Reader, sometimes it feels like I have been penning film festival reports for an eternity – and not just because of the distension of durée that we have all felt since the days of lockdown. And yet, if I look back over this mass of notes jotted down after intense spurts of film-watching in Cannes, Rotterdam, Vienna, New York or wherever (even, on occasion, in Berlin), a certain absence leaps out at me. I have copiously reviewed cinematic works whose provenance covers the globe, from Croatia to Cambodia, Mexico to Mauritania, and yet it is strikingly rare that I, an Australian critic writing for an Australian journal, give pride of place in these articles to an Australian film. The slight is not exactly accidental. If I do not quite share the imperial disdain that certain other cinephiles might have for Australian cinema in its totality, I have quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) lamented the steadfast dedication to mediocrity shown by the purse-string-pullers of our local film industry. 

But this means that the few Antipodean filmmakers who make the kind of cinema that could justifiably gain a prominent place in, say, the competition at the Berlinale are all the more heroic, even if they invariably have to operate in critical tension with, or entirely outside of, the standard funding channels governing production down under. This year, miraculously, not one but two – count them, two – Australian films made it into the competition, and given that they were by two of the rare directors who have been able to develop distinctive œuvres by bucking the diktats of the Screen Australia bean-counters, I went into this year’s festival with a quite unfamiliar feeling surrounding the cinema of my homeland: hopefulness.

And so, it was with a faint flutter in my heart that I made my return to the Berlinale Palast on the Friday morning of the festival’s opening weekend in order to take in the press screening of Rolf de Heer’s The Survival of Kindness. What would it end up delivering? The Netherlands-born director’s first feature since 2013’s Charlie’s Country, The Survival of Kindness is one of his most bracing works – no mean feat for someone whose highlights reel contains Bad Boy Bubby (1993) and Alexandra’s Project (2003). Its opening images thematically orient the spectator without delay: a miniaturised depiction of race war, with colonialists hunting down their terrorised indigenous victims, has a knife plunged into it. The display is actually decoration for a cake, and soon we observe what this new generation of white supremacists is celebrating: they have captured an African woman (who has no name in the film, and goes by BlackWoman in the credits), and are preparing to subject her to a brutal penalty for her skin colour: being locked in the cage of a car trailer and left to perish in the scorching desert. The following images come together to form a protracted fever dream, as de Heer’s digital camera is put to work panning across the blinding sun, hovering over the rusted metalwork of the trailer, homing in on scuttling ants in extreme close-ups and stretching out over the endless parched landscape of the South Australian outback. BlackWoman, played with resolute force by the screen newcomer and Congolese refugee Mwajemi Hussein, is initially in despair at her seemingly unavoidable fate, but eventually – and not for the last time – her indefatigable ingenuity kicks in. A distant cousin, perhaps, of Robert Bresson’s homme condamné à mort (A Man Escaped, 1956), BlackWoman fashions a chisel from a loose rod of the frame and eventually busts open the lock keeping her imprisoned. 

Released from her captivity, however, she now finds herself in a much larger cage: the surrounding country has been ravaged by a mysterious plague, from which the only protection seems to be World War I-era mustard gas masks; mob rule prevails, and the surviving white population has reverted to savage ethnonationalism, hunting and enslaving anyone with a darker skin than their own. It is through this hostile terrain, from barren desert to lush wilderness to abandoned towns, that BlackWoman manoeuvres, equipping herself with new clothes, a gas mask (which at times conceals her racial identity) and a gun as she seeks an elusive freedom. Even language seems to have been lost in this dystopian world, whose inhabitants communicate to each other with muffled grunts and flailing gestures. For the entirety of the film, not a single intelligible word can be heard on the soundtrack.

