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Berlinale 2021: The winners, losers, highs and lows

Was this special edition of the world’s largest film festival a success? Who stole the show? What were the duds? Our film editor shares his take.

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Was this special edition of the world’s largest film festival a success? Who stole the show? Who were the duds? Our film editor shares his take. Photo: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn | Berlinale

There was a lot riding on this 71st edition of the Berlin International Film Festival, which broke new ground by developing a festival in two stages. The first, a five-day digital edition reserved only for industry professionals and critics, is over. The filmmaking magic reflected one of the strongest and most eclectic programmes in recent memory. This counterbalanced the noticeable absence of festival magic, as no one who has been to a film festival can truly refer to these online editions as ‘festivals’ without feeling one of their Horcruxes start to cry out in pain.

Indeed, this year’s virtual and truncated Berlinale has taught us that experiencing film ‘festivals’ from the comfort of one’s own home lacks the uniquely energising feel of on-site festivals; watching films in isolation on a computer screen or hooked up to a TV set just doesn’t do the films justice. Which is doubly galling when the films are excellent, like they were this year. The 71st lineup highlighted that films of this calibre deserve a big screen debut, proving once again that home viewing is no substitute for a theatrical experience.

But enough whinging, and more about how Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian, Executive Director Mariette Rissenbeek and their teams have built on the solid foundations of their first Berlinale last year, delivering a Berlinale for the books. Not just because of its pandemic credentials, but because, in terms of variety and quality, this 71st edition has been nothing short of a triumph. It’s no exaggeration to say that audiences have a lot to look forward to in June.

Bear Winners

Looking at the list of this year’s winners, it’s hard to be upset about the jury decisions. The jury – made up of six former winners of the Berlinale’s top prize – gave the Golden Bear for Best Film to Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude’s biting satire Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn. Described as a “sociological sex film”, it’s a fantastic – if messy – critique of contemporary Romanian society through the filter of the story of a schoolteacher who lands in hot water after her sex tape inadvertently leaks online. Unpredictably constructed like a triptych, the film touches upon the social hypocrisy societies continue to have against women, and is to be applauded for going beyond mere provocation and actually providing scathing food for thought.

The jury stated that the film has “a rare and essential quality of a lasting art work”, adding that it “captures on screen the very content and essence, the mind and body, the values and the raw flesh of our present moment in time. Of this very moment of human existence.” Regularly NSFW, always surprising, and at times very funny, this is a worthy winner of the top award. It has to be said that it is something of a predictable choice, as the Berlinale has always been fond of radical filmmaking that generates discussion. This was also one of those times when you wished you could have been watching it in a packed cinema, as audience reactions will make up a huge amount of your appreciation for this year’s frequently outrageous winner.

The Silver Bear for Best Director was awarded to Dénes Nagy for the Hungarian WWII drama Natural Light, a mesmerising piece whose deliberate pace (usually film jargon for ‘molasses slow’) doesn’t hinder enjoyment, as the absorbing aesthetic and thought-provoking meditation on individual passivity in times of crisis truly strikes a chord.

Two of our favourite films were awarded the Grand Jury and Jury Prizes. The first went to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. Billed as a collection of “short films about coincidence and imagination”, this superbly executed Japanese film is split into three episodes with unique stories and characters, but whose themes echo and flow into each other in a remarkable way. Equal parts Rohmerian and Murakamian, all three stories are focused on women: an unexpected love triangle, a seduction that takes a wrong turn, and a sci-fi tinged chance encounter. If Radu Jude hadn’t provoked, this surely would have taken the Golden Bear.

The second was given to Maria Speth’s Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann And His Class), a stunning documentary which looks at the classroom as a microcosm of society. It clocks in at nearly four hours, and while that may discourage many, the journey is worth every minute: it is expansive yet wonderfully intimate, a film that answers the question “What if Frederick Wiseman had directed School Of Rock?”

Elsewhere, a notable landmark this year were the acting awards, which were gender-neutral for the first time in the festival’s 71 years. Tilda Swinton called the idea “eminently sensible” and the first gender-neutral awards for both Leading and Supporting Performances were won by two women: Maren Eggert for I’m Your Man and Lilla Kizlinger for Forest – I See You Everywhere.

