This year’s 70th Berlinale is gearing up to be one for the books, and pre-bookings for tickets opens online today (Feb 17).
Navigating the expansive and somewhat labyrinthine programme can often feel like wading through treacle, so allow us to give you the bear necessities. Here are the titles we’ve already seen and loved: the ones worth queuing for, section by section.
** The Competition and Encounters selections will not feature in this article, as no pre-Berlinale press screenings were held for any of these Bear-competing sidebars.**
Traditionally an audience favourite and seen by many as a Competition-bis selection, the Panorama section is composed of arthouse gems by international auteurs – both young talents and renowned filmmakers.
Here are our top picks:
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
A highlight this year comes from documentary filmmaking brothers Bill and Turner Ross, who chronicle the last night of service in an appropriately dingy Las Vegas dive bar, Roaring 20s. The regulars drink, argue, sing, kiss and make up, and wrestle with the fact that the place that feels the most like home will soon no longer exist. For many them, it’s more than a bar closing – it’s the end of the world. To add an extra layer to this, the Ross Brothers blur the lines between documentary and fiction: they used a real bar in New Orleans as the set and reportedly cast an ensemble to play characters as close to themselves as possible. Whether you think Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is scripted semi-fiction or verité-style non-fiction is your call, but all of it feels real: it questions what locations and communities mean to us, as well as the people we choose to surround ourselves with. It’s authentic and surprisingly touching.
Cidade Passaro (Shine Your Eyes)
This Brazilian-French co-production from Matias Mariani is another highlight of this year’s programme. It follows Amadi, who travels from Lagos to Brazil to find his missing older brother, Ikenna, in order to bring him back to Nigeria. When he gets there, he tumbles down the rabbit hole of his brother’s lies and attempts to uncover whether the missing Ikenna has succumbed to madness or whether he has stumbled across a mathematical equation that could hold the key to what we consider the randomness of everyday events. Part family drama, part sci-fi tinged jeu-de-piste, this layered feature addresses questions of identity, familial love and otherness in a foreign environment in an often tantalizingly cryptic way.
Another one about missing family members… This time, an Iranian mother, Pari, heads to Athens to find her missing son. She is faced with a new and intimidating environment that will lead her discover what exactly happened to him. Siamak Etemadi’s familial drama takes its cues from Greek tragedy, turning a mystery into a journey of emancipation and rebirth, without falling into stereotypes linked to clashes encountered by Muslims faced with Western turmoil. It’s suspenseful, beautifully shot and utterly compelling, featuring a knock-out performance by Melika Foroutan.
A strong contender for the Teddys, Suk Suk is the wonderfully touching and beautifully understated story of two elderly men looking for a connection. Hong Kong taxi driver Pak supports his family at the end of his career. In search of anonymous sex, he meets retired divorcee Hoi. They begin to spend more time together and find in a bathhouse a haven to be with each other. Based on recordings of oral history, Ray Yeung’s sensitively crafted film observes the nascent love between two closeted men who find each other in their twilight years, and simultaneously offers a tender insight into the isolation and socially-induced fear that older people feel when breaking away from traditional family structures.
Kosovo-born pharmaceutical engineer Xhafer (Mišel Matičević) lives in Germany with his German wife Nora (Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller). One day, he comes home to find a dead rat hanging from the gate of his house. His unease grows day by day, as he feels increasingly discriminated against at work, and begins to suspect some of his colleagues. Is it a race issue, or do his co-workers simply dislike him? Are the microaggressions he feels subjected to all in his head or is it reality? There’s more than a touch of Michael Haneke’s Caché in Visar Morina’s thematically stratified and stomach-knotting thriller, a well-acted piece that is bound to leave you shaken.
Curatively independent and part of the Arsenal (Institute for Film and Video Art), the 35 films boast experimental and risk-taking fare. It’s traditionally a harder sell compared to other sections, but this year’s batch is arguably one of the strongest in recent years.
Look out for the following films:
Wrap up warm, because Viera Čákanyová’s documentary is Forum at its best: uniquely experimental, disquietingly mesmeric, and deeply thought-provoking. FREM tackles the subject of the current climate crisis by providing a beautiful yet haunting portrait of King George Island off the coast of Antarctica, seen through the eyes of an artificial intelligence. It’s a sensory and futurist piece that dares you to think differently, not only about the environment but also about humanity and the limitations of our place within the ecosystem, all without a trace of didacticism. Unmissable.
