70th Berlinale Review

Mandatory Credit: Photo by HAYOUNG JEON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10553705a)
Billboards for the upcoming 70th Berlin International Film Festival is seen near the Boulevard of the Stars at Potsdamer Platz square in Berlin, Germany, 11 February 2020. The Berlinale will take place from 20 February to 01 March in the German capital.
70th Berlin International Film Festival preparations, Germany - 11 Feb 2020

After years of freefall, the Berlin International Film Festival has new leadership and not only the fall has been retained but also the ascent begins. Ten days of multifariousness cinema left behind.

The 70th iteration of the Berlin International Film Festival (February, 20 – March,1) had to deal with several storms: the looming of coronavirus; the history of pro-life, homophobic remarks by jury president Jeremy Irons, which he renounced on day one; and the investigation carried out by German newspaper die Zeit which found that late festival head Alfred Bauer,  after whom top award is named, was a high-ranking Nazi (the award has been renamed as “The Silver Bear – 70th Berlinale”) and the deadliest hate-crime incidents in the German town of Hanau since the Second World War. Nevertheless, After tremendous facts, many Berlinale regulars agreed that no matter the bumps in the road, the 2020 lineup left one an impression of general improvement.

New Directors: Carlo Chatrian & Mariette Rissenbeek

The February gathering is among the highest-profile film festivals in Europe, but by the time former festival director Dieter Kosslick finished his 18-year run in 2019, the backlash was deafening. In 2017, an open letter signed by 79 German directors called for his ouster, citing dull programming standards and demanding an “outstanding curatorial personality.”

The 2020 edition marks the first of Carlo Chatrian as artistic director and Mariette Rissenbeek as executive director. And, according to several experts, this is one of the most relevant selections since long ago as it includes filmmakers such as Sally Potter, Christian Petzold, Rithy Panh, Abel Ferrara, Philippe Garrel, and Kelly Reichardt, among others.

Diversity is now centre stage, Berlinale Sets an Industry Precedent

The event achieved gender parity among directors and executives, there were also 138 women, 38% of the total number of participants and the number of films directed by women felt slightly from 2019. In its 70th edition, the festival has selected 340 films from 71 countries spread over different sections: Berlinale Special, new section Encounters, Panorama, Forum and Forum Expanded, Generation, Retrospective dedicated to King Vidor (1894-1982), Homage to Helen Mirren, and Perspective German Cinema.

The films competing for the Golden Bear were 18 features, six of which are directed by women. The international jury was chaired by wonderfully versatile British actor Jeremy Irons.

Banned Iranian Director won Berlin Golden Bear for Death Penalty Film

Mohammad Rasoulof (Shiraz, 1972), director of the film There Is No Evil, was unable to leave his country —where it is banned and his passport is withheld— but won the top award for his film, a plea against the death penalty in Iran. 

This is the second time in five years that the Berlinale awards a prize to an Iranian director in absentia. At the 2015 edition, the Golden Bear went to Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, which has also been banned from leaving its country, in his case for a decade. Panahi himself was one of the public figures who came to Rasoulof’s defense when the Iranian authorities confiscated his passport, on his return from Cannes, on charges of “gathering and collusion against national security and propaganda against the system”. Another Iranian director who came out in support of Rasoulof was Asghar Farhadi, who also won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale with The Separation, in 2011.

Exhibited at the last session of the festival, the Iranian film There is No Evil was proclaimed the winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 70th anniversary of the Berlinale. Rasoulof faced serious legal charges for his political activity against the Iranian government and particularly for his immediately previous film, A Man of Integrity (2017), which won a prize in the Cannes Film Festival.

“Rasoulof’s film speaks of the difficult choices we all have to make at some point in our lives and courageously confronts an authoritarian regime,” emphatically stated from the stage the president of the jury, Jeremy Irons.

