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  • Berlinale 2021: Here’s what you need to know


Berlinale 2021: Here’s what you need to know

The lineup for the city’s top film festival is here. What should you out look for? From big-name competition entrants to homegrown up-and-comers, our film editor surveys the schedule.

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The Berlinale’s 2021 Specials features 11 titles, including this documentary about Tina Turner. Photo: Tina / HBO

The year’s Berlin International Film Festival won’t take place this month. For the first time in its 71-year history, it will be split into two parts: online (March 1 – 5) and offline (June 9 – 20). The online programme is a collaboration with industry platforms European Film Market (EFM), Berlinale Talents and the World Cinema Fund. Until March 5, critics and industry professionals will view the festival’s film selection. (Excluding the Retrospective section, that is, which looks back at the works of three major female filmmakers: Mae West, Rosalind Russell and Carole Lombard, and their work under the infamous “Hays Code”.)

Assuming that it’s safe, the second stage of the 71st edition, dubbed the “Summer Special”, will take place between June 9 – 20. The Berlinale will partner with Berlin cinemas, both indoor and outdoor, so the public can be welcomed back to the screens, watch the films and prize winners, plus watch the awards ceremony. Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian spoke to us about this why the festival was never going to go fully digital.

Berlinale Executive Director Mariette Rissenbeek has explained the festival “had to come to terms with the fact that a normal Berlinale would probably not be possible in February 2021”, adding that they couldn’t cancel outright because “after many months of the pandemic and the closure of the cinemas, a vast number of filmmakers and dedicated people in the industry were urgently looking for a platform where they could continue their work.”

A promising Competition

There are some festival lineups that make you shrug. This year’s selection isn’t one of them. The International Competition comprises 15 world premieres from 16 countries, featuring award-winning filmmakers, Berlinale regulars and two debut features. It’s also worth noting that 5 of the 15 titles have female directors or co-directors, in line with 2020’s figure of 6 from 18. Baby steps, and all.

The promising lineup is “made up of films that have, either in production or post-production, endured the pandemic.” The only downside is that such a strong set of films won’t benefit from the usual red carpet or big-screen pomp usually offered to Berlinale-selected films. Still, they’re making the best of a bad situation.

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The time has come for French director Céline Sciamma to premiere her new film, Petite Maman Photo: Petite Maman / Lilies Films

The big hitters

The biggest names this year are without a doubt Céline Sciamma, Radu June, Alonso Ruizpalacios and Hong Sang-soo.

Indeed, sound all the klaxons – the time has come for French director Céline Sciamma to premiere her new film, Petite Maman, which follows 2019’s so-good-it-continues-to-hurt-a-wee-bit Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. Plot details are scarce, but we know that Sciamma will return to her signature themes of kids and rites of passage, shot this time with a dose of magic realism.

All eyes will also be on Romanian director Radu Jude, who is back after winning the Silver Bear in 2015 for Best Director for Aferim! with Babardeala cu buclucsau porno balamuc (more catchily: Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn), a “sociological sex film” that takes a look at contemporary Romania through the filter of a story centred on what happens after a secondary-school teacher’s sex tape inadvertently ends up online. Speaking of past Silver Bear winners, there’s Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios, who won the prize for 2018’s Museum. His new film, Una Película de Policías (A Cop Movie), intertwines documentary and fiction to study the work of the Mexican police. And it wouldn’t be a Berlinale without the ever-returning South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, whose newest offering, Inteurodeoksyeon (Introduction), was partly shot in Berlin and will be eagerly awaited by the critics.

Elsewhere, we’re looking forward to Xavier Beauvois’ Albatros (Drift Away), a film set in northern France that explores the existential quandaries of a police officer, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the Iranian film Ghasideyeh gave sefid (Ballad Of A White Cow), directed by Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam. The Berlinale often celebrates Iranian cinema, with last year’s Golden Bear going to Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil. This year’s representative explores themes of guilt and atonement through the story of a woman whose husband has been unjustly executed.

A focus on Germany

This year’s Competition features several German productions and co-productions. One of the main talking points is the debut film by Daniel Brühl, who steps behind the camera with his Berlin-set Nebenan (Next Door). The logline for the film describes it as a “tribute to the contradiction of Berlin in the 21st Century”. Your guess is as good as ours.

Other preliminary standouts are Maria Speth’s Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr. Bachmann And His Class), a documentary 10 years in the making which looks at the classroom as a microcosm of society, described by Carlo Chatrian as “epic yet intimate”. Then there’s Maria Schrader’s Ich bin dein Mensch (I’m Your Man). Schrader, best known for her Netflix series Unorthodox, will be competing for the Golden Bear with a twist on the traditional romcom, starring Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens and Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller. Dominik Graf’s Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde (Fabian: Going To The Dogs) also looks promising: it’s an adaptation of Erich Kästner’s classic 1931 novel starring Tom Schilling and Berlin Alexanderplatz standout Albrecht Schuch, a coming-of-age tale set in Berlin and taking place during the end of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. Lastly, the Hungarian / French / German co-production Természetes fény (Natural Light) by Dénes Nagy caught our attention: it focuses on an officer from the Hungarian army who is ordered to scout an area where Russian partisans fight against the occupation of the Third Reich.