The 20th Century
Toronto, 1899. Aspiring young politician Mackenzie King dreams of becoming the Prime Minister of Canada. On his quest for power, he’ll need to satisfy his Freudian-nightmare-of-a-mother’s lofty expectations, outshine his potential rivals and keep a fetishistic obsession under control. This highly stylized and camp Canadian dramady written and directed by Matthew Rankin answers the question: What would you get if you crossbred Monty Python with Guy Maddin and geometrically obsessed Soviet propaganda aesthetic? Curious yet? You should be.
El Tango Del Viudo Y Su Espejo Deformante (The Tango Of The Widower And Its Distorting Mirror)
What would have been late Chilean director Raúl Ruiz’ first film is now opening this year’s Forum section. Ruiz, who died in 2011, was unable to complete it before going into exile in 1973; his unfinished 1967 film is now ready to be seen, finished and restored by his widow Valeria Sarmiento. It’s the story of a man whose wife has committed suicide and how her haunting presence forces him to question his sanity. Described by Ruiz as “a spiral” and a “schizophrenic game”, the end result feels like a proto-Memento of sorts. It’s a strange and deeply experimental film that fully complies to Forum’s envelope-pushing tendencies, an oddity well worth your time.
Namo (The Alien)
A calm and ordinary Iranian neighbourhood is shaken when two mysterious strangers show up in their car on a daily basis. Suspected to be national security, their presence triggers paranoia within the community, with neighbours suspecting one another of being the target of the duo’s surveillance. One man gradually emerges as the collective scapegoat: Bakhtiar, a Kurdish teacher, who’s status as a foreigner puts him in the line of fire. Namo (The Alien) is a terrific portrait of marginalization, xenophobia and, as director Nader Saeivar states, a film that stands as “a truthful mirror of Iran’s current socio-political situation”.
The Viewing Booth
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’ 70-minute documentary takes place in a lab-space, where a young American student, Maia, watches videos of life in the West Bank city of Hebron. Twenty videos have a right-wing agenda, while 20 others are from Human Rights Organisation B’Tselem. She candidly verbalises her thoughts in real time, and we witness how she reacts to videos of the Occupation that either confirm her innate bias, contradict her deep-seated beliefs or threaten her worldview. Addressing themes of perception, documentary filmmaking and empathy in the digital era, this is a conversation-stimulating film that deserves your time and is far from the stuffy and academic meditation on conflict it might initially seem.
Often unfairly overlooked and dismissed by some as the “kids section”, Generation is so much more. Unique on the festival circuit, Generation champions films that are youth-centric, but definitely not just for kids: they are convention-breaking and show the importance of not misguidedly shielding younger viewers from the harsh reality of life.
This year’s films address the personal and the political, first loves and war zones, small steps and giant leaps, all through the eyes of young protagonists. Under the leitmotif “Should I stay or should I go?”, the 27 feature length films and 32 short films show that choices are key, and happy endings aren’t always guaranteed. The programme is split between KPlus films (for the younglings) and 14Plus films (more appropriate for older audiences), and this 43rd edition boasts an impressive directorial and representation statistic: 34 out the 59 films are directed by women.
Due to time constraints, we’ve focused on the 14Plus selection of the Generation programme, and these are the titles that should be on your radar:
The Earth Is Blue As An Orange
Fresh from its win at Sundance in the World Cinema Documentary section for the Directing Award, Iryna Tsilyk’s fantastically affecting The Earth Is Blue As An Orange is a must-see in the Generation section. It’s a film that shows cinema as a coping mechanism, a life-affirming tool and what Roger Ebert described as “a machine that generates empathy”. It observes a family coping with life under siege in the ‘red zone’ city of Donbas, Ukraine. The eldest daughter, Mira, dreams of becoming a cinematographer and we see how the family direct and act in re-created scenes that they’ve survived to tell. The meta-storytelling doesn’t get in the way of emotions or humour, showing how conflict can be both traumatic and worryingly ordinary.