The Survival of Kindness

De Heer’s film is both a radical experiment in narrative form and a piercing commentary on the violent colonial dispossession that is at the core of Australia’s national identity, but it is also a reflection on much more recent events, particularly the country’s handling of the Coronavirus. A disease far less devastating than the one depicted in The Survival of Kindness was enough for Australia to embark on insular border closures, aggressively policed lockdowns and a lynch mob mentality towards anyone perceived to be infringing this draconian state of exception, which quickly unleashed a tide of openly expressed xenophobia. And this lurch towards authoritarianism met with barely a peep of dissent from the middle-class liberal left. Given that this demographic is also dominant among the gatekeepers of the national film industry, the wide-eyed horror that de Heer expresses at what the country had become under pandemic conditions is an act of genuine political bravery. Who among his compatriots would be willing to go public with a similar stance?

It is only too predictable, therefore, that the film has met with vociferous critique and even calls for boycotts from some quarters.1 Its depiction of BlackWoman’s captivity (and even her lack of a name) was dehumanising, this line of thinking would have it, and only serves to reproduce the traumas caused by the racism that it purports to oppose. And who is Rolf de Heer to tell this story anyway, given his identity as a privileged European male director? 

But how exactly should an artist make an anti-racist work without directly showing racism in action? And surely white dudes have the greatest moral imperative to critique modes of structural oppression in their work? What else should they do, make feel-good comedies about lovable larrikins? Moreover, hasn’t de Heer abundantly proved his political credentials with films such as The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country, all of them conceived in close collaboration with indigenous artists? How many more films on this theme must he make before his dedicated opposition to Australian-style white supremacy is acknowledged? The absence of a name for his protagonist is precisely the point, since she has been thrust into a situation that has stripped her of any subjectivity, and de Heer’s rejection of any inkling of the white saviour trope is so categorical as to almost bend the stick too far in the other direction: The Anglo-Saxon figures in the film are uniformly fascist goons, and the only genuinely human contact in the film comes between BlackWoman and two young children who themselves belong to non-White minorities.

The film is not entirely faultless, of course. The title, for one, betokens a schmaltzy optimism that is at cross-purposes to the prevailing ambience of the actual film. And the ending was fundamentally unsatisfying, with a narrative device suggesting either the unbreakable cyclicality of oppression, a willing self-subjugation or (perhaps most objectionably) that the preceding events were merely a hallucination induced by the protagonist’s impending death. But these gripes should not diminish the towering achievement of de Heer’s film, which to my mind was one of the most arresting works, stylistically and politically, in this year’s Berlinale, and a deserved winner of the Fipresci prize bestowed upon it by the festival’s press corps.

That de Heer’s counterfactual portrayal of openly violent race war is not actually all that far from the lived reality of Australia’s indigenous population was hammered home by the presence of Ivan Sen’s Limbo alongside The Survival of Kindness in the competition, the proximity of their festival berths highlighting the complementary nature of the two films. In contrast to de Heer’s allegorical abstraction, Sen opts for the genre-infused realism already in evidence in his earlier works Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016). TV’s Simon Baker is made over into a grizzled cop assigned to reopen an investigation into a murder twenty years earlier of a young Aboriginal woman in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. Baker’s character quickly cottons on that the original police focus on local indigenous youths in their attempts to pin down the murderer were horribly misguided (or just opportunistically racist), but he also has his own demons to battle, including a heroin addiction, past tragedies, a budding spiritual crisis and a muddled romantic interest in the victim’s sister. What better place to confront the darker reaches of his soul than a remote underground town in the middle of a desert landscape that in Sen’s hands (he shot and edited the film, and even wrote the music for its score) is transformed into an uncanny, otherworldly realm? The decision to film in black and white gives an ethereal, ghostly quality to the proceedings that offsets its boilerplate detective plot and, indeed, elevates the film as a whole from the potential neither-art-nor-genre limbo in which it could have otherwise been trapped, and lifts it to celestial heights in the Berlinale firmament.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything

After I excitedly emerged from the morning session of The Survival of Kindness, it was straight back into the Palast for the German-French-Iranian director Emily Atef’s Irgendwann werden wir uns alles erzählen (Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything). The contrast could not have been starker: from the uncompromising rage of my first screening that morning, the second was a damp squib. A story of blossoming sexuality in rural Thuringia at the time the Berlin Wall falls, Atef marshals every one of the clichés that this premise makes available to her, the only momentary exception coming when the GDR family at the centre of the drama bursts out into a defiant rendition of the Peat Bog Soldiers song around the dinner table, to the bewildered gaping of their West German relatives. 

