Some people may know, but most people don’t know that I got the unique opportunity to attend Berlinale – Berlin International Film Festival this year. I’m not from the film industry, I’m just a normal person who won the European Film Challenge and ended up in Berlin with a festival accreditation and all the advantages and challenges that come with it. It was an experience that I never knew I would get, and it was completely different from what I had imagined. So, I have decided to write not one, but two blog post about my highlights – the first one about the movies and the second one about how it is to experience such a festival for the first time. Let’s start with the movies!
When I knew, I’m going to a film festival of this size; I started planning my schedule way ahead of time. In the end, I was stuck with a realization that there are too many movies and too little time, and I won’t get to see everything I want anyway. When I got to the festival, I was hit with the second realization that more than 3 movies a day is just too much if I want to enjoy them and not accidentally fall asleep in the movie theatre. So, I chose to pace myself with 2 till 3 movies a day (and taking one day off to do other stuff which meant watching just one movie in the evening). In the end, I managed to watch 16 films in 8 days with a total duration of 1798 minutes or nearly 30 hours. Because the festival has it’s own routine and limited access to screenings, the majority of the movies I watched were from the Competition programme (10 in total), but I also enjoyed attending LOLA at Berlinale sessions and watching latest German movies (5 in total). However, my most extraordinary screening was on the night of my arrival when I went to a Retrospective screening and watched a remake of a film made in 1925 (The Light of Asia by Franz Osten).
I won’t write reviews of all the films I saw during Berlinale (sorry, it would be too much although I made notes after each screening). I also won’t claim that the selection of my favorite Berlinale movies in any way represents the best there was to see (one would need to see everything that was shown during the festival to make that claim, and I don’t think it’s humanly possible). Finally, I’ll repeat myself and remind everyone that I’m not from film industry (I’m also no film critic or expert), so this is going to be just an opinion of your average movie-goer (ok, maybe not exactly average because I can be quiet picky about my films… but you get the point).
There was a total of 24 films in the Competition programme, but somehow 5 of them were out of the competition before the festival even started. It doesn’t matter because the screenings were still on, and I managed to watch 10 movies in this section. My plan was to review 5 movies I liked the best (TOP 5), but I couldn’t decide; therefore, I settled for 6 films I could easily recommend someone to watch.
1. Transit (Germany/France, 2018)
Director: Christian Petzold
This film was one of my random choices at the ticket counter but ended up being my favorite of the festival. The main story focuses on refugees trying to escape France during Nazi occupation. Many of them got stuck in Marseille waiting in lines at different embassies, hoping to get a passage on a ship or just looking for long-lost ghosts. The main character Georg after nearly escaping Paris arrives in Marseille holding in his possession a legacy of a writer named Weidel. He hopes it can help him get a passage on a ship, and it does when he assumes the identity of the writer. While waiting in Marseille, Georg meets other people just like him in a hotel, in cafes, in embassies. Georg also meets Weidel’s wife who is this mysterious woman frantically searching for her husband. It changes his plans, and he is no longer sure if he wants to leave or not. The situation becomes more and more complicated and borderline comical until the ending that completely blew me away. I literally left the room in a state of constant ‘OMGs’ going off in my head.
The story started off slowly and grew into this twisted and unsolvable situation. It just drew me in, and I was keeping my fingers crossed for everyone knowing that most probably all of them won’t make it. I loved how it was at times tragic, at times funny, but all the way relatable on some basic human level. And now I also want to read the book the film was based on!
2. Museum (Mexico, 2018)
Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Genre: Crime, Drama
There is something special about a world premiere. It sets a different mood for the screening when you know that you and everyone else in the audience are going to see it for the first time ever (well, there’s the press screening before that, but it’s for selected people only). So, I might not be completely objective in reviewing this film (not that any review has ever been objective).
The story focuses on two best friends that miraculously manage to pull off a heist in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City over Christmas. They get away with stealing 140 unique pieces without a hitch (ok, a couple of small hitches, to be precise). Next, they need to figure out how to sell them, but that is not as easy as they first thought which leads to all kinds of entertaining situations. Throughout it all, a separate role is given to beginner’s luck, friendship, and, of course, Mexico’s historical and cultural heritage. The added value for me was also the humor which made it light and easy to digest. I really enjoyed watching it! By the way, ‘Museum’ got the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay – one jury choice I could agree with.
3. Dovlatov (Russian Federation/Poland/Serbia, 2018)
Director: Alexey German Jr.
Genre: Biography, Drama
The expectations for this film were very high as it was proclaimed to be one of the ‘must-see’ movies of the festival. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, I liked it, and I recommend to watch it, but it didn’t justify all the hype, not for me at least. The film follows six days in the life of writer Sergei Dovlatov in the 70s Soviet Russia. We’re invited to bohemian artist meetings where Joseph Brodsky recites his poetry, we get to find out about Dovlatov’s marriage problems, and, above all, we are introduced to inner and professional struggles of a writer who refuses to write what he’s told to preserve his talent and decency.
I have to admit that I didn’t see the point of the six-day concept. I also have to say that the movie came across as a very classical example of Russian cinema without taking that next step and being something extraordinary (maybe it will be different for those who live outside post-Soviet countries). For me, the best part was the humor and irony with all the references to Russian writers. However, it is better enjoyed in the original language (Russian) and with the background knowledge of Russian literature (otherwise some things might be just lost on you). Finally, I think the lead actor (Milan Maric) was totally enjoyable on screen.
