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Shuffling from bed to couch, stove-brewed coffee in hand, and firing up the laptop may make for an unusually leisurely way to start a festival day, but who wouldn’t have traded it to be rushing through the biting German late-winter cold to join a queuing Palast throng? There was little about last year’s Berlin International Film Festival – even given news headlines of turmoil on other continents – to indicate as it bustled along that it might be the final edition as we had known it for some time. As the pandemic sent the city, barely a week later, into the first of many months of lockdowns and the near-total shuttering of public cultural life, the reality has remained slow to sink in. This year’s edition, restricted to online screenings for press and industry (until a planned live June event for local audiences, effectively splitting the event into two parts) brought with it a jolt of nostalgia, as it was the anniversary of what for regular attendees was the last big festival of their “normal” cinema-going life before the current open-ended waiting game.

The online nature of recent festivals has hammered home that cinema is not only films, but other people – the communion that occurs in the dark, and the dialogue that spills out around it. It’s a shared space that is much harder to recreate and reach through the atomised screens of lockdowns. So it’s even more admirable that this Berlinale created a buzz around it that was reminiscent of a physical festival, due in no small part to its best program in recent memory. There were few bland celebrity-vehicle titles and a bold lean into confrontational ideas and formal risk-taking. This is attributable to the staunchly cinephile priorities (and imported Locarno flavour) of the new team headed by artistic director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek, and compounded by the COVID-driven lack of a red carpet, allowing selections that were less held to ransom by press hunger for big-name talent. With screenings restricted to five days, it was harder than usual to see everything one would have liked. There were great discoveries to be found across all sections (special shout-outs to Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden and Uldus Bakhtiozina’s Doch rybaka (Tzarevna Scaling) in Forum, and Shorts winner Nanu Tudor (My Uncle Tudor) by Olga Lucovnicova), but I’ve focused here on highlights from the Competition and the more newly minted Encounters, which is proving effective in creating excitement around daring work that might have previously flown under the radar.

Pandemic times mean pandemic cinema, and it was bracing to see a number of films that spoke to the disquieted spirit of the era in bold, dynamic ways. Some riffed on the literal trappings of the contagion. Denis Côté, for instance, shared the Encounters Best Director award ex aequo for Hygiène sociale (Social Hygiene), a vibrantly inventive and witty play on what making cinema might mean in these conditions that had his characters standing far apart in fields. And the tense citizenry of Radu Jude’s Golden Bear winner Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn) (more on that later) aired their outrageous grievances and conspiracy theories while socially distanced in surgical masks. Others were films of the uncanny, built around strange slippages in time and space or fantasies that through flights of imagination expanded confined household space, and tapped unease at the unstable nature and inward-facing solitude of our new quotidian reality.

The Girl and the Spider

“Since I’m on this ship, I feel dizzy. It is always swaying,” says one of the protagonists of Das Mädchen und die Spinne (The Girl and the Spider), a beguiling and unusual Encounters highlight that’s set not at sea, but at home. Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving from the apartment she has shared with Mara (Henriette Confurius) into another, where she will live alone. But, as with their prior feature Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (Strange Little Cat, 2013), Swiss brothers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher (also Best Director ex aequo winners) play with the impermanence integral to shared residential space, and our unspoken alienation in a world in which transformation is the only certainty. Interactions, tightly framed against doors and windows, are quietly charged with desires and resentments, and lend to an eerie sense that reality is barely holding itself together as unified and consistent. A stray feather on a shirt prompts the wearer to imagine they’re turning into a chicken. A cold sore on a lip reminds us the body is a tornado of eruption and reaction. As if there is a glitch in the sonic matrix, someone hears a baby screaming, but the other person in the room hears nothing. Objects, a cigarette butt here or a sponge there, are homed in on to defamiliarise them, and fill them with dormant significance. A storm crashes in through an open window at night. Dreams come during the witching hours. Any frame of the film or inhabitant’s perception is but one of multiple dramatic versions, we intuit. It’s cinema, then, as a site where stability is an illusion, and possibilities are mysterious and manifold.

