“Summary of the 2024 Berlin Film Festival – Delicious Snacks and a Few Exciting Films”

Estimated read time 8 min read


Is discussing cinema appropriate for the current Berlin film festival? Some may disagree. After sharing a podcast discussion I participated in on X, someone replied with a picture of Jean-Luc Godard at the tense 1968 Cannes film festival, famously stating, “And you’re talking about camera movements and close-ups! You’re foolish!”

The 2024 Berlinale may not have been as chaotic as Cannes 68, but with the state of the world, discussing movies alone could have been seen as trivial. This year’s festival was preceded by controversy when members of Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland party were initially invited, then disinvited, to the opening ceremony. There were also protests in support of Palestine at the industry market, and festival staff expressed frustration that the Berlinale was not taking a firm stance on the Gaza conflict. During the opening press conference, the competition jury, led by actress Lupita Nyong’o, faced more inquiries about their political views than about cinema.

Berlin’s political nature has always set it apart from other film events, and now the discussions have turned inward, with controversy surrounding the departure of festival directors Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek. Rissenbeek is retiring, while Chatrian is stepping down after the German ministry of culture announced changes to the directorship. The pair have achieved a lot during their five-year tenure, despite facing difficult circumstances. The 2021 competition boasted a top-notch selection, but due to lockdown restrictions, it was only available online. This year, their final year, did not quite live up to that standard, possibly due to the belief that troubled times called for a more serious approach. There were no light-hearted titles to counteract the seriousness of the situation.

Lily Farhadpour sitting at a kitchen table.

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One standout was the Iranian film, My Favourite Cake, featuring an impressive performance by Lili Farhadpour as an older widow who decides to embrace life. This heartwarming and lighthearted film was full of energy and humor, though it did have a forced dark conclusion. It also carried a strong political message, denouncing Iran’s “morality police,” leading to the government prohibiting directors Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha from participating in the festival.

The overall harshness of the film had a certain bravery to it. It was bold to open with the somber tone of Small Things Like These, but it was a justified decision by director Tim Mielants. Based on Claire Keegan’s novella, the film features a stellar performance by Cillian Murphy, who appears even more worn down than in Oppenheimer. He plays a coal merchant and family man in 1980s Ireland who must confront the truth about the Catholic church’s infamous Magdalene laundries. Every scene is filled with cold, condensation, and coal dust, and once again, the dominant emotion is anger.

Cillian Murphy dressed as a coalman. View image in fullscreen

A tense and psychological drama, Sons, by Gustav Möller, hails from Scandinavia. The Danish-language film stars Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame as a prison guard who realizes she has a personal connection to a new inmate. Knudsen delivers a powerful and chilling performance, with her expressions revealing little in a mercilessly intense and emotionally raw narrative.

Anja Plaschg looking up through the shadow of bars. View image in fullscreen

However, the Austrian pair Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are known for their expertise in horror and they truly put us through the wringer. The Devil’s Bath can be categorized as a type of folk horror from central Europe, but at its core, it is a portrayal of female depression and religious despair in 18th-century rural Austria. The film follows a young woman as she endures an unhappy marriage and faces even worse circumstances in a cruel world. With Martin Gschlacht’s stunningly atmospheric photography, the movie captures a world of dampness, filth, and insanity, while Anja Plaschg (also known as musician Soap&Skin) delivers a fearlessly captivating performance and contributes a fittingly desolate score.

Two highly anticipated documentaries were featured in the competition. One was directed by Mati Diop, a French-Senegalese filmmaker known for her captivating supernatural and Afrofuturist film, Atlantics. Her follow-up, Dahomey, was a concise hour-long film filled with thought-provoking ideas and poetic concepts. It documented the return of a collection of historical artifacts, which were looted by French troops in the 19th century, to Benin. The film delved into themes of colonialism, exile, museums, and the evolving meaning of cultural objects over time. One particularly unique aspect was the use of a processed voiceover, giving voice to one of the artifacts, a statue of a king, and its musings on its own thoughts.

Mati Diop’s Dahomey.

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Then there was Architecton, by Russian veteran Victor Kossakovsky, who delighted Berlin in 2020 with his pig portrait Gunda. His new film is a contemplation of buildings ancient and modern, and the stones that make them. The images range from cities destroyed by war or earthquake to apocalyptic cascades of boulders down the slopes of mountains and quarries. It made for an overwhelming, exhilarating experience – a very different kind of rock’n’roll spectacular.

