Berlinale 2019 – Competition Highlights

It’s a time of change for the Berlinale, with more women filmmakers included and new festival co-directors getting ready to take up the baton in time for Berlinale 2020.

This year’s ‘In Competition’ films have been bracing. Critic’s favourites have included Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, which some have called provocative and others honest.  Lapid is well-known for his 2014 “The Kindergarten Teacher”, since then remade with Maggie Gyllenhaal.  In Synonyms, a young Israeli man tries to make himself a new life in Paris and struggles to maintain his illusions about a society he hopes will be better than the one he has left.  It’s a searing but also at times very funny film that shows how hard it is to refuse to belong.

“The Operative“, a spy thriller starring Diane Kruger, Cas Anvar and Martin Freeman, continues that theme. Directed by Yuval Adler, and bearing echoes of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, the film is surprisingly affecting. There are moral choices to be made, and that includes questioning whether commitment to an idea and a greater cause should trump personal loyalties. The film soars in its last minutes in a hugely rewarding pay-off.

Oblique humour, so apparent in Synonymes, features too in “Öndög”, a film by Wang Quan’an set in the Mongolian steppes.  It starts off as a crime story and evolves into something very different as a peripheral character turns out to be central – a herder who has a winning way with a rifle and a bottle of spirits. Öndög is absorbing, and beautiful to watch.

The world premiere of Zhang Yimou’s new film, “Yi miao Zhong” (“One Second”), set during the Cultural Revolution, was cancelled during the festival, it was announced, for post-production technical difficulties. There is speculation that this was rather due to government censorship. Such high-profile delays or cancellations are not unusual.

“System Crasher” is the story of an ‘impossible’ child and is a film that has made headlines in Germany. Written and directed by Nora Fingscheidt, the system of the title is Germany’s child and welfare services, and the crasher is a little girl who breaks every rule to be reunited with a mother who feels unable to cope with her extraordinary energy and capacity for violence.

“I Was at Home, But” follows another mother and child, this time a child who disappears from home for a week then reappears without explanation. Angela Schanelec’s film has strongly divided critics – some have found it frustratingly oblique and others sublime.

Lone Sherfig’s “The Kindness of Strangers” is another film in competition for a Berlinale Bear, and does what its title says – but critical reaction has been less kind, suggesting the film is just a bit too feel-good. But then critics can be just a bit too stone-hearted.

“Mr Jones”, Agnieszka Holland’s film about the now almost forgotten Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist, tells an extraordinary true story and which bears strong relevance to today’s political reality. In 1933, against a background of rising totalitarianism in Germany and the Soviet Union, revealed an inconvenient truth – the mass starvation, affecting millions, that had resulted from Stalin’s failed agricultural collectivisation policy.

Emin Alper’s “A Tale of Three Sisters” seems to be a festival favourite and possibly a strong contender for a Bear.  Set in the Anatolian mountains of Turkey, the film recounts the challenges of carving out a meaningful life, in limited circumstances, and especially so for young women with faced with few possibilities to direct their own destiny.

Some films are like Marmite, others are almost universally derided.  “The Golden Glove”, by Fatih Akin, a filmmaker with a remarkable grasp of technique and emotion, raised hackles and then some.  Set in the 1970s in Hamburg’s red-light district, the movie is based on the true story of a serial killer of women. It is said to be a social study of post-war Germany. While an elaborate portrait of a serial killer might well shed some light on society at large, the question about what exactly to portray remains open. Lots of debating ahead on this one.

“By the Grace of God”, by François Ozon, is one of the strongest films in the competition. A heart-stopping, meticulously researched true story about the aftermath of abuse by members of the catholic church in France, “By the Grace of God” is also highly topical – the court case at the heart of the story is taking place as the film is released in France, just days after Berlinale 2019 ends.

In competition films include “Farewell to the Night” by André Techiné | “The Ground Beneath My Feet” by Marie Kreutzer | “So Long My Son” by Wang Xiaoshuai | “Elisa and Marcela” by Isabel Coixet |”God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” by Teona Strugar Mitevska |”Piranhas” by Claudio Giovannesi | “Out Stealing Horses” by Hans Petter Moland | “Ghost Town Anthology” by Denis Côté.

Out of competition films include “Marighella” by Wagner Moura | “Varda par Agnès” by Agnès Varda | “Vice” by Adam McKay | “Amazing Grace” by Alan Elliott.

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