Rushing back and forth between screening rooms, anxiously calculating the time needed to get across town to the Zoo Palast (where seats are comfiest) and whether or not there’s time to grab the sandwich with the best value for money, Berlinale becomes a way of life that’s hard to shake in the days afterwards. Suddenly I get sleepy after watching just one movie, feel the urge to check my phone. Not so at the festival, where I feel fully immersed for 90 to 180 minutes at a time, and in the end feel confident enough about my notes and memories that I can recommend at least ten great films which I hope make it to Berlin’s screens (whether small or silver) very soon.
I would be remiss if I wouldn’t warn you away from a few films too. Isle of Dogs, though it boasts the voices of permafaves Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, and Greta Gerwig, is not up to the level of Wes Anderson’s previous foray into animation (Fantastic Mr. Fox) and almost just as uncomfortably fetishistic about Asian culture as his artistic low point (The Darjeeling Limited). Another one to avoid in the months to come is Transit, Christian Petzold’s adaptation of the Anna Seghers book. Shooting a period story and its characters in contemporary Marseilles is certainly a powerful choice, yet the film never gets a handle on the female lead, played by Paula Beer as a mysterious and well-shod breeze more than a woman of flesh and blood. The blasé Russian biopic Dovlatov offended with its casual homophobia, and Utøya – July 22 films the horrifying real-life story of the Norwegian terrorist attacks as a teen morality play that deserved the critics’ big boos.
Of course there was plenty to love too, and I should at least note two stand-out performances: Marie Bäumer’s eerie transformation into Romy Schneider in 3 Days in Quiberon and Bas Keizer as the troubled (and titular) teen character in Nanouk Leopold’s Cobain. Below, I list my 10-ish favorite films of the festival, in no particular order, all of which I encourage you to seek out when they finally make their way to Berlin’s screens (whether small or silver). Most of them, you’ll notice, are documentaries; this year the truth was often not just stranger but better than fiction. I will also of course update this post with all the trailers as they become available. [UPDATED: All trailers have been added.]
14 Apples, dir. Midi Z
My absolute favorite at the festival was this slow-moving doc about a Myanmar man suffering insomnia who is told by a fortune teller that he should buy fourteen apples and journey deep in the countryside, where he is to live as a monk for two weeks, eating a single apple every day. Of course he seeks out the biggest apples he can find, but this early bit of comedy very slowly gives way to ultra-long takes that document his restorative forthnight and powerfully convey not just the corruption of religious institutions, but also the horrendous inequality between the sexes.
The Heiresses, dir. Marcelo Martinessi
This Competition film did not run away with the main prize (the best films hardly ever do here), but did win four other awards last week, among them a Silver Bear for lead actress Ana Brun. The story is an unusual one: When one half of a financially struggling but relatively privileged lesbian couple goes to prison, the more reserved partner is left to fend for herself, casually falling into the role of driver for various women in the neighborhood. Set in Paraguay, this film explores class and sexuality in ways that go beyond the usual tales of coming out or violence, revealing a world not seen on the screen before.
The Best Thing You Can Do With Your Life, dir. Zita Erffa
In this intimate documentary, a young director visits her brother in the ultraconservative monastery he joined quite suddenly when the two were still in their teens. Not to mention that the founder of that particular order was exposed for sexually abusing children and seminarians. As the director grew up, her beloved brother’s decision never stopped baffling her, so when after eight years he tells her she is finally allowed to visit, film, and interview him, she leaps at the chance, generously capturing an isolated environment and the 80 young men holed up there for their entire secondary education. The resulting conversations between the estranged but clearly loving siblings are more revealing than they at first suggest, exploring masculinity and religion in very different ways that the last film on this list, The Prayer.
Luz, dir. Tilman Singer
Best enjoyed in a kind of midnight madness program, Luz is the kind of batshit cray-cray any Lynch fan should appreciate. The synopsis is simple — the titular woman, a cab driver, appears at police station to submit to an interrogations — yet the movie is a glorious mess of deadpan comedy, abstract staging, and creeping horror. The only German, if not exclusively German-language, film on this list, it is nevertheless best enjoyed after a few alcoholic beverages and with an enthusiastic crowd instead of stone-faced art-house appreciators.
