Berlinale 2021 Lineup

The Daily — Feb 12, 2021
Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s The Girl and the Spider (2021)

All week long, Carlo Chatrian, the artistic director of the Berlin International Film Festival, has been rolling out the lineup of the seventy-first edition, one section after another, leading up to yesterday’s unveiling of the main competition. From March 1 through 5, dozens of features and shorts will stream to the juries, industry professionals, and accredited press, and then, hopefully, the general public will have the opportunity to see them from June 9 through 20.

Someone had the brilliant idea of inviting six past winners of the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, to serve on this year’s competition jury. Mohammad Rasoulof (There Is No Evil, 2020), Nadav Lapid (Synonyms, 2019), Adina Pintilie (Touch Me Not, 2018), Ildikó Enyedi (On Body and Soul, 2017), Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea, 2016), and Jasmila Žbanić (Grbavica, 2006) will announce the winners of the Bears in March, and those awards will be presented in person in June. Here’s a look at what we know so far about the contenders.


Fifteen films are in the running in a competition that’s “less rich in numbers but very dense in content and style,” says Chatrian. Let’s begin with the two titles from France. Two eight-year-old twin girls are the leads in Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature, Petite maman, which finds the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire working again with cinematographer Claire Mathon. “It’s a smaller film, though not in ambition, with a gentle touch and magical realism,” Chatrian tells Deadline’s Tom Grater. “I don’t want to say anything about the story because it has a twist.” Xavier Beauvois, who won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 2010 for Of Gods and Men, is bringing Albatross, starring Jérémie Renier. Set in Étretat, a small town on the northern coast of France, Albatross is the story of a police captain whose life is turned upside down when he accidentally kills a farmer while trying to save him.

Romanian director Radu Jude likes to have a little fun with his titles. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, for example, won the top award in Karlovy Vary in 2018. His latest, the story of a teacher (Katia Pascariu) who turns her life upside down when she releases an amateur porn clip, is Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. And it has a subtitle, Sketch for a Popular Film. Jude explains at Cineuropa: “Malraux wrote somewhere, ‘Delacroix, although he used to say that a finished painting is indeed superior to a sketch, preserved many of his sketches, considering them pieces of art as significant as some of his best paintings.’ I drew a lot of meaning from this idea, and I decided to apply it to cinema, exploring what it would be like to make a film similar to a sketch, left unfinished and crude.”

Fabian: Going to the Dogs, starring Tom Schilling, is Dominik Graf’s adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel about a philologist who writes ad copy for a cigarette factory in Berlin in the late 1920s. Actor Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!, Inglourious Basterds) is making his directorial debut with Next Door. “The film explores gentrification and social inequality in Berlin,” Brühl tells the German magazine filmecho|filmwoche. “It will be a very personal film.”

Two more German features come from women directors. Maria Schrader, who won an Emmy last year for directing the Netflix series Unorthodox, has cast Maren Eggert as a scientist who agrees to live with a robot (voiced by Dan Stevens) in order to fund her own research in I’m Your Man. And Maria Speth’s Mr. Bachmann and His Class is a documentary focusing on sixth-graders.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour, Asako I & II) will tell three stories in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. In one, a young woman learns something surprising about her ex; in the second, a student aims to bring down her professor; and in the third, two friends reveal their true feelings for each other. Hong Sangsoo returns to the competition for the fifth time with Introduction, a single story told in three chapters as a young man visits his father, lover, and mother. Introduction stars Shin Seokho, Park Miso, and Kim Minhee. 

We don’t know much yet about Forest: I See You Everywhere from Hungarian director Bence Fliegauf, who won a Silver Bear in 2012 for Just the Wind. Dénes Nagy, another filmmaker from Hungary, has made his feature debut with Natural Light, in which a Hungarian farmer serving in a special unit scouting for partisans in the Soviet Union during the Second World War has to take command when their leader is killed.

For Netflix, Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios (Gueros, Museo) has made A Cop Movie, a blend of fiction and nonfiction in which Mónica del Carmen and Raúl Briones play officers who bond as they cling to their ideals in a dysfunctional system. Iranian filmmaker Behtash Sanaeeha has codirected Ballad of a White Cow with Maryam Moghaddam, who stars as a woman condemned to marry the brother of the husband who’s rejected her.

In Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, a young man and woman meet on the street, and it’s love at first sight. They agree to meet the next day, but they forget to tell each other their names. Worse, an onlooker has cursed them, and they both wake up the next day looking nothing like themselves. Koberidze describes his second feature as a “romantic tragicomedy with documentary and magic cinematic elements.” And in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Memory Box, a single mother in Montreal receives a package of notebooks, tapes, and photos that she sent to a friend from Beirut back in the 1980s. She wants nothing to do with these blasts from the past, but her curious daughter secretly takes a look that will open up a whole new world to her.

