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Berlin Film Festival 2023 Dispatches

The 73rd Berlinale Film Festival is upon us. It’s also the first edition since 2019 to be somewhat “normal,” in that there aren’t many COVID-related restrictions going on and all of the programs and screenings are taking place in the lovely month of February. There are some twists to be had, however. The most notable being that the Cinemaxx multiplex in Potsdamer Platz is partly under construction, so no public screenings are taking place there. As a result, a lot of screenings are happening at the Cubix in Alexanderplatz and the Zoo Palast, as well as in newly added venues like the Verti Music Hall and Cineplex Titania. The Berlinale website is still the best place to get tickets and screenings still go on sale at 10:00 AM, three days in advance of the day of the screening (most tickets cost 15.00 EUR). With that in mind, let’s look at some highlights and recommendations for the days ahead.

Berlinale 2023 Dispatches #3

This weekend the 73rd Berlinale wraps up as it always does, with its Berlinale Publikumstag Sonntag, a day in which many of the Competition, Encounters, Panorama and other films get a final screening at a discounted ticket price of 11.00 EUR. Some weekend screenings are likely to be sold out already, but there are plenty of options still available. One of the benefits of adding the Verti Music Hall to the list of venues is that it takes a lot of people to reach full capacity. As of this writing, tickets for Competition titles like MANODROME, LIMBO, THE SURVIVAL OF KINDNESS and MAL VIVER are still showing up on the website as still being available.

Each Berlinale I wonder, is it even possible to see all of the Competition films? As the years go by, it feels like an increasingly futile endeavor. Even when the festival was taking place entirely online, as it did in 2021, I didn’t manage this feat. However, over the past few days I watched three impressive films by German directors, all of which are part of the Competition lineup. First was the new Christian Petzold movie ROTER HIMMEL (Afire). After getting a little mystical with his last film, UNDINE, Petzold comes back down to earth, along with his current muse Paula Beer, to tell a straightforward tale about a frustrated writer who ends up learning some difficult lessons in life while staying with a friend at a seaside summer home. While he struggles to finish his manuscript, a forest fire is creeping closer and closer, and everyone around him seems to have a better handle on their life than he does. As wtih most Petzold movies, there are a couple of twists and turns to be had, but ROTER HIMMEL is most impressive for how well written and well realized the characters are. Petzold can be enigmatic, but this time he’s made a very thoughtful, relatable and entertaining film.

Speaking of enigmatic... MUSIC is by the writer/director Angela Schanelec, and it’s a true mind-bender. The film starts along the rocky coastline of Greece and weaves its way to the streets of Berlin, but along the way it takes some very peculiar detours. A man accidentally kills another man and is sent to prison. Upon his release his begins a relationship with one of the prison guards and they have a child. But all is not as it seems. Some people age, some people don’t, and figuring out how one character relates to another isn’t so simple. There are many allusions to classic Greek tragedies like the story of Oedipus, as well as some Old Testament allegories. You might find MUSIC to be frustrating and confounding, or you might appreciate it as the kind of puzzle you can think about for days afterward.

The final film to debut in the Competition section is BIS ANS ENDE DER NACHT (Til the End of the Night), a film noir that features an undercover cop and femme fatale, but feels truly modern in its scenario. The cop in question is setting up a sting operation involving the kingpin of an internet drug operation. But for his plan to succeed he needs to bring in his former boyfriend who’s been in prison for two years. During that time, the boyfriend has transitioned to being a woman, which complicates their relationship, and the undercover operation, in some interesting ways. BIS AND ENDE DER NACHT features impressive performances as well as some moody and suspenseful direction by Christoph Hochhäusler. It might come across as a little melodramatic to some viewers, but I found it to be an enjoyable throwback to 1970s style filmmaking.

This year’s lineup was notable for having not one — but two animated movies in the Competition, and they couldn’t be more different from one another. SUZUME is the newest film from Makoto Shinkai (YOUR NAME, WEATHERING WITH YOU) and it delivers a rousing adventure story about a high school girl who finds herself indispensable in saving Japan from impending disaster. She must race around the country to close a series of doors that serve as portals for inter-dimensional “worms” that can cause earthquakes if they escape. The film is also an overt homage to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, as one of the antagonists is a talking cat, and one of the heroes is a talking three-legged chair. It’s hugely entertaining.

