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71st Berlin International Film Festival

HOME’s Director of Film & Culture Jason Wood attended Berlinale 2021 online this year, and we wanted to share with you his thoughts on the festival line-up.

Azor (Argentina)
Dir. Andreas Fontana
Swiss private banker Yvan De Wiel travels with his wife Inés to Buenos Aires in the midst of the military dictatorship. De Wiel encounters a decadent society of landowners, the newly rich, heiresses, aristocrats, army officials, fixers and prelates, all complicit with the regime but concerned with taking advantage of the hypocritical collusion between the Swiss banking system and diplomacy to hide their capital abroad. As he moves from exclusive receptions to private circles and luxury hotels while soldiers arrest bystanders in the streets, the discreet De Wiel must learn to interpret and speak the allusive language of a greater, darker power in order to take on his predecessor’s increasingly unclear role. Fontana’s feature debut, which boasts Mariano Llinás as co-writer and a wonderfully balanced cast, is a glacial collection of ghosts devoted to greed, and a moral investigation into the wrong side of history. Brilliantly shot, the film has something of Martel’s La Cienaga but with an absorbing thriller element. One of my highlights.

Screened as part of Encounters

Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn (Romania)
Dir. Radu Jude
Romanian writer/director Jude’s drama/documentary hybrid follows young teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) as she is faced with career and reputational ruin after posting an amateur porn clip online. The film was shot in Bucharest last August and September incorporating the pandemic into its storyline, with the cast wearing masks throughout on screen. It’s a formally vigorous and coruscating look at Romanian history and society that also offers food for thought on patriarchy and a woman’s right to her sexuality. Subtlety isn’t part of its armoury but it is very funny, outrageous and quite punkish in its sensibility.

Golden Bear Winner

Ballad Of A White Cow (Iran-Fr)
Dirs. Behtash Sanaeeha, Maryam Moghaddam
This is the third collaboration and second joint directing effort for emerging Iranian filmmakers Sanaeeha and Moghaddam. The latter is best known internationally for her acting role in Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain, and also stars in this film as a struggling single mother with a deaf daughter who, on learning that her husband was executed a year earlier for a crime he did not commit, battles for a public apology from the magistrates. Incredibly well acted, the film offers a critical condemnation of the authorities of a patriarchal Iranian society that refuse to even let apartments to women without husbands. It is also an incisive look at how grief ultimately moves from mental to physical domains.

Screened as part of Competition

Brother’s Keeper (Turkey)
Dir. Ferit Karahan
Strict rules prevail at a remote boarding school in the mountains of Anatolia where Turkish teachers educate gifted Kurdish pupils from the surrounding area. Once a week, the boys are allowed to shower and, like everything else here, this process is monitored. One night, 12-year-old Memo asks his friend Yusuf if he can sleep in his bed. But, afraid of gossip, Yusuf refuses. The next morning, Memo is sick and cannot attend class. The school’s heating has broken down and an icy winter’s day takes its course. Memo’s condition worsens. He is no longer responsive and Yusuf is only allowed to talk when prompted. Gradually, the events of the previous night are revealed. Ferit Karahan’s finely spun drama illuminates a microcosm marked by poverty and fear. Surrounded by snow and frost, the emotional coldness which prevails between teachers and pupils in this authoritarian educational institution become almost physically tangible. Excellent.

Screened as part of Encounters

Censor (UK)
Dir. Prano Bailey-Bond
1985. After viewing a strangely familiar “video nasty”, Enid, a film censor, sets out to solve the past mystery of her sister’s disappearance, embarking on a quest that dissolves the line between fiction and reality. Already highly praised from Sundance, this pulp horror melodrama is daring, audacious and brilliantly executed. Disquieting, disturbing (in the best sense) and tremendously cine-literate (Peeping Tom clearly), it’s quite, quite brilliant and eloquent on the subject of trauma and the relationship between on screen sex and violence and real-life sex and violence.

