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Dispatches from the 2024 Berlinale

Sean Erickson is giving his impressions from the heart of Potsdamer Platz.

Berlinale 2024 Dispatches #3: February 23rd

Another Berlinale comes to a close this weekend, with a heaping handful of awards being portioned out over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Despite my affection for JANET PLANET, I think I’m rooting for Thomas Arslan's VERBRANNTE ERDE (SCORCHED EARTH) to win Sunday’s Panorama Audience Award. I didn’t attend enough Competition screenings to put any bets on the main awards (and Min Bahadur Bham’s SHAMBHALA is getting its first screening on Friday), but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Anja Plaschg picks up a Silver Bear for Best Performance, due to her epic work in DES TEUFELS BAD (THE DEVIL’S BATH).

The movie comes from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the aunt and nephew filmmaking duo behind the original GOODNIGHT MOMMY and 2019’s THE LODGE (which is a movie that I felt got much more relevant in the thick of the pandemic). THE DEVIL’S BATH is practically designed to be divisive, but for me it was an extremely satisfying film. Many of my favorite movies from this year’s fest have stumbled a little bit towards the end, including STERBEN and LA COCINA. But THE DEVIL’S BATH is rigorously constructed from the ground up to lead you to one breath-taking, singularly disturbing moment at the end. Boy howdy, does it deliver the goods. Say what you will about how bleak the film might be, at the same time, every frame really is composed like a painting and Anja Plaschg’s performance reaches ecstatic heights by the penultimate scene of the film, when everything is lost and everything is gained at exactly the same time. In other words, it’s a tough watch, but it has its rewards.

A movie that may not win any awards but is certainly worthy of attention is REDAKTSIYA (THE EDITORIAL OFFICE) (and as of this writing there are still tickets available for the 25.02 screening at the Delphi). Even though the film is very much about modern day Ukraine and what it is (or perhaps was) like to live in the nation's southern region, it is a laugh-out-loud funny satire. Most of the movie was completed before the war, and remarkably enough the movie follows a man trying to deliver important news in the days leading up to a war. The man doesn’t necessarily fail at delivering this news, but due to circumstances beyond his control, the news can never gets past an editor’s desk.

THE EDITORIAL OFFICE uses this set-up to present a modern-day CATCH-22, where you might get hired as a reporter only to end up being paid to not do your job. The director, Roman Bondarchuk, grew up in this area of Ukraine, and he was raised by journalists and has a few documentaries under his belt already. This personal background is felt in the film, as the jokes and painful absurdity feel all too real and authentic — even as things grow increasingly surreal with every scene. Berlinale veterans might understand comparisons to similar-minded auteurs like Max Linz, Julian Radlmaier, and Radu Jude. If you like that kind of barbed socio-political satire, you’re likely to enjoy REDAKTSIYA.

There are also a couple of screenings available this weekend for THROUGH THE GRAVES THE WIND IS BLOWING, the latest historical examination/filmic-essay from the prolific Travis Wilkerson. This time we’re in Split, Croatia, where we look at the modern history of the city, and the nation at large, through the lens of a series of unsolved murders. We follow a beleaguered police detective around the city as he explains why no one cares about murdered drunken tourists, and we wonder why a fascist brand of nationalism continues to maintain a grip on the region.

I’ve already recommended HENRY FONDA FOR PRESIDENT, in which a German filmmaker takes a critical eye to another nation’s history, and while Wilkerson’s film isn’t quite as rigorous or impactful as that one, it does have its own renegade charm and likewise offers an interesting outsiders perspective on country’s problems. I really loved Wilkerson’s NUCLEAR FAMILY, from the 2022 Berlinale. His films have grown to have a very specific, personal style that some might find distancing, but that I find aesthetically pleasing. Some documentaries incorporate years of research and aim to be definitive. For better or worse, Wilkerson’s movies are more like a rhythmic, audio/visual collage of what’s on his mind right now. They're more of an immediate response, which gives them the benefit of having more energy than your average doc.

Finally, on the other end of the cinematic spectrum, there's BEOM-JOE-DO-SI 4 (THE ROUNDUP: PUNISHMENT). As of Friday morning, there are still a few screenings available with weekend (I’ve got mine for the Saturday showing). I didn’t catch the last installment, but I thought the first two did a good job of balancing comedy and drama, as well as gangster movie intrigue with above average action set-pieces, so I’m looking forward to experiencing this one through the Verti Music Hall’s giant screen and oppressive sound system. The main draw is the inimitable presence of Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee), who reminds me of Russell Crowe in his ability to be both a charming cad and a hulking brute — often in the same scene.