The other animated feature is ART COLLEGE 1994, which is Liu Jian’s follow-up to his 2017 freewheeling crime film HAVE A NICE DAY. This time, however, the action is limited to some intense conversations about the meaning and purpose of art. In that sense, ART COLLEGE 1994 might resemble Richard Linklater’s animated feature WAKING LIFE, but Jian’s film is much more interested in the mundane day-to-day life of his characters. ART COLLEGE 1994 would make for an excellent pairing with Vasilis Katsoupis’s INSIDE, which is part of the Panorama lineup and features Willem Dafoe as an art thief who gets trapped in an ultra-modern apartment and can only transcend his predicament by creating his own works of art. Both films ask similar questions about what constitutes art, how much suffering must go into the making or art, and who gets to decide the value. While INSIDE has all the makings of a cult film, with Willem Dafoe putting on an impressive one-man-show, your appreciation for ART COLLEGE 1994 will entirely depend on how interested you are in the subject of art theory.

Of course, it would hardly be a Berlinale without an appearance by the prolific Hong Sangsoo, who finally took home an award with last year’s THE NOVELIST’S FILM. This year he arrives with a 61-minute curiosity called MUL-AN-E-SEO (in water). It’s likely to be the most experimental film in the Encounters lineup, for the simple reason that about 95 percent of the movie is out of focus. Given that it’s about a young amateur filmmaker who’s trying to make his first movie, you can perhaps understand this bold choice, but it’s challenging nonetheless. The film still has a wonderful script and a moving story to tell, but buyer beware.

For those interested, the awards will be given out on Saturday night. This year, I didn’t come across a film like BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONEY PORN, which ticked all the boxes of being anarchic, adventurous and sharply political — leading it to win the Golden Bear in 2021. But that film’s director, Radu Jude, is on the main jury alongside the jury president Kristen Stewart and Carla Simón, the director of last year’s winner ALCARRÀS. Which film will they honor this year? It’s anyone’s guess, but I’m rooting for PAST LIVES.

Berlinale 2023 Dispatches #2

First of all, I have to ask, was I the only one who thought MANODROME was a comedy? One of the joys of attending film festivals is that very often you only have a few sentences from a program blurb to go by. This can be exciting, because under normal circumstances we often know all too much about a movie going in. But sometimes, you see the name Jesse Eisenberg and a synopsis involving an Uber driver and a “masculinity cult” and you make an assumption that it’s going to be something along the lines of VIVARIUM or THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE. Well, it turns out that MANODROME might be one of the bleaker, more un-funny movies at Berlinale this year — which, of course, is saying something. But if you’re in the mood for a modern, less nuanced riff on TAXI DRIVER, then by all means…

With that out of the way, I’d like to offer some more recommendations — and this time I’ll stick to the films that I can personally vouch for. The first being PAST LIVES, the debut film from writer/director Celine Song and another entry in the Competition lineup. PAST LIVES tells a seemingly simple tale of two childhood sweethearts who grew up in Korea. The girl moves to America, the boy stays in Korea. Years go by, the two find each other online, and a long distance romance ensues. This is the first act of the film, and it’s handled beautifully, but where PAST LIVES goes from here is so achingly human and bittersweet that I was a weepy mess by the end of the film. But don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a depressing movie. Quite the contrary, by the time the credits roll, you’ll have fallen in love with all three of the main characters and your heart will feel like it's grown two sizes. It’s a star-making film for actress Greta Lee, and absolutely one of the best of the fest.

Over in the Encounters section is another heart-warmer, albeit one that is a bit more prickly than most, Dustin Guy Defa’s THE ADULTS. The movie focuses on three siblings played by Michael Cera, Hannah Gross, and Sophia Lillis, who are now on their own with their mother having passed away. When Cera flies back into town, lingering resentments clash with desires to reconnect and mend their fractured relationships. THE ADULTS gets at the way siblings communicate in their own special language, as well as how cries for help can take the form of passive aggressive needling. Cera has never been better, and he delivers a single-take monologue about a child's first understanding of death that is an absolute stunner. But perhaps the brightest star is Sophia Lillis. She was the best thing about the recent two-part IT adaptation, and in THE ADULTS she proves that she is one of the most charming and beguiling screen presences of her generation.