German cinema fared better elsewhere in a strong year for the festival’s local entries, with filmmakers associated with the so-called “Berliner Schule” helming three competition entries: Angela Schanelec’s Music, Christian Petzold’s Roter Himmel (Afire) and Christoph Hochhäusler’s Bis ans Ende der Nacht (Till the End of the Night). Schanelec’s film was the most challenging of the trio: a very loose retelling of the Oedipus myth, set in Europe across the 1980s-2000s, the film is replete with estrangement effects, not the least of which is the Francophone actors Aliocha Schneider (as Jon) and Agathe Bonitzer (as Iro) speaking in perfect Greek. They meet in the prison where he is incarcerated after an inadvertent killing and she is a prison warden, but Jon will eventually find solace for his troubled past in musical performance, which leads him to a middle-aged sojourn in Berlin. To say the film is elliptical is an understatement, and its temporal shifts are so elusive that the only concrete chronological marker offered to the viewer is the off-screen commentary from the 2006 World Cup semi-final between Italy and Germany that is laid on top of a late scene – and even that clue will likely only be picked up by football nerds. With this film, Schanelec was evidently setting herself the challenge of conveying a maximum of narrative incident with only the bare minimum of information for the audience, and if this means that we the viewers are placed under strenuous mental demands when watching the film, then the rewards for carrying out this cognitive labour can often be bountiful indeed.

By comparison, Petzold’s and Hochhäusler’s works were more tied to traditional modes of storytelling, with Petzold continuing in the neoclassical approach of Phoenix (2014) or Transit (2018), while Hochhäusler opts for a more genre-oriented Krimi premise. As contradictory as this sounds, Roter Himmel is something of an open-air chamber play: through a series of contrivances, the four main characters find themselves unexpectedly occupying the same summer house on the Ostsee coast, where a series of romantic entanglements unfolds. Petzold reliably draws strong performances from his leads, including new muse Paula Beer’s turn as Nadja, a libertine with a literature degree, but it is undoubtedly Thomas Schubert’s rumpled misanthrope Leon who steals the show. An author struggling with a second novel he suspects is awful (the title Club Sandwich does not bode well), Leon falls hard for Nadja, so much so that he barely notices the blossoming romance between his friend Felix and the local lifeguard Devid whom Nadja had initially picked up for some carefree sex. If this can all seem terribly self-absorbed, Petzold provides an ecological counterpoint to his characters’ protracted navel-gazing with the ominous forest fires that loom in the background throughout the film, but to which they are tragically blithe. If the flickering off-screen flames threaten an individual misfortune for the characters of the film, the rufous sky overhead is an unmissable sign (for the spectator, at least) of the climate catastrophe which is now fully upon us, and whose destructive effects – as a late nod in the film to the eruption of Pompeii suggests – may be far more all-encompassing.