Full disclosure: I’m quite familiar with Russian literature, but it came as a surprise that Sergei Dovlatov is a famous writer. I’m a bit ashamed of myself, but I’ll try to recover by picking up one of his books in the near future.
4. Unsane (USA, 2018)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
A young woman starting a new life in a new city seeks counseling in a mental institution but ends up admitted as a patient against her will or knowledge. For a good part of the film, we are kept in the dark whether she is sane (and no one believes her) or she is delusional and should be kept there. The borderline between normal behavior and abnormal behavior is easily blurred in a setting where you are considered unsane by default. We are also confronted with the ugly truth that as soon as you become a patient, you are generally unprotected as your credibility is largely compromised.
It was definitely my kind of thriller that is more psychological than scary (although there were quite a few bodies turning up in the end). I enjoyed watching Claire Foy in the female lead (lovers of ‘Crown’ will know what I mean). And I think it was brave to address an important issue of healthcare institutions run as businesses. I can’t imagine being admitted to a mental hospital against my own will just because I have health insurance and the hospital has legal rights to detain me if I mention a few specific words in a conversation with a doctor. In the USA, it apparently happens more often than one would expect. That’s just not ok.
5. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (USA, 2018)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama
Another film based on a true, biographical story. This time it’s about the famous cartoonist John Callahan. In brief, we are invited to follow the events leading up to a tragic accident that put him in a wheelchair as well as his struggles to build a new life afterward. Most importantly, we are taken on an emotional journey through 12 steps of getting and staying sober and making peace with oneself. It was delightfully funny and touching story about life at it’s worst and at it’s best. It’s great to watch if you need some positive inspiration to overcome whatever shit you are currently dealing with in life.
5. The Prayer (France, 2018)
Director: Cédric Kahn
Initially, I was worried that it is going to be a difficult film to digest. What good can come out from addressing two heavy topics (addiction and religion) in one movie? Well, I was proven wrong. Don’t get excited, it’s not a light and easy-going film, but it’s also not going to the extremes of the religion or the addiction.
The story focuses on a young man, Thomas, who is trying to get rid of his drug addiction by joining a secluded and religious community. It’s an uphill battle with a lot of emotions delivered raw on the screen. It takes a long time for Thomas to settle in among a group of young men just like him or to find the meaning in God and prayer. I have to say I was in doubts about his freedom from addiction or his devotion to God till the very end. I won’t tell if I was right or wrong that would be spoiling it for everyone. But I’m glad that Anthony Bajon (Thomas) got the Silver Bear for Best Actor.
LOLA at Berlinale
Whenever I couldn’t get the tickets for the movies I wanted to watch, I went to the LOLA at Berlinale screenings which had a nice selection of the latest German films (ok, sometimes it was even my first preference). It turned out to be a 5-movie long adventure, but I want to briefly review my 3 favorites from this section.
1. In the Fade (Germany, 2017)
Director: Fatih Akin
Genre: Crime, Drama
Losing a family member is never easy, but what do you do when your son and husband are murdered? You grieve, you try to find a reason for living, and you seek justice. But when the justice system fails you, it’s time to look for it in other places. Katja – the lead character – takes us on a painful journey of personal loss and revenge that ticked all the right boxes for crime and drama in my book. With senseless hate directed towards migrants in Germany, this film joins several other movies showed at Berlinale in addressing socially and politically sensitive issues from around the world.
2. My Happy Family (Germany/France/Georgia, 2017)
Director: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Gross
Although I had to watch it in Georgian with subtitles only in German, I still enjoyed the film because the story is just relatable (if you’re a woman). There’s Manana; she lives together with her parents and her grown-up children in one apartment. It’s always crowded, and it’s always loud. And things must always happen as everyone else wants them. One day Manana decides to leave and rent her own apartment. Of course, the whole family is in an uproar not understanding what’s happening and demanding explanations. Manana has none to give except that she is happy to be on her own for a change. A touching story about being a woman amidst a large traditional family and needing own space and decision-making power. Recommend it!
3. Only God Can Judge Me (Germany, 2018)
Director: Özgür Yildirim
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
It is one of those movies that starts off with several storylines, but then it all gets twisted into one big disaster. Wih this in mind, I don’t know if I should even start trying to explain the plot. Maybe not, you’ll find out yourself if you’ll want to.
It’s a German gangster movie so be prepared for quite a bit of bloody scenes. I liked the story-building that kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the film. The tension was consistently rising until there was no good outcome in sight, but I was still hoping for the best. Just maybe (and I’m not really sure about it) it all got a little bit too complicated and drawn out in the end. However, I still think it was a pretty damn good movie and will be enjoyed by the genre-lovers.
In conclusion, I can’t ignore the fact that there was a lot of talk about the quality of movies at Berlinale. There are enough people saying that the festival is not showing anything really great or the Competition programme does not include any great movies. I don’t know who’s right or wrong, and I don’t plan to take sides. For me, this was probably once in a lifetime experience that I won’t get to repeat. However, I can’t deny that I saw a lot of good movies, but not something I would call really great.