Meanwhile, playing in the Panorama section is the singularly strange HELLO DANKNESS, from the A/V collage artists known as Soda Jerk. If the past few years have made you feel like you’re in some nightmare version of a disaster movie — if the pileup of absurd conspiracy theories has made you question the difference between reality and wish fulfillment — then you might find HELLO DANKNESS to be either the funniest or saddest movie of the festival. Clips from hundreds of films, including WAYNE’S WORLD, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THIS IS THE END, and AMERICAN BEAUTY have been seamlessly spliced together to evoke the nightmare that was the Trump presidency and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hallucinatory stuff, and from minute-to-minute the film can make you laugh out loud or hang your head in despair over the state of current affairs. Given the amount of pirated material, this is a film that won’t likely be playing at a kino near you anytime soon, so catch it now, if you can.

If you want to get even more experimental, I can also recommend Viera Čakányová’s NOTES FROM EREMOCENE (Poznámky z Eremocénu), which is part of the Forum lineup. Like a lot of Forum films, it eschews narrative conventions to try and get at something deeper in regards to the human experience. But unlike other films, it shows a remarkable control of digital editing techniques to place us in the future and then put us in the shoes of some disembodied lifeforce who is curious about what happened on Earth in the 21st century. It’s a fascinating head-trip of a film that touches on artificial intelligence, language, activism, and ecological collapse, among other subjects, and fans of Nick Cave will likely be moved by the film’s soundtrack choices. Again, this is another one of those films that will benefit from being seen on the big screen of Berlinale.

Mon Feb 20 @ 10:00 — Cubix 9
Mon Feb 20 @ 22:00 — Verti Music Hall
Sun Feb 26 @ 09:30 — Haus der Berliner Festspiele

Sun Feb 26 @ 11:00 — International

Wed Feb 22 @ 16:00 — International
Thu Feb 23 @ 22:00 — Cubix 7
Fri Feb 24 @ 13:00 — Cubix 5
Sat Feb 25 @ 12:30 — Cubix 9
Sun Feb 26 @ 21:45 — Zoo Palast 3
Sun Feb 26 @ 21:45 — Zoo Palast 4
Sun Feb 26 @ 21:45 — Zoo Palast 5

Mon Feb 20 @ 16:00 — Kino Arsenal 1
Thu Feb 23 @ 20:00 — Werkstattkino@silent green
Sat Feb 25 @ 19:00 — Zoo Palast 2
Sun Feb 26 @ 16:00 — Cubix 7

Berlinale 2023 Dispatches #1

The Competition section has gotten underway with a couple of interesting outliers in the form of the comedies MANODROME and BLACKBERRY. I’ve yet to catch a screening of MANODROME, which stars Jesse Eisenberg as an insecure Uber driver who gets drawn into a “masculinity cult.” The movie also features Adrien Brody and is written and directed by John Trengove, whose debut feature THE WOUND screened as part of the Panorama section a few years back. Everything about the movie sounds enticingly strange and audacious, which is the kind of Berlinale movie I enjoy the most.

BLACKBERRY, on the other hand, is a movie that sounds exactly like what it is: about the making of the BlackBerry phones that started the smartphone revolution. The Canadian film charts the improbable origins of the phone, which began when a group of disorganized tech nerds (one of whom is endearingly played by writer/director Matt Johnson) crossed paths with a cutthroat business man. It’s hard to shake the comparisons to THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and BLACKBERRY isn’t nearly as ambitious as Fincher’s movie, but it does carve out its own entertaining and often laugh-out-loud narrative about obsessive people and the absurdity of trying to stay afloat in the tech industry. It also sports a soundtrack of late-90s/early-aughts bangers, with tunes ranging from Slint and Elastica to The White Stripes and The Strokes. Oh, and fans of 80s genre movies might be overjoyed to see Michael Ironside on screen again.