More overtly supernatural was Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, which the French director has described as a “time travelling film without the time travelling machine.” It is also a film of aching grief and guilt for a closeness of solace that never was, and a maternal protection that can never last. Short, at just over 70 minutes, and deceptively lowkey to begin with, it starts with a family trip. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is navigating the confusing emotional terrain left by her grandmother’s death. She accompanies her parents to her mother’s childhood home while they box up belongings. She strikes up a friendship with Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), another eight year-old she meets playing in the woods, who has a strikingly similar appearance, and who is dealing with her own apprehension over an upcoming hospital operation. Only gradually do we grow aware that we’ve been made privy to a spirit cross-over, or a corridor to another dimension.

“Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide. There’s just no one to tell them to,” says one instant confidante to the other, as both grasp onto relief from the fear they might just be engulfed in isolation by the heart’s mysteries. The film may be lighter on Gothic trappings than Sciamma’s heady, prior Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), but its secluded revelations, doubles and ghostly manifestations make it still of that realm. Haunting, in Petite Maman, is ultimately less an atmospheric phenomenon than a feeling, emotion and raw need having the visceral force to collapse all the temporal and spatial boundaries that might at lesser or more repressed notches contain it. Shot largely in a studio under COVID-proofed conditions, there is a quietness to this film, and a nostalgia for other people and other interconnected lives, that makes it all the more devastating.

One woman’s “ability to be indescribable and remain undefined” is called a “talent” by the celebrated erotic novelist and professor she is trying to entrap in a covert revenge plot in Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Guzen to sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) – a wonderfully agile and witty tapestry of three dialogue-driven tales that turn on chance, misreading and betrayal. It transcends melodrama in its almost mystical fascination with identity slippage and humans’ ultimate unknowability. Along with the scheme of the married student (played by Katsuki Mori), a triangle involving a woman who realises a friend is unwittingly dating her ex, and a future-set story in which a virus has moved world communications offline and one woman mistakes another for someone she once went to school with, make up this constantly surprising gem of subtle and shifting power dynamics and flipped assumptions, which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

The biggest revelation from the Main Competition program, overlooked by the main jury but recipient of the FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize, was without a doubt Alexandre Koberidze’s much-discussed charmer Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt? (What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?), a Georgian-German co-production (Koberidze lives between Tbilisi and Berlin, where he graduated from film school). Reference to our “brutal, merciless” era of climate crisis and greed is confined to the mouth of its narrator, allowing audiences to be swept up in the magic of chance encounters and an almost touristic celebration of picturesque vantage points around the ancient city of Kutaisi on languid summer evenings. A pharmacist Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze, then Ani Karseladze) and a footballer Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze, then Giorgi Bochorishvili) make a date during a meet-cute involving a dropped book in the street, but can’t recognise each other and are left in a state of lovelorn yearning a stone’s throw away from each other after the Evil Eye transforms their appearances

The playful fairytale about peril, perception and possibility is a gentler offering than Koberidze’s feature debut Lass den Sommer nie wieder kommen (Let the Summer Come Again, 2017), a bleary cell-phone venture into the Georgian capital’s underbelly and its illegal worlds of gay prostitution and boxing, but it also foregrounds the cityscape as a place to navigate hidden wonders and embodied beliefs. Under Koberidze’s dreaming gaze, and the luminous cinematography of DP Faraz Fesharaki, Kutaisi becomes an almost enchanted haven outside time, as lovers meet at the outdoor cafe by the White Bridge for ice-cream, khachapuri and beer, and stray dogs arrange to rendez vous at pubs to watch the World Cup. Not only are creatures anthropomorphised, but an animistic agency and sentient charge imbues every seedling, surveillance camera, wall and gutter, as they observe goings-on and even warn of curses. Koberidze, crucially, is impishly knowing about the kind of magic he traffics in. His narrator’s lament over forest fires and global destruction denies us total escapism, even as he allows our eyes, assaulted daily by media images, respite. The lovers’ curse is lifted by an image (after the hapless pair are photographed), making the film ultimately a tribute to the transformative properties of cinema; its formidable power to generate delight amid the dark, and see with a poetry that disarms aggressors.