The rest of the awards saw Hong Sang-soo win Best Screenplay for Introduction, a pleasant but minor entry in his filmography, and Outstanding Artistic Contribution was justly awarded to Yibrán Asuad for the editing of Alonso Ruizpalacios’ A Cop Movie. The latter lands on Netflix later this year, and is an audacious docu-hybrid that examines the institutions that make up the Mexican police force. No more shall be spoilt here, but it’s a unique twist on the “cop movie” and well worth a watch.

A strong year for German cinema

The Competition section and the sidebars featured several German productions and co-productions. Aside from the previously mentioned wonders of Herr Bachmann, Competition gave us some lighter entertainment with Maria Schrader’s Ich bin dein Mensch (I’m Your Man). Schrader, best known for her Netflix series Unorthodox, gives a twist on the traditional romcom, and the results are both delightful and thoughtful, genuine yet cheekily sly. Starring Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens and Sandra Hüller, this sci-fi tinged story centers on a researcher who participates in an experiment that pairs her up with an android designed specifically to be her ideal partner. The script is sharp, its meditation on longing, satisfaction, individuality rings true, and both central performances are excellent. Providing it gets released in cinemas in September as planned, it’ll go gangbusters and will definitely be 2021’s German film to beat.

But as wonderful as Herr Bachmann and I’m Your Man were, there were some Enttäuschungen. Note: disappointments, never outright failures. Take the celebrated German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl’s valiant effort as a first-time director for his Berlin-set Nebenan (Next Door). The logline for the film described it as a “tribute to the contradiction of Berlin in the 21st Century”. It fails to embrace these heady ideas; instead, it’s a serviceable tragicomedy that really should have been saved for the stage.

Another German film that starts off promisingly is Je Suis Karl, by Christian Schwochow. Indeed, the first 20 minutes – which shall not be spoiled here – will have you glued to the screen. We are then introduced to a committed group of activists who, behind their slick posters and summer events, are trying to redefine Europe. As it turns out, it’s the same Nazi ideals, but this time with social media narratives and Instagramable poses. It’s a very impressive film at times, a headline-grabbing warning cry that really resonates with the current moment. What a shame that it gets progressively sillier, with the last 10 minutes proving to be more eye-rolling than spine-chilling.

Lastly, a disappointment came in the shape of an absence: we didn’t get to see Dominik Graf’s Competition-selected Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde (Fabian: Going To The Dogs). The film was bafflingly not screened with the other Competition titles, for reasons unknown. We’ll have to wait until the Summer to see whether this adaptation of Erich Kästner’s classic 1931 novel, starring Tom Schilling and Berlin Alexanderplatz-standout Albrecht Schuch, is worthy of its Competition counterparts.

Sidebar standouts

What a year it’s been for Encounters. We weren’t entirely convinced by last year’s newest Berlinale section – even if it did give us Sandra Wollner’s memorable The Trouble With Being Born – but this year’s selection had us convinced. The treasure trove that was Encounters’ second year included Alice Diop’s Nous (We), a documentary that takes us through suburban Paris and the stories of its inhabitants (winner of Best Film), Denis Côté’s odd-but-fun beast Social Hygiene (co-winner for Best Director), and Lê Bao’s Taste, an arthouse fever-dream that is both bizarre and mesmerising, and which won the Special Jury Award.

Our top pick from this section is the tie-winner for Best Director, Ramon Zürcher and Silvan Zürcher’s The Girl And The Spider. It’s bound to be a divisive film, a beautifully filmed claustrophobic gem that will either strike you as deceptively profound or exasperatingly hollow. Set over the course of two days, it sees Lisa move out of the apartment she has shared with Mara and into one where she will live alone.

Elsewhere, our highlights included Panorama entries Censor, Prano Bailey-Bond’s ingenious valentine to Video Nasties, and Angelo Madsen Minax’s North By Current, a moving and skilfully constructed essay film that delves into childhood, grief, and transgender masculinity. There’s also Tina, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s terrific Tina Turner documentary which doesn’t only dwell on the cursed shadow that abuse casts on a life, but celebrates determination and love, and Tracy Deer’s Beans in Generations, a big-hearted and beautifully acted story set in Quebec, based on real-life events of the Oka crisis that took place in 1990. It’s a powerful film that deserves not to get lost in the shuffle of the sidebar programmes, one that would make for fine double-bill viewing with another Canadian film, Danis Goulet’s Children Of Men-echoing feminist-dystopian parable Night Raiders, which also sees Canada grapple with its attitude towards First Nations.