If heartbreaking romantic dramas are more your thing, you may want to try and catch Emily Atef’s newest film, IRGENDWANN WERDEN WIR UNS ALLES ERZÄHLEN (Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything). Atef is a veteran of the Competition section with 2018’s excellent 3 DAYS IN QUIBERON, but this time she’s telling a lush and erotically charged story that takes place in the rural villages of East Germany in the days following reunification. It’s essentially a love triangle, but one that is refreshingly told entirely from the perspective of the young woman (played by Marlene Burow), who has to choose between her current boyfriend (who kind of takes her for granted) and the ruggedly handsome 40-year-old neighbor (who’s much more mysterious and passionate). The movie is also about choosing between a future of unknown possibilities in the West or staying put in the East, and I haven’t seen this concept put into a steamy romance quite like this before. Consider this one if you’re looking for a good date movie.

If you’re looking for a good all-ages movie, I can recommend the Irish animated feature A GREYHOUND OF A GIRL, by Enzo d’Alò, adapted from a novel by Roddy Doyle (playing in the Generation Kplus section). What starts off as a charming movie about a girl who wants to be a world-class chef, eventually turns into a quietly profound movie about intergenerational trauma, coming to terms with mortality and coping with loss. I know it sounds pretty heavy, but it’s handled with the kind of grace that be best animated movies specialize in.

If Lynchian weirdness is more your thing, allow me to point you in the direction of MAMMALIA, by Romanian director and co-writer Sebastian Mihăilescu (part of the Forum section). If you thought MIDSOMMAR was a little too mainstream, then this might be right up your alley. A lot of MAMMALIA is hard to describe, but it’s essentially about a guy who tries to infiltrate a cult in order to rescue his girlfriend. But what ends up happening is something else altogether. This is a movie that raises a lot of questions about gender and agency, yet doesn’t exactly provide any easy answers — it leaves you with a lot to think about afterwards. It’s also a strange film that moves at a slow and creeping pace, but it provides some indelible and bizarre images that are hard to shake.

There is, of course, a whole lot more to choose from. A lot of movies are focusing on the war in Ukraine, like Sean Penn’s surprise film SUPERPOWER and the Polish/German documentary W UKRAINIE (In Ukraine). It should also be noted that this year’s Retrospective section is especially enticing, as each movie has been personally selected by a filmmaker. For example, Pedro Almodovar selected SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS and Wes Anderson selected LITTLE FUGITIVE. All of which is to say, that even if some of the bigger titles are sold out this weekend, you’re still likely to find something special.

Sun Feb 19 @ 12:15 — Verti Music Hall
Mon Feb 20 @ 10:00 — Haus der Berliner Festspiele
Tue Feb 21 @ 15:45 — Verti Music Hall
Sun Feb 26 @ 18:00 — Berlinale Palast

Sat Feb 18 @ 09:30 — Zoo Palast 1
Sun Feb 19 @ 18:00 — Verti Music Hall
Mon Feb 20 @ 13:00 — Cineplex Titania
Thu Feb 23 @ 21:30 — Haus der Berliner Festspiele

(Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything)
Sat Feb 18 @ 10:00 — Verti Music Hall
Sat Feb 18 @ 15:00 — Haus der Berliner Festspiele
Sun Feb 19 @ 20:00 — Thalia - Das Programmkino (Potsdam)
Sun Feb 19 @ 21:30 — Cubix 9
Sun Feb 26 @ 16:00 — Verti Music Hall

Sat Feb 18 @ 12:30 — Zoo Palast 1 (German voice-over | Headphones for OV)
Sun Feb 19 @ 10:00 — Cineplex Titania (German voice-over)
Mon Feb 20 @ 13:00 — Zoo Palast 2 (German voice-over | Headphones for OV)
Wed Feb 22 @ 09:45 — Cubix 8 (German voice-over | Headphones for OV)
Thu Feb 23 @ 12:30 — Filmtheater am Friedrichshain (German voice-over)

Sat Feb 18 @ 21:00 — Delphi Filmpalast
Sun Feb 19 @ 10:30 — Zoo Palast 5
Thu Feb 23 @ 16:00 — Cubix 7
Sun Feb 26 @ 16:00 — Delphi Filmpalast

Sean Erickson