Hochhäusler’s Till the End of the Night also took on a hot-button issue with its focus on the character of Leni, a transgender woman released from prison, who has to fake a relationship with Robert, an undercover cop (and her actual former paramour), as part of a sting operation of a local drug kingpin. The trans theme and the setting of the film in the seedy nightclubs of Frankfurt am Main could not avoid evoking In einem Jahr mit dreizehn Monden (In a Year of 13 Moons, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978), but if Hochhäusler was aiming for a more audience-friendly offering than Fassbinder’s famously abrasive film, the complications of the overcharged plot thwart this goal more than any issues surrounding the presence of a transgender character in a central role. Leni’s character is treated with sensitivity and subtlety, even as Robert has to wrestle with his own mixed emotions about her transitioning away from the man he had initially fallen in love with. In contrast to Volker Spengler’s Elvira in 13 Moons, Leni is of necessity played by a trans woman, Thea Ehre. The casting principle was apparently mandated by the film’s funding partners, as was the participation of a “trans*Drehbuchberatung” (trans script consultant) during the screenwriting process. Such precautions seem to have achieved little in the way of forestalling criticisms of the film’s handling of transgender issues, however, with dissatisfaction at Robert’s sometimes open disgust at Leni’s physical transformation, and certain less than wholesome sides to her own character emerging in the course of the film. But this is a curious, even self-defeating argument to make: if transgender characters in film need to be perfect angels to avoid accusations of transphobia being hurled at the director, then the only result would be flawless cartoon cut-outs lacking any of the contradictory complexity of actual human individuals. Is this kind of two-dimensional character really what some advocates of transgender representation in contemporary cinema are demanding?

Till the End of the Night

A Berlin-set film seemingly made for stirring up contention on the Internet, Todd Field’s Tár also had its German premiere at the festival, albeit one that came several months after it had already played widely in the US. No doubt the prospect of a red carpet bow for La Blanchett in what has come to be regarded as her signature performance was what tempted both the festival and the film’s distributors to hold off its general release until after the Berlinale, but by this point the feverish debates it had incited upon its North American release had been all but forgotten, and reiterating them now would be a perfectly pointless endeavour. If, by the time of the festival, Tár had lost the relevance it had held in late 2022, when it was impossible to go online without encountering a thinkpiece on its treatment of the eponymous lead’s Weinsteinian wrongdoings, then this belated exposure to the film had a tremendous upside: with no pressure to articulate a hot take on the film that could be inserted into their social media feeds, festival audiences had the opportunity to respond to it in a far more patient manner, focusing more on Field’s stark mise-en-scène and razor-edged editing than on taking sides in the #MeToo debates it unleashed. Some scenes, indeed, are strikingly different to what I had imagined them to be on the basis of the hyperventilating discourse that surrounded the film – most notably where a self-identified “BIPOC pangender” student takes issue with performing a Bach piece due to the composer’s purported misogyny. Far from a snotnosed Gen Z-kid pontificating on issues he had only learned about five minutes earlier being shut down by an imperious retort from a despotic grandee, instead the scene shows the student as a terrified young man, his body uncontrollably shaking as he struggles to articulate his sentiments, while Tár’s response is so circumlocutory, and even, initially, respectful, it could almost have turned into a valuable teaching moment, until she finally does come around to sticking the rhetorical knife into her pupil. In sum, a film is always infinitely better when seen several months after the buzz surrounding it has died off.

The truly controversial incident of the festival, curiously enough, did not come from an auteurist masterpiece given a high-visibility Palast screening, but from one of the lowest-profile corners of the festival, which has normally provided reliably innocuous fare: the Generations sidebar, which showcases children’s films from around the world for young local audiences. This year, however, the section was rocked by a scandal surrounding the Norwegian film Helt Super (Just Super, Rasmus A. Sivertsen, 2022). After garnering more than 100,000 cinema admissions in its own country, the film’s international premiere was cancelled nine minutes before its scheduled start time following a complaint made by the newly established Anti-Racism Taskforce for European Film (ARTEF) that it contained blackface, charges rejected not only by the filmmakers (who pointed out that the “blackface” in question was actually a lion costume) but also by the Norwegian Film Institute, which, in a refreshing act of resolution, actually stood up for the film they funded. I have not seen the film in question – nor have the complainants, incidentally, who were acting on the basis of promotional materials they had viewed – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any film in Generations. But whichever way you look at it, the cancellation was a farcical act by the festival, which either overreacted in kneejerk fashion to an unsubstantiated complaint of racism, or were happy to program a film with this content until its objectionable elements had to be pointed out to them. Either way, the Berlinale is discredited by its acts, and one can’t help but wonder if ARTEF itself might have bigger fish to fry when it comes to combatting racism in the film industry, than calling for the cancellation of a children’s film for the crime of inadvertent minstrelsy. 

