(featured image: “Madeline’s Madeline”) After nearly four hundred films screening over ten days to 21,000 accredited guests and a third of a million ticket buyers, the Berlin International Film Festival drew to a close this past Sunday. The 68th installment of Europe’s largest film festival was a robust edition, with an unusually-high number of worthy films spread over the Berlinale’s dozen sections.
As he did in once already in 2014 with “The Grand Budapest,” Wes Anderson opened the festival on a high note with his competition entry “Isle of Dogs,” a stunning stop-motion animated feature with an ensemble vocal cast (Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban, to name a few) that bagged Anderson the best director prize at Saturday’s closing ceremony. That award seemed to be one of the International Jury’s few popular and noncontroversial decisions. As headed by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”), the jury spread the wealth unpredictably among seven films, including several of competition’s weakest entries: Romanian director Adina Pintilie’s “Touch Me Not,” one the most poorly-reviewed titles, walked off with the Golden Bear, while the critical favorite “Dovlatov,” by Alexey German Jr., earned a mere citation for “outstanding artistic contribution” given for its evocative early seventies production design. That the biopic of the dissident Soviet writer failed to win a major prize may have had something to do with the director’s unpopular defense of Russia as a bastion of artistic freedom and lack of censorship.
Following the trend set in recent years, the competition mostly included rarefied art house fare, with “Isle of Dogs” being the closest thing to a blockbuster production in the main slate. Midway through the festival, Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” about the life of the quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, brought a second wind of star power to the festival, thanks to Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Jack Black and Rooney Mara. Up until that point, most the Berlinale’s best main program entries had screened, including Erik Poppe’s harrowing real-time account of the 2011 Utøya summer camp massacre “U-July 22,” boldly shot in a single take, Laura Bispuri’s Sardinian adoption drama “Daughter of Mine,” Cédric Kahn’s surprisingly earnest drama of faith and redemption “The Prayer” and the aforementioned “Dovlatov.” After Day Five, the only competition title worth waiting for was Małgorzata Szumowska’s “Mug,” a bitter allegory for the reawakening of Catholic fervor in post-communist Poland, that arrived on the festival’s penultimate day and walked off with the Grand Prix, one of the jury’s few good choices.
Much like last year, the high-minded competition was a grab bag of remarkable films rubbing shoulders with several titles that were downright terrible or plain trashy. In the former category fell Måns Månsson’s deadpan Swedish comedy “The Real Estate” and Mani Haghighi’s “Pig” about a serial killer who decapitates Iranian filmmakers; in the latter belongs Benoît Jacquot’s “Eva,” starring the ageless Isabelle Huppert as a high-class prostitute. One of the festival’s biggest disappointments was with Christoph Petzold’s “Transit,” a drama of exile and refugees set in contemporary Marseilles, that seemed a step backwards for the filmmaker whose previous Berlinale entry, “Barbara,” won him the best director prize in 2012.
With such a frontloaded competition, one needed to navigate the festival’s myriad other sections to find aught to sustain interest in the second half of the festival. That this year’s competition was reasonably well-programmed but poorly-scheduled was reflected by the droves of journalists who packed their bags and left. Refreshingly, the festival area around Potsdamer Platz was surprisingly non-cluttered for half of the festival since most journalists don’t even bother with the Berlinale’s sidebar sections.
The twenty seven film-strong Panorama program yielded some surprises this year, including Wolfgang Fischer’s “Styx,” a harrowing film about a German doctor whose yachting trip turns into a nightmare when she encounters a boatful of dying refugees. Director Wolfgang Fischer films her ordeal with a claustrophobic intensity that brings to mind two of the finest films set on sailing vessels, “Knife in the Water” and “Purple Noon.” Jean Paul Civeyrac’s black and white “A Paris Education,” about film students in modern-day Paris, was an engaging and affecting, if occasionally pretentious, nouvelle vague updating and tribute. Ukrainian director Marysia Nikitiuk’s visually-bold debut “When The Trees Fall,” about a young woman suffocating in her traditional village, was sexually intense and arrestingly surreal, until it fell victim to redemptive kitsch and gangster-film clichés.
For nearly fifty years, hardcore cineastes have flocked to the International Forum of New Films to discover some of the festival’s most daring entries. Highlights of this year’s edition featured a Guy Maddin double feature that paired “Accidence,” a ten minute-long single take loop of an chaotic apartment building exterior, and “The Green Fog,” a cheeky deconstruction of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” edited together from dozens of films set or filmed in San Francisco. Fresh from Sundance, Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline,” a frighteningly subjective look at mental illness and art that stars Helena Howard in a riveting debut as a talented but troubled teen who turns to theater. Miranda July costars as her terrified mother. It was one of the few non-competitions films I saw this year that seems destined for a theatrical release stateside. Another one that does is Ruth Beckermann’s absorbing documentary “Waldheim’s Waltz” about the UN General Secretary whose Nazi past resurfaced only in the eighties during his successful bid for the Austrian presidency. Most festival films begin and end their careers at festivals, especially one as huge as the Berlinale, but I’d put my money down that these two very different Forum entries will get the attention that they deserve.
Berlin-based A.J. Goldmann is Screen Comment’s festival contributor. He regularly sends in stories from the Berlinale and the Cannes Festival.