Huppert (for Things to Come) and Gérard Depardieu (for Saint Amour).

Then there’s Julianne Moore and Greta Gerwig (Maggie’s Plan), Alexander Skarsgård (War on Everyone) and legendary LGBTQ cinema producer Christine Vachon, who will be honoured with a career achievement award. Oh, and this year’s winners will be chosen by a jury chaired by the one and only Meryl Streep. So get your camera ready; we hear the three-time Oscar winner is super selfie-friendly!

The Bear hunters

But at the end of the day, the Berlinale is less about the big names and more about discovering original, daring work that’s miles apart from what floods your local cineplex every week.

So which of this year’s competitors is going to blow our minds? Canadian cult director Denis Côté returns with Boris Without Béatrice, a “moral fairytale” starring Denis Lavant. We’re sold. 

Hailing from Bosnia, fellow Silver Bear winner Danis Tanović premieres Death in Sarajevo, which promises a ruthless examination of Europe’s existential fears from within. A more radical treat might be A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery from Filipino master of slow cinema Lav Diaz, an eight-hour(!) black-and-white epic set against the backdrop of the country’s revolution against its Spanish colonisers.

And although we don’t yet know much about Chinese director Yang Chao, his surrealist love story Crosscurrent is lensed by iconic cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, so at the very least it’ll look heavenly.

Our indie picks

The vast majority of films at the Berlinale screen outside the main competition, and that’s where the programmers get creative and risky with their choices. From The End, the latest from eccentric French director Guillaume Nicloux (The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq), to the unlikely Saudi Arabian rom-com Barakah Meets Barakah, this year’s selection is bursting with promise. Here are 10 recommendations from the Forum (F), Panorama (P) and Generation (G) sections.

  • Already heating up: the real-time romance and early Teddy favourite Paris 05:59 (P) by French writer/director-duo Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, set to cause a firestorm with its 20-minute opening scene set in a Parisian gay sex club. 
  • Get dazzled and creeped out by American documentary filmmaker and indie fave Robert Greene’s non-fiction psychological thriller Kate Plays Christine (F), about an actress preparing for her role as a real-life anchorwoman who shot herself on live TV.
  • Don’t miss a one-two punch of Forum docs from local veteran Philip Scheffner: a ballsy formal experiment that turns a three-minute off-focus tourist video of a refugee barge lost at sea into a feature-length film with voice-over (Havarie) and a playful dialectical take on the act of filming in an upbeat Roma family (And-Ek Ghes…).
  • Travel to the east with City of Jade (F), in which Taiwan-based filmmaker Midi Z shines a light on illegal jade mining in Myanmar with searing sobriety and a personal touch.
  • Swiss director Tobias Nölle’s Aloys (P), in which two lonely souls living in the same apartment block create a refuge for themselves through the phone and their imagination, is a pitch-perfect oddball comedy.
  • Klaus Händl’s stripped-back Teddy contender Kater (P), from Austria, is quietly moving for its observation of private desperation and the disintegration of relationships.
  • The Croatian familial drama On the Other Side (P) eloquently addresses the historical wounds that have yet to heal in the Balkans with a potent, emotionally violent ending. 
  • Swedish social drama The Yard (F) delivers an engrossing commentary on how capitalist culture can lead to the compromise of one’s integrity. 
  • In Serbian marital drama Humidity (F), a dream-like quality of tension and, yes, humidity persists until you realise the whole film’s about everything that’s left unsaid.
  • Stylised Australian coming-of-age dramedy Girl Asleep (G) might be the next best thing for those pining for a fix of Wes Anderson-esque deadpan hilarity.

Originally published in issue #146, February 2016.