As the open-air summer edition of Berlinale 2021 draws to a close, the festival can look back on a job well done. Big-name filmmakers arrived in Berlin to eager crowds of film-starved cinephiles, all of whom who had gone without big screen experiences for the best (or should that be worst?) part of seven months.
In cased you missed out on tickets or you’re already going through the post-festival shakes, here’s a cinematic selection to ease your comedown: the best (and lesser-seen) Berlinale films of the last five years.
The Berlinale got lucky last year, taking place IRL before lockdown measures came into effect. It was the first year under the new leadership of directors Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek, who boasted a keen curatorial eye and helmed a strong edition. The Golden Bear went to Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof for Sheytan vojud nadarad (There Is No Evil), four stories exposing the inhumanity of authoritarian rule, which comes out in cinemas later this year (August 19). Banned from filmmaking in his country since 2017, Rasoulof was unable to pick up his award; his daughter, actress Baran Rasoulof, went on stage to accept the bear on his behalf and made an impassioned speech on the dangers of censorship. As award-worthy as the film is, another Competition film shone brighter in our eyes…
FIRST COW (Competition) out on Mubi on July 9.
In the early 19th century in the wilds of Oregon, taciturn cook Cookie (John Magaro) befriends King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who’s on the run. Their unlikely friendship leads them to start a small trade in “oily cakes”. These turn out to be a hit, with many a prospector paying handsome sums for their culinary efforts. The only catch is that the raw material they use for their delicious treats is acquired illegally, stolen from the region’s only cow, which belongs to a pompous landowner (Toby Jones). Director Kelly Reichardt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond (the author of the novel upon which the film is based), creates a unique Western that celebrates characters on the margins of society.
Except instead of six-shooters, it’s buttermilk biscuits and cinnamon for arguably the gentlest heist movie imaginable. Reichardt’s previous films have delved into the nature of friendship, while in First Cow she beautifully explores the gentler facets of masculinity (the *cough* milk of human kindness, if you will) and subverts the way the frontier is portrayed on screen: it’s as much about the American dream and supply-and-demand economics as it is about a place where paths cross. The end result is a delicate, transportive and above all big-hearted story of brotherhood and tasty grifting, one that was the clear head of the herd in last year’s Competition section.
THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN (Encounters), out in cinemas on July 1.
Screened during the maiden voyage of the Encounters section, a platform aiming to “foster aesthetically and structurally daring works from independent filmmakers”, Sandra Wollner’s audacious The Trouble With Being Born plays out like the unnerving yin to Maria Schrader’s chirpier I’m Your Man yang (which premiered in this year’s Competition, also out in cinemas on July 1).
Both films deal with androids, with two very different takes on what AI has to offer… The Trouble With Being Born – which was awarded the Encounters Special Jury Award – shares a title with the philosophy tome by Emil Cioran, and shines as an eerily captivating Frankenstein update that delves into questions of memory and human grief. We applaud you should you decide to give the I’m Your Man / The Trouble With Being Born double-bill a shot.
Keep your eyes peeled for our full review and interview with Sandra Wollner, and don’t forget to check out our chat with Maria Schrader.
The 69th Berlinale was Dieter Kosslick’s final year as festival director, and the underwhelming Competition selection felt in dire need of a shake-up and a shrewder curatorial touch. However, the sidebar sections and the Out of Competition selection provided some thrills in the shape of Agnès Varda’s final film Varda By Agnès and the stunning concert documentary Amazing Grace. The Panorama section celebrated its 40th year, and it seems fitting that our two main picks from 2019 come from the strand that, year after year, reconciles wider audience appeal with daring politics…
TALKING ABOUT TREES (Panorama Dokumente), available to watch on Amazon Prime (with the help of a good VPN).
Charting the attempts of four forcibly retired filmmakers to revive cinema-going in the conservative Sudanese city of Omdurman, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees is a gently devastating portrait of cultural eradication after years of Islamic censorship. Decades after the military coup of 1989, our four elderly protagonists drum up enthusiasm for the possible rebirth of communal cinematic experiences, showing their boundless passion for the art form and self-expression by trying to reopen an old cinema.
