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Poor Things, Zone of Interest and a novel year for Berlin cinema

New films like Poor Things and Zone of Interest lead some interesting novel-to-screen adaptations hitting Berlin kinos in 2024.

Still from ‘Poor Things’. d. Yorgos Lanthimos. (USA, 2023) Photo: Film 4 Element Pictures / TSG Entertainment

It’s a tale of two beloved Brits; director Jonathan Glazer is adapting the late writer Martin Amis’ 2014 book Zone of Interest. The source material is right up Glazer’s alley, as writer Joyce Carol Oates once described the novelist as “a satiric vivisectionist with a cool eye and an unwavering scalpel”. Glazer, not one to shy away from using film as an unwavering scalpel, will map out the grim historical drama.

Featuring the star of 2023, Sandra Hüller, alongside German actor and singer Christian Friedel, Zone of Interest explores Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Höss, who with his wife Hedwig dreams up a perfectionist alternate reality for their family in the shadow of the concentration camp. Glazer spent an extensive amount of time researching, delving into Amis’ source material and working closely with Auschwitz’s archive. And, for the music heads, Glazer will collaborate once more with Mica Levi on the score, which is worth getting excited about in and of itself. The film is set to be brutal, weird and beautiful, with critical acclaim already pouring in.

Still from ‘Zone of Interest’, d. Jonathan Glazer. (UK, 2023) Photo: A24 Films

Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting the Alasdair Gray Archive in Glasgow. Upon the writer’s old bureau were beautifully illustrated screenplays. During Gray’s lifetime, many film adaptations intrigued producers, but none were ever made. Now Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is out to correct that, adapting the late Scottish polymath’s 1992 Poor Things. The novel is a quintessential mix of Gray’s gritty realism and fantasy. A reimagining of the Frankenstein story told with feminine agency, it’s a moving and bizarre novel.

The film will see Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in leading roles, with support from the likes of Willem Dafoe. However well Gray may translate to screen (much of his genius lies in the beauty of his wordsmanship and the corresponding illustrations on the page), Lanthimos’ weirdcore sensibilities are as good as mainstream Hollywood can get to attempt the job. Much like Zone of Interest, the film will surely stir debate within cinema-going friendships.

Still from ‘The Color Purple’, d. Blitz Bazawule (USA, 2023), Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Alice Walker’s beloved The Color Purple (1982) took the world by storm, winning a Pulitzer and National Book Award for Fiction after its release. It went on to cause further storm when in 1985 Steven Spielberg adapted Walker’s epistolary novel for the screen. A box office hit, the story traces the life of the African-American woman Celie Harris at the turn of the 20th century in Georgia. Now, we have a readaptation from director Blitz Bazawule, a Ghanaian filmmaker and artist. His offering looks to provide plenty of musical numbers, pop, shine and sizzle.

Still from ‘Priscilla’, d. Sofia Coppola (USA, 2023), Photo: A24 Films

And, saving my Sofia Coppola sweet spot for last, there’s Priscilla. The film mostly abides by its source (a page-turning tell-all by Priscilla Presley herself, who was an executive producer on the film), but in true Coppola fashion, it paces itself, honing in on just a fragment of her young life and viewing Elvis only by way of Priscilla’s experience. It is wonderful.

As is common with Coppola, the focus is less about her characters’ exterior realities and more their precise interior worlds, and how the former affects the latter. Coppola gently pushes her heroine from school child into overnight fame by marriage. Cailee Spaeny is excellent as Priscilla, with every nuanced facial expression, gesture and body movement carefully placed. Spaeny masterfully presents the tension between awkward teen anxiety and imagination and yearning sexuality and curiosity. It’s pulp adaptation perfection.