In the years – decades even, or so it sometimes feels – that I have been dashing off these festival reports, I have never put pen to paper in a state of such explosive rage as I do now, when trying to formulate a response to this year’s Berlinale. It is not just the spectre of world events that casts a pall over my attempts to engage with the festival. How to write about cinema when images flood in of the obliteration of Gaza, its schools, hospitals, universities and places of worship shelled to rubble, the bodies of its residents torn limb from limb, its children reduced by deliberate starvation to skeletons? Still more nauseating is the spectacle of the entire political class of a nation – one whose own history, to say the least, is far from immaculate – stooping to the basest of obscenities while somehow having the galling hypocrisy to slander, ostracise and censor anyone who makes the slightest attempt to push back against its hidebound support of Israeli apartheid. In sadly predictable manner, the latest macabre display of the German bourgeoisie’s depraved sanctimony erupted in the wake of the Berlinale’s closing ceremony, echoing manufactured controversies around ostensible “antisemitism” that had already plagued the Cameroonian post-colonial theorist Achille Mbembe in 2020,1 the Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa’s contribution to Documenta 15 in 2022,2 and countless other artists, intellectuals and cultural workers subject to rampant cancellation and character assassination since October 7.

In this, the festival was bookended by scandal, since the opening ceremony itself was marked by fiery debate about whether the complimentary gala tickets handed out to parliamentary blocks should also have included representatives from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), despite the right-wing party’s virulently anti-migrant politics flagrantly contradicting the festival’s explicit commitment to the values of diversity, tolerance and other associated liberal catechisms. In the end, however, opening night turned out to be an exercise in consensus: the invitations were withdrawn, the assorted cultural elites could claim a moral victory, and the jilted AfD representatives could claim martyr status by dint of being excluded from an event they probably didn’t want to attend anyway. Everyone went home happy. And since the leadership duo of Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek had carefully avoided making any kind of meaningful comment on Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip, it seemed as if a surprisingly becalmed mood would prevail in their last Berlinale (Chatrian had been unceremoniously ousted as a result of machinations from cultural minister Claudia Roth, after Rissenbeek had already signalled she would be leaving the festival). This was, of course, deceptive. A letter of protest from lower-level festival employees decrying the silence on Gaza – particularly flagrant due to the contrast with last year’s profusely partisan position on the Ukraine war – and the withdrawal of some artists from the Forum Expanded sidebar portended the ructions to come. But I will return to the stormy disputes that accompanied the conclusion of the Berlinale at the end of this report. For the moment, as frivolous as this may seem in the context of an ongoing genocide, my focus will dwell on the films themselves.

The political conditions undoubtedly had a role here, but the 2024 Berlinale will also go down as a festival dominated by the documentary format. Mati Diop’s Dahomey, an essay on the repatriation of 26 historic artefacts from the Musée du Quai Branly to their homeland of Benin, won the Golden Bear – the second year in a row the prize was given to a documentary, something that was previously almost unheard of. Not only this, but with Direct Action (Ben Russell/Guillaume Cailleau) and, most pointedly, No Other Land (Yuval Abraham/Basel Adra/Hamdan Ballal/Rachel Szor), the works that also provided for the most concrete political interventions of the festival – both in terms of the films themselves and in the statements their directors made at the closing ceremony – were also documentaries. In a profound sense, then, the 2024 Berlinale was a festival of the documentary. Of course, one of the most important critical principles that guides me is the notion that the boundaries between “fiction” and “documentary” are not as ironclad as we might assume, but are rather porous, fluid, shifting – and this is evidently also the position of the Berlinale, which had both modes of cinema intermingling in every section of its program, rather than documentaries being shunted off into their own special category. Indeed, I would go a little further, every film is a documentary, in some sense, and every film is a fiction. It would nonetheless be foolish to suggest that the distinction is meaningless – as viewers, we unavoidably adopt a different relation to a film depending on whether we treat it as a fictional world or a document from our own universe. And so, my critical inclinations put to one side, this festival report will be cleaved into two parts – first frolicking in the land of the imaginary, before hurtling into a bracing encounter with the real.


