Berlin Film Festival round-up: From standout Past Lives to John Malkovich’s over-the-top performance in Seneca
After the misery of the 2022 Berlin Film Festival, held toward the tail-end of the pandemic and with strict social distancing and Covid testing regulations still in place, it was back to normal at this year’s 73rd edition.
Festivalgoers were so pleased to return to a proper, physical event that they were remarkably tolerant toward a competition programme that was very patchy, at least by comparison with those found in rival events like Cannes and Venice.
The Berlinale launched with Rebecca Miller’s quirky new romantic comedy, She Came to Me, starring Peter Dinklage as an opera composer with writer’s block, Anne Hathaway as his neurotic therapist wife, and the scene-stealing Marisa Tomei as a salty, seafaring but very amorous tugboat captain. This was a film with such oddball charm that it was easy to overlook its self-indulgence. Festivals can take themselves far too seriously. She Came to Me (which showed out of competition) was a refreshing contrast to the dark, forbidding dramas often chosen as opening films.
Vying for the Golden Bear (the festival’s main award) were a collection of middling art house films, few of which are likely to turn up in cinemas near you any time soon.
The award ended up going to French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert for his quietly observed documentary On the Adamant, about a floating day care centre on the Seine where adults suffering from mental disorders are treated. Following on from the Venice Festival, where Laura Poitras won the Golden Lion for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, this is the second major festival in a row to give its main prize to a documentary.
Surprisingly, one of the best and most accessible films in the competition, Celine Song’s Past Lives, was utterly ignored by Kristen Stewart’s jury. However, it looks bound to be in discussions about the best movies of the year. This was the Korean-Canadian Song’s debut feature. She is a writer and theatre director. Her slow-burning, beautifully observed drama about friendship and unfulfilled love has many layers.
Two school pals, Nora and Hae-Sung, develop a strong bond as kids but life takes them in different directions. Nora’s family emigrates to North America. Years pass. Hae-Sung uses social media to track her down and they connect again, online. More years pass and Hae-Sung (played as an adult by Teo Yoo) travels to New York to meet Nora (Greta Lee), who, by now, has an American husband, Arthur (John Magaro). The opposite of the typical tear-jerking Hollywood melodrama, Past Lives is subtle and oblique, a story about paths not travelled and connections only half made. It has a surprisingly intense emotional kick.
It was heartening too to find a film like Canadian director Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry in the main competition. This was a cautionary tale about Research in Morion, the company behind the BlackBerry smartphone which has now gone the way of the Dodo. Although the storytelling darkens as the company share price plummets, Johnson offers a very knockabout, comic account of the rise and fall of the ill-fated Canadian tech outfit.
Other competition titles were far more earnest. Australian director Rolf de Heer’s The Survival of Kindness, an abstract, desert-set allegory about racism, had its admirers but was considered very downbeat and forbidding by most. German director Margarethe von Trotta’s Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert, a biopic of an Austrian poet, was given a lukewarm reception, even if critics admired Vicky Krieps’s performance as Bachmann.
John Tengrove’s Manodrome, starring Jesse Esienberg as a New York Uber-driver with a grudge against the world, had some fans. As did Christian Petzold’s Afire, about a writer experiencing creative and existential angst while on a summer holiday in the Baltics. (This won a Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize).
The other main awards were shared around between different countries – and between the young and old. Veteran French cinematographer Helene Louvart picked up a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement for her work on Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese’s French Foreign Legion drama Disco Boy. German writer-director Angela Schanelec won a Silver Bear for her screenplay for her Oedipal drama, Music. German transgender actor Thea Ehre received the gender neutral Best Supporting Actor award for her performance as a trans woman working with undercover narcotics cops in German police drama Till the end of the Night. Precocious child actor Sofía Otero won the award for Best Leading Performance for her role as an eight year old transgender kid in Basque director Estibaliz Urresola’s 20,000 Species of Bees. Venerable French auteur Philippe Garrel received Best Director for his film The Plough. Portuguese director Joao Canijo won the jury Silver Bear for his dark drama, Bad Living.