Screened as part of Panorama

A Cop Movie (Mex)
Dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios
Mexican filmmaker Ruizpalacios returns to the Berlinale after sharing the best screenplay award for Competition entry Museum in 2018 and winning best first feature for Panorama selection Gueros in 2014. His latest centres on two rookie cops in Mexico City whose idealism is crushed by a dysfunctional system. Mixing fiction with documentary, the film inventively plays with convention and is a technical tour de force. Others liked it more than I did, but I can understand the admiration and I am a fan of the director’s work. World rights have been acquired by Netflix.

Outstanding Artistic Contribution Winner

Drift Away (Fr)
Dir. Xavier Beauvois
After Cannes and Venice premieres for films such as Of Gods And Men and The Price Of Fame, Beauvois makes his Berlinale debut with his eighth feature. Dardenhnes regular Jérémie Renier plays a police commander whose life unravels after he kills a man while trying to stop him from taking his own life. The cast also features the director’s wife and daughter, Marie-Julie Maille and Madeleine Beauvois respectively, as well as a host of non-professionals from the region. The film starts promisingly – and Renier is superb – before completely losing focus and descending into symbolism and sentimentality.

Screened as part of Competition

Fabian — Going To The Dogs (Ger)
Dir. Dominik Graf
Veteran director Graf’s first feature in five years is adapted from a 1931 satirical tome by Erich Kästner, best known for his 1929 children’s novel Emil And The Detectives. Set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, the film stars Tom Schilling as the titular Fabian, who works in a cigarette factory by day and drifts through brothels, bars and artist studios at night with his wealthy friend Labude (Albrecht Schuch). During these nighttime adventures, he falls in love with an actress (Saskia Rosendahl). It’s very inventive, but felt like minor Fassbinder.

Screened as part of Competition

Forest — I See You Everywhere (Hun)
Dir. Bence Fliegauf
Hungarian writer/director Fliegauf won best first film at the Berlinale with Forest in 2003. Nearly 20 years later, he returns with an experimental ensemble drama that is not a direct sequel but again offers a visceral portrait of Hungarian society. Taking place almost entirely within interiors, the film features seven distinct stories – linked by the fact that they apparently all take place over the same night. It’s a dark and foreboding work that offers a pessimistic view of society. Undeniably impressive both in scope, production values, themes and execution, it’s certainly an admirable film, and an understandably cold and chilly one.

Best Supporting Actor winner

Human Factors (Ger)
Dir. Ronny Trucker
Jan and Nina travel with their two children to their weekend home on the Belgian coast. But this is ruined by a mysterious break-in when the family arrives. Afterwards, Nina has a bloody nose and Zorro, their son Max’s pet rat, has disappeared. What happened? None of them is able to give the police a clear description of the intruders. Back in Germany, the successful advertising agency that this bilingual couple runs together becomes the target of a paint bomb attack. Jan had previously made the single-handed decision to take on the election campaign for a political party with populist tendencies – a move that goes against everything Nina holds dear. Director Ronny Trocker’s second feature film is a subtle family drama that smoothly transitions between different perspectives of an event. What took place and what it means is thus shown to us in diverse ways and is continually expanded. As he zeroes in on the state of mind of individual family members, he reveals the fragility and potency of individual perception. Very indebted to Haneke and Östlund, it’s a diverting enough portrait of middle class malaise.

Screened as part of Panorama

Introduction (S Kor)
Dir. Hong Sangsoo
Korean filmmaker Hong is back in Berlinale Competition — for the fifth time. He won the Silver Bear for best director with The Woman Who Ran in 2020 while On The Beach At Night Alone won the Silver Bear for best actress Kim Minhee in 2017. Told in three parts, Introduction shows a young man visiting his father, lover and mother. As usual, an incredible work that encourages the viewer to fill in the gaps, it’s told with trademark economy. It even contains a glimpse of where Berlinale takes place and it made me long to be there.