The first entry in this series was kind of like, what if THE DEPARTED was told from the perspective of Mark Wahlberg’s character? Since then, the series has focused more on the team element, with Don Lee being the muscle of this special police force, and other characters having their own talents. It’s not your typical Berlinale fare, but maybe that’s why I’m looking forward to it. After taking the devil’s bath and venturing through the graves where the wind is blowing, it’s good to be reminded that cinema is many things. Sure, it can be a useful tool for exploring the human condition, but it can also be a canvas on which to orchestrate elaborately choreographed action sequences wherein Don Lee pummels his way through a den full of axe-wielding bad guys. It may not be the most virtuous option this weekend, but variety is the spice of a moviegoing life too, right?

Berlinale 2024 Dispatches #2: February 19th

As we round the corner into the second half of the 74th Berlinale, and before festival fatigue begins to seriously warp the senses, let’s check in on some of the highlights, along with a couple of notable titles that are premiering soon.

Has anything topped the impact of JANET PLANET (which still has a couple of screenings coming up on the 22.02 at the Titania, and on 25.02 at the International)? I’m not sure, but two Competition movies have come close. Alonso Ruizpalacios’s LA COCINA is an absolute wonder to behold. This day-in-the-life of a restaurant crew is a tour-de-force of impressively choreographed kitchen chaos, inter-spliced with beautifully filmed, personal moments of intimacy, humor, and heartbreak. The black & white photography feels purposeful, rather than just indulgent, and the script does an impressive job of giving everyone in the international, ensemble cast at least one moment to shine. Even though digital editing makes it easy to fake a show-stopping oner these days, LA COCINA nevertheless wows with its fluid camera moves and elaborate stagings. It’s one of those movies that both entertains and has a lot to say about society, relationships, and capitalism. A joy from start to finish.

Matthias Glasner's STERBEN (DYING) isn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser, but it is a jaw-dropper at times. Even though it has a runtime that pushes the three-hour mark, it doesn’t feel long at all. It’s one of those movies about a family where each member gets their own chapter, but it’s so brilliantly written that each piece immediately adds details that deepen the story, themes, and relationships in an engaging way. I love Lars Eidinger and he doesn’t disappoint at all as the son of two dying parents. Playing his mother is Corinna Harfouch, who has played Eidinger’s mother on screen before. These two get the centerpiece scene of the film, where Eidinger is told a lot of things he doesn’t want to hear. It’s a masterful mix of writing and acting that combines humor and heartbreak to staggering effect. So far, I’d say it’s the scene of the festival — one that I’m already eager to revisit despite the emotional toll involved.

Hong Sangsoo’s YEOHAENGJAUI PILYO (A TRAVELER’S NEEDS) doesn’t quite reach the heights of other recent Berlinale debuts like THE NOVELIST’S FILM or THE WOMAN WHO RAN, but it does have its moments. The director clearly delights in dropping Isabelle Huppert into a few Korean homes and simply watching what happens. That’s not to say these are improvisational situations — these are the same carefully orchestrated scenes we’ve come to expect from Hong Sangsoo, complete with moments that echo the dialog of previous scenes and gently build towards an epiphany or two. There’s even a zoom on a household pet that echos a more triumphant moment from THE WOMAN WHO RAN. Given the director’s prolific nature of releasing two or three movies a year, it’s hard to feel disappointed in one that feels a little breezier than others. It might be a “small” movie, but it's still delightful.

There’s also a couple of interesting Panorama movies that are having their first screenings in the days ahead. Nathan Silver’s BETWEEN THE TEMPLES will likely appeal to those who count HAROLD & MAUDE among their favorite American films. In this case, Jason Schwartzman plays a cantor who can’t sing, yet finds his voice, and a renewed sense of purpose, when he runs into his old music teacher, played by the always delightful Carol Kane. Despite being in her 70s, Cane wants to have the bat mitzvah she never had, and Schwartzman agrees to help. The plot probably sounds more conventional than it actually is. Silver is an eccentric director, frequently playing with the sound design and the editing rhythm to keep everything a little off-balance and unpredictable. Things can get dark and cringey in BETWEEN THE TEMPLES, but it adds to the movie being a fun, edgy, singular experience.