Even with the flurry of outstanding documentary works in this year’s festival, traditional fiction features were still numerically in the ascendancy in the program, particularly when it came to the competition. Of course, things have not been easy for the Berlinale in the perennial tussle for red carpet glamour, and the perceived lack of big names at the festival has been one of the nagging critiques of Chatrian’s tenure. In this context, flying over Martin Scorsese for a lifetime achievement award (the so-called Goldener Ehrenbär) was a scoop, although it was also read in some corners of the German press as a covert but deliberate rebuff to Roth. The New Yorker, after all, had lent his signature to an open letter criticising Chatrian’s ousting after he and Rissenbeek had successfully steered the festival through the pandemic years – undoubtedly the most difficult challenge it had ever faced as an institution – and calling the culture minister’s behaviour “harmful, unprofessional and immoral.”3 Ah, the innocent days when this was what passed for a scandal at the Berlinale!

A Traveler’s Needs

If the Berlinale under Chatrian has not been known for glitz, his auteurist credentials are impeccable, and were also on show this year. With Yeohaengjaui pilyo (A Traveller’s Needs), Hong Sang-Soo featured in the competition for what seemed like the twentieth year in a row (well actually, Wikipedia tells me, his films have “only” been in seven of the last eight Berlinales). After the astringency of last year’s In Water, deliberately shot out of focus, A Traveller’s Needs sees Hong reunite with Isabelle Huppert for a more accessible addition to his burgeoning œuvre, the two having already worked together on Dareun Naraeseo (In Another Country, 2012) and Kuel-le-eo-ui ka-me-la (Claire’s Camera, 2017). Here Huppert’s Iris is a middle-aged French woman who finds herself alone in Seoul, giving language lessons to sceptical Koreans using a strange, self-devised methodology, strolling through leafy parks, drinking copious amounts of makgeolli, and getting involved in an are they-aren’t they situationship with a much younger man with whom she shares an apartment. As carefully as Hong and Huppert’s collaboration sketches out the erratic idiosyncrasies of her character, Iris remains inscrutable: what is she even doing in Seoul, away from friends and family, floating through the city like a leaf in the wind? We are never given a definitive answer, but her mercurial behaviour points to a traumatic event in her past – a loss, a misfortune, a betrayal – that has precipitated this move.

Bruno Dumont’s L’Empire (The Empire) vied with A Traveller’s Needs for its vivifying inscrutability, but whereas Hong’s film intentionally withdrew key information from the viewer, Dumont provides us with an overload of stimuli. As an exercise in genre-bending, L’Empire takes some beating. On one level, it is a social-realist film set amidst an impoverished, coastal community in the windswept north of France, populated exclusively by gruff, thickly-accented townsfolk. The sense that we’ve landed back in the universe of P’tit Quinquin (2014) – the film which first saw a strain of whacky comedy emerge in Dumont’s œuvre, after he had previously developed a reputation for dour spiritualism – is only accentuated by the return of Bernard Pruvost as the bumbling detective Van der Weyden and Philippe Jore as his equally quirky sidekick Rudy Carpentier. The plot seems to initially centre on the carnal desire between local youths Jony and Line, but very soon things take an odd turn. Passages of dialogue hinge on Jony’s infant child, a Messianic figure called “The Wain”, and a cosmic, good vs evil battle being waged by rival blocs of extra-terrestrial forces dubbed the 1s and the 0s. If this all sounds like an elaborate spoof of the space-opera blockbusters that have dominated the world’s screens for several decades now, that’s because it so clearly is – even light sabres make an appearance, in the most overt nod to Star Wars. A sizable special effects budget is deployed to depict hordes of spaceships doing battle above the Côte d’Opale, but, in the film’s most spectacularly absurd twist, the intergalactic vessels are modelled after Gothic churches and the palace of Versailles, while the 0s are led by a mincing Fabrice Luchini clearly having a lot of fun with the role. Personally, I was tickled by the free range Dumont gave to his absurdist humour, but here I cut a rather lonely figure within the press corps at the Berlinale, most of whom came away from the film either bewildered or outright aghast at what they had seen, their reactions no doubt inflected by reports of the troubled shoot, which saw Adèle Haenel leaving the project amid claims that it defended a “dark, sexist and racist world.”4 If there were, as Haenel claimed, jokes about cancel culture and sexual violence in the script while she was working on the film, these by and large did not make it into the final cut. Parodic and downright silly the film may be, but buried deep within the science-fiction pastiche is also, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say, a serious meditation on the internecine religious wars that roiled Europe for several centuries after the Reformation. 