Our uncovered gem, however, is The Scary of Sixty-First, directed by Dasha Nekrasova, who is best known as the co-host of the Red Scare podcast. This fantastic ride is a giallo pastiche set in the aftermath of Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide / murder, one that tips its hat to early Polanski and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, embraces MeToo, conspiracy theories and anti-Royal Family sentiment. It was a breath of fresh air in the sidebar selections.

A sign o’ the times?

While the March screenings were eye-wateringly good, we’ll have to wait for June for the true celebration: a collective experience of these films. Assuming that things start to look up, the second stage of the 71st edition, dubbed the “Summer Special”, will take place from June 9-20. The Berlinale will partner up with Berlin cinemas and open-air kinos so that the public can be welcomed back to the screens, watch the films and prize winners, as well as watch the awards ceremony.

However, it worth asking whether virtual events are what film festivals will – and should – look like in the foreseeable future. The Berlinale straddles two lines this year by being both digital and public. Could this faux-hybridization be the way to go? Or will there be a clear divide between traditional festivals and digital ones from now on? In which case, are fully-virtual ‘festivals’ the forward-thinking option?

Programmers and filmmakers have had to adapt to desperate times by going digital and this March event has shown that a festival of the Berlinale’s magnitude can survive online. It’s also cheaper to attend, and many would argue that a certain communion is still possible with online Q&As and panels. Talents made sure of that. These virtual events also allow for a certain democratisation of film, making them more inclusive. And then there’s the sustainability factor. Festivals have often been taken to task regarding their carbon footprint, and the pandemic has made their green credentials visible like they’ve never been before, through the reduction of international travel. So, the appetite is there, the reach of viewership is attained, and they can represent a more sustainable future.

It comes down to what we want from a festival. If it’s getting a wider audience to see the films selected in the international lineups, then veteran cinephiles may have to adjust their tastes and roll with the times. But if festivals are about something more, inherently social events which foster a spirit of discovery and create conversations and communion between people in venues that are currently bearing the brunt of the pandemic, then digital options represent a loss.

Whether you adhere to the argument that too much streaming is killing films and the theatre industry, or that festivals need to adapt to changing times, no one can claim to know whether the festival ecosystem will change in the long term. But considering the surprisingly even Pro and Con columns, and the Berlinale’s first successful digital event, what’s certain is that it’s a conversation that cannot be dismissed as the musings of a transitory phase. Once the global health crisis is over, festivals will have to reflect on the lessons of this unprecedented crisis and negotiate a new future.

Our Best Of Berlinale 71

Favourite Competition films:

Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy, Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse, What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?, Petite Maman, Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn.

Biggest Competition disappointments:

Next Door – for all its good ideas, it feels like this could have worked so much better as a stage play – and no awards for the previously mentioned Georgian film What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?, Alexandre Koberidze’s idiosyncratic fairytale about romance, curses and the World Cup. Oh, and the fact that we were robbed of seeing the cast and crew of Herr Bachmann walking down the red carpet.

Favourite Sidebar films:

Beans (Generation), The Scary of Sixty-First (Encounters), The Girl And The Spider (Encounters), North By Current (Panorama), Censor (Panorama), Tina (Special).

Biggest Sidebar disappointments:

The pretentious yet occasionally amusing Bloodsuckers (Encounters) and Tony Stone’s Ted K (Panorama). Despite a committed performance by Sharlto Copley as Unambomber Ted Kaczynski, this chronicle of the terrorist does nowhere – you’re better off watching the Netflix documentaries Manhunt: Unabomber and Unabomber: In His Own Words instead.

Keep an eye out for more Berlinale content over the next months, leading up to the June issue of the Berlinale, including reviews, interviews and a rundown on the must-see films this year. And if you haven’t already, put your Berlinale knowledge to the test with our Ultimate Berlinale Quiz.