From an experimental film that recreates a Soviet Russian society to a captivating documentary centring on a Japanese doctor on the cusp of retirement, Carmen Gray selects highlights from this year’s Berlinale film festival
Berlin winters are changing. Amid climate crisis warmings, barely any snow has fallen on the city this year, replaced with an endless autumnal non-season in which citizens are vaguely alarmed and scarves have become strictly optional. The Berlin Film Festival, which rolls around every February in what used to be winter’s iciest stretch, is also under transformation, as longtime head Dieter Kosslick has stepped down. A new team under the artistic direction of Carlo Chatrian takes the reins from this year, promising a spark of revitalisation. As eyes turn to the programme, here are ten films not to miss at the Berlinale’s 70th edition, which begins later this week. Yes to all of these – and to some snow, please.
Has there ever been a film project as wildly ambitious in scope, as protracted, and as hyped as Dau? 15 years ago, Russian wunderkind Ilya Khrzhanovsky started work on his controversial experiment in creative liberty and control, which recreates the time of Lev Landau, a theoretical physicist and proponent of open marriage. Khrzhanovsky enlisted participants to live as Soviet citizens for years on the set, a research institute reconstructed in Ukraine with obsessive attention to period detail. Shamans were flown in from Latin America, real-life neo-Nazis took up residence, and even performance artist Marina Abramović visited. As reality and fantasy merged, rumours of power abuses inside the secluded mock city circulated. Dau was showcased as an immersive premiere in Paris last year, and now a feature pulled together from hundreds of hours of footage shows in Berlin. Co-directed by Jekaterina Oertel, it focuses on Natasha, a hard-drinking canteen worker whose illicit affair attracts the attention of state security.
In classical tales, undines are female water-dwellers who must marry a man to become mortal. If the husband is unfaithful, he is condemned to die. The myth is adapted to modern-day Berlin in Undine. A history graduate working as a tour guide of the city is compelled to kill her partner after he leaves her for another woman, but she tries to defy her fate, and falls for an industrial diver straight after the break-up. At the helm is one of Germany’s finest living directors, Christian Petzold, making this one of the most anticipated films of the Berlinale line-up. It stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, who were also in Petzold’s 2018 arthouse hit Transit, which melded past and present in inventive, disorienting ways in its story of a political refugee on the run in Marseille.
In smalltown Pennsylvania, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Realising the laws there would require her to secure parental consent for an abortion, she sets off with her cousin to cross state lines. She hopes New York’s more liberal environment will allow her to find support from the healthcare system, but the procedure is not so straightforward. American director Eliza Hittman follows up her indie hit Beach Rats (2017) with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an unflinchingly naturalistic and sympathetic portrayal of one woman’s experience of a world in which her dominion over her own body is never secure.
Kazik Radwanski, whose raw and intensely intimate, DIY-minded approach has made him a leading light of the New Canadian Cinema movement, returns to the Berlinale with a portrait as sensitive as it is nerve-racking of a young woman on the edge. Anne At 13,000 Ft brings us in close with the day-to-day experience of children’s daycare worker Anne (Deragh Campbell), as she struggles not to unravel under the pressure of an unspecified mental illness. A new boyfriend, rocky ties with co-workers, and the exhilarating stimuli of her new skydiving hobby, contribute to a cliffhanger mood of impending chaos in Anne’s life, even as much remains subtly unspoken.
In 1920s Weimar Berlin, that era of fertile creativity before the Nazi rise to power, Alfred Döblin wrote his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. One of the great works of Modernism, it is set in a working-class district and tells of a murderer fresh out of jail, who still feels hopelessly mired in the underworld through his circumstances. It was adapted as a sprawling television series by another of Germany’s artistic greats, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in 1980, but now Afghan-German director Burhan Qurbani has put a fresh spin on it, refashioning it as the story of a migrant recently arrived to current-day Berlin, who becomes acquainted with the shady commerce going down in and around Hasenheide Park.
6. First Cow
A realist chronicler of hardscrabble American experience on the margins, Kelly Reichardt makes films infused with a quiet ambiguity that leaves their dilemmas turning over in our minds long after the credits roll. She wrote the screenplay for First Cow with frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, based on his novel The Half-Life. Two outsiders – a Chinese sailor on the run, and a cook too gentle for the macho fur trappers he feeds – seize the opportunity to launch a frontier enterprise, stealing milk from the territory’s first dairy cow. It’s set in the wilds of Oregon, just like her revisionist, feminist western Meek’s Cutoff that garnered deserved acclaim a decade ago.
Radu Jude has dissected dark chapters of Romania’s history with bold honesty in films such as Aferim! (2015), about a runaway Roma slave in the 19th century, and I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians (2018), which exposed the lingering bigotry in a nation complicit in the Holocaust. His latest feature, Uppercase Print, reconstructs through secret police files the fate of Mugur Calinescu, a teenager who became a target of the authorities after writing protest graffiti against the communist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and its injustices with chalk on a wall of the party headquarters. Dead at 19 from leukemia, speculation persists that he was poisoned during interrogations.
What do you do when you have a serious mental illness, and the doctor you’ve depended on for decades is about to retire? It’s a predicament facing patients of Dr Matsumoto Yamamoto, the founder of an outpatient psychiatric clinic in Japan, and he feels their anxiety as a deep responsibility. In Kazuhiro Soda’s profoundly moving, observational documentary Zero we join the doctor in his sessions with patients, as they come to the end of their relationship and he plans solutions with them for continued care. This tender, multi-layered film considers whether the gentle doctor might be addicted to helping, and what pressures his all-consuming commitment has placed on his wife, who was more of an academic star than her husband in her youth, but sacrificed her talent for marriage amid the highly patriarchal milieu of the day. Most of all, it’s a quiet lament for a world in which personal, readily accessible compassion in medical care is dying out, replaced by the rushed productivity of capitalism.
We can look forward to a wickedly smart take on the private life of Shirley Jackson, who penned one of the best haunted house stories of all time, courtesy of Josephine Decker, who directed 2018’s thrillingly idiosyncratic Madeline’s Madeline. Shirley is based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell that takes creative liberties with the reclusive gothic horror author’s life. It’s the 1960s, and Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is living on the campus of a liberal arts college in Vermont with her obnoxious professor husband Stanley. She’s struggling to finish her new book, and is taking her torment out on all around her. When a younger couple move in to assist, it cues all manner of toxic and perverse exchanges, as wandering desire further disrupts the intellectuals’ rocky and poison-tongued union.
There is a maverick pulse and a certain sad romance running through the films of veteran French auteur Philippe Garrel, known for intimate and contemplative, autobiography-tinged dramas, such as Regular Lovers (2005), which looked back on the Paris of the 1968 riots. He is at the Berlinale this year with a film, beautifully lensed in black and white, that promises to draw again on the mournful side of love and the complexity of desire and its entanglements (oh, those French). The Salt of Tears is the story of a young man, Luc (Logann Antuofermo) caught between passions. He has a fling with a woman, Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), while he’s in Paris to sit an entrance exam, before returning to his provincial hometown and embarking on a relationship with Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), who he’s known since childhood.
The Berlinale Festival runs from February 20 – March 1, 2020 in Berlin.