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Berlinale 2023: What to expect at this year’s festival

After two years of pandemic restrictions, could 2023 mark the true return of the Berlinale? We preview some of what to expect at this year's festival.

She Came to Me. Photo © Protagonist Pictures

After two years of a pandemic-curtailed Berlinale, which felt more like a dress rehearsal than the widely championed new start, the Dutch-Italian directing duo Mariëtte Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian have one year left to really whoop it up before they consider their options when their five year contract ends in March 2024.

Here’s what they have in store for the world’s most democratic (seat allocation), funkiest (awards) and challenging (out-there work) alternative to holing up ‘til winter’s over.

Competition: The Return of the Germans

The Cage is Looking for a Bird Photo © Protagonist Pictures

Five of the 18 films in the Competition of the 73rd Berlinale are from Germany: it’s a record high, at least in this century, with Margarethe von Trotta, Angela Schanelec, Christian Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler and German-French-Iranian Emily Atef spearheading this year’s home front. Three among them (Schanelec, Petzold, Hochhäusler) are veterans of the Berlin School, an institution frequently name dropped by critics and festivalgoers stalking the latest, if elusive, incarnation of the German Nouvelle Vague, whose dialogue-heavy, situationally driven narratives often take their tone from bleak or at best sober aesthetics.

Five of the 18 films in the Competition of the 73rd Berlinale are from Germany: it’s a record high

It will be interesting to see how Christian Petzold adapts his conceptual mythology to the current apocalyptic mood and climate panic in Roter Himmel, how Angela Schanelec reimagines a contemporary Oedipus in Music and if Christoph Hochhäusler’s Till the End of the Night can fill the yawning chasm: second generation German genre cinema that aspires, like its 1960s-1970s predecessor, to biting social observation.

Returning to her fascination with female icons in Germany’s politico-cultural life, 80-year-old Margarethe von Trotta’s Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert draws its inspiration from the (some would say toxic) relationship between the 20th century icons Ingeborg Bachmann, an Austrian author, and Swiss-German writer Max Frisch. For a a new take – the female gaze! – on the age-old trope of a young woman falling for a man twice her age, Emily Atef ’s Someday We Will Tell Each Other Everything hits a sweet spot with a film set amid seismic zeitgeist shifts set against the backdrop of German reunification.

True Grit: Documentaries galore

Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert. Photo © Wolfgang Ennenbach

The prolific filmmaker Mark Cousins pointed out that “it’s a good time again for documentaries.” While these traditionally form the bedrock of the Forum section, this year they also account for other festival highlights. Forum is teeming with exceptional examples: 17 of its 34 entries are documentaries. While they share the principle of a strong aesthetic mood, their subject and style are boundless: Dick Fontaine’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine (F: 1982) is a restored work that follows iconic Black American writer James Baldwin as he (re)locates and (re)encounters the struggle for civil rights in the American South.

Luke Fowler’s portrait of Scottish poet and filmmaker Margaret Tait offers a stunning meditation on legacy via her home region of Orkney in Being in a Place – A Portrait of Margaret Tait (F: 2022). Sports doc fans are in for a special high as two documentaries explore the make-or-break moments of professional success and personal disaster: Stams (P: 2023) follows the young skiing elite over one year at a boarding school in the Tyrolean Alps as they train doggedly with one goal in mind – the Olympic Games. Alex Gibney’s still-untitled work on Boris Becker (SG) juxtaposes the highs and lows of Becker’s tennis trajectory – from serving aces to serving prison time.

One third of the (Perspektive Deutsches Kino) entries this year are documentaries, and the section is shaping up as a showcase for radical and brave work. Keep a special eye out for Nuclear Nomads (PDK: 2023), Kilian Armando Friedrich and Tizian Stromp Zargari’s impressive debut portrayal of French workers who travel around in caravans cleaning nuclear reactors.

Ukraine and Iran: Berlinale takes sides

The Siren Photo © Les Films d’Ici

Russia and Iran – while not officially cancelled – are unwelcome at the festival. “Our first concern is to support Ukrainian film culture, not so much to boycott the other side,” explains festival director Carlo Chatrian, before adding that any Russian production on the programme will have to be free from “funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture”, like the debut feature The Cage is Looking for a Bird (E), a Russian Federation co-production with France directed by Grozny-born Malika Musaeva. It also means more films about the war in Ukraine coming at the conflict from a number of angles.


Contributions include Iron Butterflies (P: 2023) on the shooting down of MH17, It’s a Date (SRTs: 2023), a breakneck film that spotlights emotion in times of war, and the documentary of life in a war zone, In Ukraine tary of life in a war zone, In Ukraine (F: 2023). And don’t miss the depiction of life as a Ukrainian child refugee in Germany presented in Waking Up In Silence (G: 2023). After threatening to smelt his Oscars then donating one instead as a gesture of support for the Ukrainian people, Sean Penn’s impassioned support continues – he’ll be at Berlinale with his film on President Zelenskyy. From current wars to those still smouldering, the Berlinale remains particularly alert to reverberations from the Syrian war, traced through past memories, present reflections and new homes in the documentary Under the Sky of Damascus (P: 2023), Concrete Valleys (F: 2022) and Back (SRTs: 2023).

Russia and Iran – while not officially cancelled – are unwelcome at the festival.