Indeed, the presence of symbolic virtue signalling as an Ersatz for taking concrete political action was pervasive at the festival, which in the program notes had already congratulated itself for this year’s bold eco-friendly measure of replacing dairy products with oat-based substitutes at the press room coffee stand – as if journalists having a splash of cow’s milk in their macchiatos is the chief harm done to the environment by an event that involves thousands of people flying in from all over the world to watch a bunch of movies. This striving for earnest inoffensiveness was further suggested by the key art for the festival’s 2023 edition, with its Corporate Memphis sketches of audience stereotypes indistinguishable from an ad campaign for a food delivery app or an AI chat start-up, and is even manifested in the location of the festival hub. Potsdamer Platz is a pure creation of insipid ‘90s new urbanism slapped on top of the traumatic scars of the city’s Cold War history. But the dream of the ‘90s is over. Nobody goes to Potsdamer Platz unless they really have to. Its chain restaurants and ads for the Blue Man Group are the antithesis of what makes Berlin a special city. The CineStar has already upped sticks, and the Arsenal will soon follow, moving its screening rooms to its Silent Green facilities in the gentrifying Wedding district. Even the mall that was at the heart of the precinct closed down, and has now been reimagined as “The Playce”, a “shopping paradise of superlatives” that has all the vibrant charm of Doha airport during lockdown. Potsdamer Platz is a failed urban project, and the Berlinale would surely love to leave the area entirely, if it wasn’t for the fact that the hulking, 2000-seater Palast will keep it anchored to the site for a long time to come.

Le Grand Chariot

But enough! Let us return to the raison d’être of any film festival: the films. A pair of auteurs of long standing were present in the competition with what felt like testimonial works. The premise of Philippe Garrel’s Le Grand Chariot (The Plough) almost sounds like a parody of a twee arthouse film: a father and his three children struggle with the task of keeping their itinerant puppet theatre afloat. It’s been evident for a while that Garrel has mellowed since the days of J’entends plus la guitare (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, 1991), let alone La Cicatrice intérieure (The Inner Scar, 1972) – but puppets? Of course, Garrel is still Garrel, and although it was ostensibly inspired by his father Maurice’s experience in the world of puppeteers, the film is also a very thinly veiled parable for his own life. The three siblings are, we could have predicted, played by Garrel’s own three children, Louis, Esther and Léna, while Damien Mongin’s Pieter is brought into the group almost as a surrogate son to the father, played by Aurélien Recoing. Performing canonical puppetry plays to children of the 2020s is always going to be an uphill battle, and when the paterfamilias dies midway through the film, the company is thrown into disarray, as the children are torn between keeping it going out of loyalty to their dead father and abandoning the métier altogether. Characters trade romantic partners with the nonchalance characteristic of all Garrel’s films, but the most captivating drama is the divergent fates of the two son-figures: while Louis gains professional success and fame as an actor, Pieter’s fidelity to his artistic vision as a painter is painfully self-destructive. Endlessly retouching his paintings and refusing to sell them when he does find a willing buyer, Pieter’s mania leads to a psychotic episode in a metro station and his internment in a psychiatric ward. Given the parallels, here, with Garrel’s own biography, it is hard to read his latest film as anything but an expression of distress around the aging director’s anxieties for his own legacy, and even an overt slight at the director’s real-life son: has Louis sacrificed artistic promise for the trappings of being a darling of the French film industry? Would Philippe have really preferred it if his son had followed more closely in his footsteps, even if it entailed the ignominious fate of a tormented artist? It’s hard to come out of Le Grand Chariot thinking otherwise. 

