It’s February. It’s Berlin. It’s film time! With some 400 films, 1000 screenings and almost half a million theatre visits, the Berlinale is the largest publicly attended film festival in the world.
For 10 shining days beginning February 7, Berlin will become the Weltstadt it’s always dreamed of being, with visitors from 130 different countries. Here, to give you the customary heads up, is our preview.
The big names
The jury boss this year is Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, whose The Grandmaster opens the festival out of competition. As jury president in Cannes in 2006, Wong presided over awards given to solid but essentially mainstream films by Loach, Inárritu, and Bruno Drumont – whose Camille Claudel 1915, with Juliette Binoche, starts here in competition. Drumont’s film stands out in a mixed bag of 19 competition films that pits American staples Soderbergh and Van Sant against (former) indie-gardists Danis Tanovic and David Gordon Green, who’ll be trying to recapture earlier form with this year’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker and Prince Avalanche respectively.
Then there’s absolute beginner Fredrik Bond, whose debut feature The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman strangely features H’wood hotties Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood alongside Til Schweiger, Rupert Grint and Mads Mikkelsen.
Austrian enfant terrible Ulrich Seidl looks set to revel grimly in yet more naked vulnerability in Paradise: Hope, part three of his Paradise trilogy, in which young, weight-challenged Melanie falls for the much older director of a ‘diet camp’. There is only one German film, but after last year’s Barbara disappointment, Thomas Arslan’s Gold will give Nina Hoss another run at a Silver Bear. Bille August’s Night Train to Lisbon and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (it had to happen sometime) provide some out-of-competition padding.
If you’re a big-name junkie, be sure and check out the Talent Campus, where Jane Campion, Ken Loach, Ulrich Seidl, Paul Verhoeven et al will be dispensing advice and encouragement to young filmmakers.
And keep a look out for actor/director Tim Robbins (jury member) whilst actors on the red carpet will include Amanda Seyfried, Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Ethan Hawke, Geoffrey Rush, Jeremy Irons, Catherine Deneuve, Hugh Jackman, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Isabelle Huppert, Tom Courtenay, Matt Damon and Anne Hathaway.
And we mean Far East: over 25 films (and counting) from countries such as Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia. The biggest single contributor is South Korea, with a grand total of 10. Of these, the competition entry Nobody’s Daughter Haewon from indie darling Hong Sang-soo is likely to charm audiences and the jury with its familiar elements of uneven, instinctual relationships and the role of coincidence.
The picture it presents of Korean society will doubtless be friendlier than that in the fiercely disturbing White Night, in which a gay internet assignation wavers between violence and tenderness; Pluto, which examines the emotional price exacted by merciless competition at elite schools; or Fatal, which takes on the gargantuan issues of guilt and redemption as they wreak revenge on the participants of a gang rape.
It’s the economy, stupid
Big-batters Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects) and Gus van Sant (Promised Land), weigh in on big issues with competition movies on the pharmaceutical industry and fracking respectively.
Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45, on Britain’s welfare state, shows in Berlinale Special whilst Greece brings its perspective on economic misery to bear in two movies, both based on highly unusual narrative premises – in particular the emotionally draining The Daughter, in which a young Greek girl takes drastic measures to rehabilitate her bankrupt father.
A similar plot is given an extra regional twist in the Israeli film Youth, as military service puts guns in the hands of young men desperate to save the family fortunes.
Tribal economics dominate Elelwani from South Africa, when a young woman decides to forego the perceived benefits of an education paid for by a local chief, seeking definition instead in African mythology.
Sex, porn and business
John Cameron Mitchell and Israeli writer/actress/director Hagar Ben Asher will be critiquing the use of sex, not porn, in their work at Berlinale’s brainstorming Talent Campus.
Exploring this (not so) fine line, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon’s Addiction, on a sex addict attempting to go straight(er), had Sundance abuzz.
Two biopics hold the porn industry up to different lights: big-name Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (Berlinale Special) on porn-king/property baron Paul Raymond and Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace on porn star Linda. Playing Hugh Hefner in that movie, James Franco makes one of three appearances at this year’s Berlinale. His co-directed Interior. Leather Bar recreates the 40 minutes controversially cut from Cruising, presented at the 1980 Berlinale.
Preludes to terror
Arguably a terrifying experience in itself, James Benning’s daringly constructed Stemple Pass consists of four 30-minute shots, filmed at different times of the year, of a hut he built as a replica of Ted Kaczynski’s cabin. Accompanied by excerpts from the Unabomber’s diary it deserves attention for the way it gets under the skin of Kacyznski’s luddite-genius obsessions.
Omnipresent in the Middle East, terror and its effects are shown in a couple of very different and highly recommendable films: Inch’Allah follows an aid worker trying to reconcile friendships between Palestinians and Israelis, and in Rock the Casbah, a sensitive Israeli soldier stationed in Gaza in the 1980s learns the hard way that good intentions notwithstanding, violence will beget violence.
The Act of Killing is a masterpiece in which former Indonesian death squad leaders reenact their atrocities on film, blurring the lines between fact and fiction in a way that’s echoed in the slow-burn Portuguese documentary No Man’s Land: as a young woman interviews a former mercenary, it becomes clear that reality is just somebody else’s narrative.
Family-themed films start in competition with Guillaume Nicloux’ period drama The Nun, in which an adolescent girl rebels against her family’s choice of vocation, embracing drugged-out extremes in Baby Blues from Poland as well as the wonderfully observed everyday banality of divorcing pains in Matt Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker.
For family structures from different cultural contexts, the balancing act of emotional independence and filial duty explored in the Egyptian film Coming Forth by Day is as thought-provoking as the Lebanese/Danish documentary A World Not Ours in which director Mahdi Fleifel comes to terms distinctively with his childhood memories of life in a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon.
Family meals with a difference loom large in Jadoo by Amit Gupta, in which rival chefs, who are also brothers, fight over their customer’s taste buds. The British film is part of Berlinale’s gimmicky section: Culinary Cinema 2013.