The Berlin film festival used to be an oddly contradictory affair. It was known for elaborately kitsch opening and closing ceremonies and competition films heavy on social conscience: champagne on the red carpet, kale juice on the screen.
This year’s Berlin was differently strange. The February 2021 festival was online only, but offered the best crop of titles in recent memory. This year, a slightly shorter festival went live again – and if only its selections had been in the same league, it might have offset the event’s strangely desolate feel. The festival’s distribution market had gone online, meaning fewer delegates, partly because of Germany’s still tough Covid restrictions, which insisted on daily tests as a requirement for access to press screenings. All this made the unusually quiet Palast area feel like an art installation tribute to the bygone days of Checkpoint Charlie.
As for the films, much of the competition selection had the glum earnestness of the old Berlinale, with little sense of fearless formal experimentation. But there was some joy to be had. You might have expected a jury chaired by M Night Shyamalan to come up with a last-minute shock twist. The twist was, they didn’t: they awarded the Golden Bear for best film to the title that deserved it, Carla Simón’s Alcarràs. A realist drama about a Catalan family facing eviction from the land where they grow peaches, it’s very political and hugely exuberant. Rich in immersive detail, the film is superbly cast with a teeming ensemble, including three children whom Simón appears to have left to their own devices, to irresistibly anarchic effect. It’s also a historical win: the third top prize in a year for female directors at European festivals, following Julia Ducournau with Titane in Cannes and Audrey Diwan’s Happening in Venice.
It was a good year for France. François Ozon’s opening film, Peter von Kant, is a sly tribute to German maestro Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a gender-reversed reinvention of RWF’s 1972 classic The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, with the hulking Denis Ménochet as a lovesick gay auteur very much resembling Fassbinder himself. Also starring original Fassbinder star Hanna Schygulla and another 70s legend, Isabelle Adjani, Peter von Kant is a sly, polished confection of mischief, melancholy and heady melodrama.
Another French star auteur, Claire Denis, was here with Both Sides of the Blade, starring Juliette Binoche as a woman caught between her partner (Vincent Lindon) and her smoothie ex. It’s odd to see a radical such as Denis working within the trad parameters of the bourgeois marital drama, but she does it with characteristically unsettling idiosyncrasy. By contrast, Mikhaël Hers’s The Passengers of the Night was a gentle, alt-feelgood drama. Set in 1980s Paris, it features Charlotte Gainsbourg on affecting form as a newly divorced woman who gets a job on a late-night radio show. Perhaps too benignly zen to gaze deep into the story’s darker areas, it’s nevertheless an immensely tender, atmospheric piece – a nostalgia trip with heart and subtlety.
The boldest competition entry was Robe of Gems, a troubling, sometimes mystifying Mexican film about a wealthy family who move to a rural villa, with brutal results. Its themes are familiar in Mexican drama – violence, corruption, the gap between rich and poor – but it’s given a genuinely disturbing tremor by debut director Natalia López Gallardo. Previously known as editor to Carlos Reygadas, she has very much developed her own style of nightmare.
Outside competition, fringe attractions included Andrew Dominik’s music doc This Much I Know to Be True, which intersperses sparse performances by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis with interludes in which they discuss their working methods, and an intro in which Cave unveils his utterly bizarre set of ceramics portraying the biography of the devil. Then there was Flux Gourmet, by the British arch-conceptualist Peter Strickland. It’s set in an institute where “culinary collectives” literally cook up experimental sound performances. Starring Asa Butterfield and Gwendoline Christie, it’s a little pedantic in its humour, more than somewhat redolent of Peter Greenaway, but visually striking, and it’s good to see Strickland still flying his freak flag on the conformist terrain of UK cinema.
More discreetly outré, and the best fun here, was Incredible But True, by Quentin Dupieux, the japester behind Deerskin and Mandibles. His latest shaggy dog story is about a couple who discover something bizarre in the basement of their new home; not so much a thing, more a philosophical conceit that the film explores with irresistibly poker-faced comic logic.
As for the festival’s most poignant film, it had to be Italian competition entry Leonora Addio. For decades, Paolo Taviani worked with brother Vittorio as one of cinema’s great sibling duos. Directing solo after Vittorio’s death, he offers a homage to him and to the great Italian writer Luigi Pirandello. Largely comprising a gorgeously shot black-and-white narrative about the return of Pirandello’s ashes to his native Sicily, it’s a blithe, rueful contemplation of art, history and mortality.
As a musing on old age, it was nicely matched by Mitra Farahani’s eccentric doc See You Friday, Robinson, in which Jean-Luc Godard (91) exchanges emails with veteran Iranian director and author Ebrahim Golestan (99). Godard sends enigmatic quotes from Dashiell Hammett. Golestan, filmed in his vast, Xanadu-like English home, wryly muses that Godard may be taking the piss. We also get to see Godard ironing his shirts – one of those cinematic firsts you’re truly glad to have witnessed.
The best of Berlin
Golden Bear for best film Alcarràs by Carla Simón
Silver Bear grand jury prize The Novelist’s Film, the 27th feature by Korea’s uncannily consistent Hong Sang-soo. As ever, a finely honed comedy of manners and misunderstanding.
Silver Bear jury prize Robe of Gems by Natalia López Gallardo.
Silver Bear for best director Claire Denis, Both Sides of the Blade (aka Fire).
Special mention Switzerland’s Michael Koch for his imposing Alpine drama A Piece of Sky.
Silver Bear for best leading performance Meltem Kaptan in Rabiye Kurnaz Vs George W Bush. German-Turkish TV regular Kaptan was boisterously characterful in this comically tinged story of a woman fighting to free her son from Guantánamo. But her crowd-pleasing win shouldn’t obscure other outstanding turns: eg Noémie Merlant and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in One Year, One Night, about the Bataclan attack; and, above all, larger-than-life Michael Thomas in Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini, as a clapped-out cabaret singer turned part-time gigolo.