Like Garrel’s film, Hong Sang-soo’s Mul-an-e-seo (In Water) had the air of a director aware of his own mortality. Hong has reportedly been in ill-health, the seismic scandal of his affair with actress Kim Min-hee having evidently taken a tremendous physical toll. He is thankfully just as prolific as ever, with this latest film his third release in the last twelve months, and recent titles such as So-seol-gaui Yeongh-wa (The Novelist’s Film, 2022) count among his best works full stop. In Water is a more modest undertaking, both logistically and narratively, with an evanescent storyline involving a trio of young Koreans dreaming up a short film while staying in a seaside town on Jeju Island. What sets it apart, however, is the formal gambit Hong adopts: using an ultra-low-resolution video camera, Hong shot the entire film out of focus, so that characters and backdrops alike are reduced to streaks of colour across the screen. The technique is rigorously adhered to, as even the final credits appear blurry, and caused numerous festival attendees to yell profanities at the projectionist until realising that this was an intentional move on Hong’s part. A reflection of the director’s own failing eyesight (what greater tragedy is there than a visual artist succumbing to blindness?), the technique is an unprecedentedly bold step in Hong’s œuvre, and at times produces impressionistic images of profound beauty, as if Turner or Monet had been handed an early nineties Camcorder. But it is also a deliberate act of hostility to a public that, in Korea at least, has turned its back on Hong. Full of admiration for the effects of this aesthetic device, I nonetheless came out of the screening plagued by headaches, feeling as if I had been wearing somebody else’s glasses for the preceding 61 minutes. To put it lightly, the fuzzy images may make it difficult for In Water to attract a sizable audience.

In terms of cinematic daring, however, pride of place at this year’s festival must go to Lois Patiño’s Samsara. The first half of the film sees the young Galician director in Laos, following a trainee monk who makes a daily journey to a dying elderly woman’s remote shack, where he reads aloud to her a text instructing the soul in its journey through the afterlife, while the second half takes place in a fishing village on the island of Zanzibar. These sections, lensed by different DOPs making beguiling use of 16mm stock, are visually immaculate, even if the first part’s Southeast Asian setting, languorous pacing and Buddhist themes unavoidably raise concerns that it is a derivative imitation of Weerasethakul’s work (and by a white European director no less!). But in between the two sections, something extraordinary happens. After the dying woman releases her last breath, on screen text informs us of her spiritual passage through the Bardo, an intermediate state in Buddhist theology where the soul dwells while awaiting reincarnation. Brazenly, Patiño enjoins the viewer to close their eyes for the following part of the film. What can I say, reader, but that at this mid-point of the festival, fatigued by the flurry of films in my daily schedule, I was perfectly happy to obey this edict. What followed was one of the most incredible viewing experiences of my life. As the soundtrack morphed from indeterminable noise to more recognisably earthly sounds, the image track stroboscopically pulsed with flashes of light and colour, which even with my eyelids lowered could still make their way to my retinas. The effect, in my semi-somnolent state, was something like an out of body experience. I lost track of time and space, much like a character in the film who dozes off in a jungle clearing and can’t tell, upon waking, if he had been asleep for an hour or a week. Perhaps most strikingly, at times the sensation of being able to see was so strong I felt the urge to close my eyes even though they were already shut. A new horizon of possibilities for the cinema opened up for me – as I mused that whole genres of films could be made for spectators to watch through closed eyelids. Emerging from the screening with a renewed jubilation for the cinema, I felt like shouting from the rooftops: if for nothing else but this intermezzo sequence of barely 15 minutes duration (or 15 hours, who can tell?), Samsara must be watched, and it must be watched in a cinema.


