To begin, then, with Hamlet: to be or not to be, this seems to be the question these days for the city of Berlin when it comes to its longstanding status as – and claim to being – Germany’s cinema capital. Do the various political deciders in Berlin (whether at the level of city government, of the federal state that it simultaneously constitutes, or of the national government, which historically subvents much of Berlin’s amazing cultural institutions and activities) hope for Berlin to remain – to still be – the primary German location for cineastes from around the globe? In light of recent developments, the answer to this question appears more in the balance than one might expect. In the last few years alone, for example, several revered local cinemas were on the verge of closing their doors for good (e.g., Moviemento, Germany’s oldest cinema); closed due to financial insolvency only to reopen a couple of years later (Colosseum); have to close for renovations (the International); are rumoured to close (Cubix at Alexanderplatz); or closed, seemingly for good, such as the CineStar with its IMAX in the Sony Centre at the ill-fated, awfully designed postmodern non-place that after 1990 was once again supposed to become the beating heart of the unified metropolis that it used to be in its glory days a century ago: the Potsdamer Platz. Moreover, one of Germany’s two most important film academies—the dffb (the German Film and Television Academy) – is forced to relocate from its current location at Potsdamer Platz for the same reason that the legendary Arsenal cinema (currently housed, like the dffb, in the so-called Filmhaus) has to relocate to the Silent Green cultural space in the working class district of Wedding, while the German Cinematheque and the Museum for Film and Television are heading from their location in the Filmhaus to a new temporary home in an historic electric substation in Berlin-Mitte. All these important film institutions of world-renown, which once were conveniently centralized at Potsdamer Platz – making this really the only reason to travel to this dismal non-lieux – are now, or will soon be, scattered across the city simply because rent at Potsdamer Platz is too expensive (and the various governmental levels lacked the foresight to purchase those spaces to support an artform that in Germany is still treated like a “bastard” art). Something is rotten, indeed, in the state in which Berlin’s film culture finds itself these days.

Since 2000, the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) has relied on the various film screening facilities at Potsdamer Platz – in addition to the aforementioned Arsenal (which has housed the “Forum” sidebar for decades) and the now defunct CineStar also the still operational CinemaxX, which, however, has reduced the number of seats as part of its recent renovation, and the Theatre at Potsdamer Place aka the Berlinale Palace – to anchor the festival, to give it a clear centre, while making good use of some of the city’s historical cinemas such as, inter alia, the Zoo Palace, the International on Karl-Marx-Allee, and the Delphi near Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s most famous shopping street. This centralization of the festival, in proximity to the above mentioned cinema institutions, lent the Berlinale an air of excitement, not least also due to the scores of viewers – both tens of thousands of “regular” Berliners, who during the rest of the year would rarely go to theatres to see the kind of “festival films” Germany’s only A-list festival screens, and members of the press and film industry – who would traverse this area and infuse it with the very buzz of life that is otherwise largely absent from this sterile, lifeless catastrophe of urban planning. Post-Covid, however, the new (and now past) leadership of the Berlinale – Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek both stepped down after five years of co-directing the festival – found itself pressured, not least due to financial woes, to both reduce the number of films screened at the festival and distribute screenings to a relatively greater degree around the city than before, including a large number of screenings at Verti Music Hall, a newly built all-purpose venue without any character whatsoever that is inconveniently located far away from Potsdamer Platz in the Friedrichshain district.1 As a result of these changes, the area around Potsdamer Platz is now less busy: the advantages of being able to move more quickly through this space and getting into screenings with considerably shorter time spent queuing up comes, however, at the cost of a significant decrease in festival atmosphere filled with incessant chatter among attendees pre- and post-screening discussing which films one has seen or is en route to seeing, which ones were duds and which are must-sees, not to mention endless, more or less informed, debates about the overall state of cinema in the age of streaming and social media diversions.

While the totality of these changes affected all festival visitors, one additional change the festival has undergone since 2023 in particular impacted those of us who attend the Berlinale with a specific interest in German films: the elimination of the “Perspective German Cinema” sidebar and the noticeable overall reduction of the number of German films screened at the festival, from what at its peak used to be well over 60 films to fewer than 30.2 Alas, the festival was unable to compensate for what it lost in sheer quantity of German films by dint of enhanced overall quality: at least judging by the films I caught, this year’s cohort was, at best, middling, with some offerings proving especially indigestible to me, such as the ill-conceived Holocaust-survivor tragicomedy Treasure by German filmmaker Julia von Heinz, who had previously directed Und morgen die ganze Welt (And Tomorrow the Entire World, 2020), an anti-fascist political drama that premiered at Venice, and Matthias Glasner’s Sterben (Dying), a self-indulgent, overly long comedy-drama about death involving a handful of members of a single family (and their friends and lovers), starring some of contemporary German cinema’s best-known actors such as Lars Eidinger, Ronald Zehrfeld, Lilith Stangenberg, and Corinna Harfouch. The latter film, which, like Andreas Dresen’s latest effort, In Liebe, Eure Hilde (From Hilde, With Love) about the little-known anti-Nazi resistance group Die Rote Kapelle (The Red Orchestra), was part of the Competition, struck me as insufferably stilted both at the level of writing (to my disbelief and dismay, the festival jury awarded it the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay) and visual design; in turn, the former, part of the festival’s Special Gala program, suffers so badly from its pedagogical agenda that not even usually funny actors such as Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry were able to come to its rescue. While From Hilde, With Love, which was enthusiastically received at the premiere screening I attended, is far from Dresen’s best film, it was at least solid in terms of narrative control compared to Treasure, whose comedic moments were to the same degree unfunny as the moments intended to be moving were emotionally affecting.3  