Speaking of singular experiences, Jane Schoenbrun’s I SAW THE TV GLOW is certainly that. It follows a couple of high schoolers who are obsessed with a low-budget 90s television show — to the extent that reality and fiction start to blur. I wouldn’t be surprised if ten people watched the movie and came away with ten different allegories to explain what the movie is really about. Addiction, the fluidity of identity, the sad limits of obsessive fandom… I wasn’t completely won over by the film, but it’s impossible to deny the imagery and unsettling vibes that Schoenbrun has put on screen. There’s one scene in particular, where a character is monologuing while crawling across the floor, and it might be the most striking image I’ve seen at the festival so far. Do doubt it’s the kind of movie that will benefit from a theatrical experience.

Which reminds me, I gotta run to the Verti Music Hall if I’m going to make that HAKO OTOKO screening...

Berlinale 2024 Dispatches #1: February 15th

(February 15th)
As the 74th Berlinale gets underway, you could say it’s business as usual or that nothing is the same, or maybe both? The Berlin International Film Festival has always proudly owned its reputation as the more politically-minded of the Big Five, and this year is no different, with many films — some serious, others satirical — addressing the existential threats to peace, democracy, and personal liberties that continue to dominate the headlines. But politics have also played an unusual role leading up to this year's edition. Late last year, the city’s Kulturveranstaltungen des Bundes (KBB) decided not to renew the contract of current artistic director Carlo Chatrian. Despite an open letter signed by close to 300 of the top voices in world cinema opposing the decision, it looks like this will be Chatrian’s final program. And then, as you may have heard, the festival issued a press release to officially disinvite five AfD politicians and reiterate Berlinale’s commitment to the values of an open democracy. So yeah, it’s been a pretty eventful festival already.

This brouhaha likely explains why Chatrain has made a point of emphasizing that this year’s lineup is especially diverse — both in terms of the artistic voices being represented and the kinds of films on offer. So, while we have familiar names like Mati Diop and Hong Sangsoo, we also have the monocle-popping addition of THE ROUNDUP: PUNISHMENT. Few could have predicted that the fourth entry in a Korean action movie franchise would sit next to new films from Atom Egoyan (SEVEN VEILS) and Rose Glass (whose LOVE LIES BLEEDING is the director’s much-anticipated follow-up to 2019’s SAINT MAUD), but I’m always enthusiastic when Berlinale indulges in some genre movies. I also get a certain thrill that among the names taking part in the Berlinale Talents panel discussions this year are Tsai Ming-Liang, Martin Scorsese (who’s getting an honorary award this year), and the legendary, transgressive, punk rock performance artist Peaches (who’s the subject of an entertaining documentary in the Panorama section: THE TEACHES OF PEACHES). Only at Berlinale!

You can find Egoyan, Glass and THE ROUNDUP in the Berlinale Special section, along with Scorsese’s new documentary MADE IN ENGLAND: THE FILMS OF POWELL AND PRESSBURGER, and if you’ve never experienced the images of Powell and Pressburger on the big screen, it’s worth seeking out. More than any other section, the Berlinale Special feels particularly eclectic and enticing this year, with a new movie from the influential Japanese stylist Gakuryu Ishii (HAKO OTOKO/THE BOX MAN), an Abel Ferrara documentary about Patti Smith and Ukraine (TURN IN THE WOUND), as well as a new short feature by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (CHIME) and an 840(!) minute long documentary about documenta 14, the 2017 edition of the always ambitious contemporary art festival.

And let’s not overlook the fact that there are two films in the Special lineup without dialogue, both of which are compelling for completely different reasons. First there’s the new Tsai Ming-Liang movie WU SUO ZHU (ABIDING NOWHERE), which is the latest entry in his ongoing “Walker series,” this time following a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk as he travels barefoot through forests, fields, and modern cities. Meanwhile, David & Nathan Zellner return to Berlinale with SASQUATCH SUNSET, a bizarre-sounding film that follows members of a Bigfoot family living in the US wilderness, starring Riley Keough and Jesse Eisenberg, because why not. Be warned: expect lots of flying feces.