What Do We See was one of no less than five German features in the local-heavy Competition. Dominik Graf sought to pull off a wild and dynamically freewheeling feel to his vision of Weimar Germany with Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde (Fabian – Going to the Dogs), his adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel. It opens in contemporary Berlin, before careening down underground-station steps as a rabbit-hole into the already much-fetishised territory of the Weimar period. “The only thing I’ve not experienced is suicide. But there’s still time,” one character blackly quips, befitting the attitude Graf brings to this maximalist, down-and-out fantasia, which lays on the starving-and-prostituting desperation of the inter-war years almost gleefully thick. It was fun to indulge in its hedonistic hysterics – even as the more urgent, no-holds-barred lunacy, subversive political intent and social media-era savviness of films such as Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First in Encounters raised the “unhinged” bar for our delirious epoch, making Graf’s work seem tame and familiar by comparison.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

As bawdy and brash as it is Brechtian, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn fits with a mission Romanian director Radu Jude has been on in recent years to challenge the Romanian establishment to gaze upon their hypocrisies, writ large. A very public porn scandal is the focus, after a sex tape of school teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) is uploaded to the internet by her husband against her will and goes viral. We’re made complicit right from the start, as the porn in question is shown in its full unvarnished, bedroom-DIY, dirty-talking explicitness. Any snap judgment we may make on this private consensual pastime is set up to be interrogated, as a second part subjects us to a social media-style barrage of archival photos and other recorded traces of historical horrors, from colonisers posing with their hands on the breasts of indigenous women to Nazis accelerating the massacre of Jews on the Eastern Front in time for Christmas (the Holocaust and the continuation of its legacy of hatred in Romania is a theme Jude also took on in 2018’s Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari [I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians].)

Where does the real obscenity lie – with Emi and her lack of demureness, or a corrupt and murderously prejudiced Church and state with blood on their hands? If the argument and answer should be obvious, the film’s third part – consisting of a wacky, socially distanced tribunal in which Emi must hold her own against leering condescension and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories – reminds us that the pandemic era is a fraught battleground for basic human compassion and facts, where no truth is safe for all-time and must be reasserted and defended with all (decorously reasoned or filthily rambunctious) means to hand.

The awarding of the Golden Bear to Bad Luck Banging was a decision that favoured the brave. Divisive though the film may have been, with directors like Nadav Lapid and Adina Pintilie on the five-person jury, who both won the Golden Bear in prior years for audacious works that jolted audiences into confronting their unexamined prejudices around notions of taste and othering (2019’s Synonyms and 2018’s Touch Me Not respectively), not to mention the director of 2020’s Sheytan vojud nadarad (There Is No Evil), Mohammad Rasoulof, whose work has attracted not only awards but prison sentences, it was not a shock that the flavour of 2021’s Golden Bear was wild, politically trenchant and committed – especially at a time in which global turmoil and right-wing resurgences across the globe call for consciousness-shaking acts and radical counter-remedies.

Like Jude, Nekrasova seemed to revel with The Scary of Sixty-First in just how far she could push its irreverent, sexualised and over-the-top humour, to slap back at a zeitgeist in which any pretense of respectability, science and measure among political power players has been abandoned for a naked show of exploitation, smut, conspiracy theories, charlatan remedies, violence and narcissistic vulgarity. A Manhattan apartment said to have been one of the dens of paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein is the setting of an unhinged, tongue-in-cheek giallo-riffing horror, as new tenants Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn) move in and the bad energy of the digs mean things get very weird, fast. Such joking around the real-life case might seem a disastrous idea on paper, but the film’s agenda is aligned with survivors, as it defies taboos around existing power structures. Occult possession and obsession meet Prince Andrew merchandise in a no-limits lampoon that would make any royalist British tabloid foam at the mouth, while it demystifies mythmaking and mindless celebrity veneration.

Unseen energies and portents were also on the mind of Greek director Jacqueline Lentzou with her feature debut Moon, 66 Questions, a film of droll musings on how our bodies may express or betray us as we search for the solace of cosmic and worldly connection. Fern Silva’s science-decolonisation experiment Rock Bottom Riser, another Encounters standout, mesmerised with lava spumes and other forces of nature, and deserves a shoutout alone for the most genius, comically bizarre use of a Simon & Garfunkel track in recent cinematic memory.

Mr Bachmann and His Class

It was not only in the realm of the unrestrainedly bonkers and otherworldly that the greatest joys of this year’s edition were to be found. It was bracing to see space made in the Competition line-up and awards slate for such a substantial work of patient, observational documentary as Maria Speth’s sprawling window onto the German education system Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class), which won the Silver Bear Jury Prize and was a moving exercise in empathy and active community solidarity.

