I’m back in pleasant London now where I’ve already been crushed against the door on a packed tube, caught in transport delays and had to top up an Oyster card that seems ridiculously expensive compared to Berlin. Ah Germany, I miss you already.
But all good things have to come to an end, and so it is with this year’s Berlinale. Awards were announced yesterday and Iranian film Taxi walked away with the Golden Bear. By all accounts it’s a worthy winner – though thanks to a moment of travel madness I managed to miss the screening.
Elsewhere Radu Jude took the Best Director prize for Aferim! and Britain did well with Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling picking up both Best Actor and Best Actress for their performances in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years.
For my own part, I got through 26 films, and have to admit it wasn’t a stellar year. Although to be fair, despite seeing over 75% of the competition films, I still managed to miss all the award winners listed above. At least I caught Pablo Larraín’s rather brilliant Grand Jury Prize winner The Club. So it goes sometimes.
The full list of competition winners is at the bottom of this article, but first here’s my top five from across the festival. Lacking in a genuinely great film (only The Club gets close), there was still enough to leave me reasonably happy with my week and a half’s work.
1. The Club (Dir. Pablo Larraín)
Given that I’ve been singing its praises above, it comes as no surprise that Larraín’s follow-up to 2012’s No tops my list. The Club focusses on four priests and a nun living a quiet life in a small town. Exploring the child abuse perpetrated by priests, and the Catholic Church’s ongoing attempts to keep it hush hush, Larraín’s film is not always easy going. That he manages to inject flashes of humour without lessening the main impact is a testament to his abilities. I don’t think the film quite achieves greatness, but it touches on it at times, particularly an incredible scene in which violence is orchestrated against an innocent man, a priest, and greyhounds. Keep an eye out for this one. It’s a must see.
2. Sworn Virgin (Dir. Laura Bispuri)
Bispuri’s debut feature skilfully tells two stories running alongside each other. In one, young Hana grows up in an Albanian village where she eventually takes the decision to become a sworn virgin, a woman who forgoes her gender to live out life as a man. Having become Mark, the second strand follows his journey back from this decision when he joins his sister in Italy. Bispuri explores gender roles in a patriarchal society that treats women thoroughly as second best with care, while Mark’s rediscovery of femininity avoids crass cliché and sexist stereotypes. Alba Rohrwacher, Best Actress winner at Venice last year for Hungry Hearts puts in another strong performance as Hana/Mark to cement the film.
3. 13 Minutes (Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel)
There’s nothing new in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s return to Nazi Germany, a period he dealt with so successfully in 2004’s Downfall. 13 Minutes is the story of Georg Elser, a Swabian musician and odd job man who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939. Coming within minutes of success, he did so out of disgust at what the Nazis had done to his homeland, and fear of what was coming. 13 Minutes is a thoroughly conventional film tracking the gradual awakening of political consciousness in Elser, and the aftermath of his actions. It’s also compelling cinema that painfully depicts Germany’s slide into an authoritarian nightmare.
4. Queen of Earth (Dir. Alex Ross Perry)
Alex Ross Perry made his name with wordy comedy/drama in his first features. If you’re looking for more of the same, prepare for a shock. Queen of Earth is intense claustrophobic psychological horror as Elisabeth Moss succumbs to a mental breakdown at Katherine Waterston’s lakeside holiday home. The camera spends most of the time in Moss’ face as she slips further away from sanity in a series of cruel shouting matches with her sometime friend. Perry acknowledged the influence of 1970s/80s genre horror when I spoke to him. He captures it well in this dark chamber piece.
5. Tell Spring Not to Come This Year
As far as the west is concerned, the war in Afghanistan is over and we scored a triumphant victory. Michael McEvoy and Saeed Taji Farouky’s documentary demonstrates in less than 90 minutes the hollowness of our politicians’ claims. Embedded in an Afghan army unit for a year, they focus on two soldiers stuck fighting a war against the Taliban that everyone else pretends is over. The film shows the mundane elements of army life before they end up on the front line. Sombre final text lists the men who died over the course of filming. Shining light on a forgotten conflict, and an Afghan army largely scorned in the west, the film demonstrates that these men are soldiers like any other; scared, patriotic, poorly paid and stuck in a conflict we abandoned them to.
Competition Film Prizes
Golden Bear for Best Film
– Taxi (Jafar Panahi)
Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize
– The Club (Pablo Larraín)
Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for a feature film that opens new perspectives
– Ixcanul Volcano (Jayro Bustamante)
Silver Bear for Best Director
– Radu Jude for Aferim! & Malgorzata Szumowska for Body
Silver Bear for Best Actress
– Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
Silver Bear for Best Actor
– Tom Courtenay for 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
Silver Bear for Best Script
– Patricio Guzmán for The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán)
Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution in the categories camera, editing, music score, costume or set design
– Sturla Brandth Grøvlen for the camera in Victoria (Sebastian Schipper) & Evgeniy Privin and Sergey Mikhalchuk for the camera in Under Electric Clouds (Alexey German Jr.)
So there we are, that’s Berlin closed for another year. Next stop Cannes.