Johannes Hegemann and Liv Lisa Fries as Hans and Hilde Coppi in Andreas Dresen’s From Hilde, With Love

But, to put the matter loosely based on Wittgenstein: whereof one cannot speak well, thereof one should remain silent. In the remaining space, then, I’d rather provide a brief rundown of those films that I would recommend readers look out for in the coming months. Of particular interest to me were three films centring female protagonists – Eva Trobisch’s Ivo, Michael Fetter Nathansky’s Alle die Du bist (Every You Every Me), and Aslı Özarslan’s Ellbogen (Elbow); two fruitful exercises in genre filmmaking – Tilman Singer’s Cuckoo and especially Thomas Arslan’s Verbrannte Erde (Scorched Earth), the best film I saw at the festival; and a compelling documentary: Romuald Karmakar’s Der unsichtbare Zoo (The Invisible Zoo).

Ivo follows its eponymous palliative care worker (Minna Wündrich) as she ceaselessly drives between the homes of her patients in the Cologne region. Watching her over the course of the film, one senses that her old Skoda offers Ivo something of a home away from home – a Faraday-cage of sorts that protects her from the psychological toll that her work – as well as homelife with her teenage daughter, whom she appears to raise alone – takes on her.4 It is, in a way, a mobile space that allows her to temporarily rest and recharge, to get ready to cope with the gap that is constitutive of her job but that also permeates her personal life. In turn, we might say that the film itself cares for the gap aesthetically and narratively in order to match, by cinematic means, its narrative content: it renders sensible the essence of what palliative care workers do, namely to accompany their patients toward an event that is, by definition, elliptical, gap-like, given that we know neither what if anything exists on the other side of life nor, if there is nothing that exists on this other side, what this nothing might “be” – and if it even “is” anything.

This is why Ivo regularly withholds the kind of narrative and psychological information that a lesser film would inevitably provide, especially in the German context, where viewers trained by countless made-for-TV movies expect films to spell out everything in excessively obvious ways, as if the culture itself were afraid of dwelling in gaps, for fear of the potentially irrational unknown that might await them. Most prominently, for example, Ivo refrains from explaining why Ivo enters a sexual relationship with the husband, Franz (Lukas Turtur), of one of her patients, Solveigh (Pia Hierzegger), or when they started sleeping with each other – a gap that is even more intriguing because Ivo and Solveigh are close friends. How did this affair start? Does Solveigh perhaps even suspect, if not know, that Ivo has a relationship with Franz? And, crucially, why exactly did Ivo eventually even acquiesce to Solveigh’s wish that Ivo assist her in committing suicide (which is legal in Germany since 2020, provided, as the press booklet explains, it is not part of a business transaction and the patient is not only fully conscious but also takes the medication on their own)? Which is also to say that the film steadfastly refuses either to depict Ivo as a saint or to judge her actions: consistently shot in a mixture of documentary-like scenes and carefully composed frames by cinematographer Adrian Campean that centre Ivo’s perceptions, which are characterized by a curious gaze that not infrequently notices seemingly incidental information, Ivo meets all of its protagonists at eye level, accepting their actions for what they are rather than approaching their reality as a means to a message-driven end, insisting that we, too, do not know what it truly takes to be able to care for the gap. The film, to quote André Bazin, never forgets “that before being blameworthy […] the world quite simply is” – a profound ethical disposition towards the world that Ivo shares with the Italian Neorealist films that Bazin’s claim addressed.5

