Connect with us

The Conversation

The Conversation: Das ist Berlin

The Berlin International Film Festival continued to challenge expectations in its 66th edition, landing another auteur heavy competition line-up, albeit a slightly less sensational one than the landmark 2015 program. Although an attempt continues to be made to establish grand motifs between films in competition and the more experimental sidebars, topical issues seemed to be the name of the game across the board, particularly immigration. This culminated with this year’s Golden Bear winner, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, a documentary which was the clear early favorite and remained so up until the awards ceremony. Rosi has now won two major film festivals with his documentary work (previously taking home the top prize at Venice 2013 for Sacro GRA), and further solidifies an argument for the Cannes Film Festival to follow suit and allow documentary titles to play in the main competition. Berlin notably had two documentaries in the main competition this year, the other being Alex Gibney’s Zero Days, which tried mightily to fashion itself into a political thriller to sometimes ludicrous effect.

But if Fire at Sea was the clear front runner, it wasn’t the only predictable element in the Meryl Streep led jury’s awards schematic. Lav Diaz’s eight hour A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery took home the Alfred Bauer prize, while Mia Hansen-Love took home Best Director for her excellent Things to Come. Of the two women directors in competition, Hansen-Love was the clear critical darling, with Anne Zohra Berrached’s abortion drama 24 Weeks the only German film, featuring a laudable performance from Julia Jentsch but filled with glaring clichés and lazy manipulation. The director prize upset a win for lead Isabelle Huppert, a contender for the Best Actress prize, which instead went to Trine Dyrholm of Thomas Vinterberg’s so-so The Commune, the only other actress worthy of the distinction from this year’s line-up.

The English language titles made up the weakest elements of the competition line-up, the best of these being Jeff Nichols’ studio film Midnight Special, featuring a great Michael Shannon but little else of note (although the title clearly had its fair share of enthusiasts). More embarrassing was the Alone in Berlin, directed by actor Vincent Perez. A WWII drama starring UK notables Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, the mostly non-German cast (an exception being Daniel Bruhl) speaks accented English, ironically premiering in Berlin. It was the only selection to earn discernable boos amidst stiff applause. Michael Grandage’s portrait of author Thomas Wolfe starring Jude Law in Genius was hardly any better, an equally tasteless soup of insipid melodrama clearly posing for awards glory. Another severe misfirea was Rafi Pitts’ Soy Nero, a film which felt stunningly incompetent across the board, uncustomarily hobbling its myopic stance on US immigration issues and combat in Iraq.

Other highlights were Mohamed Ben Attia’s Hedi, which won Best First Film and Best Actor. The Dardenne Bros. produced film indeed felt like one of the Belgian duo’s films relocated to Tunisia, but it managed to be one of the better competition titles. More surprising was the Silver Bear going to Danis Tanovic’s Death in Sarajevo (though it is one of the director’s liveliest films in years), based on Bernard-Henri Levy’s play Hotel Europe, which plays like a politically charged version of Grand Hotel. It would have been better to see Mani Haghighi’s masterful weirdness A Dragon Arrives! take home this distinction. Mark Lee Ping-Bing rightly won the Best Cinematography honors for Crosscurrent, an otherwise hopelessly elliptical bit of tediousness, which rivalled Portugal’s Letters from War as most suffocated narrative. Also shut out of the awards was the latest from Andre Techine, the auteur’s best work in years, co-written by Celine Sciamma. A contender for the Teddy, Techine lost out to a much darker psychological study, the Austrian title Tomcat (which played in the Panorama sidebar).

Canada’s Denis Cote presented Boris Sans Beatrice, another exercise which seemed more of a strange idea than a narrative, but another original vision, nonetheless. A series of titles which played out of competition also received premieres, the worst of these being the shamelessly manipulative The Patriarch from Lee Tamahori, desperately trying to reclaim the visibility he received following 1994’s Once Were Warriors. Two French language titles, both bizarrely amusing, also opened here, including the latest weirdness from Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern, Saint Amour. Arguably slight, the duo makes great use out of Gerard Depardieu and Benoit Poelvoorde. Dominik Moll returns with his first title in five years, an offbeat comedy News from Planet Mars, which also owes its highlights to notable cast members Francois Damiens and Vincent Macaigne.

As per usual at any major film festival, programmed items which didn’t make the competition cut are always a point of contention, such as a pair of special screenings which were among the best of the fest. These include Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s delightfully strange Creepy and Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, featuring a stellar Cynthia Nixon as poet Emily Dickinson (who hopefully won’t be as woefully overlooked come awards saturation time in the US as she was this year for James White).

The Forum and Panorama sidebars were also frequented with notable items, though the former seems a mixture of exceptional experimental fare as well as a dumping ground for amateurish abandon. Worthy of praise were titles such as Guillaume Nicloux’s The End, which doesn’t end as strongly as it promises but is existentially enjoyable until we get there, and Hugo Vieira da Silva’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s An Outpost of Progress. And then Hungary’s Bence Fliegauf bowed Lily Lane here, another mixture of possibilities eager to divide its audience.

In the Panorama, alongside Tomcat, the festival’s most unabashedly queer film was Theo et Hugo dans la meme bateau, which features an unparalleled opening orgy sequence which is actually more endearing than titillating. Directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau deservedly won the Teddy Audience Award. It was an overall very queer line-up, featuring the notable doc Strike a Pose, revisiting Madonna’s back-up dancers from her notorious Blonde Ambition tour, as well as Patric Chiha’s wan glance at Bulgarian male prostitutes in Austria with Brothers of the Night. Chilean singer Alex Anwandter also made a striking directorial debut with You’ll Never Be Alone. Lumped in with them was Rachid Bouchareb’s latest, The Road to Istanbul, which also deals with a parent trying to cope with an endangered child.

The festival, as a whole, was an amazing experience, the overcast, wintry dreariness a fine environment for bouncing around between cinemas all day. While ground zero remains the area surrounding the Palast, with the Cinemaxx and Cinestar theaters hosting thrumming crowds all day long, the festival contains a variety of other venues forcing an exploration of the beautiful city (a significant nightlife looms with much greater temptation and intensity than either Cannes or Sundance).

My ten favorite titles of Berlin 2016 were as follows:

10. Boris Sans Beatrice – Dir. Denis Cote
9. The End – Dir. Guillaume Nicloux
8. Hedi – Dir. Mohammed Ben Attia
7. Fire at Sea – Dir. Gianfranco Rosi
6. Theo et Hugo dans la meme bateau – Dir. Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau
5. Being 17 – Dir. Andre Techine
4. Creepy – Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
3. A Dragon Arrives! – Dir. Mani Haghighi
2. Things to Come – Dir. Mia Hansen-Love
1. A Quiet Passion – Dir. Terence Davies

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

Click to comment

More in The Conversation

To Top