Suspended Time

Dumont’s countryman Olivier Assayas was also in the competition, but in contrast to the bombastic CGI spectacle of L’Empire, his entry was of an impossibly small scale, minor films by major auteurs being something of a theme at this year’s festival. In truth, I have never really warmed to Assayas’ films – some of which, such as Après Mai (Something in the Air, 2012) and Personal Shopper (2016) have prompted unreasonably violent critical reactions from me in earlier festival reports – but I was, in the end, more favourably disposed to Hors du temps (Suspended Time) than I expected to be. Made on a tiny budget, with filming taking place almost exclusively in the Assayas family’s ramshackle country house, the film is a nakedly autobiographical work looking back on the pandemic-induced lockdown period of 2020 from the safety of a time when social distancing, masks and doomed paranoia seem to be things of the past (well, maybe not that last one). Vincent Macaigne and Micha Lescot are brothers who, along with their girlfriends, hole up in the Monet-like chalet to escape from Parisian confinement, and deal with the pandemic in various ways – from germophobic caution to compulsive online shopping and, for some reason, the relentless cooking of crêpes. Thrust back into each other’s personal spaces, the two siblings can’t help but regress to an infantile state, squabbling and bickering over household minutiae while attempting to retain a semblance of respectability in their professional lives. Perhaps the first film that treats the pandemic in the past tense (filming took place well after the last Covid restrictions had been lifted in France), Hors du temps offers a myopically privileged view of the lockdown period – not many of us had the luxury to ride it out in a country manor teeming with books and art – and is marred by an unnecessary voiceover from Assayas ruminating on his own personal memories of the location, but the fraternal dynamic between Macaigne and Lescot is enough to win over even the most dubious viewer (me, as it happens).

North American cinema had a strong contingent at the Berlinale, bolstered in large part by the imperious presence of A24, whose production logo seemed to adorn half of the competition entries in the festival. Certainly, there were films in Berlin that conformed to the signature A24 style, but these were also some of the most invigorating works of the festival. Aaron Schimberg’s A Different Man drew comparisons with the work of Charlie Kaufman, with an intricately layered plot centring on a man whose face is disfigured by an extreme case of neurofibromatosis. After meeting and falling in love with his beautiful neighbour, the aspiring theatre writer Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), Edward seems to have caught a lucky break when his face is miraculously transformed, revealing him to look like the devilishly handsome Sebastian Stan. He leaves his identity as Edward behind, and finds work in real estate before chancing upon a production of a play by Ingrid that happens to be based on his own life. Everything seems to have worked out for Edward, but it transpires that his irascible misanthropy is actually more than skin-deep, and his troubles are exacerbated with the arrival on the scene of Oswald (Adam Pearson, returning to the screen after a memorable turn in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, 2013), who suffers from the same condition that Edward had, but is so relentlessly upbeat that he can’t help but beguile everyone around him – except Edward. Smart enough to forestall any potential criticisms of ableism through carrying its self-reflexive mise en abyme structure to extreme conclusions, A Different Man is given a welcome twist through the impossibly charming positivity of Adam Pearson’s character, which had me giggling in the theatre at almost every line of dialogue he delivered.

Rose Glass’s sophomore outing Love Lies Bleeding similarly has the courage to follow its premise all the way to a grisly end. Here she takes us to a godforsaken corner of New Mexico in 1989 – not a huge amount is made of the period setting, although it at least means the characters are happily free of being on their smartphones. Not particularly auspicious conditions for lesbian romance, you might think, but sparks nonetheless fly between Katy O’Brien’s aspiring bodybuilder Jackie and Kristen Stewart’s Lou, the daughter of a local criminal kingpin who works at the gym where Jackie lifts weights. Defending Lou’s sister from violent abuse at the hands of her husband, the two embark on a killing spree of various male arseholes, disposing of the bodies in a handily situated nearby ravine. The sexual politics of the film may have had more of an edge at the time it was set, rather than today, but the least that can be said is that the problem of male violence against women has not subsided in the intervening 35 years, and if there is the constant feeling throughout Love Lies Bleeding that the film is, much like its characters, on the verge of spiralling out of control, then, also much like its characters, it has just enough energy to make it through to the end.