In her second feature film, Eva Trobisch sketches Ivo through such gaps: whatever we learn about Ivo, we learn through observing her relationships, whether at work or at home, in scenes that were often improvised rather than planned into the last detail. The cumulative effect of the film’s gap-filled narrative is that it shows how relationality precedes the individual: it is not that there are first subjects and only then do they form a relation, but individual subjects emerge from a web of relations that pre-exist them. A subject is always in medias res, the film reveals, an effect of always-already ongoing actions: the deeds, in other words, produce the doer as agent. In this sense, Ivo depicts care not as a matter of duty or morality – which is why it refuses to invite us to judge Ivo when we have some reason to suspect she might have helped her friend die for ulterior motives – but as an ethics of doing, as the ability to respond, as response-ability. This is why the film, which Trobisch cast with many real-life palliative care workers, presents Ivo without sentimentality: always no-nonsense in her interactions with her patients, she mercifully abstains from condescending to them by offering her pity. But this seeming “coldness” in her approach to her parents is not coldness at all; rather than a sign of her lack of care – which would not only solicit our condemnation of her but also conveniently allow us to assert our own moral superiority – it is the affective expression of care itself, which enables Ivo to do her job without instrumentalizing her patients’ pain for her own emotional and psychological needs.

Ivo repeatedly highlights that such a “dogged” enactment of an ethics of care qua response-ability comes at a cost when it momentarily pauses Ivo’s restless movement from patient to patient and shows us Ivo alone, usually in her car, holding still, sometimes shedding a few tears. Such moments evocatively communicate the degree of (care) work on the self it takes for Ivo to be able to care for the gap that defines her work—that is to say: for her to care for the experience of her patients as gaps, rather than seeking to fill the gap for those who are most existentially confronted by it by pretending to know how they might feel facing the gap that death constitutively “is” and toward which they inch with a knowledge that is profoundly un-shareable. For a film about death, then, Ivo is a surprisingly uplifting film (but not in a pandering way).

Ivo (Minna Wündrich) in her car in Eva Trobisch’s Ivo

Another compelling film about a gap of sorts is Elbow, the feature film debut by Berlin-born German-Turkish director Aslı Özarslan. Like few German films I know, Elbow encapsulates in one powerful scene the gap the ostensibly liberal, tolerant German Mehrheitsgesellschaft (majority society) seems unable (if not unwilling) to close when it comes to the fundamental, structural conditions of possibility for people of Turkish descent to live a “normal” life in Germany – a gap that is given linguistic expression in the very hyphen I just used to describe Özarslan’s background (more broadly, we could say: for people who migrated to Germany in general, especially those hailing from the global south.) Hazal (Melia Kara), on her 18th birthday, hopes to momentarily forget the daily humiliations she experiences – whether at home, where her mother pressures her to get a job in the beauty industry that Hazal clearly does not want, or at the job centre, where a majoritarian German case worker treats her like a second-class citizen. Together with her friends, Hazal dresses up to party at a hip Berlin nightclub, only to experience more humiliation: upon arrival, they realize that they are overdressed for the hipster scene that prefers a grungy look to the highly polished appearance of Hazal and her girlfriends. Dejected and frustrated, they return to a subway station, where suddenly, the only other person waiting for a train, a young blond German man, carefreely comments on the young women’s appearances before taking flirtatiously hold of Hazal’s hand to dance with her on the platform. This one action embodies the very gap that constitutes Hazal’s everyday experience of her life, for what the German man, whom the film does not depict as a foreigner-hating Neo-Nazi, enacts at this moment is the very structural misogyny and racism that continues to remain largely invisible to representatives of the German Mehrheitsgesellschaft: Hazal did not ask to be approached by him, whether verbally or physically, yet the young man did not think twice to act upon the very privilege – as a white, heterosexual, middle-class German man – that is so deeply embodied at the core of his very being-in-the-world that, the film implies, he may almost be forgiven for not even realizing what he does. 

Hazel (Melia Kara) with her friends (Asya Utku, Jamilah Bagdach) returning from the night club to the subway station in Aslı Özarslan’s Elbow

Yet, the film’s greatness consists in its refusal to condemn Hazal for her reaction: almost instantly and quickly aided by her friends, she starts fiercely pummelling the guy until he lies on the platform in pain. But suddenly, the young man gets up and attacks Hazal. After a moment of struggle, however, she manages to push him away from her, onto the tracks, as the tell-tale noise of an arriving train forecasts the ensuing tragedy. Later at home, Hazal learns that she is now wanted for manslaughter (she was recorded by security cameras), as a result of which she decides to flee to Turkey, where she initially connects with a young man with whom we saw her communicate earlier via video chats, though the exact relationship between them remains unclear. 

