Berlin’s globetrotting “festival of festivals” is always an end-of-year highlight, offering a shrewdly curated line-up that spoils Berlin audiences to critical stand-outs and under-the-radar gems from the past year’s international festival circuit. This year’s special though: for its 14th anniversary, the festival has doubled up on its programme by adding an extra 14 films.
A word of warning: this year’s programme has absolutely no regard for your tear ducts and will punish them the second you let your guard down: harrowing war dramas, familial bonds put to the test by illness and strained friendships… Pack tissues is what we’re saying.
The big year opens with the German premiere of A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s Cannes-wowing return to form about the true story of an unsung hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis. It might not convert any Malickophobes, as its pace won’t be for everyone – it’s just shy of three hours long, and you feel the minutes tick by during certain repetitive stretches of religious and esoteric musings. However, it is beautifully shot and the acting is top-notch. Beanpole is also set during World War II and sees life after the destruction of Leningrad through the eyes of two young women, who search for hope and meaning in the ruins. It’s the second film from 27-year old Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov, and it’s a deliberately paced and impressive bit of filmmaking.
The Painted Bird is one of this year’s must-sees. Set – you guessed it – during WWII, Czech director Václav Marhoul adapts the 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski. The result is a punishingly bleak descent into hell, as we follow an unnamed Jewish boy who goes from one Holocaust nightmare to the next, trying to survive. It divided audiences at Venice, with walk-outs, boos and rapturous applause. It’s not an easy watch but will leave you glued to the screen, mesmerized by its lush monochrome and suffocating atmosphere. The accumulative tragedies that befall our young protagonist often feel like a cruel catalogue, but it serves a purpose: The Painted Bird is a powerful piece of cinema, a portrait of humanity at a time where there was none. The intensity is never gratuitous and builds to a subtle yet emotionally devastating finale, one that buttresses the point that trauma dehumanizes, and suffering tests the limits of humanity.
Other Venice alumni included in this year’s programme are Martin Eden, which won Luca Marinelli the Best Actor prize (and deservedly so); the genre-splicing, Nina Hoss-starring Pelikanblut (screening as part of the festival’s German Night, alongside Das Vorspiel, also starring Hoss); and Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, Babyteeth. This Australian gem was a highlight from this year’s Lido, a tender and emotionally engaging story of a mother and father discovering that their seriously ill teenage daughter has fallen head over heels for a bad egg. The premise sounds like your average coming-of-age fodder, but Murphy takes those common themes of rebellion and first love and makes them feel fresh, never relying on easy histrionics or pandering to the genre’s inherent melodramatic leanings. Featuring wonderful turns from Eliza Scanlen, Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn, this subtly devastating film also benefits from one of this year’s best soundtracks, featuring songs from Vashti Bunyan, Sudan Archives and Mallrat. Their tunes will help you through the tears, even if tissues are not optional for this one. Bring all the tissues.
The French bring some levity to the programme, with Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin. But even then, there’s some sociopathy around the corner. Deerskin is a taut, memorable and brilliantly batshit anomaly, a macabre little gem that follows one man’s quest to make his deerskin jacket the only jacket in the world. Why? Because his jacket told him to destroy all other jackets. Starring Jean Dujardin and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’s Adèle Haenel, the absurdist tone is reminiscent of Dupieux’s previous cult films Rubber and Wrong, as well as Peter Strickland’s underseen and utterly brilliant In Fabric. Don’t miss out on this one.
Another hot ticket this year is the much-anticipated German premiere of Honey Boy; this pseudo-biopic about the early life of actor Shia LaBeouf, starring LaBeouf himself playing his father, was one of this year’s revelations at Sundance. Meanwhile, Brazilian thriller and winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, Bacurau, is highly recommended. Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, and anchoring itself within the Brazilian New Wave, it’s been dubbed a “weird Western”, a strange and bloody gem that evokes John Carpenter and George Miller.
Also screening is Sophie Hyde’s fantastic Animals and Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela. The former centres around a friendship put to the test by a teetotalling fiancé, while the latter is a hypnotic and borderline Beckettian exploration of the marginalized, told through the story of a Cape Verdean woman navigating her way through Lisbon following the death of her husband. The Locarno jury awarded it the top prize, as well as Best Actress for its eponymous star.
The festival closes with Benedict Andrews’ biopic Seberg, featuring a strong turn from Kristen Stewart as actress Jean Seberg, who became embroiled in the civil rights movement during the late 1960s, and Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical The Farewell. The latter would make for an interesting double-bill with the aforementioned Babyteeth. “Based on an actual lie”, The Farewell is a beautifully judged and heartstring-tugging portrait of a family who come together when faced with a crisis. It addresses the white lies we tell the ones we love in order to spare them unnecessary pain, and does so without toppling into maudlin waters. It’s a bittersweet tragicomedy that rings true, and a canny bit of curation to close off another superb selection of films. With (happy) tears in your eyes, of course.
All films screen in OV, most with English subs.
Around The World In 14 Films | Kino in der KulturBrauerei, Prenzlauer Berg. Nov 21-30.