Brimming with intimacy, playfulness and strange relevance, the film is an unmissable, inspiring ode to cinema and its power. It’s without doubt one of the best documentaries of 2020. And, in case you were wondering about the title, it’s inspired by a Bertold Brecht poem and should give you some indication as to the film’s vital musings and bittersweet tone: “What kind of times are these, when / To talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”
ŠAVOVI (STITCHES) (Panorama), available on Vimeo on demand
Set in contemporary Belgrade and based on the real-life testimonial of Drinka Radonjic, this Serbian drama follows a seamstress (Snežana Bogdanović) who has searched for her “dead son” for over two decades. Writer-director Miroslav Terzić exposes us to the reality that has plagued Serbia, that of unsolved cases of child abductions in hospitals. He tells the story of a woman who, 18 years after the apparent death of her newborn baby, still believes her son to be alive. She uncovers contradictory and incomplete information, and is faced with an oppressive system whose main policy is denial.
Her family desperately try to tether her to the present and move on with their lives. This stirring drama tackles both a national and deeply personal trauma via a moving story of motherhood; it shows how trauma scleroses day-to-day life, the past paralysingly encroaching on the present, and the perfectly judged finale makes this a marvel of nuanced and measured storytelling.
Check out our interview with director Miroslav Terzić, who talked about the tragic real-life influences behind the film and parallels with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
This year’s edition saw German filmmaker Tom Tykwer serve as Jury President. Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs opened the festival, becoming the first animated work to open the Berlinale, while Romanian film Touch Me Not, directed by Adina Pintilie, won the Golden Bear. An experimental fusion of fiction and documentary filmmaking, its exploration of intimacy from a range of female and minority perspectives made it something of a natural fit for open-minded Berlinale audiences. However, it quickly became the most divisive winner in years, with savage reviews that included The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw labelling the jury’s decision a “catastrophe” to rival Brexit and the Trump presidency. Whatever your take, it was once again abundantly clear that the sidebar sections saved the day, especially Forum’s 2018 line-up…
THE GREEN FOG (Forum), available on Vimeo and Amazon Prime.
Commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival for its 60th anniversary, directors Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson took the Master of Suspense at his word when he stated that “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out”. They cut, mashed and spliced together an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which plays out as a love letter to both the city of San Francisco and a celebration of the often-undervalued art of editing. The mesmerising fruit of their labour is a mischievously self-reflexive vivisection that is a must-see for cinephiles: the filmmakers giddily genre- and era-hop, mining a treasure trove of celluloid clips, from Bullitt to The Towering Inferno, via Murder She Wrote and McMillan And Wife.
The dialogue has been excised, meaning you witness wordless exchanges that are comically punctuated by audible breath intakes, anticipatory speech tics and heavy sighs. The effect initially yields some laughs, as it creates an original narrative from a collection of reaction shots. Tantalisingly, the film progressively achieves a certain level of profundity through hiccupping visual motives and breathy standoffs, which leads to a commentary on communication breakdowns in relationships.
MADELINE’S MADELINE (Forum), available on Amazon Prime.
Directed by Josephine Decker, this experimental and arresting drama follows the talented and vulnerable Madeline (Helena Howard), who is a member of a physical theatre troupe. When the group’s ambitious but overbearing director Evangeline (Molly Parker) pushes the teenager to further delve into her increasingly unstable headspace for the sake of their collective art, the lines between performance and reality begin to blur, threatening Madeline’s wellbeing and the relationship with her mother (Miranda July).
In daring to ask important questions regarding the ethical limits in art, knotty questions of authorship and the co-opting of racial narratives, Decker creates something that is at once overwhelmingly dense and highly entertaining. Helena Howard has a lot to do with the film’s appeal: she made her big-screen debut here, and her performance as Madeline is distressingly brilliant. We witness her spin out of control, and her state of mind is fantastically mirrored in the feverish and blurry camerawork, as well as in the free-form editing. The result is brave, bracing, and Forum at its very best.
The 2021 Berlinale was one for the books, boasting arguably the finest line-up in recent memory – but 2017’s edition was no slouch either. Hot tickets included Aki Kauismaki’s The Other Side of Hope, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet, James Mangold’s Logan and Lissette Orozco’s criminally underseen El Pacto De Adriana. In the end, the Hungarian drama On Body And Soul – which marked Ildikó Enyedi’s return to the director’s chair after an 18-year break – won the Golden Bear and hit headlines for making some viewers faint. Also worth noting was the jury’s decision not to make history by being the first to give a major award to a trans actress, A Fantastic Woman’s Daniela Vega – the fact she didn’t leave the festival with a bear felt like a missed opportunity, especially considering her performance was the one to beat.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (Panorama Dokumente), available on Netflix.
I Am Not Your Negro sees Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck take the words of late novelist and social critic James Baldwin, who wanted the lives of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers “to bang up against each other”, and stylishly lace the author’s prose with archival footage and modern clips. The result is a compelling and layered chronicle of black activism during the civil rights movement. It concisely distils a complex issue and plays around with chronology in order to reinforce the timeless and often prophetic quality of Baldwin’s prose. These eerily prophetic aspects come to life through the narration of a barely recognisable Samuel L. Jackson and the director’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood.