There are a dozen films by and about Iran in this year’s selection. These are hard-nosed, honest accounts with a particular focus on the plight of women in front of and behind the camera, with four entries directed by women – including The Siren (P: 2023), Sepideh Farsi’s debut in animation that profiles her trademark interest in identity-forming experiences. Directed by Negin Ahmadi, Dreams’Gate (G: 2023) documents her own story as a marginalised Iranian woman finding agency and inspiration after meeting Kurdish female soldiers. Steffi Niederzoll’s debut documentary Seven Winters in Tehran (PDK: 2023) – tells the story of a young female student hanged for murdering her rapist. The section pairs this work with Tehran Taboo (PDK: 2017), an animated film that considers the impact of oppression on sexuality and women’s rights in Iran.

Queer, climate and activism: What’s the price of commitment?

Intersectional activists alert! Is queer cinema being side-lined? We’ll see who gets the Berlinale’s queer film award, the Teddy, but two entries in particular stand a fighting chance as quality edges ahead of quantity: Kokomo City (P: 2023) documents the lives of Black American trans sex workers in a series of interviews, and Silver Haze (P: 2023), from Berlinale regular and specialist in raw emotionality, Dutch director Sascha Polak.

Climate and environmentalism remain front and centre of the Berlinale agenda but are viewed obliquely this year in films such as Lonely Oaks (PDK: 2023), a documentary that pits the threat to the planet against specific tragedy as a cameraman filming protests against forest clearance for an opencast mine fall to his death. Finally, De Facto (F: 2023) sums up the for-and-against of activism in film, engaging with crimes against humanity, extreme violence and state terror, asking: is the film industry not also potentially complicit in these atrocities? 

Is long the new normal? The Berlinale makes its case

Our Body Photo ©Madison Films

Just as Chantal Akerman’s feminist 1975 masterpiece (Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) won Sight and Sound’s ‘Greatest Film of All Time’ last year – 201-minute running time – no film under three hours can be blamed for being too long this year. Forum leads the field at the Berlinale, where the trend of slow observation continues. Ulises de la Orden weaves 530 hours of courtroom footage into 18 chapters as he captures the legal battle between Argentina’s military dictatorship and its victims in The Trial (F: 2023).

Claire Simon’s Our Body (F: 2023), approvingly stamped “visceral” by Forum director Cristina Nord, uses nearly three hours of remarkable footage from a Parisian gynaecological clinic to interrogate what it means to be in a female body today. See the longer format shine further as the Berlinale inaugurates the Berlinale Series Award. Highlights include Dalei Zhang’s Why Try To Change Me Now, a noughties coming-of-age drama involving a taxi driver’s murder case, and The Swarm, a French adaptation of the science fiction novel by German author Frank Schätzing.

Smells like teen spirit: Coming-of-age movies

Sun and Concrete. Photo © Constantin Film Verleih

Tales from the cusp of adulthood remain a staple at the Berlinale as it reflects on increasingly endangered environments for childhood and adolescence with films that include David Wnendt’s Sun and Concrete (BS: 2023), an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Felix Lobrecht, which follows a group of teens in Neukölln in the sun-drenched early noughties. Elsewhere, eating an 18th birthday cake turns into a bloody metamorphosis in Jennifer Reeder’s hypnotic genre splice Perpetrator (P:2023). Boubacar Sangaré’s acutely observed documentary A Golden Life (Or de vie) (F: 2023) follows Rasmané, a 16-year-old in Burkina Faso, as he searches for gold in the 100-metre abyss of a small-scale mine. Holiday friendships get a makeover in Jenna Hasse’s Longing for the World (GK+: 2023) when teenager Margaux bonds with seven-year-old Juliette and a local fisherman.

Berlinale reflects on increasingly endangered environments for childhood and adolescence

This year’s Retrospective programme focuses fully on this theme. “Young at Heart – Coming of Age at the Movies” showcases some of cinema’s most highly-regarded talents choosing their personal favourites from this genre. Featuring an unusual range of films, the programme focuses not only on classic standouts, but includes movies that plaplayed a decisive role in the cinematic career or formative memory of those involved in the selection. Get inside the head of Nora Fingscheidt, Ethan Hawke, Martin Scorsese, Lav Diaz, M. Night Shyamalan, Wim Wenders, Tilda Swinton and Alice Diop with pictures as varied as Bag of Rice (1996), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Typhoon Club (1985), The Last Picture Show (1971) and Sound and Fury (1988).

Berlinale and Hollywood: Guess who’s coming to the gala?

Photo: IMAGO / PA Images

There’s a history there. Since its conception in 1951 by Oscar Martay, an American stationed in Berlin during the Cold War, the festival has found itself reckoning with cinematic influences from across the pond. Despite early protestations to the contrary, Hollywood continues to beguile – the festival opens with jury president Kristen Stewart and a gala showing of Rebecca Miller’s romcom She Came to Me (BS: 2023).

As for this year’s big name guest? Steven Spielberg is coming to town to collect an Honorary Golden Bear for his life’s work. Alongside some of his masterpieces (Homage) there will be the German premiere of The Fabelmans, his latest and most autobiographical work. Catch John Malkovich at the Special Gala for the world premiere of Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes (BS: 2022). Also showcasing here is Todd Field’s Tár , a film with Cate Blanchett in the titular role as a superbly gifted but morally disreputable conductor/composer. And there’s some new Willem Dafoe lurking in the Panorama section’s post-heist movie Inside (P: 2023).

Hollywood continues to beguile

The new generation makes an entrance with White Lotus / Euphoria actress Sydney Sweeney starring in Reality (P: 2023). Alt-Hollywood, albeit Canadian, director Brandon Cronenberg’s grindhouse psychological horror Infinity Pool (BS: 2022) with Mia Goth in the lead role also has its European premiere. There’s one from his dad, too: David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (BC: 1991) will be shown in a restored version.

Want more Berlinale? Check our picks for the films you shouldn’t miss and our guide to getting tickets

You can also see the full Berlinale programme here.