Berlinale Special

In a normal year, the eleven films lined up for the audience-friendly Berlinale Special program would be fêted with gala screenings. At least the world premieres will get to hold on to that status until the day, long after the first week of March, when they can be shown for the first time to an audience gathered around a single giant screen. The first name to leap out here is Pietro Marcello, who is following up on his critical favorite, Martin Eden (2019), with For Lucio, a documentary portrait of Bolognese singer and songwriter Lucio Dalla. Tina Turner is the subject of Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin’s Tina, and the two other documentaries in the program are Who We Were, in which Marc Bauder outlines the crises threatening our planet, and Aliaksei Paluyan’s Courage, centering on an underground theater’s role in the protests against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk.

Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza star as a washed-up writer and his young editor in Lina Roessler’s comedy Best Sellers. Plaza’s Parks and Recreation costar Natalie Morales has made her debut feature with Language Lessons, starring herself and Mark Duplass. Besides laughs, the Special will also offer action. In Soi Cheang’s thriller Limbo, Gordon Lam Ka-tung and Mason Lee play cops tracking a serial killer in Hong Kong. A student and a survivor of a terrorist attack join a movement that aims to take over Europe in Christian Schwochow’s Je suis Karl. And an astronaut is sent to Earth from a space colony to decide the fate of the few remaining people on the planet in Tim Fehlbaum’s Tides.

The Special will also present two films opening in the States this weekend, Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit, which was well-received when it premiered at the New York Film Festival last fall, and Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian, described by Chuck Bowen in Slant as “yet another film that weds the doomy stylistics of 1970s-era conspiracy thrillers to a story about the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 torture program.”

Encounters and Forum

Last year, Chatrian and his team launched a new competition, Encounters, creating space for more aesthetically challenging work in the official selection than would normally be found in the main competition. In the view of some, Encounters steals a bit of thunder from the Forum, which for over half a century has reliably taken measure of the state of the art. For others, though, Encounters frees up the Forum to become even more daring in its choices and to cut a fresh profile, particularly in its offshoot program, Forum Expanded.

Of the twelve titles competing in this year’s Encounters, one of the most anticipated has to be The Girl and the Spider, Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s long-awaited follow-up to 2013’s The Strange Little Cat. In the second installment of a projected “trilogy about human togetherness,” director Ramon and producer Silvan—they’re twin brothers and cowriters—launch “an emotional rollercoaster” as Lisa (Liliane Amuat) moves out of the apartment she’s been sharing with Mara (Henriette Confurius).

Below is a list of the other eleven contenders.

  • Bloodsuckers, in which a penniless Soviet refugee falls for a rich German vampire, will be Julian Radlmaier’s first film since 2017’s Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog.

  • In 2016, Jim Cummings won a top prize at Sundance for his short film, Thunder Road. Two years later, he turned it into a feature and won the grand jury award at SXSW. Now Cummings has teamed up with actor and producer PJ McCabe on The Beta Test, the story of a married Hollywood agent lured into “a sinister world of lying, infidelity, and digital data.”

  • Samaher Alqadi’s documentary All I Want was sparked by the public rape of her best friend in the streets of Cairo and confronts the trauma of her own past.

  • Alice Diop’s We is a series of portraits shot along a journey crossing Paris and its outskirts from north to south.

  • In Bardia Yadegari and Ehsan Mirhosseini’s District Terminal, Peyman, a poet and a junkie, tries to write while a deadly virus has gripped Tehran.

  • Swiss director Andreas Fontana’s Azor follows a banker from Geneva to Argentina, where his partner has mysteriously disappeared.

  • In Denis Côté’s Social Hygiene, a petty thief reduced to sleeping in a friend’s car is confronted by five women. One after the other, they explain why he needs to get his act together.
  • Fern Silva says that his debut feature, Rock Bottom Riser, is an experimental work that takes Mauna Kea, the dormant Hawaiian volcano, as a starting point from which to explore “the influence of settler colonialism, the search for intelligent life, and the discovery of new worlds.”

  • Two roommates discover a dark secret in their apartment in The Scary of Sixty-First, the first feature by Dasha Nekrasova, the Belarusian-American actress and co-host of the podcast Red Scare.

  • In Jacqueline Lentzou’s Moon, 66 Questions, a woman discovers a secret about her father that helps her understand and love him for the first time.

  • A broken leg keeps a Nigerian soccer player in Vietnam out of the game, so he teams up with four middle-aged women to create a world of their own in an old house in Lê Bảo’s first feature, Taste.

Ephraim Asili has called his first feature, The Inheritance, which opened the NYFF’s Currents program last fall, a “remix” of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), “a critique and an homage at the same time.” In Juste un Mouvement, Vincent Meessen looks back on the story of Omar Blondin Diop, who appeared in La Chinoise as himself, a young militant philosopher and the film’s only actual Maoist student. Both The Inheritance and Juste un Mouvement are among the seventeen films selected for this year’s Forum.

Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden premiered in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance, and the first round of reviews leans toward the mildly favorable. An anonymous billionaire in Georgia—the country, not the state—is buying up ancient trees, roots and all, and having them transported to his private garden. Like Nikolaus Geyrhalter, suggests Daniel Gorman at In Review Online, “Jashi is simultaneously in awe of the insane endeavor unfolding in front of her camera but also well aware of the damage such processes inflict on both nature and the surrounding communities.”

The Forum’s 2021 program also includes Israeli documentarian Avi Mograbi’s The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation; Come Here, the new feature from Anocha Suwichakornpong (By the Time It Gets Dark); A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, Shengze Zhu’s follow-up to Present.Perfect., which won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam in 2019; and new work from Canadian artist Rhayne Vermette, Portuguese filmmaker Susana Nobre, and Russian artist Uldus Bakhtiozina. Among the artists and filmmakers presenting work in Forum Expanded are Kevin Jerome Everson, Ana Vaz, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, e-flux founder Anton Vidokle, Indian photographer Sohrab Hura, Korean artist Minjung Kim, and Portuguese-Guinean actor and filmmaker Welket Bungué.

Panorama, Generation, and More

Panorama, a showcase of new international art-house cinema, will present sixteen world premieres as well as Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance, the winner of top awards at the Busan and Pingyao film festivals, and two features from the Sundance 2021 lineup. In Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature, Censor, a young woman working for Britain’s national censorship board in 1985, when “video nasty” hysteria was peaking, is triggered by a horror movie she’s working on that hits too close to home. “Censor’s flavor of the mid-1980s is convincingly tatty and tragic,” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey, and “the borrowings in film stock and camerawork from the era’s low-budget shockers, like the giallo pastiches in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012), are scholarly and spot-on. The tone oscillates between earnestness and mischief, a little uneasily.”

A family on holiday is rattled by a break-in, and writer-director Ronny Trocker tells the story from the four perspectives of each member in Human Factors. “Half the fun is anticipating how each reframing of the episode will play out, revealing new details each time and extending the story’s dimension,” writes Steve Dollar for Filmmaker. “The other half is savoring the meltdown, as the tidy facade of comfortable, liberal northern European lifestyles is poked, tweaked, and stressed to the breaking point.”

Fifteen titles are lined up for Generation, the section programmed for young viewers, including Dash Shaw’s animated Cryptozoo, which won the NEXT Innovator Prize at Sundance. The Perspektive Deutsches Kino will present three documentaries and three fiction films by promising German directors, and the Berlinale Shorts program will spotlight work by twenty filmmakers from around the world.

Series and Coproductions

Six titles are lined up up for the Berlinale Series, with episodic narratives from Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Germany and Austria, the UK, and the U.S. Russell T. Davies’s five-part miniseries It’s a Sin has already premiered in the UK, and the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan notes that it’s “something of a companion piece, twenty years on, to his groundbreaking masterpiece Queer as Folk.” The new series tracks the lives of four young gay men who arrive in London in 1981, “just as the first reports of a new disease are making their way across the Atlantic.” Mangan finds that Davies’s “great gift” is the ability “to create real, flawed, entirely credible bundles of humanity and make it clear, without even momentary preachiness, how much they have to lose.”

For the New York Times, Charles Kaiser talks with Davies, who “can still remember exactly when he realized the epidemic was real. He was outdoors in June 1983, walking in the blazing sun, when he spotted this headline in Him Monthly magazine: ‘AIDS Gay Death-Plot Panic’—the words superimposed on an erotic drawing of naked men boiling to death in a test tube. It’s a Sin recreates all of the horror he felt in that moment.”

Ten more series will be pitched at the Coproduction Market, including Balaton Brigade, directed by Ildikó Enyedi. Another promising title is This Is Music, an anthology series created by screenwriter Bjørn Olaf Johannessen with episodes to be directed by Wim Wenders, David Byrne, Joachim Trier, and Julie Andem. In standalone fictional narratives set at various spots around the world, the series will “explore music’s somewhat mysterious and magic powers,” producer Thomas Robsahm tells Montages. “What is music and why do we have it?”

Berlin Critics’ Week

From February 27 through March 7, the independent Berlin Critics’ Week will virtually present screenings accompanied by live discussions that will be viewable throughout Germany. The lineup includes Nicolás Pereda’s Fauna, a film about actors that Jordan Cronk, writing for Cinema Scope, finds “resolutely sly and humorous,” and Sion Sono’s Red Post on Escher Street, which has just seen its U.S. premiere as part of the Japan Society’s series 21st Century Japan: Films from 2001–2020. “An exhilarating postmodern comedy about people fighting for every moment of screen time they’re able to wrest from this stupid world before they have to leave it, Red Post on Escher Street is the best argument for Sono’s vital body of work since 2015’s The Whispering Star, and a perfect opportunity for newcomers to get their toes wet,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich.

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