Rebecca Kuntz reviews the highlights of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival
Bundled up against the frigid winter climate, press and public alike spend ten days in February experiencing a whirlwind of cinema magic at the 65th annual Berlin International Film Festival. The Berlinale ranks alongside Cannes and Venice as one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. This year it premiered over four hundred feature films and shorts in over a dozen different categories
No attendee can view more than a small fraction of these films, and in sections that range from Competition, vying for the coveted Golden and Silver Bear statuettes, to the Forum, featuring new filmmakers and daring, more experimental films. It also includes the Panorama, a showcase for documentary and other trends, and the Retrospective section, with a tribute to Technicolor this year, screening classics such as Goldfinger and The Wizard of Oz.
Berlin is at the heart of central European history and conflict. From its Prussian monarchy in the 1800s to the Weimar Republic in 1919, the Third Reich and Communist era from the late 1940s to 1989, Berlin has been an epicenter of political and artistic change. The Berlinale itself began as a showcase of Hollywood cinema for the encircled Berliners during the Cold War. As a major festival, the Berlinale balances the concern for artistic, political and commercial, premiering films from every culture and society, and provides a platform for both exposure and prestige for new and returning filmmakers.
German filmmakers have always been a focus of the Berlinale, and two of the greatest veterans of the new German cinema of the 1970s had new features in this year’s competition. Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) known for his gruff and outspoken demeanor, premiered Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman and Damien Lewis. Like his other films, it features an ambitious protagonist forced to confront a world grander and harsher than imagined. Based on a true story, it follows aristocrat Gertrude Bell as she attempts to understand the Arab world in an allegorical reading of modern Middle Eastern politics.
Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas) premiered his Canadian-set feature, Every Thing Will Be Fine in 3D, making the case that this format is a suitable and intimate scope that explores the inner world of his characters. Through the protagonist, played by James Franco, the director continues to explore how anesthetized souls need to forgive themselves to go on living.
The Golden Bear for Best Film was won by Iranian director Jafar Panahi for his film Taxi. Panahi, who has been banned by his government from making films, plays a cab driver who interviews those whom he drives around, providing a candid look at the culture and society they live in. Like his previous This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Taxi is a remarkable film about the art and practice of filmmaking within a repressive society. Panahi blends the worlds of fiction and reality together so that the audience is never truly sure what is scripted or spontaneous.
Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling won Best Actor and Actress, respectively, for their portrayal of a fracturing couple in the Andrew Haigh-directed intimate drama, 45 Years. The Silver Bear, for cinematic achievement, was rewarded to the German thriller Victoria, a cinematographic feat, as it is comprised of an unsettling single, unbroken shot for over two hours. It follows a young Spanish woman and her encounter with four Berlin mates and their night together, which climaxes in a bank robbery and its bloody aftermath.
In the Berlinale Special, a section dedicated to films that are about to be released, Fifty Shades of Grey made its international premiere. Although one of the hottest tickets at the Berlinale, Fifty Shades of Grey was mocked by both press and public alike. At the press screening I attended, the journalists were either laughing or groaning at the ridiculous attempt to turn a smutty fan-fiction novel into a respected film. Needless to say, the reviews have been quite disparaging, even though Fifty Shades has gone on to gross over $400 million worldwide.
Better Call Saul, the prequel series to Breaking Bad, had its international premiere at the festival, as part of a new section showcasing works for the small screen. The challenge this prequel faces is that the audience already knows what happens to Saul in Breaking Bad, so how do its filmmakers keep the show suspenseful and innovative without straying too far from their intended ending? Bob Odenkirk, the eponymous Saul, attended the two-episode screening, and described that the influence for his character has been the British sitcom “The Royle Family”. He noted that its dry, bitter, mean but true to life aspects inspired him to play Saul.
Finally, the eagerly anticipated Cinderella screened as the final out-of-competition film. Director Kenneth Branagh has once again plunged into fairytale mythology after Thor, replacing Norse mythology with the Disney universe. The film is a straight-up retelling of the beloved story but with a psychological modernity that sets it apart from previous attempts. Although there is an inherent risk in adapting material with a familiar story and lineage that have captured the hearts and minds of generations, Branagh forefronts that myths are flexible and capture the times in which they are presented. He foregrounds his Cinderella, played with poise by Lily James, with the notion of personal “courage and kindness”, and presents her compassion and inner-strength as the linchpin of the story. He has a lightness of touch that isn’t glib, finding a balance between the cynical and the sappy. With Cinderella, he weaves a complex tale that goes beyond the ‘cartoony’. He does give in to fantasy with magic and a fairy godmother (a funny and ditzy Helena Bonham-Carter), but highlights fundamental human relationships and family situations that affect the characters. His take on Cinderella focuses on the victory of the spirit, and how difficult it is to be human and achieve personal happiness.
A highlight of the Berlinale is its Talent Campus, where 300 selected “talents” (emerging industry professionals, that include writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, actors, etc.) participate in workshop, master classes and other projects. Composer Howard Shore, renowned for his work on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, discussed his career and the use of music as an emotional underpinning to films. Having worked since the 1970s, Shore covered his writing process (writing at least three hours a day, all handwritten compositions) and collaborations with directors David Cronenberg, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese. His most interesting reveal was his scoring method: instead of writing music set to particular scenes, Shore bases his score on the film’s story. He will watch a rough cut of the film once and then write a suite of music that captures all the themes and motifs, and after he will spot the film with the director to see where he will pencil sketch the music into place.
Overall, the Berlinale offers an exciting ten-day appointment with exposure to cinema from all over the world. And it’s not just the film world that entices you – it’s also the interaction with a big thriving city, with a large historical memory.