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Daniel Brühl steps behind the camera for Nebenan (Next Door), which is set in Berlin. Photo: Next Door / Warner Bros.

The star-studded Specials

If the Competition hasn’t put stars in your eyes, the Berlinale Special selection has you covered. It features 11 titles, including two documentaries about musicians: Tina Turner (Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin’s Tina) and Lucio Dalla (Pietro Marcello’s For Lucio). We’re excited about these two, as well as two films that are currently running campaigns for awards: Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian, starring Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim and Benedict Cumberbatch, and French Exit, the Canadian-Irish co-production by Azazel Jacobs, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges and Imogen Poots.

As if that weren’t enough A-list goodness, there’s also the world premiere of Lina Roessler’s debut film, Best Sellers, which features Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza, Je Suis Karl by Christian Schwochow, and Natalie Morales’ eagerly anticipated Language Lessons.

The political credentials of the festival will also be in full force in this selection, with several titles focusing on topical issues, including Courage, a documentary by Aliaksei Paluyan about the peaceful uprising of the people of Belarus against the brutal repression of their democracy.

A Golden Jury

The awards will only be handed out in June, but the international jury will name the winning films in March. This year’s jury will be composed of past Golden Bear winners. Whether you think it’s lazy or inspired, it’s certainly new and fits this year’s unique edition.

The six members are: Mohammad Rasoulof (Iran – winner in 2020), Nadav Lapid (Israel – winner in 2019), Adina Pintilie (Romania – winner in 2018), Ildiko Enyedi (Hungary – winner in 2017), Gianfranco Rosi (Italy – winner in 2016) and Jasmila Zbanic (Bosnia and Herzegovina – winner in 2006).

Sidebar standouts

Despite a slimmed-down but sizeable programme, the festival’s established sidebar sections still have plenty in store.

Panorama tallies 19 films that include 14 world premieres. Two titles premiered in Sundance and have already garnered much praise: Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut Censor, a horror throwback about a film censor who becomes obsessed with unlocking the secrets of her sister’s disappearance, and Ronny Trocker’s Der menschliche Faktor (Human Factors), a psychological family portrait told from different perspectives. There’s also Henrika Kull’s character study Glück (Bliss), Tony Stone’s Sharlto Copley-starring Ted K, about the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Danis Goulet’s feminist-dystopian offering Night Raiders, and Carlos Alfonso Corral’s documentary Dirty Feathers, which depicts the hardships of the homeless who live on the border towns of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.

The Generation section for youth-centric movies always serves up some gems, and this year’s selection looks great. Sixty percent of the films this year are directed by women, and the festival has stated that a great many films feature “strong willed” female protagonists. Out of the 15 films divided over the Generation Kplus and Generation 14+ sections, we’re looking forward to Tracy Deer’s Beans, which touches upon racism levelled at the Mohawk-First Nations community, Dash Shaw’s animated Cryptozoo (which follows his excellent 2017 Generation entry My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea), and the Norwegian entry Ninjababy by Yngvild Sve Flikke.

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Berlinale crowds are scheduled to return in June. Photo: IMAGO / Bildgehege

The experimental section Forum is this year “slaloming between fiction and documentary”, with 17 films that “deal with uncertainties in the world outside by embracing unpredictability in their plots and structures”. It’s a challenging section, but it invariably offers up some of the festival’s most daring works. Debut films like Manque La Banca’s Esquí (Ski) and Uldus Bakhtiozina’s Doch rybaka (Tzarevna Scaling) promise to deliver some thought-provoking goods.

Encounters, first introduced last year to support new voices in cinema, consists of 12 titles, including seven debut films. The 2021 selection promises to take audiences from the Tahir square in Egypt to the dark heart of Argentinian dictatorships. For our part, we’re most looking forward to the section’s Francophone offerings, with three World premieres: Denis Côté’s Hygiène sociale (Social Hygiene), the follow-up to his 2019 Berlinale Competition-selected Repertoire Des Villes Disparues (Ghost Town Anthology), Jacqueline Lentzou’s debut, Moon, 66 Questions, and Alice Diop’s documentary Nous (We).

Finally, the Series section this year has 6 entries, the standout being It’s A Sin from the mind behind Queer As Folk, Doctor Who and Years And Years, Russell T Davies. This five-part miniseries is set from 1981 to 1991 in London, depicting the lives of a group of gay men and their friends who lived during the AIDS crisis in the UK. It has already aired in the UK on Channel 4, and it’s an absolute knockout.

That’s it for now. Keep an eye out for more Berlinale content over the next few weeks, including our focus on the Talents section, as well as a Berlinale quiz to test your knowledge of the world’s largest film festival.