Pickings from the main competition were relatively slim, though. Much of the more interesting work was in other sections. Screening as a “Special Gala” and straddling the line between comedy and drama in intriguing fashion was Robert Schwentke’s stylised sword and sandal drama, Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes. John Malkovich stars as the Roman philosopher and mentor to the very porcine and immature Emperor Nero (Tom Xander). The Emperor has a habit of killing off those closest to him. Nero murders his own mother and eventually sends one of his more thuggish soldiers to order Seneca to take his own life. A large part of the film is devoted to Seneca’s bungling attempts to ensure a good death. Connoisseurs of Malkovich’s more outlandish screen appearances will find plenty to savour in his preening, hissing, eyeball-rolling turn here as he slits his wrists and glugs down hemlock but still stays stubbornly alive. He gives a wildly eccentric and over-the-top performance as the unctuous Roman philosopher who is neither as brave nor as brilliant as he likes to think. In its lesser moments, the film was like a highbrow version of Carry On Cleo, but it had some trenchant observations about how the rich and powerful blind themselves to corruption as long as they are not affected themselves.
Although Berlinale director Carlo Chatrian and his programmers may have failed to attract many big-name auteurs into the main competition, this year’s Berlinale was still awash with stars. Bono, of U2, was in town for the world premiere of Nenad Cicin-Sain’s Kiss the Future, a new feature documentary produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck about the resilient, life-affirming rock and punk scene in Sarajevo when the city was under siege in the 1990s – and about the concert that U2 gave there after the siege ended.
Bono stayed on in town in order to give Steven Spielberg his lifetime achievement honorary Golden Bear award. “It feels to me like I directed Duel and Jaws last year,” Spielberg said as he accepted his award, telling his hosts that he still feels the same “electric joy” about directing as at the start of his career. “I’d like to beat [Portuguese filmmaker] Manoel de Oliveira’s record and direct my last film when I’m 106.”
One of the best British films in Berlin was actually directed by a Dutch woman. Sacha Polak’s Silver Haze (screening in the festival’s Panorama section) stars Vicky Knight as Franky, a nurse in an east London hospital who becomes obsessed with a beautiful but suicidal patient Florence (Esme Creed-Miles). Franky is scarred emotionally and physically by a fire in which she was badly burned years before. Florence has plenty of her own traumas to exorcise. Gritty and often funny, the film plays like a cross between Thelma & Louise and one of Andrea Arnold’s hyper-realist dramas.
This year’s festival had an unusually strong complement of high-profile documentaries. Sean Penn galvanised the festival with his impassioned new film Superpower, co-directed with Aaron Kaufman, about the war in Ukraine and the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Tennis star Boris Becker was in Berlin last weekend for the premiere of Alex Gibney’s Boom! Boom! The World vs Boris Becker, a two-part documentary that will be surfacing on Apple TV+ in the coming weeks. Gibney covers the triumphs and disasters in his subject’s career. In one very harrowing interview conducted two days before Becker was sent to prison after his bankruptcy, the six-time Grand Slam winning tennis star breaks down on camera. He is distraught at hitting rock bottom in his life. Becker, though, comes across as a resilient and likeable figure who always bounces back. The film has its share of revelations, some on the prurient side. For example, Becker tells us that, no, he didn’t have sex in a broom cupboard with a waitress at Nobu restaurant. “The cupboard is way too small,” he explains. “It is impossible have any sort of physical activity in the cupboard.” They went to a backroom instead.
Another documentary warmly received by critics was D Smith’s Kokomo City, a very frank film about the lives of four female trans sex workers in New York and Georgia. Shot in black and white, the film is based around interviews with the women in their homes. They are glamorous and funny but have shocking stories about the abuse and harassment they’ve suffered not just from clients but from family and friends too. Director Smith is a Grammy-winning former music producer who has worked with musicians like Lil Wayne and Katy Perry. When she transitioned, her old colleagues in the music business dropped her like a stone. Her film may not be directly autobiographical but it’s clear that she identifies very closely with her subjects.
Berlin isn’t just a festival. It hosts a huge film market. Distributors from all over the world were in town, looking for new films. Inevitably, they were also debating the future of independent cinema. As ever, this was a muddied picture. On the one hand, audiences for dramas clearly aren’t at anything like pre-pandemic levels. Older cinemagoers have been especially slow to return to theatres. On the other, a Swedish film, Triangle of Sadness, has made millions at the box office internationally while the Germans have been basking in the Bafta and Oscar glow of Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a downbeat German-language drama without major stars and which focuses on the tribulations of the defeated German army during the First World War. At a German Films lunch at the festival to toast its success, Netflix revealed that the film had been in the top 10 in 91 countries and is now the streamer’s fourth most popular non-English language films.
It’s data like this that renews the faith that some of the films unveiled in Berlin last week will break through globally. This year’s Berlinale competition may not have been vintage but, in Past Lives, it showcased at least one movie bound to have a very long afterlife. Meanwhile, the packed audiences and huge industry presence at the festival suggest that the independent film sector, unlike John Malkovich’s Seneca, isn’t quite in its death throes yet.