Between the Temples

More low-key offerings were on display with Nathan Silver’s Between the Temples and the Canadian Kazik Radwanski’s Matt and Mara. Both directors work within the legacy of microbudget indie cinema, although Silver has always had a particularly acerbic edge to his filmmaking, and both of the films they presented were enlivened by the chemistry of their respective leading duos. Silver struck rare gold with the pairing of Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane, who find themselves in a slow-burn age-gap romance. Schwartzman’s Ben, who works as a cantor at an upstate New York synagogue thanks to his mother’s generous donations to the temple, seeks solace from a chronic depression caused by his wife’s early death, while Kane’s Carla, raised atheist by her Jewish communist parents, hits on the Quixotic project of a belated Bat Mitzvah. Prolific in the early 2010s, Silver’s output has since slowed down (Between the Temples is his first feature release since 2018), but his newest film also evinces a pleasing maturity in his development as a filmmaker, with the subtle sensitivity of the performances accentuated by Sean Price Williams’ dexterous camerawork. Similarly, Radwanski’s Toronto-set film lives off the interaction between Deragh Campbell’s Mara, a flustered academic in an unfulfilling marriage to a musician, and the boyishly unkempt writer Matt, played by Matt Johnson, returning to the Berlinale after directing last year’s BlackBerry. Old bosom buddies, the pair’s reunion sees the flickerings of a potential romance emerge, without either character fully ready to risk their friendship. Radwanski exploits his improvisational method to the full, and the highlights of the film are those moments where Campbell and Johnson are given free rein to extemporise entire scenes together, bouncing off each other’s awkward energy to exponentially comedic effect.

Fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan is undoubtedly one of his country’s most accomplished filmmakers, with a corpus stretching back to the 1980s, and he has been obsessed with Richard Strauss’s Salome for almost as long, having first staged the opera in 1996. Seven Veils is the culmination of this fixation, fictionally rendering the re-staging of Salome by a recently deceased conductor’s former pupil, Jeanine (Amanda Seyfried, working once more with Egoyan 15 years after her turn in 2009’s Chloe), who has her own demons to purge. But the result is underwhelming, the film’s style so icy that it is hard for the spectator to muster up any sympathies with the characters, no matter the horrors they may have been subjected to. Johan Renck’s Spaceman similarly flattered to deceive, despite its oddball premise borrowed from Jaroslav Kalfar’s novel, charting the mission of a Czech space agency (!) to inspect a mysterious space cloud beyond the orbit of Jupiter, and an all-star cast featuring Adam Sandler, Carey Mulligan, Isabella Rossellini and Paul Dano – the last as the voice of a giant spider hallucinated by Sandler while alone in his space capsule. Yes, it was that kind of movie. Spaceman could conceivably be paired with the Zellner brothers’ Sasquatch Sunset as a double-bill of films overtly riffing on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – but I wouldn’t recommend it. The latter film features a group of actors including Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough as a family of pre-verbal bigfoots inhabiting the redwood forests of northern California. But the filmmakers are incapable of deciding whether Sasquatch Sunset is meant to be a profound meditation on the origins of humanity or a bawdy, cryptozoological farce, and it soon descends into puerile, YouTube-style humour that is nothing but an insult to the spectator. Reader, I confess, I walked out of the press screening 40 minutes into the film, judging it irredeemable at this point, and precipitated a mini-stampede of fellow journalists heading for the doors. Maybe the film improves in the second half, but I doubt it, and I don’t care to find out. Sometimes, life is too short.

German cinema is, of course, an expected presence at any Berlinale, and Chatrian has got heat from certain sectors of the industry for his supposed lack of interest in the local scene. Maybe, wicked tongues might say, if Germany made better films… The competition nonetheless featured two-and-a-half German films (Claire Burger’s tepid Langue étrangère was a German-French-Belgian co-production by a director who hails from the border town of Forbach), while more was to be found elsewhere in the program. Marco Abel provides a more detailed rundown of the German-language fare in the festival, but among the fictions, the highlight for me was Matthias Glasner’s Sterben (Dying), whose blackly humorous plot revolves around a German family coping with multiple tragedies in its ranks. At the centre of the narrative is Lars Eidinger’s Tom Lunies, who carries the film with his mordant misanthropy. Sterben was honoured with a Silver Bear for its script, an interesting choice, since with its episodic storyline and three-hour-plus running time, the scenario suggests something of a hybrid narrative format hovering between the feature film and quality television – it is little wonder, after all, that Glasner’s directing CV is heavy in episodes of Tatort (2002-2012), Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110, 2018-2020) and other German police procedural shows.