Other out-there screenings at the festival included Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes, Robert Schwentke’s wildly anachronistic telling of the last days of the Roman philosopher’s life, as the brattish Emperor Nero sentences him to death by his own hand. Despite John Malkovich’s plucky turn in the titular role, the film ends up being crushed by its own lurid excess and the parallels it draws with the decadence of the modern American empire come across as both obvious and forced. Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool likewise takes its premise to extremes of bad taste: a group of tourists in the fictional, generically Eastern European nation of Li Tolqa become addicted to committing murders with the sole goal that, as its idiosyncratic justice system prescribes, they are made to witness clones of themselves killed in vengeance by the victim’s next of kin. We have to suspend our disbelief that the under-developed backwater of Li Tolqa is so technologically advanced that it has perfected the science of human cloning, but in a world in which media outlets have devoted extensive coverage to the Havana syndrome, perhaps this is not such a stretch. In any case, as the scenes of gory violence pile up, Cronenberg Jr. has delivered another film that could have seamlessly been slotted into his father’s œuvre, indicating that the adjective “Cronenbergian” will live on for at least another generation.

Other younger filmmakers showed a more restrained approach in their cinema than Cronenberg and Schwentke. Korean-American Celine Song made a rapturously received debut with Past Lives, an auto-fiction about young teens ripped apart by a parental decision to leave Seoul for North America, who then make stuttering attempts to reconnect via social media even as their adult lives grow steadily apart from each other. Following similar beats to Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), but within a more conventional running time, the film is an emotionally wrenching experience, as was the more sombre Totém, the second feature by the Mexican Lila Avilés. Meticulously showing the preparations for dying artist Tona’s last birthday party from the standpoint of his young daughter Sol, the film patiently builds to a devastating climax during the festivities, as Tona takes in some final cherished moments with those he loves before his debilitating illness finally claims his life. 

Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults also had a tight focus on the intricacies of family relationships, but was characteristically rougher around the edges. Tempting a Michael Cera now on the cusp of middle-age out of the semi-retirement in which he seems to have found himself (the actor’s previous live-action screen credit dates back to 2018), Defa casts him as a poker addict returning to his hometown in a maladroit attempt to guide his two semi-estranged sisters through the fallout of a past family tragedy, while also sneaking off for late night card games with an old circle of fellow gamblers. It is likely the pull of continuing his winning streak at Texas Hold ‘em that prompts Cera’s Eric to repeatedly extend what was initially intended to be a brief stay, but the initial iciness between him and the eldest sibling Rachel (Hannah Gross) is thawed through the efforts of kid sister Maggie (Sophia Lillis), who resurrects a host of in-jokes, quirky voices and bizarre characters from their childhood years. Made in an improvised manner with the scantest of resources, The Adults succeeds in wringing dramatic heft out of the cringe comedy of these routines, from which, perhaps, a tighter bond between the siblings can finally emerge.

Organisationally autonomous from the rest of the festival, the Forum section has recently struggled to establish its place within the Berlinale, and this year was the last edition under the tutelage of Cristina Nord, who will be replaced as director by Barbara Wurm in time for 2024’s Forum. In the last few years, its aesthetic has narrowed to mostly contain politically engaged, but often dryly academic, essay films. The two works I took in this year were representative of this tendency, but showed the fruit it can yield: El juicio (The Trial, Ulises de la Orden) combed through hundreds of hours of VHS tape recordings of the 1985 judicial hearings into the torture and murder of thousands of young left-wing activists during Argentina’s military junta of the 1970s and early 1980s, in order to craft a condensed account of this horrifying episode in the country’s history. Vlad Petri’s Intre revolutii (Between Revolutions) used found footage from the same historical period, but in a more creatively fictionalising manner, as accompanying imagery for an imaginary correspondence between a Tehran woman writing from the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 overthrow of the Shah and her Bucharest-based correspondent in the years leading up to Ceausescu’s 1989 toppling. Invented though they may be, the letters poignantly capture a historical moment marked in equal measures by dizzying hope and crushing disenchantment.