What does it take to feel at home in Germany and lay the foundations for a future there? For teacher Dieter Bachmann and his first and second-generation immigrant pupils in Stadtallendorf, music jamming and chats about personal experiences and feelings are just as essential as covering the maths curriculum, in a class in which emotional wellbeing matters as much as grades. As we witness the gradually evolving dynamics, we get to know the daily struggles and progress of each student, many of whom did not grow up with German language in their homes and are under great pressure to catch up with their peers. When Bachmann reveals that the name of his worker forebears was once Kowalski, until Polish names were outlawed by the Nazi regime, it’s a detail that may explain much of the outsider affinity he feels for these students, in a town that was a forced-labour munitions production centre during the Third Reich. After the war, the factories were simply repurposed, so that manpower could still be extracted from guest worker bodies. Bachmann’s class is a veritable site of resistance to nationalist and capitalist oppression, as students are encouraged to stand confidently in their origins and identities, which are affirmed with their rightful, essential place in German society.

Alice Diop was a deserving Best Film winner of Encounters for Nous (We), another sensitively layered documentary work of empathy in action. She has crafted a collective tapestry of voices and vantage points to preserve traces of the ordinary lives that are so often rendered invisible but are indispensable to any idea of French identity. A hunting party bookends the film, much of the beating heart of which comes from home movies of Diop’s family. Her father immigrated from Senegal in the ‘60s, and his legacy, the film insists, is as essential to the nation’s fabric as that of the kings buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis (a reading of Louis XVI’s will is juxtaposed with the last images she possesses of him). Diop’s sister, a nurse, treats isolated elderly of low economic status in their homes and shares in their memories, a vital and humble link in the everyday sustaining of some of the most vulnerable members of the community. Her father has kept up a burial fund so that, after decades of life in France, the families’ bodies can be returned to Senegal to lie in rest; his daughter tells him she will break with the tradition. We feel the depths of complex emotion on what homeland means and how it can be carried within oneself, passed on and adapted, in such understated exchanges.

Overtly political but more by-the-book, Hungarian director Dénes Nagy’s Természetes fény (Natural Light) is a solid, sombre holding to account of the role of Hungarian troops, allied to occupying German forces, for their role in wartime atrocities on Soviet soil as they sought to root out partisans from villages and surrounding forests. The relentless greys and browns of the drama’s meticulously shot landscapes convey the psychological mire that is duty dredged of honour. But the world-weary, stoically poker-faced demeanour of Corporal István Semetka (Ferenc Szabó) as he carries out his tasks governs the film’s almost benumbed mood, preventing an intensity of audience outrage being channeled, even as the military man’s disillusionment rises and the flames of morally bankrupt horror burn.

Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacio’s Una película de policías (A Cop Movie), also screening in the Competition, is a Netflix movie that pulled us in with high-octane, emotive and slickly scripted tales of life on the beat amid danger and the institutionalised corruption and machismo of Mexican law enforcement, only to reveal the constructed nature of the project in a pull-the-rug-out, playfully postmodern manner. Its experimentation with a kind of embodied re-enactment to tap the lived truth of experience and identity, and question community power hierarchies, was impressive. Its central pair were not real cops, but two actors who’d gone through academy training and been immersed in their roles (the real María Teresa Hernández Cañas and José de Jesús Rodríguez Hernández, work partners who married, only appear briefly at the end), leading to an existential consideration of what it takes to be a police officer, the porous borders between doing and being, and what the self must surrender to comfortably inhabit a guise of authority.

The more things change, the more they remain the same, and if anything could assure us of continuity it’s that the year would see a Hong Sangsoo film with buoyed by charm and humour, relationship entanglements and at least one soju session. Inteurodeoksyeon (Introduction) was that film. Slim (at 66 minutes) even by his standards, and partially shot in Berlin (presumably when he was in town last year showing Domangchin yeoja [The Woman Who Ran] with an acting entourage), it proved him a master of invention and economy (and earned him a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay.) Amid the year’s turmoil, it was a light delight, and the kind of pandemic-era film that consoled us with the notion that maybe the wheel does not need to be reinvented to keep cinema alive, just ever so gently tweaked.

Berlinale European Film Market (online)
1-5 March 2021
Website: https://www.efm-berlinale.de/en/

About The Author

Born in New Zealand and now living in Berlin, Carmen Gray is a freelance film critic and journalist for London-based publications Sight & Sound, The Guardian, Screen International, The Calvert Journal and Estonian culture weekly Sirp. She is also part of the team launching independent cinema Wolf in Berlin.

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