For a more global perspective, the competition offered films such as Keyke Mahboobe Man (My Favourite Cake) from Iran, whose co-directors Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha were prevented from leaving the country by its paranoid authorities, and the more hard-hitting Mé el aïn (Who Do I Belong To, Meryam Joobeur) from Tunisia, featuring a former ISIS fighter returning to his home village with a veiled wife in tow. One of the standouts, however, was the young Nepalese director Min Bahadur Bham’s Shambhala, a portrait of a pregnant woman’s quest to find her missing husband, high up in the Himalayas. In this Buddhist realm, there are virtually no signs of the contemporary world beyond the odd puffy jacket: the main means of transport is still donkey, and modern media have not made any penetration into village life. There is perhaps something jarring, then, with just how sleek the cinematography is, with the majestic mountain landscapes rendered in crystal-clear high resolution digital images. Given the subject matter, a bit of rough-hewn artisanality may not have gone astray, but this is a minor quibble when compared with the narrative and visual achievements of the film.

You Burn Me

The same can be said for Matias Piñeiro’s Tu me abrasas (You Burn Me), featuring in the “Encounters” section of the festival (a Chatrian innovation, which has a cloud hanging over it following his departure). Over the last decade, the Argentine director has developed one of the most distinctive bodies of work in world cinema. His previous output has largely centred on free adaptations of Shakespearean comedies, but with his latest film, Piñeiro shifts his literary eye to the Italian mid-century author Cesare Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucò (which had also been the subject of Straub/Huillet’s Dalla nube alla resistenza [From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979]), as well as the ancient Greek poet Sappho’s erotic lyricism. Neither a documentary nor a fiction, You Burn Me is uncategorisable. In essence, it is a film about language, about images, about sounds, a film that dismantles the building blocks of cinema and puts them back together again in new and unexpected ways. There are few historical predecessors for Piñeiro’s experiment in filmic enunciation – perhaps Godard’s Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1974), or Vertov’s Shestaya chast mira (A Sixth Part of the World, 1926) – and the fact that it stands up with these works is testament to his cinematic ambition.


Piñeiro’s film thus stands as something of a bridge to the other half of this festival report – the so-often neglected domain of the documentary. One of the foremost practitioners of the mode, Nicolas Philibert, returned to Berlin after his exploration of a psychiatric clinic, Sur l’adamant (On the Adamant), had triumphed at the festival last year. Denied, strangely enough, a spot in the competition this year, Averroès & Rosa Parks (At Averroes and Rosa Parks) continues in the same thematic vein (it is intended as the second part of a trilogy), with Philibert’s fly-on-the-wall camera capturing lengthy interviews between patients and their therapists in the Esquirol hospital in the south-east of Paris. As with the preceding film, we witness long therapy sessions, though here they mainly take the form of one-on-one interviews between the psychiatrists and their subjects. If the logorrhoea of those being treated in the hospital can exert a tremendous fascination, vacillating unpredictably between passages of unintelligible nonsense and moments of genuine profundity, then the reactions of the therapists are just as beguiling, as they restrain themselves to pursed lips and sympathetic looks for minutes on end, before intervening into their patients’ discursive streams with the deftest of replies. At Averroes & Rosa Parks is, above all, an object lesson in filming dialogue, and the importance, in cinema, of showing the act of listening just as much as the act of talking.

The observational method was also deployed to incisive effect by Ruth Beckermann in Favoriten, as the Austrian filmmaker tracks a class of primary school children across three years in the Viennese neighbourhood of the film’s title. The kids we meet and see grow from the ages of six to nine are almost all from non-German speaking families, and many have fled war zones or other perilous environments. But even with the learning challenges they face, they all seem to have a genuine enthusiasm about being in school, and this is largely thanks to the diligence and warmth of their teacher, Ilkay Idiskut. It is from the genuine bond between teacher and pupils that the emotionally wrenching conclusion to the film comes, which will bring a lump to the throat of anyone who has their own kids at school (and possibly even those who don’t).

