Over the last twenty years or so, the Berlinale has been less hesitant than Cannes or Venice to make its political intentions explicit in its programming. Opening Monday morning’s press conference, executive director Mariëtte Rissenbeek reemphasized the festival’s solidarity with the people of Ukraine and Iran. Artistic director Carlo Chatrian then walked us through the enticing lineups for the Competition and Encounters programs and wrapped with an additional Berlinale Special title.
Sean Penn and producer Aaron Kaufman were at work on a documentary on the fighting in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine when Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Superpower then rapidly evolved into a portrait of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Scan the list of eighteen films lined up for the Competition, and what’s likely to strike you first is that five of them come from German directors. Margarethe von Trotta launched her career as an actress, appearing in films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, before she made her debut as a solo director in 1978 with The Second Awakening of Christa Klages. She’s drawn inspiration from women determined to reshape history—Rosa Luxemburg (1986) or Hannah Arendt (2012)—and in Ingeborg Bachmann: Journey into the Desert, Vicky Krieps plays the Austrian poet who becomes embroiled in a stormy affair with Swiss writer Max Frisch (Ronald Zehrfeld).
Paula Beer played a water nymph in Christian Petzold’s Undine (2020) and returns as one of four friends vacationing in a house by the Baltic Sea in Afire. As the forest burns around them, passions flare up as well. Angela Schanelec, who won a Silver Bear for her direction of I Was at Home, But . . . (2019), recasts the myth of Oedipus in Music. Chatrian seemed especially excited to present Till the End of the Night, Christoph Hochhäusler’s first feature since The Lies of the Victors (2014). In order to win the trust of a powerful criminal, an undercover investigator must pose as the lover of a trans woman for whom he has violently conflicting feelings. Set in the summer of 1990, Emily Atef’s Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is the story of a young woman who falls for a man twice her age.
Philippe Garrel’s children Louis, Esther, and Lena Garrel, all of them seasoned performers, appear together for the first time in The Plough, the story of three siblings determined to keep their father’s traveling puppet show on the road. Nicolas Philibert enters the Berlinale’s competition for first time with On the Adamant, a documentary about a day care center for adults set up in a structure that floats on the Seine in the heart of Paris. Franz Rogowski plays a French legionnaire sent to the Niger Delta in Disco Boy, written and directed by Giacomo Abbruzzese and shot by Hélène Louvart.
No filmmaker has had one film in the main competition and another in Encounters in the same year—until now. João Canijo shot Mal Viver (Bad Living), in which several women from different generations of the same family bicker, and Viver Mal (Living Bad), the Encounters entry that interweaves three stories, in a hotel in northern Portugal. In Basque director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s 20,000 Species of Bees, eight-year-old Lucía is confused by the ways the world around her misreads her femininity. Seven-year-old Sol helps her aunts prepare for a surprise party for her father in Tótem, directed by Lila Avilés (The Chambermaid).
Chinese director Zhang Lu’s Desert Dream premiered in competition in Berlin in 2007, and he returned to present Dooman River (2010) in the Generation program and Hukuoka (2019) in the Forum. In The Shadowless Tower, a father and son reunite for the first time in forty years. Suzume, the seventh feature from Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) and the only animated film in the program, opened last fall in Japan. For the Japan Times’ Matt Schley, this story of a high school girl and a mysterious friend who ward off a chain of disasters proves Shinkai to be “the undisputed visual champion of the anime form.”
A detective investigates the murder of an Aboriginal woman in the Australian outback in Ivan Sen’s Limbo, the only black-and-white film in competition. Rolf de Heer tells the story of another Black woman, a survivor who escapes a death sentence, in The Survival of Kindness. Bringing a dash of comedy to the program, Matt Johnson (The Dirties,Operation Avalanche) will trace the rise and fall of a once-ubiquitous mobile device in BlackBerry, and John Trengove’s Manodrome, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Adrien Brody, centers on an Uber driver who tumbles into a libertarian masculinity cult.
Past Lives, the debut feature from playwright Celine Song, has been rapturously received at Sundance. Nora and Hae Sung meet twelve years after their childhood romance was interrupted, and another dozen years will pass before they meet again. “Song’s film is about the resignation, the acceptance of lost things, that becomes a defining part of adulthood,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “Past Lives is understated and yet vast in its consideration of the slow changes of life, of the past’s constant whispering to the present.”
With their first edition in 2020, Chatrian and his team introduced the competitive Encounters section as “a counterpoint and a complement” to the main competition. The challenges here may be a little more pronounced, the names a bit less familiar. One exception is Hong Sangsoo, who returns to Berlin with his twenty-ninth feature. So far, little is known about in water other than that it stars Shin Seokho, Ha Seongguk, and Kim Seungyun and that at least a few passages will be, as Chatrian puts it, intentionally “blurry.”
Documentarian Tatiana Huezo (Tempestad,Noche de Fuego) focuses on the children in three families in a remote Mexican village, and Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko report on the war in Ukraine in Eastern Front. Lois Patiño follows the Buddhist cycle of death and reincarnation in Samsara. Malika Musaeva, who studied with Alexander Sokurov, shot The Cage Is Looking for a Bird in Chechnya with nonprofessional actors. My Worst Enemy is the latest feature from Iranian architect and filmmaker Mehran Tamadon. Stefano Savona revisits the terrifying outbreak of the pandemic in The Walls of Bergamo.
Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó’s White Plastic Sky is an animated feature set in a near future when humankind must adjust to a world devoid of plant life. Paul B. Preciado addresses a cinematic letter to Virginia Woolf in Orlando, My Political Biography. Tia Kouvo offers a humorous study of intergenerational dynamics in Family Time, and Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults stars Michael Cera, Hannah Gross, and Sophia Lillis. Lee Kang-sheng, known for his work with Tsai Ming-liang, and Meng Li play former loves in Wu Lang’s Absence. Rounding out the program are Here, from Belgian director Bas Devos (Ghost Tropic), and In the Blind Spot, from German-Kurdish director Ayşe Polat, who won a Silver Leopard in Locarno for En garde (2004). The Berlinale’s seventy-third edition will run from February 16 through 26.
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