Peck, a confirmed cinephile, uses a variety of film clips to create a fascinating correlation between the history of cinema and America’s race struggle. From King Kong to Stagecoach, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner to The Defiant Ones, the director mirrors Baldwin’s views and illustrates how the image projected by the cultural exports of Hollywood clashed with social realities; in some cases, the self-perpetuating fantasy of American life seen on the big screen reflected the “moral apathy, the death of the heart” that the author saw happening in his country. Hollywood here is essentially the eagle wounded by an arrow. Few documentaries have blended anger with thought-provoking depth so brilliantly.
Read our interview with director Raoul Peck, who talked to us about Baldwin, Kendrick Lamar, and the then-freshly elected Donald Trump.
ALMOST HEAVEN (Generation), available on BFI Player and Amazon Prime UK (keep your VPN handy once more).
Another documentary which caught our eye that year was Carol Salter’s tender and eye-opening Almost Heaven, courtesy this time of the Generation section. The British filmmaker offers an empathetic look into the life of a 17-year-old girl, Ying Ling, who left her family home in order to become a mortician in one of China’s largest funeral homes. Despite her fear of ghosts, she learns spa rituals and strikes a friendship with another young mortician, with whom she shares her hopes for the future. Awarded Best Documentary at the 2017 British Independent Film Awards, Almost Heaven is a moving coming-of-age story that serves as a reflective elegy on death and the precious nature of life, as well as a revealing portrait of the industrialisation of mortality. You won’t regret seeking it out.
Check out our interview with Carol Salter.
The 66th slate of films was a decent one, which included Spike Lee’s underseen Chi-Raq, a witty, militant and audacious adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi gem Midnight Special. The jury, led by Meryl Streep, saw fit to award the Golden Bear to Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea), a timely but stale documentary that tackled the refugee crisis by focusing on the Italian island of Lampedusa. It was a somewhat predictable choice on the part of the jury, who clearly yearned to make a political statement. That year, Forum and Panorama had two treats in store for us…
TEMPESTAD (Forum). Frustratingly, finding it on a streaming platform or even on DVD isn’t easy, so this recommendation is something of a treasure hunt: find it and let us know.
A far stronger documentary that year was Tatiana Huezo’s sophomore full-length film, Tempestad, which screened in the Forum section. Shortlisted as Mexico’s Oscar entry, Huezo masterfully alternated two narratives in a textured film that examines the consequences of organised crime in Mexico and what mothers will sacrifice in order to protect the ones they love. The film opens with a voiceover of Miriam’s testimony: she is wrongfully accused of people trafficking and sent to a violent, self-governed prison run in cartel territory. She sees the corruption at the heart of the prison system, accepts her role as a “pagador” (someone who pays for the crimes of another) and will do whatever it takes to be reunited with her son.
In parallel, we have the testimony of Adela, who works in a circus and whose daughter has been abducted. With no knowledge of whether her child is alive or dead, she shares her family’s efforts to uncover the truth, and how their efforts have been met with threats from the corrupt authorities. The narratives become subtly intertwined, and it isn’t until the dirge-like final shot that the scope and emotional-intricacies of the film can be truly felt. The evocative cinematography and Leonard Heibun’s minimalistic score contribute to this poetic and unconventionally immersive film, one which reveals its secrets in beautifully edited morsels. Without hint of hyperbole, a spellbinding film.
SUFAT CHOL (SAND STORM) (Panorama), available on Netflix.
Elite Zewer’s immersive and subtly devastating Sufat Chol (Sand Storm) is much easier to find: Netflix nabbed it up post-Berlinale. Set in a Bedouin village in Southern Israel, the story centres on a wedding: Jalila is duty-bound to host her husband Suliman’s second marriage and, during the ceremony, she discovers that her daughter Layla has been secretly carrying on a forbidden relationship. The mother believes that sticking one’s head in the sand is the best way to survive, while her daughter has faith in her seemingly progressive father. What reads like a well-worn tale of a young woman trying to break free from suffocating traditions is actually anything but. Beautifully shot against the backdrop of the Negev Desert, Zewer explores the tension between the modern and the traditional, and how women negotiate their roles within oppressive patriarchal systems. A must-see.
There we have it! Enjoy and keep an eye out for the return of our ‘This Week at the Kino’ column, back for the reopening of cinemas on July 1. Expect the lowdown on what to watch and what to avoid, with reviews, interviews and freiluftkino tips.