Films oriented to more directly political issues at the festival included Abel Ferrara’s take on the Ukraine conflict, Turn in the Wound, featuring spoken word poetry interludes by Patti Smith amidst scenes of destroyed cities and maimed bodies. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Ferrara’s feelings on the issue, but the film is quite frankly a disaster, with the New Yorker awkwardly imposing himself on the testimonies made by Ukrainian soldiers and an interview with Volodymyr Zelensky. In the end, Ferrara probably should have had the self-awareness to realise that he simply wasn’t the right director for this material – although I guess pensive introspection has never been his strong suit. More unimpeachable was Tamara Uribe und Felipe Morgado’s Oasis, a chronicle of the student movements that roiled Chile in 2019, leading to the election of leftist Gabriel Boric in 2022, as well as the dispiriting loss of the constitutional referendum at the third stage of voting later in the same year. Even here, though, there was a certain dryness in the approach that left me crying out for something a little bit more out there. Fortunately for me, precisely this was to be found in a film from further north in the continent. Colombian Nelson Carlos de los Santos Arias delivered one of the weirdest films of the festival with Pepe, narrated by one of the hippopotami that had been imported from Namibia by drug lord Pablo Escobar to take up residence in his private zoo, and which have now become something of an invasive species in the region. The hallucinatory premise is apt as a launchpad for a freewheeling essay that crosses continents, languages and media formats in attempting to explain the circumstances under which a herd of hippos found themselves in a foreign land, culminating in the titular mammal’s Sunset Boulevard-style demise at the hands of local authorities attempting to clamp down on the booming population.

Pepe’s cinematic pyrotechnics earned De los Santos Arias a Silver Bear for Best Director, and it was notable that the Golden Bear winner shared with it the formal device of a voiceover from an unexpected source. Mati Diop’s Dahomey was perhaps a consensual choice for the main prize, awarded by a jury that consisted of Lupita Nyong’o, Christian Petzold and Albert Serra, since it honoured a formally daring work by an auteur in the ascendant, while also avoiding the stigma of acclaiming yet another white dude. The 67-minute run time of the film evinced a certain thinness to Diop’s treatment of the repatriation of the Benin bronzes, as if she hadn’t quite managed to collect enough visual material to sustain a feature but decided to proceed with it anyway, and this impression is bolstered by the frequency with which the film reverts to a purely black screen. But interventions like the voiceover from one of the statues returning to its home soil, depicting the 19th century Dahomey monarch King Ghézo, show a confident filmmaker in command of her medium, even when the resources at her disposal are perceptibly threadbare, and the town hall-style debate over what to do with the artefacts that closes the film is an engrossing discussion which will surely open up even more debate on the topic. 

Direct Action

It was nonetheless two other documentaries that proved to be the most enduring talking points of the festival, and I only wish it had been because of what was in the films. Direct Action is a three-and-a-half-hour epic charting the emergence of the ZAD (Zone à défendre), an anarchist movement which occupied the site of a proposed airport near the town of Notre-Dame-des-Landes in the west of France, and succeeded in blocking its construction until the project was abandoned by Macron in 2018. In the years prior to this, however, something of a utopian collective had sprouted up in the fields of the Pays de la Loire, and the film patiently follows the lifestyle pursued in this commune, from arduous farm work and carpentry, to flights of fancy such as a virtual reality drone flight, or more traditional forms of leisure like getting drunk and listening to punk music. For some critics, the film may indeed have been too patient, drawing out the monotony of alternative modes of living through extensive, minimalist long-takes of quotidian activities. But this is the point: most of the time, politics – even the politics of radical anti-capitalist activism – is boring. Until suddenly it isn’t boring anymore: the film climaxes with an epic battle between the zadistes and teargas-toting riot police attempting to shut down their encampment, in scenes of class war that are as cinematically thrilling as anything from Eisenstein or Pudovkin.