“We’re like fish in a fish tank. We keep swimming around in circles, from one end of Kotti to the other and back again, until we eventually manage to jump out of the tank.” This year’s opening film for the Generation section is Leonie Krippendorff’s Kokon, a tender and well-observed coming-of-age story that takes place in Kreuzberg. It follows Nora, who tags along at parties and rooftop get-togethers, mingling with her older sister’s friends without ever really fitting in. Things will change when she meets a kindred spirit, Romy, who seems to share her way of looking at the world. It’s exactly what you’d want from a Generation film and a strong opener for this year’s selection.
This Belgian debut from writer-director Zoé Wittock sees shy and withdrawn amusement park worker, Jeanne, develop a deep form of psychosexual attraction for an inanimate object, a new UFO-looking ride she decides to call Jumbo. Starring Portrait Of A Lady On Fire star Noémie Merlant, this unusual love story is played completely straight-faced but goes beyond the surface of what sexual psychologists refer to as objectophilia. It’s a metaphorical fable about the struggles of those who don’t fit the standards of heteronormativity and an ambitious call for acceptance. Well worth checking out.
Alice Júnior (Anne Celestino Mota) is a transgender YouTuber who is forced to move from the big city to a small conservative town in the south of Brazil; there, she’ll face the Catholic morals and small-mindedness of her new high school. Director Gil Baroni has stated that Brazil holds “a shameful statistic” with the highest death rate of transsexuals in the world, and what could have been a sombre affair is instead a wonderfully vibrant and heart-warming film whose kinetic style, humour and graphic sensibilities frequently recall Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Baroni shrewdly avoids well-trodden tropes linked to coming of age stories, choosing instead to create a dynamic and joyful ode to the beauty of diversity.
Yalda, La Nuit Du Pardon (Yalda, A Night For Forgiveness)
The popular reality TV show Joy Of Forgiveness is about to go live. Screened on the night of Yalda, a Persian celebration of the winter solstice, the broadcast is watched by millions and can quite literally save lives. The guest is Maryam, a young Iranian woman condemned to death for manslaughter of her husband. She claims it was an accident but will have to go in front of millions of viewers to beg for forgiveness and her life. Her last chance rests in the hands of her late husband’s daughter, Mona. For his second dramatic feature since 2012’s A Respectable Family, Iranian writer/director Massoud Bakhshi has constructed a Black Mirror-reminiscent set up that works as a tense chamber play, as well as a critique of how women are still victims of deeply entrenched patriarchal values in Iran.
Frequently the most enlivening part of many festivals, short films are not worth overlooking.
This year’s thematically and aesthetically eclectic selection of Berlinale Shorts is composed of 24 films from 18 countries, segmented into five programmes playing in CinemaxX, Colosseum, Cubix and Zoo Palast, followed by Q&As with the filmmakers. Our favourites include:
How To Disappear (Shorts II programme)
“If you refuse to play a game, you are a spoil-sport; if you refuse to fight in a war, you are a deserter.” A highlight of this year’s Shorts selection is this Austrian piece by Leonhard Müllner, Robin Klengel and Michael Stumpf, which delves into the rarely explored topic of desertion in war – both in the digital and real world. Shot in the landscapes of multiplayer online shooter game “Battlefield V”, a captivating narration addresses historical disobedience and how videogames are a great deal more than cultural artefacts. What could have been a stale history lesson becomes an insightful and topical anti-war film that shouldn’t be missed.
HaMa’azin (Listening In) (Shorts II programme)
Omer Sterenberg’s HaMa’azin follows a young Israeli man who works for military intelligence. Listening in on Palestinian calls, one gay couple intrigues him, and he begins to follow their relationship whilst giving his report: “The target is conducting relations with someone of his own sex.” However, his own feelings begin to get in the way. It’s an exceptionally promising and engaging short that has the potential to make a stunning feature film. Fingers crossed…
Stump The Guesser (Shorts III programme)
Two years since their fantastic feature The Green Fog (screened in Forum), Canadian national treasures Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson return to the Berlinale with Stump The Guesser. It’s an absurdist silent film that sees a fairground guesser lose his divining talents and who takes it upon himself to disprove the theory of hereditary, because he’s fallen in love with his long-lost sister. Sound deliriously nuts? It is, and Stump The Guesser displays the Canadian filmmakers’ signature brand of cineliterate playfulness.
