Lone Scherfig Opens Berlinale 2019

Caleb Landry Jones and Andrea Riseborough in Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers (2019)

In 2014, the Berlin International Film Festival hit upon the perfect opening night film. The Grand Budapest Hotel was a swift, crowd-pleasing comedy that put a small army of celebrities on the red carpet. Even more impressive, five years on, the critical consensus still holds that it’s among Wes Anderson’s best films. The very next year, the Berlinale opened with a thud. On paper, a film by Spanish director Isabel Coixet starring Juliette Binoche and Rinko Kikuchi must have been appealing for any number of reasons, but critics panned the sluggish Nobody Wants the Night, which would eventually be recut and released with a title just as unpromising, Endless Night. In short, selecting a film that will set the tone for a major festival any given year is a tricky proposition.

When the Berlinale announced that this year’s edition would open with Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers, many suspected it’d land somewhere near the middle ground between the grand success of 2014 and the flop that nobody wanted in 2015. The Danish director who’d broken through internationally with her Dogme entry Italian for Beginners (2000), and who’d won over critics and audiences alike with An Education (2009), would be working with an appealing ensemble of actors: Zoe Kazan, Tahar Rahim, Andrea Riseborough, Caleb Landry Jones, Jay Baruchel, and Bill Nighy. Sadly, though, the film plays as if Scherfig, who’s also written The Kindness of Strangers, has taken the outlook of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006)—we’re all connected in preposterously surprising ways—and scaled it down to a few blocks of a Manhattan sprung from a fantasist’s wish list.

So far, the critics are all on the same page on this one. For Variety’s Guy Lodge, “Kazan’s stalwart commitment to the material can’t resolve the clash of grit and whimsy in Scherfig’s schizo moral fable.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw adds that it’s “the kind of modern-day fairytale that gets both halves of the equation wrong, giving you something twee and improbable, weighted down by a dreary yet unconvincing realism.” And IndieWire’s David Ehrlich finds “a palpable urgency to the film’s kindness, and a real despair to the film’s inability to make us believe in it.”

It’s an inauspicious beginning for festival director Dieter Kosslick’s farewell edition. After presiding over the Berlinale for eighteen years, Kosslick will hand the reins over to the new dual leadership of artistic director Carlo Chatrian, whose previous job was to oversee and raise the profile of the Locarno Festival, and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek, formerly of the promotional service German Films. However this year’s edition will be remembered when all is said and done, Kosslick has, as Ed Meza points out in Variety, left an “indelible mark” on the Berlinale. “His folksy humor and cheerfulness lightened the event and charmed festgoers and celebrity guests alike,” writes Meza. “He also oversaw major changes, expansions and additions, many of which have been adopted by other leading festivals around the world.” And as Geoffrey Macnab notes in Screen, he’s chalked up sponsor-pleasing numbers. When Kosslick arrived, the Berlinale was selling around 200,000 tickets a year. Now the average is well over 300,000.

Another number to take into consideration: one. The opening night film is just one of around 380 slated to screen in the 2019 edition. The editors of Fireflies have previewed several films from the festival’s various sections and have written up a few recommendations, while contributors to AnOther and IndieWire have drawn up lists of titles they’re anticipating. We have new work by Agnès Varda, Nadav Lapid, Angela Schanelec, Agnieszka Holland, Denis Côté, and dozens of other major filmmakers to look forward to, and of course, who knows how many discoveries are yet to made in the coming ten days.

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