Erdoğan’s Turkey, however, is hardly paradise, and Özarslan depicts how Hazal, whom Elbow treats neither as a victim nor as a perpetrator, neither as a heroine or martyr nor as innocent, seeks to survive in a country that seems as hostile to her as Germany, just in different ways. As a “hyphenated German,” she is not allowed to feel at home in Germany; yet Turkey does not consider her one of theirs either. This experience of not-belonging in either Germany or Turkey is a profound experience shared by many Germans of Turkish descent, as Aysun Bademsoy’s documentary-essay film Am Rand der Städte (On the Outskirts, 2006) compellingly reveals.6 Elbow, like Ivo largely shot in a social-realist mode, takes the viewer by their elbows, as if seeking to subtly, even tenderly, guide us into Hazal’s (emotional) reality – one in which she finds herself confronted time and again with the impossibility of stitching the gap that defines her (against her will), a gap that neither the German Mehrheitsgesellschaft nor her ancestral home is capable of closing at this point: belonging neither here nor there, she is, at the film’s end, reeling but determined to survive, to live. At the realist level, the film has given us enough reason to doubt that she will manage to elude the authorities; but the film refuses such closure, thereby not so much keeping open the real possibility that Hazal might stay free but, rather, making “us” – in particular, I’d say, those, like myself, who are members of the Mehrheitsgesellschaft – dwell in this narrative gap with which the film leaves us to our own devices: rather than allowing us to celebrate what would merely amount to an imaginary solution to a real social problem, it forces the viewer to affectively invest themselves in the contradiction’s unresolvedness at the social level. Moral judgment, Elbow suggests with its concluding shot, has no purchase on this dilemma – but neither does escapist wishful thinking.

Melia Kara as Hazel at the end in Aslı Özarslan’s Elbow

A third German film centring a female protagonist – one that inflects the social-realist aesthetic that characterizes both Ivo and Elbow with an intriguing touch of magic realism – is Every You Every Me (a strange translation for what literally means “all the ones you are”), which focuses on a working-class woman’s determination to come to terms with a gap in her personal life, the presence of which she deeply feels but cannot quite make sense of: she wants to discover why she no longer loves her husband, even though she wants to and even though he is clearly in love with her. In a way, we might say that the film “territorializes” Ivo’s caring for the gap that others (who are essentially strangers to her) are confronting in their lives onto a marital relationship in which Nadine (Aenne Schwarz) reflects on all the different “beings” her husband is, or rather was, for her – beings that constitute him and that she cared for, or, perhaps better, that constituted for her those aspects in his being that allowed Paul (Carlo Ljubek) to fulfil her specific emotional and physical needs. Thus, at times, we see “him” as an older woman (catering to Nadine’s need for motherly protection and affection); as a child (catering to her desire to offer shelter, care, and protection to another, just as she does with her co-workers, who are depicted as more helpless than Nadine, who organizes the workers to fight against the looming job cuts that would affect them); as the Paul who was seven years younger (catering to her sexual needs), when they first met at work in what is one of Europe’s largest brown-coal mining areas, the setting of which infuses the central story with an intriguing socio-political context, as that industry literally digs gaps into the earth to extract resources and exploit workers for profit, regardless of consequences for people, communities, and the environment; and, most stunningly, as a bull (embodying not only his hotheadedness but also his considerable physical and emotional strength that appeals to Nadine). Born in Germany but partly raised in Spain, Fetter Nathansky introduces the multiplicity that Paul represents for Nadine early in the film when colleagues call her to calm him down after he locked himself in a machine room. As we see her climb over a wall to get to him, as we hear him raging off screen, the camera closely follows her in a tight shot, so that we are stunned as we suddenly see her holding a real bull; and as the camera moves fluidly back and forth, we next see Paul, no longer as a bull, just as we subsequently suddenly see him, across one cut or another camera movement, as a child, or as the older woman, or as his younger adult self.

Most of the time, however, we see Paul like Nadine sees him today: as his true “outer” self in the present, a husband committed to fighting for his wife’s love, yet unable to “fix” what seems unfixable precisely because Nadine cannot exactly explain what has made her feelings for him change. 

Nadine (Aenne Schwarz), leaning on Paul (Carlo Ljubek) in Michael Fetter Nathansky’s Every You Every Me

Refreshingly, the film avoids the cliché of a couple yelling and physically fighting with each other as they drift apart: their struggle, instead, is embedded in obvious kindness and affection the two feel for each other, which makes it all the more devastating to Nadine – and arguably the viewer – that she cannot find her way “back” to him by filling the gap that somehow opened up along the way during their relationship. In this, the film works out at the micro-political level what it also suggests via its setting at the macro-political level: Every You Every Me depicts with great sympathy a group of working-class people who are barely holding on to a unified position in response to economic developments that have turned into a fait accompli without the workers really being able to identify when or why these changes occurred. Depicting with great sympathy the increasing resignation among the workers, the film nevertheless refuses to indulge in a nostalgic perspective on what is in the process of being lost or rather: what has been lost (including mass working-class solidarity). The pain with which one might leave the experience of watching the film emerges, ultimately, not because we “truly” get to know Nadine’s innermost being or the “real” cause for her inability to be in love with her husband but because of the film’s suggestion that desiring economies are often such that they get people, at both the micro (private) and the macro (economic) level, to invest in the very situation that no longer works well for them. This is not a matter of victim blaming but, rather, of depicting how powerful desire – with what cultural theorist Lauren Berlant might say is a certain kind of “cruel optimism” – can be even when, “objectively,” it can be said to work against one’s best interests. The film’s final image – Nadine looking on from a distance as Paul walks with a co-worker to his new work site, the future of their relation in the balance – sits squarely in the gap that sits at the heart of Berlant’s powerful diagnostic concept.7