Tucked away in the Panorama section, No Other Land was the only film in the festival to deal directly with the Palestine/Israel conflict,5 and although events have overtaken it in terms of the depths of depravity which the Israeli state is willing to plunge to, it has the eminent merit of showing the daily reality of occupation, oppression and humiliation that has been the fate of the Palestinians in the 75 years prior to the events of October 7. The focus of Abraham and Adra’s film is the forcible dispossession of the latter’s home village in the West Bank, so that the IDF can construct a military base on the seized territory. Just like the activists in Direct Action, the residents of Masafer Yatta do everything they can to thwart these plans, even going to the extent of rebuilding bulldozed houses at night. But the reprisals they face are far more drastic than those of French anarchists – as the Palestinian villagers and their supporters suffer arrests, beatings and even, in one chilling scene, being shot in the spine, leading to permanent paralysis. Despite the strong bonds of friendship between the Jewish Israeli Abraham and his Palestinian partner Adra, fundamental disparities in their experience of the world cannot be denied. In one telling conversation, after Abraham frets that the footage he had uploaded wasn’t getting the viral resonance he had hoped for, Adra responds to his naïveté with a more worldly-wise reminder that the struggle they are engaged in is a long one that has already been going on for many decades, and won’t be solved in ten days no matter how successfully they can post on social media. In the end, No Other Land is possibly better categorised as audiovisual activism rather than cinema in the strict sense of the word, but there are times when it is precisely this use of images and sounds that is called for. And yes, we are now living in one of those times.

In light of the content of both of these films, it surely could not have come as a surprise when their directors, given awards during the festival’s closing ceremony, would make statements condemning the relentless genocidal terror Israel is wreaking on the population of the Gaza Strip. Given the Encounters award, Ben Russell donned a keffiyeh and ended his acceptance speech with “And of course we stand for a ceasefire and against the genocide.” For their part, Abraham and Adra, who won not only the Panorama Audience Award but also the Berlinale Documentary Film Award, both gave eloquent speeches on the current conflict, with Adra calling for a halt to weapons exports to Israel, and Abraham patiently explaining the reality they live in, which is worth quoting at length: 

“We are standing in front of you now, me and Basil are the same age. I am Israeli, Basil is Palestinian. And in two days, we will go back to a land where we are not equal. I am living under a civilian law, and Basil is under military law. We live 30 minutes from one another, but I have voting rights, Basil is not having voting rights. I am free to move where I want in this land. Basil is, like millions of Palestinians, locked in the occupied West Bank. This situation of apartheid between us, this inequality, it has to end.”

Two of the four members of the Palestinian-Israeli director’s collective accepted the Berlinale Documentary Award.

In a normal country, there would be nothing controversial about any of these statements, which were not in the slightest bit incendiary and merely stated basic facts about the present situation faced by the Palestinian people. In a normal country, the fact that Abraham and Adra stood next to each other like brothers could even have been celebrated as a vision, however modest, of a peaceful and just future in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Berlinale does not take place in a normal country, but in Germany, the most abnormal country in the world, which is in the midst of a sadistic McCarthyist frenzy directed at anybody who dissents from the state’s vociferous defence of the Israeli occupation, as if ladling even more suffering onto the backs of another people would somehow absolve Germans of their guilt for the crimes of the Holocaust. And so, predictably, these thoughtful expressions of solidarity and calls for a stop to the killing were denounced in a weeks-long, hate-filled media campaign by a parade of servile commentators, blithe to the absurdity of white, German right-wingers attacking an Israeli Jewish artist (among others) for his supposed antisemitism. I know that Germans aren’t great at appreciating irony, but still…

More ominous still was the response from official representatives of the German state, whose comments on the matter were, if anything, even more unhinged than those of the pundit class. Claudia Roth opined that “The statements during the Berlinale’s Bear Awards on Saturday evening were shockingly one-sided and marked by a deep hatred of Israel” – as if it were morally necessary to be even-handed towards those who commit genocide and those who are the victims of it – and in a later interview with Der Spiegel fulminated against the “nauseating open antisemitism” that she fantasises is rife in the far left.6 When video footage emerged of her clapping the Berlinale speeches that she later denounced, Roth even sought to defend herself by claiming she was applauding only the Israeli filmmaker (and by implication not his Palestinian collaborator), and in doing so unwittingly underscored the racist nature of the German state’s position on the conflict.7 Worse was to come from Berlin mayor and friend of right-wing extremists Kai Wegner, who thundered on Twitter that “what happened yesterday at the Berlinale was an intolerable relativisation” (never mind that nobody “relativised” the situation in Palestine with anything else, it is the buzzword of the day in German politics and so can be deployed at any opportunity), and proceeded to declare the city’s unilateral backing of Israel – so much for not being one-sided.8

