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Berlin film festival 2021 roundup: the most impressive selection in years

By Jonathan Romney for The Guardian, Sat 6 Mar 2021

‘European art cinema at its most irresistibly playful’: Ani Karseladze in Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? Photograph: Faraz Fesharaki/DFFB

No glitz, no big screens, no cold… in a modest yet triumphant virtual edition of the festival, dazzling debuts vied with the superb, low-key latest from Céline Sciamma

There’s something to be said for an online Berlin film festival. You don’t have to endure the winter bleakness of Potsdamer Platz, and you can watch a lot more, since you get a full 24 hours into which to cram each day’s crowded viewing menu. Naturally, everyone felt that Covid restrictions were tough luck for the festival’s directors, Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek, now in their second year; after 2020’s respectable but low-key debut, it seemed that they had been robbed of the chance to consolidate in style.

Yet, against all odds, they did precisely that. There were no red carpets, no press conferences, no glitz; all that, it’s hoped, will come in June, when the same programme returns with a planned live summer special. Meanwhile, virtual Berlin pinned me to my sofa with the most impressive selection in years. The competition (15 titles, only slightly smaller than usual) wasn’t packed with luminaries either. Instead, a mix of reputed directors, plus some new names, offered films of consistent, seriously watchable, sometimes dazzling quality. One of the best competition titles, Maria Speth’s Mr Bachmann and His Class, is a no-frills documentary about Dieter Bachmann, a teacher in an industrial town in Germany, and his class of teenage pupils from Turkish and other immigrant backgrounds. At three and a half hours, it gives us time to know the students and their singularly laid-back teacher – imagine a German Bill Murray in an AC/DC T-shirt – who engages and empowers them with patience and empathy. One of the competition’s absolute finest, it won the Silver Bear jury prize.

Mr Bachmann and His Class. Photograph: Madonnen Film

No awards, alas, for another film that was one of my favourites and won a lot of fans – the fabulously imaginative, gently upbeat Georgian film What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?. Alexandre Koberidze’s eccentric meta-fairytale is about a couple whose budding romance is scuppered by a curse that changes their appearance – set against a background in which a city prepares for the World Cup. Any touches of whimsy (insights into the thoughts of local football-loving dogs) are counteracted by elegant directorial and narrative invention. This is European art cinema at its most irresistibly playful.

Some films were true to the traditionally sombre image of Berlin competition programming, but powerfully so. There was the mandatory austere Iranian drama: Ballad of a White Cow, directed by Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam, about a woman dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s execution. But this dark social fable is handled with rigorous control, and features a compelling lead performance from co-director Moghaddam. And Natural Light is a phenomenally confident debut from Dénes Nagy, about troops from German-aligned Hungary rooting out partisans in the second world war. Apart from confronting what it means to be on the wrong side of history, it’s a meticulously textured depiction of mud, tree bark, lined faces – and of horror. Superbly shot in a dark palette, it is one of the films I most yearned to see on the big screen.

Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert in I’m Your Man. Photograph: Christine Fenzl

Light relief came from I’m Your Man, a German competition title from Maria Schrader (director of TV’s Unorthodox). This thinking robot’s romcom is a flip but philosophical story about a woman who finds herself road-testing a male android designed as the perfect partner. It threatens to be arch, but proves very enjoyable, thanks to a sharp script and pitch-perfect leads from Maren Eggert and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, wryly self-mocking.

The film that eventually won the Golden Bear was Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, by Romanian director Radu Jude. It’s a sort of conceptual comedy about Emi, a schoolteacher (Katia Pascariu, very good) who faces an investigation when her sex tape ends up circulating online, but Jude doesn’t stage it as straight narrative. Instead, it’s a triptych – one part following Emi around the streets of Bucharest (where, the director seems to be telling us, consumerism is the real pornography), one a montage-style “dictionary” of ironic definitions of words and phrases, the third a theatrical tableau in which Emi faces her accusers. Jude is one of the most adventurous and unpredictable of directors, but this work, while brashly experimental and quite outrageously in-your-face, is hit-and-miss, a somewhat jarring mix of the Godardian oblique and the downright bleeding obvious.

Katia Pascariu in Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, directed by Radu Jude. Photograph: © Silviu Ghetie / Micro Film 2021

Perhaps the most awaited competition title was from France’s Céline Sciamma. In contrast with her recent films Girlhood and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman is very low-key indeed – a 72-minute miniature about an eight-year-old girl whose new friend exists in a strange parallel world. It could have been merely winsome, but Sciamma’s control and superb direction of her young leads, real-life twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, makes it something quietly special and deeply resonant.

In much brasher mode is A Cop Movie, by Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios, a documentary about two officers in Mexico City’s police force – well, sort of. Jazzed up in a style that’s as much music video as procedural thriller, it shows officers Teresa and Montoya – professional and personal partners – talking about their work and their private lives in a series of reconstructed episodes. Then Ruizpalacios pulls away the carpet to show two actors preparing the roles we’ve just seen them play.

The film brilliantly measures the reality of street law against the movie myth, and offers an incisive take on one of the world’s more controversial policing systems. This was the absolute blast in a selection that made me impatient to come back to Berlin next year for more. And I honestly can’t remember when anyone last said that.

The best of Berlin

Raúl Briones in A Cop Movie. Photograph: No Ficcion

Best competition films

A Cop Movie; Mr Bachmann and His Class; What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Best script Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy: a superbly crafted Japanese trio of stories about adults negotiating an irony-laden set of emotional minefields.

Best find Azor, from debut director Andreas Fontana, a silkily executed, menace-laden art thriller about a Swiss banker in dictatorship-era Argentina.

Best performances Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman; the ensemble of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy; Maryam Moghaddam in Ballad of a White Cow.

Biggest auteur disappointment Drift Away, from France’s Xavier Beauvois. Strong buildup, and then it just … drifts away. Nice haggard lead, though, from Jérémie Renier as a gendarme in crisis.

Best arthouse UFO Lê Bảo’s Taste, a performance-art fever dream from Vietnam, about a Nigerian footballer who moves in with a group of women, a lively pig and a swordfish. Cloaked in darkness, performed largely naked, and mesmerisingly strange – another one you wish you’d seen on the big screen.


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