While all three films discussed thus far largely eschew the language of genre cinema, several films I saw turned in interesting, even surprising ways, towards genre filmmaking. The much-anticipated arthouse horror film Cuckoo, a German-American coproduction with an international cast from the U.S., the U.K., Spain, France, New Zealand, Iran, as well as Germany, is Tilman Singer’s follow-up to his well-received feature debut, Luz (2018), which premiered in the then still extant “Perspective German Cinema” series. Singer ingeniously deploys the genre’s entire palette of conventions to satisfy fans of the genre with fanciful narrative conceits while using those as a vehicle to proffer a critique of patriarchal violence: for the film’s not-so-subtle political subtext is the contemporary – but, sadly, seemingly timeless – struggle over women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy.

Gorgeously shot in widescreen on 35mm, by Director of Photography Paul Faltz, that allows the darkness of the night to be truly black, Cuckoo features Hunter Schafer (Euphoria, 2019-) as a 17-year-old teenager who reluctantly joins her father, his new wife (Jessica Henwick), as well as their mute-but-not-deaf eight-year-old daughter Alma (Mila Lieu), as they travel to the German Alps, ostensibly to build a new resort for their host, Herr König (Dan Stevens). The film delights in quickly establishing that something is awry: the nature of the resort with its adjacent hospital remains as unexplained as the cause for Alama’s inability to speak; contemporary technology (cell phones are used) is paired with an old-school analogue answering machine, on which Gretchen leaves messages for her deceased mother; the car in which the family drives up the narrow mountain roads appears older than Gretchen; and, in a particularly delightful touch, the protagonist’s name itself is used to mark an uncanny fissure in the world into which the film quicky pulls us. Of German origin meaning “pearl,” the protagonist’s name is rather uncommon in contemporary Germany, especially compared to its use in the U.S., a fact with which the script plays upon the family’s arrival at the resort, when Gretchen feels herself compelled to correct, her intuitive derision for her interlocutor palpable, their host’s German pronunciation of her name by briskly correcting him with her American-English pronunciation. Intriguingly at least to a native German ear – and hearing quickly plays an increasingly important role as the film’s horror narrative unfolds – Herr König’s pronunciation sounds slightly off in German: Dan Stevens, who is not a native speaker of German but whose excellent German had already been on display in Maria Schrader’s Academy Awards-nominated Ich bin dein Mensch (I’m Your Man, 2021), purposefully emphasizes Gretchen’s name in a slightly creepy, sexually ambiguous (and inappropriate) fashion. As Jessica Kiang puts it in her review: “Few are the films and fewer are the actors that can get such sinister mileage out of a character’s insistently Teutonic, semisibilant mispronunciation of the name ‘Gretchen’.”8 Due to Stevens’ terrific acting, however, even viewers without a native German ear can hear that what should be a correct pronunciation sounds a tad odd, which, in turn, prompts us to ask what in Germany is known as – you guessed it – the Gretchenfrage: based on Goethe’s classic Faust and its major (young) female character, asking “Gretchen’s question” means to cut through layers of obfuscations in order to cut to the heart of the matter, i.e., to inquire directly into the motives of the person who is being asked. This is exactly what the scene dramatizes – with considerable humour – as the family is about to enter what every connoisseur of horror films undoubtedly recognizes as the kind of space into which one steps only at one’s own risk.

The answer to the question that we are genre-typically prodded to ask at this moment – what is wrong with this idyllic mountain setting? – is embedded in the film’s title. For it turns out that Herr König is a member of that long lineage of male mad scientists with pretensions toward ruling the world and/or improving on the human species by messing with evolution. Derived from the titular bird’s breeding habits, in Germany being called a Kuckuckskind means not only being a child whose father isn’t their biological one but also that their mother had an affair with another man but leaves the child’s (legal and social) father – the “cuckold” – under the impression that he is in fact their biological father as well. In other words, the notion of the Kuckuckskind, always used derogatorily, cuts to the core of patriarchal fears, which, in turn, manifest in patriarchal culture’s desperate desire to control women by denying them reproductive rights and thus bodily autonomy. 