Best Screenplay Winner

Memory Box (Leb-Fr-Can-Qat)
Dirs. Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige
Directing and artistic duo Hadji¬thomas and Joreige (The Lebanese Rocket Society and Catherine Deneuve road movie I Want To See) draw on their experience growing up against the backdrop of the Lebanese civil wars for this long-gestating feature. Exploring the intersection between private lives and history, it revolves around a single mother and her teenage daughter who are confronted with the former’s colourful but painful Beirut past when a box of old notebooks, tapes and photographs arrives on Christmas eve. The film has been very well reviewed and is full of innovative and original ideas (many of which have been explored by Atom Egoyan). However, I liked it less than some.

Screened as part of Competition

Moon, 66 Questions (Greece)
Dir. Jacqueline Lentzou
When a grave illness strikes down her father Paris, Artemis decides to return home to Greece after an absence of some years. Being the sole child of divorced parents, she is the only one who can look after Paris, who requires daily care. Father and daughter embark on a journey into knowledge and revelation, which heralds a new beginning for their relationship. After a series of surprising short films, Moon, 66 Questions is the long-awaited feature debut of Jacqueline Lentzou. It initially defines itself as “a film about flow, movement and love (and lack of them)”. Delineating a psychoanalytical portrait, the film accompanies the flow of the unconscious and vivifies the grey areas of family life. An interesting work with flashes of brilliance, I’m not convinced that it added up to a fully satisfying experience, but it still has plenty to recommend it.

Screened as part of Encounters

Mr Bachmann And His Class (Ger)
Dir. Maria Speth
Filmed and edited over the course of a decade, this sensitive documentary explores the close bond between elementary teacher Dieter Bachmann and his students, as the former’s unconventional methods clash with the norms in their provincial German industrial town. German filmmaker Speth has established herself in both documentary and fiction filmmaking, winning Rotterdam’s Tiger Award with her 2001 debut feature The Days Between. Reminiscent of Être et avoir, the 3 hr plus running time also places it in Wiseman territory.

Special Jury Prize Winner

Natural Light (Hun-Lat-Fr-Ger)
Dir. Dénes Nagy
Nagy’s feature debut centres on a Hungarian army officer who is part of a special scouting unit searching for Russian partisans in Nazi-occupied Soviet Union. When his commander is killed, he is forced to take charge. Most of the cast also make their feature debuts, including Ferenc Szabo as the officer. This is an incredible work that calls out for the big screen. It demands attention from the audience and is unflinching in its portrait of horror and brutality. The film also confirms the brilliance of a new wave of Hungarian filmmakers such as László Nemes and Ildikó Enyedi. On a technical level alone, the film is unbelievably impressive.

Best Director Winner

Next Door (Ger)
Dir. Daniel Brühl
Brühl makes his directing debut — and also stars alongside Peter Kurth and Vicky Krieps — with this black comedy centred on a film star and his troublesome neighbour. Based on an original idea by the actor and exploring issues of gentrification and inequality in Berlin, the script was written by Daniel Kehlmann, with whom Brühl collaborated on a 2015 adaptation of the writer’s novel Me And Kaminski. It’s competent fare and Brühl is a good sport at poking fun at the vanity of actors.

Screened as part of Competition

Petite Maman (Fr)
Dir. Céline Sciamma
Eight-year-old Nelly has just lost her beloved grandmother and is helping her parents clean out her mother’s childhood home. She explores the house and the surrounding woods where her mother, Marion, used to play and built the treehouse she’s heard so much about. One day her mother abruptly leaves. That’s when Nelly meets a girl her own age in the woods building a treehouse. Her name is Marion. After period drama Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Sciamma returns to the contemporary world of children and adolescents that has characterised her previous work. It’s beautifully acted and has a beguiling fairy tale element and balances the line between childhood reverie and adult reality.