Watching the Detectives, dir. Chris Kennedy
The shortest film on this list, and also the only silent one, this experimental short tackles the brutal Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. This version does not star Jake Gyllenhaal though, instead, the director painstakingly collected the discussions taking places on online fora like 4chan and Reddit in the attack’s immediate aftermath, thereby reconstructing the at first thrilling yet ultimately extremely dangerous crowdsourcing investigations into the terrorist attack. Revealing both the skill and bias of amateur researchers through its cinematic slideshow of jpegs and forum posts, Watching the Detectives more than any other film I saw this year revealed just how much the internet has changed the way we navigate the constant bad-news vortex swirling around us.
Impreza, dir. Alexandra Wesolowski
Like most countries in the EU, Poland has slid further and further to the right politically in recent years, currently second only to Hungary in its transformation into a rightwing anti-European state. In this personal documentary, director Alexandra Wesolowski goes back home to her family as they are planning her parents’ epic wedding anniversary. Similarly to the many ‘How to deal with your Trump/AfD-loving in-laws/aunts/grandparents’ pieces that spring up online around the holidays, this documentary engages the director’s family in conversation about politics. When it quickly appears that Wesolowski is the only one not on the side of the right-wing government party, she sets out to discover just how her mother, her sister, and her nieces and nephews could have developed such strong opinions against women’s rights and migration, resulting in essential viewing for those seeking to understand the widespread European resistance against “gender” and refugees.
When the War Comes, dir. Jan Gebert
The rise of ultranationalism in Europe is evident all around us in Europe, yet few documentaries show us just how these groups recruit and train new members. Far from the cliché of the skinheaded brute from the neglected slums, the protagonist of this documentary looks squeaky clean and clearly comes from a middle-class background. With his group of pimply enthusiasts, he runs paramilitary exercises and smooth-talks his way out of any confrontation with the local Slovakian authorities. Never before had I seen the way these young fascists use and navigate the media with their millennial native ease, and the scenes where the young men cross paths with a stream of refugees (the doc was filmed at the height of the so-called refugee crisis) are especially terrifying. For similarly eye-opening perspectives on how young people are trained in actual armies, see the festival’s other great selections The Son (Russia) and First Stripes (Canada).
The Silence of Others, dirs. Robert Bahar & Almudena Carracedo
After the above three films and their dark themes, my final three festival favorites inject a touch more hope into their stories of struggles both personal and political. The Silence of Others documents six eventful years in the ongoing battle of victims of Franco’s fascist government to receive some semblance of justice. It focuses on survivors and activists who manage to sue the Spanish government for crimes against humanity in Argentina, a country of course still working on its own Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Though produced by Almodóvar, the film never leans into melodrama, instead showing that, however long ago, history’s horrors are never buried too deeply to be brought to light, and to justice.
Cross My Heart, dir. Luc Picard
I realize not everyone has the kind of soft spot for Québécois French that I do, but luckily Cross My Heart also has other delights to offer. For one, there is the exciting setting: early 1970s Canada, more particularly Montréal, then haunted by the specter of Québécois separatists kidnapping people. Then there is the quirky story: when two siblings are faced with foster care, they and their friends, inspired by the headlines, decide to kidnap a neighborhood Anglophone so they can somehow demand the right to decide for themselves where they are placed. Of course, the plan backfires, and soon the adorably corduroyed children are in deep, deep trouble. The rare case of a coming-of-age story that successfully incorporates notes of politics and history.
The Prayer, dir. Cédric Kahn
The Prayer at first sounds like one of those classic Walloon arthouse dramas: a young addict is taken to a countryside rehab and is forced to put his life back together through prayer, abstinence, and hard work. Yet instead of contrasting the wild and pure youth with well-meaning but misguided Christians, Kahn’s Competition film aims to depict something more daring, asking not just whether the protagonist can be sober, but whether he can be saved (with all the religious implications that entails). There’s a fine line between moving melodrama and religious kitsch, yet The Prayer balances its story of faith and hope with the help of its stark setting (Trièves, in the Isère) and powerful acting on the part of the lead, Anthony Bajon, who deservedly took home a Silver Bear for his efforts last week. Also keep an eye out for absolute LEGEND Hanna Schygulla who pulls a Dench in her cameo as a no-shit-taking nun.