There were also failures, particularly the poorly executed and expensive Netflix film “Spaceman,” featuring Adam Sandler as a Czech astronaut who finds himself in a mundane close encounter with a CGI alien, voiced by Paul Dano, who gives him relationship advice. On a different cosmic level was “The Empire,” an initially intriguing yet ultimately dull creation from French director Bruno Dumont. The film attempted to be a humorous battle between good and evil in outer space, set on Dumont’s signature stretch of northern French coast, and included visually striking CGI effects, but ultimately fell flat in its exaggerated silliness. A colleague accurately described it as if an artificial intelligence app was asked to create “Star Wars” in the style of Bruno Dumont. I would agree, although the result is more reminiscent of “Battlestar Galactica” with its low budget and forced cheerfulness.

A highly regarded spot on the sidebar was filled by a serious drama focused on Germany’s history, a genre that is a staple of Berlin’s film industry. Julia von Heinz’s Treasure, starring Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry, follows an American woman and her father, a survivor of Auschwitz, as they embark on a journey to come to terms with the past. Dunham gives a nervy and impressive performance, while Fry’s portrayal is somewhat off the mark as he tries to exude a wise and friendly demeanor with a questionable Polish accent. The film falls into the category of those that use a more palatable approach to tell stories about the Holocaust.

Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry on the Berlin red carpet.View image in fullscreen

For a more vibrant and urgent display of political significance, the most captivating fiction in the competition – and a strong contender for the top prize, the Golden Bear – was La Cocina by Alonso Ruizpalacios, the Mexican filmmaker behind 2021’s remarkable blend of documentary and drama, A Cop Movie. In this film, Ruizpalacios adapts The Kitchen, a 1950s British drama by Arnold Wesker, and sets it in New York City’s bustling Times Square where a large restaurant serves as the backdrop for the struggles of its staff to maintain their sanity throughout a demanding workday. The director focuses on the experiences of the migrant workers, particularly a stressed-out cook (Raúl Briones), who is in a turbulent relationship with a waitress (Rooney Mara, delivering an outstanding performance in a role that is much more intense than her usual fare).

Apart from a beautifully contemplative lunchbreak interlude, La Cocina is nonstop – with bustling choreography of cast and camera, and an electrifying performance from Briones, on a par with early vintage Al Pacino. We might be feeling a bit stuffed with restaurant dramas, but La Cocina makes The Bear look like a cuddly cub and Boiling Point like a gentle simmer.

The best of Berlin

Best fictions
La Cocina (Alonso Ruizpalacios); Small Things Like These (Tim Mielants); Sons (Gustav Möller).

Best documentaries
Dahomey (Mati Diop); Architecton (Victor Kossakovsky); At Averroes & Rosa Parks – Nicolas Philibert follows his 2023 Golden Bear winner On the Adamant with another study of patients and staff at a French psychiatric hospital; No Other Land (Basel Adra et al) – a Palestinian-Israeli collective’s sobering inside view of village demolitions in the West Bank.

Sidse Babett Knudsen standing in front of a prisoner. View image in fullscreen

Best performances

Sidse Babett Knudsen stars in Sons, while Cillian Murphy appears in Small Things Like These. Raúl Briones is featured in La Cocina and Anja Plaschg is the lead in The Devil’s Bath. Liv Lisa Fries, known for her role in TV’s Babylon Berlin, portrays a young anti-Nazi resistance fighter in the wartime drama From Hilde, With Love.

Best supporting performances
Emily Watson as a menacing mother superior in Small Things Like These; Motell Foster in La Cocina, for his mesmerising interlude of solo storytelling; Adam Pearson as a mocking doppelganger figure in Aaron Schimberg’s fresh-from-Sundance A Different Man.

Best music
Soap&Skin for the folk-drone atmospherics of The Devil’s Bath; Evgueni Galperine’s suitably monumentalist score for Architecton; Richard Strauss’s Salome, as heard in Seven Veils, about the travails of an opera director (Amanda Seyfried) – a dizzyingly self-referential hall-of-mirrors drama from Canada’s Atom Egoyan.

David Scheid and Anja Plaschg, AKA Soap&Skin.View image in fullscreen

Slowest slow cinema

Tsai Ming-liang, a prominent Taiwanese artist, presents his 10th installment in the “walker” series, titled Abiding Nowhere. The film follows a Buddhist monk named Lee Kang-sheng as he moves at a painstakingly slow pace through various landscapes, specifically Washington DC in this case. The phrase “It is what it is” takes on a deeper, metaphysical meaning in this context.

Source: theguardian.com

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