It is this real-world socio-political drama that Cuckoo plays out through the logic of the horror genre, with Herr König being revealed as a mad scientist who forcefully turns women into breeding machines who give birth to a new species that subsequently seeks to reproduce themself and thus gradually “advances” evolutionary designs. True to genre conventions, it turns out that Gretchen cannot depend on her father (or her stepmother for that matter) to help her, and so it comes to a genre-typical drawn-out showdown (for my taste a bit too drawn out) in which she tries to save not only herself but also her step-sister, who, not entirely unpredictably, assumes agency at several crucial moments. And in a riff on the “final girl” motif, Gretchen (with Alma) manages to do what she genre-typically must do: she escapes. As she is aided by Ed (Àstrid BergèsFrisbey), a somewhat mysterious woman whom Gretchen had kissed earlier, Cuckoo could be seen as leaving us with a stark impression of the violence at the heart of patriarchy, though perhaps not necessarily a rejection of what literary critic Lee Edelman famously theorized as “reproductive futurism,” for Gretchen, Ed, and Alma drive off in what could be read as an image of a new, queer, family that the film affirms in opposition to the horrors of the patriarchal heterosexual dynamic.9

Gretchen (Hunter Schafer) as the “final girl” in Tilman Singer’s Cuckoo

Cuckoo fully embraces its genre logic by organizing its plot around numerous narrative gaps it does not necessarily bother to fill – after all: we do know from the very moment Herr König enunciates “Ggrraaytshayn” where things are heading – and Thomas Arslan’s Scorched Earth is also organized around a series of gaps, none bigger than the fourteen years that have passed in its protagonist’s life since we saw Trojan (Mišel Matičević) disappear in the film’s prequel, Im Schatten (In the Shadows, 2010), one of the Berlin School’s masterpieces.10 The film does not bother filling in the blanks and even self-consciously seems to call attention to its decision when the script has Trojan reply to one of his criminal interlocutors, who, surprised at his reappearance, asks him what he has been up to in all these years, by stating little more than that he has been laying low, not taking more than one or two big jobs per year, perhaps the odd smaller one as well, just to make ends meet. Trojan is a man of few words, and still fewer wasted actions. Less a gangster in the classical sense than a veritable “entrepreneur of himself” as diagnosed by Michel Foucault in his lectures on biopolitics – as per Foucault, neoliberalism operates by incentivizing the subject qua homo economicus to engage in a rational calculation of the costs and benefits of each choice they make as a means to maximize return on investment, on, that is, their efforts – Trojan prefers to keep to himself, is habitually suspicious of his environment, and by the end trusts only in his capacities and instincts.11 But just like neoliberal economics could possibly work only if its presupposition – that the rationally choosing economic actor acts while in possession of all necessary knowledge they need to make the best decisions, which they would then make rationally – were actually tenable (and that is decidedly not the case), so Trojan’s belief in his ability to control his environs by virtue of his calm and rational disposition is mistaken, precisely because he, like “regular” economic subjects, is unable to see through all the obfuscations the criminal neoliberal system puts in place behind our backs, or, for that matter, even in full view (but precisely because it happens in full view we cannot actually see it happening).

Clearly inspired by films such as Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955), Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), and, of course, by Jean-Pierre Melville’s genre-defining films such as Le cercle rouge (The Red Circle, 1970) – all films that foreground the work of crime – Scorched Earth is minimalist at every level: eschewing any unnecessary shots, while nevertheless beautifully, even lushly photographed in anamorphic scope by Berlin-School regular Director of Photography Reinhold Vorschneider and accompanied by a Berlin-School-typical sparse yet highly effective use of extra-diegetic music (composed by Ola Fløttum, who already worked with Arslan on his previous film, Helle Nächte (Bright Nights, 2017), which at the time premiered in the Berlinale’s Competition, albeit to relatively little acclaim).12 Arslan never shows us Berlin as “Berlin,” as its cinematography, mostly shot at night (whereas In the Shadows took place more during daylight), refuses, like its prequel, to provide us with establishing shots or even glimpses of sites or buildings that would be recognizable to viewers who are not intimately familiar with the city’s wastelands, nondescript office buildings, and other non-spaces, in addition to regular neighbourhoods, including the setting for the film’s brilliant showdown set near the Warsaw Bridge, not far from the aforementioned Verti Music Hall. As a result of this “aesthetic of non-spaces,” there is no gravitational centre that clearly anchors Trojan’s ceaseless movement, from scouting out potential crime scenes to meeting fences, to checking in yet another anonymous motel on the outskirts. It is a bleak, decidedly unsexy view of Berlin and, by extension, of contemporary Germany. 

