Ten Must-Sees From the 2023 Berlinale Film Festival

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From a documentary on folk legend Joan Baez to the story of an undocumented immigrant who joins the French Foreign Legion, Carmen Gray shares ten highlights from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

After a subdued Berlin International Film Festival last year, as Covid regulations continued and the Omicron wave quashed the party mood guests usually bring to town, the film festival with the largest public audience attendance in the world was back with enough celebratory energy to make up for the pandemic pause on communal culture. As parties punctuated film premieres at Potsdamer Platz’s hub of theatres and other venues across the city, everyone was happy to be together again – and watching a diverse programme of films that addressed politically pressing issues while making space for desire and dreams.

Here are ten of our favourites.

Reality (Tina Satter, 2023) – lead image

Reality Winner, a linguist formerly employed as a translator for the US National Security Agency, was imprisoned for releasing classified information after she leaked an intelligence report about Russian election interference to news site The Intercept. Director Tina Satter (adapting her own theatre play Is This a Room) has taken dialogue straight from the transcript of FBI audio recordings to chronicle the arrest and questioning by investigators of Winner on 3 June 2017 at her Georgia home. A simple but gripping reproduction of the day, it draws its claustrophobic tension and power from a remarkable performance of Sydney Sweeney in the main role, and the moral courage of an isolated voice of whistleblowing dissent against a giant state machine.

Perpetrator (Jennifer Reeder, 2023) 

Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) is sent by her financially struggling father to live with her formidable Aunt Hilde (Alicia Silverstone), in a town in which her female classmates are going missing. A blood-red 18th birthday cake that is made for her is a catalyst for strange powers, which take hold as she investigates the spate of disappearances. Jennifer Reeder again shows her flair for music-driven teen movies with a dark twist in this surrealistic and queasy body horror that deftly reframes extreme emotion as a potent weapon rather than a feminine flaw. A satirical riff on gothic tropes, it also recognises the political, structural layers of violence in an America in which the police cannot be trusted and school drills simulating attacks only raise anxiety.

Past Lives (Celine Song, 2023)

An achingly beautiful, wry-humoured reflection on chance, fate, lasting connection and paths not taken, Celine Song’s story of a paused relationship rekindled spans decades. Na Young, later known as Nora (Greta Lee), is still a kid when she immigrates from South Korea to North America. Years later, she is a playwright living in New York with her novelist husband Arthur (John Magaro), with few ties to the child she was in Seoul – until Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), her childhood sweetheart, contacts her to meet up and share memories. Cliched narrative expectations are thwarted and deep questions about the nature of love and self-realisation raised with such pitch-perfect assurance it is hard to believe this is a feature debut.

Orlando, My Political Biography (Paul B Preciado, 2023)

The eponymous hero of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando starts as a man, then wakes as a woman. But the predominant reality for trans people, who are not aristocrats that find themselves one day miraculously transformed, is that they risk their lives every day. Philosopher and filmmaker Paul B Preciado’s imaginative, history-informed film is made as a letter to Woolf. It explores the question of how to film the biography of a trans person today and construct the Orlando-esque life of a gender poet in a binary and normative society that leaves those without official papers to live as outlaws. To that end, Preciado pays tribute to activists who blazed the way, such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson.

Passages (Ira Sachs, 2023)

Not so much a romance as an anti-romance, the latest from director Ira Sachs explores with great wit and poignancy that all too human tendency to never be satisfied with one’s lot. Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos are all on top form in this story of an impulsive and narcissistic German filmmaker (Rogowski) who feels he might be tired of his marriage with the more down-to-earth and considerate Martin (Whishaw), a British artist, and becomes caught up in a torrent of infatuation with Agathe (Exarchopoulos), a primary school teacher he sleeps with at a wrap party. Jealousy, conflicting emotion and a whole lot of chaos ensue, in this smart and entertaining dissection of desire, commitment and freedom.

Disco Boy (Giacomo Abbruzzese, 2023)

Franz Rogowski is having a moment, as the actor also stars in Giacomo Abbruzzese’s visceral, hallucinatory feature debut, a Faustian vision of desperate opportunism. He is intense and haunted as Aleksei, a Belarusian undocumented immigrant who joins the French Foreign Legion, attracted by its offer of the right to a French passport through military service and bloodshed. On a mission to the Niger Delta, his path crosses with Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), a guerilla in a militant movement aimed at freeing the region from colonial exploitation and environmental decimation. Aleksei starts to question the high price of obeying orders mechanically, and on a chaotic night out in Paris on leave, his troubled mind fixates on an alternate fantasy of what his life could be if he was free.

Afire (Christian Petzold, 2023)

Creative ambition, prejudice and jealous rivalry fuel rising tensions at a holiday house on the Baltic Sea coast in Germany, in the memorably soundtracked latest from director Christian Petzold. Friends Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel) had planned to be there alone, to meet respective deadlines for a book draft and art portfolio. Three’s a crowd when they find that Nadja (Paula Beer) has also been lent use of the home, and is spending noisy nights there with her lifeguard fling (Enno Trebs). What begins as a well-crafted relationship drama becomes distinctly weirder, in true Petzold fashion, as our assumptions about the characters and reality itself are challenged, new allegiances form, and grave, existential fears take hold.

Silver Haze (Sacha Polak, 2023)

Dutch director Sacha Polak’s gritty London drama explores the idea that the family you choose can provide bonds just as strong as those of the family you are born into. Franky (Vicky Knight) bears the inner and outer scars of a fire that was deliberately lit when she was a kid, linked to her father’s affair. When she meets equally troubled Florence (Esmé Creed-Miles), a patient at the hospital where she works as a nurse, the two launch into a stormy relationship. As her revenge obsession heats up and things with Florence start to fall apart, Franky finds comfort from Florence’s terminally ill grandmother Alice (Angela Bruce), who welcomes her into her home.

Limbo (Ivan Sen, 2023)

Travis Hurley (Simon Baker), a cop with a clandestine habit left over from his drug squad days, arrives in an isolated opal mining township to carry out a case review of the unsolved murder of an Aboriginal girl two decades before. A deep distrust of white policemen due to institutionalised racism and sky-high rates of arrest and incarceration for Aboriginal locals means the victim’s relatives are reluctant to tell this out-of-towner what they know. Indigenous Australian director Ivan Sen presents a noir world of broken family bonds and colonial power abuses, where people drink to numb the pain. The sparse, otherworldly landscapes of the outback, which Hurley drives through in his rented black Dodge, are lensed in beautiful black and white.

Joan Baez I Am a Noise (Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle, 2023)

“Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life and a secret life.” We’re presented with this quote from novelist Gabriel García Marquez as this documentary on folk legend Joan Baez opens, and it’s fitting for a film that journeys into much more personal waters and internal conflict than your average portrait of a music celebrity. Directed by Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle, this is a sensitive and thoughtful consideration of who Baez is, largely in her own words through interviews and diary entries, in relation to her music and civil rights campaigning, her family and its troubled legacy, her romances and her mental health struggles, taking a surprising turn in the final third into more dark and revelatory psychological terrain.