That he was tarred with the brush of antisemitism had foreseeable consequences for Abraham, who has received numerous death threats since the festival and whose family had to flee from attacks by an enraged right-wing mob in Israel. I shudder to think what the repercussions will be for Asra, who has already faced violence from the IDF on multiple occasions. So high had German politicians got on their own self-righteousness that they had literally put filmmakers’ lives in danger. In response, Abraham issued a strident rejoinder that “the appalling misuse of this word [antisemitism] by Germans, not only to silence Palestinian critics of Israel, but also to silence Israelis like me […] empties the word antisemitism of its meaning and thus endangers Jews all over the world. […] If that is what you are doing with your guilt for the Holocaust, then I don’t want your guilt.”9 

While Chatrian had previously remained studiously silent on the issue, he and outgoing head of programming Mark Peranson finally came out with their own statement, one that probably means neither will ever work in the German art world ever again. In a post on Twitter, they wrote that the issue of antisemitism had been “weaponised and instrumentalised” by media figures and politicians, which led to the award ceremony being “targeted in such a violent way that some people now see their lives threatened. This is unacceptable. […] Mourning the loss of human beings on one side doesn’t mean that we don’t mourn others’ losses too. Stating the opposite is simply dishonest, and shameful and polarising behaviour.”10 Even if it came late in the game, I tip my hat to the duo for their principled fuck-you to the German establishment.

Perhaps most chillingly, Wegner’s Twitter rant included the message that “I expect from the new leadership of the Berlinale that they make sure such events are not repeated.” How exactly would any festival be able to “make sure” that artists are prevented from making statements that meet with the disapproval of the country’s political leaders? What mechanisms is he suggesting? Sworn declarations of fealty to Israel from filmmakers before their films are considered for selection to the festival? This is exactly the kind of thing, any German should surely realise, practised by totalitarian regimes. What self-respecting director would accept such an intolerable restraint on their freedom of expression? Surely they would join the ranks of artists who have already decided to “strike Germany” due to the climate of intimidation and censorship they face in this country. 

Make no mistake, what Wegner and his cronies are proposing is an outright declaration of war on the very principle of artistic freedom, and on any sense of human empathy we might feel in the face of the unthinkable misery that the Israeli military has inflicted on Gaza. For anybody who cares about the future of the festival, and about the future of the world, it is imperative that we fight back against this monstrous insanity.

Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin
15 – 20 February 2024

  1. Denijal Jegić, “Colonial discourses are stifling free speech in Germany”, Al Jazeera, 19 June 2020
  2. Terry Smith, “DOCUMENTA 15, 2022: Collectivism and Controversy“, Artlink, 11 July 2022
  3. Elsa Keslassy, Naman Ramachandran, “Martin Scorsese, Radu Jude, Joanna Hogg Among 400+ Signatories of Open Letter Urging for Prolongation of Carlo Chatrian’s Berlinale Leadership (EXCLUSIVE)” , Variety, 06 September 2023
  4. Edouard Orozco, “Adèle Haenel veut s’éloigner du cinema: “C’est une industrie réactionnaire et raciste”, Premiere, 17 May 2022
  5. Amos Gitai’s Shikun, inspired by Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros, which screened as part of Berlinale Special, also makes oblique references to the occupation.
  6. Claudia Roth ueber Berlinale eklat es gibt bei linksrdikalen diesenekelhaften offenen antisemitismus”, Spiegel Politik 01 March 2023 (The link is unfortunately paywalled.)
  7. Philip Oltermann, “German minister says she clapped Israeli film-maker, not his Palestinian colleague, at Berlinale”, The Guardian, 27 February 2024
  8. Kai Wegner, https://twitter.com/kaiwegner/status/1761777006528676251, X, 25 February 2024
  9. Yuval Abraham, https://twitter.com/yuval_abraham/status/1762558886207209838?lang=en X, 27 February 2024
  10. Carlo Chatrian, https://twitter.com/CarloChatrian/status/1763566000560025822, X, 01 March 2024