Berlin as non-lieux at night in Thomas Arslan’s Scorched Earth

In this sense, the film doesn’t represent Berlin; rather, the camera is a vector into a gap in response to which our sense of space and time emerges. The film renders sensible neoliberal digital space-time, in relation to which Trojan, decidedly analogue (he pays cash, as any digital transaction would create too much data about his movements), has fallen out of time since we saw him last in In the Shadow, where Germany’s belated transition to the digital age was still only in its infancy. While, like a good entrepreneur of the self, Trojan works hard to stay in control, to be the rational agent of his fate, we gradually realize that his actions are ultimately structured by a different capitalist space-time in relation to which he can only respond, be reactive – albeit with his codex intact, as was the case for his famous movie-predecessors. Unlike James Caan’s Frank (Thief) or Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), however, Arslan’s anti-hero gets to fight another day, for while making Scorched Earth the director decided to make a third part to conclude what will then have become a crime film trilogy that has, in the German context, no precedent other than Fritz Lang’s very different series of crime films about one Dr. Mabuse.13 With two masterpieces already “in the can,” Arslan has a real shot at completing what would be a cinematic crime trilogy for the ages – one that, despite its narrative, aesthetic, and cultural differences, could also fruitfully be compared to Andrew Lau and Alan Mac’s Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-2003). That Scorched Earth was shown as part of the Panorama sidebar rather than in the Competition strikes me as symptomatic of the overall state of cinema in Germany: it feels as if Carlo Chatrian felt compelled to make concessions to German-centric pressures by screening in the Competition films about the Nazi-era by a committed humanist filmmaker and another about death featuring a who’s who of contemporary German acting – and what could be more German, read: meaningful, “heavy” topics than the Nazis and death? – instead of a brilliant example of unapologetic genre filmmaking, that rarest of animals on the German big screen. I only hope that the Berlinale will feature the third part of Arslan’s “Trojan-Trilogy” in its Competition, rather than slotting it, like Scorched Earth, in its Panorama sidebar. 

Trojan (Mišel Matičević) in Thomas Arslan’s Scorched Earth

While Arslan’s film was for me the absolute highlight of this year’s Berlinale, I want to end with the ending of Romuald Karmakar’s three-hour-long Wiseman-esque documentary about the Zurich Zoo, widely considered one of the best animal pens in the world, not least due to its combination of pared-down architecture effecting the appearance of “wilderness” that makes the essential fiction at the heart of this environment almost invisible: i.e., that the animals, seemingly roaming freely in habitats carefully constructed based on their “natural” ones, are in effect in captivity, subject to human decisions such as, tragically, the decision to kill a male zebra, not because it is ill or old but, allegedly, because it is lonely: Karmakar leaves it up to us to decide on the degree to which we are willing to accept this as an explanation (provided by zoo workers) or whether its fate is not, rather, the result of the fact that it no longer fits the humans’ design for the zoo. 

Patiently shot exclusively in a series of commentary-less long-takes over many years (Karmakar initially shot at the Berlin Zoo but ran into what he calls in a conversation with Knut Elstermann the “Darth Vader of the Berlin Zoo,” as a result of which he decided to terminate shooting there14), The Invisible Zoo ultimately renders visible the complex operational infrastructure underlying this heavily constructed space and in so doing engages in a fundamentally cinematic act in Jean-Luc Godard’s sense, who held that images have to be critiqued with images: in this case, Karmakar provides us with images that cut through the immersive “invisible style” the Zurich Zoo has nearly perfected, as if it has taken, in terms of media-history, its lesson from the classical age of Hollywood cinema. And in this regard, the director of brilliant, intense films such as Der Totmacher (The Deathmaker, 1995), Das Himmler-Projekt (The Himmler Project, 2000), and Hamburger Lektionen (Hamburg Lectures, 2006) could not have ended his film with a better image than that of gorillas in a cage – there’s no mistaking here that they are in captivity, as the zoo’s plans to create a new “natural” habitat are not yet realized.15 Known for often keeping their backs to their human onlookers because they can’t bear permanently being stared at, now one of them seemingly listlessly moves about for a while near the glass pane, then grabs a stick (intimations of Stanley Kubrick’s apes?), before pushing its face close to the glass and knocking on it. Does the gorilla miss the human spectators, whose temporary, Covid-induced ban from the zoo has left a phenomenological gap in the animal’s horizon of experience? 

The Invisible Zoo

In a way, it’s a fitting image for the experience of this year’s Berlinale in general and, for me, of having once again focused on German films. While one might take the gorilla’s knocking on its glass cage as its attempt to call forth, or call back, human visitors, I’m inclined to take the final moment with which The Invisible Zoo leaves the viewer as inhering with the potential for a (utopian) hope for transformation. Whereas for the gorilla that transformation would ideally result in its true freedom (rather than the make-believe freedom in “the zoo of the future” its human keepers have planned for its kind 16), for German cinema, if not the Berlinale at large, such transformation would hopefully result in a taking of greater aesthetic liberties, which also means risks. While some of the German films discussed above point in the right direction, too many remain beholden to predictable narrative patterns and “significant” topics that cater to the German mainstream audience’s habituated penchant for approaching films at the topical (content) level, playing it safe even when they think they are pushing boundaries, as in the case of Dying, in which a composer at one time lectures about the line between “real” art and kitsch – an overly obvious mise en abyme of sorts with the help of which the film self-consciously, and with an ironic wink, seeks to protect itself avant la lettre against any critique that might see in it the very kitsch its insufferable artiste decries, instead playing it safe in order to please an audience that is unwilling to embrace films that actually take their narrative and genre logic all the way, as Scorched Earth so compellingly does.

Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin
15 – 20 February 2024


  1. No doubt, Chatrian also had other reasons, which were based more on purely cineastic curatorial considerations, to reduce the number of films that during the long reign of his predecessor, Dieter Kosslick, had mushroomed.
  2. The elimination of the “Perspective German Cinema” followed on the heels of the previous elimination of the screening of films nominated for the German Film Awards (the “Lolas”), which, in turn, replaced the “German Cinema” series curated by the late Heinz Badewitz, which presented a selection of German film productions from the preceding calendar year. These German-centric film series made many German films from the previous calendar year available to industry professionals, academics, and members of the press and at least, for me, always constituted an important aspect of the annual Berlinale experience since 2005, the first year I attended the festival.
  3. For more on Dresen’s career, see Marco Abel, “‘There is no Authenticity in the Cinema’: An Interview with Andreas Dresen,” Senses of Cinema 50 (April-June 2009), https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2009/conversations-on-film/andreas-dresen-interview/.
  4. Christian Petzold described the Volvo in which the terrorist family in his Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000) as a “Faraday-cage. See Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013): 82; for more on the preeminent Berlin School filmmaker, see Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold (University of Illinois Press, 2013).
  5. André Bazin, “Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of Liberation,” in What is Cinema?, translated and edited by Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2009): 215-249, here 221.
  6. For more on Bademsoy’s work, see Joy Castro, “Intimate Terrains: Contemporary German Cinema, Migration, and the Films of Aysun Bademsoy,” Senses of Cinema 92 (October 2019), https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2019/feature-articles/intimate-terrains-contemporary-german-cinema-migration-and-the-films-of-aysun-bademsoy/.
  7. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke UP, 2011).
  8. Jessica Kiang, Review of Cuckoo, Variety February 16, 2024, https://variety.com/2024/film/reviews/cuckoo-review-hunter-schafer-dan-stevens-1235913849/.
  9. Lee Edelman, No Future; Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke UP, 2004).
  10. For more on In the Shadows, see my chapter on Arslan in The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, (Boydell & Brewer, 2013)
  11. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008): 226.
  12. For more on Bright Nights, see Marco Abel, “A Few Notes on German Cinema at the 67th Berlin Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 82 (March 2017), http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2017/festival-reports/berlinale-2017-abel/. Intriguingly, the Berlinale screened another German film that can almost be considered the Yang to Arslan’s Yin: Jan Bonny’s Zeit Verbrechen: Der Panther (The Panther). For if Arslan’s film is excessive in its reducedness, Bonny’s is excessive in its excessiveness – which made watching the film a highly unusual experience in the context of German cinema. The film was produced for Paramount+ in Germany as part of a mini-series of films fictionalizing real crimes recounted on a popular crime podcast hosted by the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Reportedly, however, Paramount+ decided not to stream the films on its platform.
  13. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922); Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933); Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960).
  14. “Der unsichtbare Zoo – Berlinale Talk 2024,” radioeins, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMjFeYurvdk&t=163s.
  15. For more on Hamburg Lecturers, see Marco Abel, “The State of Things Part Two: More Images for a Post-Wall German Reality: The 56th Berlin Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 39 (May 2006), https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2006/festival-reports/berlin2006/.
  16. “Zoo der Zukunft—Entwicklungsplan 2050,” Zoo Zürich, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5L7besBMY8&t=7s last accessed March 24, 2024.

About The Author

Marco Abel is Willa Cather Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His third monograph, Mit Nonchalance am Abgrund: Das Kino der “Neuen Münchner Gruppe” (1964 – 1972), is forthcoming in September 2024 with transcript Verlag (Germany). He is also the author of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which won the 2014 German Studies Association Book Prize, and Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique After Representation (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). He is the co-editor of several books, including, with Jaimey Fisher, of the forthcoming New German Cinema and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema (Wayne State UP, January 2025) as well as The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema (Wayne State UP, 2018). Other books he co-edited include, with Aylin Bademosy and Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2023); with Christian Gerhardt Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968 (Camden House, 2019); and with Chris Wahl, Michael Wedel, and Jesko Jockenhoevel of Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2010). With Roland Végső, he is the co-editor of the book series Provocations (University of Nebraska Press).Marco Abel has also published numerous essays on German cinema and interviews with German film directors in several edited volumes as well as journals such as Cineaste, German Studies Review, New German Critique, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Senses of Cinema. Together with Jaimey Fisher, he also co-edited a dossier on Christian Petzold for Senses of Cinema (issue 84).

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