Celle Qui Porte La Pluie (Shorts III programme)
Canada for the win, as this moodily shot and atmospheric short by Montreal native Marianne Métivier is a haunting portrait of grief and suppressed pain. Some scenes take place in an oneiric environment that stands at the intersection where frustration and consolation meet, and the wonderfully cryptic results provide much food for thought.
A Demonstration (Shorts IV programme)
Russian director Sasha Litvintseva and Berlin-born Beny Wagner team up for this stunning, 25-minute long experimental piece that plays out like a poetic fever dream you won’t soon forget. Described by the filmmakers as “a monster film with no monsters”, A Demonstration explores the boundaries of interpretation and metamorphosis in an enticingly obtuse and evocative way.
The Berlinale was the first A-festival worldwide to acknowledge the shift in viewing habits and the growing significance of serial storytelling. Since 2015, the Berlinale Series selection offers exclusive first looks at new productions, and this year’s selection is the strongest its ever been.
So, head to Zoo Palast (Feb 24-27) to catch the first two episodes (or in some cases the entire series) of your next favourite show. Here are our picks:
Award-winning Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari directs this new BBC series, a relationship screwball dramady following a London couple who get a roommate to help cover their rent.
Whiplash and La La Land’s Damien Chazelle directs the first two episodes of The Eddy, a musical drama which will be making its way onto Netflix in the near future. Set in a jazz club in Paris, it stars Moonlight’s André Holland, The Hate U Give’s Amandla Stenberg and A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim. It’s one of this year’s biggest gets for the section and looks damn promising.
Created by Clara Mendes and directed by Amalie Næsby Fick, this Danish series follows 22-year old Catherine, who is faced with the disappearing sex drive of her boyfriend Simon and questions whether she should stick with the safety of a loving relationship or the tantalizing promise of much more.
Co-created and starring Cate Blanchett, this six-part Australian drama series, set to screen on ABC, centers on four strangers in an immigration detention center in the Australian desert.
C’est Comme Ca Que Je T’aime (Happily Married)
Set in Quebec in 1974, this twisty and Cohen-esque series revolves around two couples who are confronted with the deteriorating state of their marriages once they’ve dropped off their kids at summer camp.
Talents is a week-long summit at HAU compromising panel discussions and masterclasses with special guests and project labs open to the public. This year’s edition dedicates nearly 100 events (of which 33 are public) to the personal, professional and societal issues of today. In keeping with this year’s theme “Collectives”, over 150 filmmakers and artists will be in attendance and Talents has invited 255 film professionals from 86 countries to participate in the week-long summit.
Here are the public events we’re most excited for:
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s sound spaces
The recent Golden Globe and Oscar-winning Icelandic composer and musician behind the Joker and Chernobyl soundtracks comes to HAU for a talk about shared intuitions and her music and her open sound spaces. (Sunday, Feb 23, 14:00, HAU1)
Web Series with Julia Penner, Sandra Stöckmann and Ronja Salmi
True to their reputation of being at the forefront of reflecting on changing times and opening new perspectives, Talents will also explore the digital world of web series. Julia Penner and Sandra Stöckmann, the writers behind Druck, the German version of Skam, will headline a series panel on youth and youth language, while Finnish filmmaker and launcher of the world’s first Instragram Stories drama series (Karma) Ronja Salmi will address topics of young millennials, mental health issues, sexuality, as well as the changing landscape of online viewing. (Monday, Feb 24, 11:30, HAU3)
Places Like Home with Cate Blanchett, Karim Aïnouz, Nardjes and Maryam Zaree
This Table Talent Talk with Cate Blanchett, Karim Aïnouz, Nardjes and Maryam Zaree focuses on what belonging means today and whether “Heimat” is sought or taken. (Monday, Feb 24, 17:00, HAU1)
Kleber Mendonça Filho on exclusion
Award-winning director and member of the 2020 International Jury Kleber Mendonça Filho shares his insights and investigations into social inequality and exclusion in contemporary Brazil. (Tuesday, Feb 25,14:00, HAU2)
Honouring Helen Mirren
Oscar-winner Helen Mirren, the recipient of this year’s Honorary Golden Bear, will take part in a conversation with MoMA’s Chief Curator of Film, Rajendra Roy. (Wednesday, Feb 26, 17:00, HAU1)
For further information on screening dates, times and locations, check out the Berlinale programme here.