Screened as part of Competition

Social Hygiene (Canada)
Dir. Denis Côté
Antonin is a bit of a dandy. He has a way with words that could have made him a famous writer, but instead mostly serves to get him out of trouble. Torn between twin urges to be part of society and also to escape it, his charm and wit are put to the test by five women who are about to lose their patience with his live and let live attitude: his sister, his wife, the woman he desires, a tax collector and a victim of his mischief. All of Berlinale regular Denis Côté’s films are unique (Ghost Town Anthology is one of my favourite films of the last five years), but Social Hygiene feels defiantly free, and bears testimony to the way in which the constraints of a pandemic can be the mother of invention when it comes to cinematic forms and storytelling. Côté’s use of language is playful, unchained, and as he gradually homes in on his verbally jousting protagonists, one ponders the sheer joy of being given such an opportunity to explore the penetrating impact of diction and tonal shifts. The film takes quite a bit of getting used to – I have to admit I nearly stopped viewing – but it gradually begins to exert a certain charm. It reminded me of later period Hal Hartley.

Best Director Winner

Taste (Vietnam)
Dir. Lê Bảo
The slums of Ho Chi Minh City are bleak, unwelcoming spaces that don’t let in much sunlight. A Nigerian man goes about his day, apparently familiar with his environment. Has he lived here for long? He and the young son he left back home seem to be used to the meagre interaction that video calls allow. When his contract with a football team is terminated, he moves in with four middle-aged Vietnamese women. Together they revert to a primal state: cleaning, cooking, eating and sleeping together, and having sex. First-time filmmaker Lê Bảo has composed a delicate, sensory meditation that conjures up many a thought in the viewer’s mind. Raw, intimate fears about isolation and survival. Questions such as: are humans really so superior to fearful, naked animals, bound as we are to turning around in circles, whether in small cages or around the globe? As he lays bare our judgmental selves, Lê Bảo instinctively echoes such tragically relevant issues as the betrayal of the promises of globalisation and emigration. But he also acknowledges humankind’s craving for tenderness and beauty. A visionary and uncompromising new voice in Asian and international cinema.

Special Jury Award Winner

What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? (Ger-Geo)
Dir. Alexandre Koberidze
Georgia’s Koberidze follows up his acclaimed 2017 debut Let The Summer Never Come Again with a romantic tragicomedy with magical elements. It centres on a young man and woman who meet on the street and fall instantly in love. They agree to meet the following day but are unwittingly cursed and wake up with completely changed appearances. It marks Koberidze’s graduation film from the prestigious German Film and Television Academy (DFFB) and is a very warm and witty modern fairy tale and love letter to cinema. I was completely smitten by it. COMPETITION. FIPRESCI PRIZE.

Fipresci Prize Winner

Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy (Jap)
Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi
With a common theme of coincidence and imagination, this latest film by Asako I & II director Hamaguchi comprises three episodes tied by the theme of serendipity. The stories include an unexpected love triangle, a failed seduction trap and an encounter that results from misunderstanding. Hamaguchi has recently emerged as a prominent filmmaker from Japan. His 317-minute Happy Hour won festival awards, including special mention for his script and an award shared by his four actresses at Locarno in 2015, while Asako I & II debuted in Competition at Cannes in 2018. It’s an elegant and charming work, classical in conception that focuses mainly on women. It’s smart on the subject of routine interpersonal dynamics and a joy to watch. All the performances are outstanding.

Grand Jury Prize Winner

The World After Us (France)
Dir. Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas
Labidi’s Paris flat is so small that there is only room for one bed. The young writer, who has only published a short story so far, and his flatmate Alekseï alternate shifts sleeping in the bed and on a camping mat in front of it. In Lyon, where Labidi’s Tunisian-born mother runs a café with his father, Labidi meets freckle-faced drama student Elisa and immediately he wants to have it all: true love, total commitment and a grand moving in with each other. But his bank balance is the opposite of grand. His publisher is waiting for his first novel but, what with all the loving and part-time jobs, Labidi just can’t seem to make any progress. In his feature film debut, director Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas takes on the classic themes of French New Wave cinema whilst also creating a portrait of a modern (migrant) generation whose desires, ambitions and confidence threatened to be weakened by crushing economic circumstances.

Screened as part of Panorama