At last year’s Berlin Film Festival in February 2020, the spreading of the coronavirus was only a rumour, a harmless joke shared amongst coughing and sneezing journalists.
Little did we know what the next 12 months would look like, how our lives would be affected by the pandemic. And now, this year’s Berlin Film Festival has been split into two parts, with a first, industry- and press-only virtual festival, which has successfully concluded, to be followed by a second, physical one in June.
Despite everything, this year’s line-up was full of terrific titles — more often than not I wished that I was watching these on a screen much bigger than the size of a paperback, and not on a laptop. Once that will be possible again — so far there are no concrete plans to reopen cinemas in Germany — I’ll make sure to revisit many of these films once they are on general release.
My pick of the lot was Mr Bachmann and his Class, a timely documentary about a patient and sympathetic school teacher in a small German town, Dieter Bachmann, and his 6th grade class, made up of pupils coming from 12 different countries. Despite its running time — it’s close to four hours — director Maria Speth and her cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider are able to conjure a lively, humane and never boring portrait about what it means to belong somewhere, what it means to be a part of a group and how, in Germany — a classic example of a country attracting a large number of immigrants — education is the answer to many of these questions.
In parts, it reminded me of Nicolas Philibert’s Etre et avoir, a similar study of a school in a French commune. Mr Bachmann and His Class received the Silver Bear for the Jury Prize.
A festival split into a virtual and a physical part, gender-neutral acting awards and terrific titles — despite the pandemic, this year’s Berlin Film Festival still had what it takes to create a buzz
German cinema had other strong contenders in competition, such as Dominik Graf’s Fabian — Going to the Dogs, a stylish and topical look at Germany between the First and Second World War, with clear parallels to today’s day and age, and the ever-present far-right tendencies in Germany’s media and politics.
Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man is an intelligent and entertaining take on artificial intelligence and modern relationships, with Dan Stevens’ robot playing the perfect companion to Maren Eggert’s scientist. The latter deservedly won the first gender-neutral acting award of the Berlinale (with the categories Male and Female having been done away with — will the Oscars follow suit now?).
Closer to home, and also in competition, Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moghaddam’s Persian film Ballad of a White Cow is an impressive look at crime and punishment — staples of the Iranian New Wave — with a fine leading performance by Moghaddam.
She plays Mina, a widow who finds out that her recently executed husband was innocent all along. Without any melodrama, the directors shine a light on themes such as death, guilt, justice and gender roles in modern Iranian society, calling to mind masters of the genre such as Asghar Farhadi or last year’s Golden Bear winner, Mohammad Rasolouf.
Similar themes are explored in Ferit Karahan’s sublime Brother’s Keeper, set in the snowy mountains of Anatolia, where Kurdish pupils attend a strict boarding school. They are allowed to take a shower once a week and have little to no freedom. Along with the heating not working in minus temperatures, the faculty soon has to deal with one of the boys turning sick after an accident.
The way Karahan peels layer after layer to expose an oppressive system, without being showy about it, is quite something. And the cast, mostly made up of child actors, pitches in exceptionally natural performances.
The Berlin Film Festival prides itself on being an overtly political affair — much more so than its siblings Cannes and Venice. One of the most political documentaries I saw this year, and simultaneously the best, is Samaher Alqadi’s As I Want. The Palestinian filmmaker has made a personal, gut-wrenching essay film on sexual harassment, and what women go through in that regard whilst doing everyday activities.
It calls to mind the very important Instagram handle @catcallsofcairo. Alqadi places herself as her own subject, trying to come to terms with the status of being a woman, a daughter and also a new mother after the Tahrir Square protests of 2013 and afterwards, and how sometimes the best call of revolutionary action is speaking out and calling out.
There were some duds in the programme too, of course, especially when certain films tried hard to be realistic or relevant, but came off as implausible and inauthentic.
Anne Zohra Berrached’s Copilot is a feature-length biopic on one of the 9/11 terrorists and his relationship with his wife. Everything is told from her perspective — the man’s radicalisation is never part of the narrative. It’s only hinted at in lazily scripted scenes.
Because the love story is at the heart— no pun intended — of the screenplay, I asked myself why such a film is being made 20 years after 9/11, and with what intention? It’s very tone-deaf and naïve to show such caricatural characters in a story that adds nothing to the bigger picture.
I had similar reservations about Christian Schwochow’s Je Suis Karl, a comment on the rise of European far-right movements, but with such a ham-handed approach in its storytelling that it’s hard to look past its flimsy characters and plotting. Its central message is of course very important: democracy is in danger (again). And it’s a very real, global threat that is worth exploring. But in this film, non-white characters are mainly sidelined, as if only white people are affected by acts of terrorism. I’d like to know how Schwochow researched his screenplay.
Last but not least, the big one: Radu Jude’s Romanian satire Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn won the Golden Bear for Best Film. Did I manage to watch it? Of course not. It’s somehow become a tradition for me that I always manage to miss the one film that will go on to win the main prize.
But for me, not being able to watch Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn simply means that I will have to catch up on it once cinemas reopen, or once the Berlin Film Festival will return with its second part in summer. I can’t wait.
Published in Dawn, ICON, March 21st, 2021