These works were noticeably more fulfilling than some of the more straight-up documentaries at the festival, two of which focused on epoch-defining celebrities. Love to Love You, Donna Summer charted the singer’s progress from gospel choirgirl to sultry disco diva, but the involvement of Summer’s own family in the project (her daughter Brooklyn Sudano co-directed) meant that we were given a highly sanitised account of the singer’s life, to the extent that her homophobic remarks of the 1980s are quickly skirted over, and her history of drug addiction is avoided entirely. Alex Gibney, a master of the medium, entertained a far more complex relationship with his subject, gaining the full participation of Boris Becker for his project, but this also meant having to deal with the disgraced-yet-still-rakish German tennis star’s propensity for self-mythologisation, even as he faced jail time for financial irregularities. The premise of Boom! Boom! The World vs Boris Becker is irresistible – the rise and fall of an athlete whose fame reached such proportions that the German tabloid Bild claimed it had three reliable cover stories to pull out in case of need: Hitler, reunification and Boris Becker. But all that Berlinale audiences got was the triumph, since the documentary was split into two episodes, only the first of which screened at the festival. And if we wanted to take in the far more entertaining disaster in the second part of the diptych? Well, then we had to subscribe to Apple TV+ like every other schmuck. Why the Berlinale would debase itself by agreeing to screening a teaser for a streaming service rather than a full documentary in its own right is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Apple were playing hardball and the lure of a press conference with old Boom-Boom himself was too much to resist. But the least they could have done was make this clear in the program, rather than luring unsuspecting audiences to view the documentary under false pretences.

Sur l’Adamant

It was up to French documentarian Nicolas Philibert, then, to show the world the possibilities that this mode of cinema can offer. I initially had a ticket to a mid-week press screening of Sur l’Adamant (On the Adamant), but in an act of absent-mindedness that will surely resonate with any festival goer, realised on the way to the cinema that I had left my accreditation at home, and had no choice but to give the session a miss. Checking the festival website, I was relieved to find that tickets were still available to a public screening at the International cinema (incontestably Berlin’s most beautiful movie theatre) on the final Saturday night. As luck would have it, news filtered through that Philibert had won the Golden Bear shortly before the film’s start time, and when a festival volunteer relayed the information to the audience, enthusiastic cheers rippled across the room. Rarely, indeed, have I felt such palpable goodwill from a public towards a film even before it had commenced. And what followed did not disappoint. The Adamant of the title is a boat moored to the banks of the Seine river in Paris, and used as a creative therapy centre for mentally ill residents of the French capital. Philibert again deploys the observational method he had honed on films such as Être et avoir (To Be and to Have, 2002) and La maison de la radio (2013), an approach borrowed from predecessors such as Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon. But whereas Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967) famously highlighted the sadistic cruelty meted out to the inmates of an asylum for the criminally insane, Philibert’s more tender-hearted perspective showcases the compassionate community formed between patients and carers as they engage in collaborative art projects. Through patient observation of their daily routines as they paint, perform plays or practice on musical instruments, Philibert introduces us to a selection of the Adamant’s occupants, whose psychological issues are as varied as their natural warmth is consistently on display. 

Perhaps the most captivating of these characters is Frédéric, an old 68er who riffs on his affinity to van Gogh and Jim Morrison while charismatically holding court in front of the camera. Everything about him – from his dandyish fashion sense to his soft lisp and darting eyes – is so strongly reminiscent of philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière that it is easy to overlook the outlandish content of his stream-of-consciousness monologues. That there is not such a huge gap between the intellectual superstars of the Left Bank and the psychologically damaged souls aboard the Adamant is further hammered home late in the film when the facility’s staff propose the staging of a film festival. As I watched Frédéric and company ponder over which films should be included in the program, and what should be said when introducing them, it was hard to escape the message that the latest recipient of the Golden Bear was giving us. Yes, reader, being at a film festival – programming it, attending it, debating the merits of the films it shows, and, indeed, writing a report on it afterwards – is a form of madness. Sweet madness, but madness all the same.

15-25 February 2023
Festival website: https://www.berlinale.de


  1. Luckily calls such as this (Norah Masige, “Why I want to boycott The Survival of Kindness by Rolf de Heer”, Screen Hub, 23 Feb 2023) do not seem to have gained too much resonance.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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