It’s also not every year that the opening-night film is a Competition title. But this year we have SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE, which is likely getting the honor due to the radioactive, Oscar-nominated star power emanating from Cillian Murphy’s dreamy blue eyes. Murphy is far from the only notable acting name in the Competition. Gael Garcia Bernal stars in Piero Messina’s Black Mirror-y sci-fi feature ANOTHER END, and Rooney Mara can be seen in Alonso Ruizpalacios’s LA COCINA, which is adapted from a stage play about a day-in-the-life of a restaurant crew in downtown New York City. Ruizpalacios has won a couple of awards in past Berlinales, with his twisty A COP MOVIE being a highlight of the 2021 Covid edition. Oh, and anyone familiar with the Marvel movies will recognize the name Sebastian Stan, who’s leading Aaron Schimberg’s A DIFFERENT MAN, which is about an actor who decides to get a new face, only to have a darkly ironic twist befall him. Schimberg’s previous film CHAINED FOR LIFE is already a cult classic of recent American indie films.

As to be expected, German stars are shining in Competition, too. The predictably unpredictable Lars Eidinger is the star of Matthias Glasner’s STERBEN (DYING), where he plays a symphony conductor forced into an uncomfortable family reunion. Nina Hoss is also present in Claire Burger’s LANGUE ÉTRANGÈRE, which is a coming-of-age story revolving around a French schoolgirl who gets a political awakening when she finally meets her German penpal in person.

Speaking of French films, this year’s Berlinale feels like a real coup, with the Competition lineup featuring new films from Cannes favorites Olivier Assayas and Bruno Dumont. Assayas’s film, HORS DU TEMPS (SUSPENDED TIME) reunites the director with his latest muse Vincent Macaigne and takes it’s inspiration from the 2020 Covid-lockdown period to tell a tale of two couples isolated in a home filled with haunted memories and creeping surrealism. Meanwhile, I couldn’t be more excited about Dumont’s film, which appears to be a sci-fi infused Christ-child allegory that only a director like Dumont could dream up. We should also acknowledge the fact that there's two films starring the living legend of French cinema Isabelle Huppert. She’s the unexpected lead in Hong Sangsoo’s Competition entry YEOHAENG JAUI PILYO (A TRAVELER’S NEEDS) as well as being the star of André Téchiné’s LES GENS D’À CÔTÉ (MY NEW FRIENDS), which can be found over in Panorama.

And what about the Panorama, Generations, and Forum sections? Well, let me wrap this up with three recommendations that touch on at least two of those categories. In the Forum lineup there is a wonderful documentary by the German filmmaker Alexander Horwath called HENRY FONDA FOR PRESIDENT. The idea of charting the history of America through the films of actor Henry Fonda may sound kind of academic and niche, but Horwath has crafted a surprisingly moving film that is both grand in its examination of America’s many problems, and closely poignant in its look at Fonda’s personal and professional struggles. HENRY FONDA FOR PRESIDENT may be a heady film essay about a troubled nation, but it’s also a cinematic delight that contains more than a few moments of unexpected transcendence that only movies, and the magical art of editing, can provide.

In the Panorama section, there are two gems I can vouch for. The first is another genre film — this time a heist movie by the esteemed German director Thomas Arslan called VERBRANNTE ERDE (SCORCHED EARTH). It’s a low-key crime movie, following a small group of thieves who are tasked with stealing a famous painting from a museum (I won’t spoil which painting). But in this case the actual heist isn’t as difficult as finding a way to get rid of the painting, and to get paid, once the original buyer starts putting a double cross in motion. It’s not quite as stylish as Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, but it’s in the same league at being a moody, suspenseful thriller that fans of crime fiction are likely to adore. Also, plenty of notable Berlin locations are on display, which is always fun.

Finally, allow me to extol on the wonders of JANET PLANET, the debut feature from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Annie Baker. This is a beautifully photographed, minutely observed and perfectly measured film. Inspired by Baker’s own childhood, growing up among the tall trees of Western Massachusetts, the movie follows 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) and her single mom Janet (Julianne Nicholson), who runs an acupuncture business out of the house (called Janet Planet). The story is divided into three chapters, each marked by the arrival and departure of a different person into Janet and Lacy’s gravitational orbit. The way the film plays with these evolving relationship dynamics is utterly fascinating and left me feeling overwhelmed, but in a great, heartwarming way. This is a depiction of a mother-daughter relationship like no other. In fact, I was left wondering, could there really be another film at this year’s Berlinale that can top JANET PLANET? I guess we'll find out.

Sean Erickson