Structured in four episodes, There is No Evil has a common axis, the death penalty in Iran, and each of these stories has as protagonist not the victims but the perpetrators, those who are forced to comply with the law of their country and execute the convicts. In the first episode, probably the best due to the synthetic effectiveness of his narrative, it is a professional executioner. Or young conscripts who, in the context of compulsory military service, may have to “serve their country” and take care of running the scaffold, not only reserved for criminals but also for political opponents, as other of the episodes in the film suggests.

Not without a moralising character, the film by Rasoulof —who by the way has never been able to show one of his films in Iran— proposes an appeal for civil disobedience: that these men, faced with the duty of executing one of their fellow countrymen, should dare to refuse to do so, despite the terrible personal consequences that such a decision entails. “We demand the freedom to say ‘no’,” said one of the members of the large Iranian film team, including the director’s daughter, who raised the Golden Bear on her father’s behalf.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

The Grand Jury Prize went to the US film Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman, an independent production that narrates marvelously and with austerity, precision, and no undertones, the tribulation of a pregnant teenager, apparently a victim of domestic sexual abuse, who, lacking options in her hometown, decides to go to New York to have an abortion.

Originally awarded at Sundance, Hittman’s film was the subject of controversy in the German press because of this issue. Artistic directors don’t want to exclude films that have already been shown in their home country because it also complies with the official regulations of the festival and they deserve a presence at the Berlinale. Another excellent American film, First Cow, also directed by a woman, Kelly Reichardt, ran out of awards.

The Woman Who Run

The award for best director went to the Korean director Hong Sang-soo for his wonderful film The Woman Who Run. An inexhaustible source of talent, Korean cinema continues its triumphant march through festivals after Parasites, winner of the Golden Palm of Cannes Fest 2019. However, the minimalism of Hong’s film could never even bring it to the gates of the Oscar.

Undine. A Story About a Woman With a Water Obsession

Christian Petzold, collaborator of the great Farocki, and director of Transit returns with a somehow pointless film about an art historian who has a passionate affair with a diver, Undine. The film had the best actress prize for the magnetic actress Paula Beer. 

Delete History, A Hilarious Analysis of the Terrible World we Live In

Delete History is the latest work from French iconoclasts Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern. The film set at once sentiment in suburban France; the digital world that surrounds us and seems to command us more than actually help us; and an all-round, depressing movie about the world we live in today.

DAU. Natasha, An Exquisitely Sinister Study of Soviet Oppression

An internationally co-produced drama film directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky and Jekaterina Oertel won the Silver Bear for the Outstanding Artistic Contribution for the director of photography. DAU. Natasha is part of a colossal multimedia art project DAU, and Ilya Khrzhanovsky has made an intimately creepy examination of the banality of evil.

DAU. Natasha, a hopeless picture of love and sex in Stalinist Russia, is the first theatrical feature to emerge from DAU. Originally conceived as a biopic of Nobel prize-winning Soviet physicist Lev Landau, this increasingly fictionalized experiment then took on a life of its own, expanding and mutating into a vast immersive artwork the size of a small town kind of “Soviet Truman Show.” In 2009, after building a gigantic recreation of a top-secret Stalin-era science institute in a former sports arena in the Ukrainian town of Kharkov, Khrzhanovsky and his team recruited hundreds of non-professional actors to live and work on set, some effectively staying in character for up to three years.

Irradiated, A Documentary Exploring Genocide

Irradiés (France) by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has tried to piece together memories that are often disintegrated by the brutal nature of what he saw and heard on Irradiated. An exploration of the very nature of evil, revealed with harrowing effect through images of genocide, revisiting the death and despair of Hiroshima, Auschwitz and beyond.

The project took over four-plus years together with Auschwitz survivor Loridan-Ivens, and he spent lots of time immersed in the very worst that humanity has done to itself.

Malmkrog, A Drama for the Mind

Cristi Puiu’s fourth film makes a virtue of high seriousness as guests at a country house discuss God, man, warfare and evil. A 200-minute running time Malmkrog brought a greater challenge almost exclusively comprised of philosophical debate. The movie finds several 19th-century Russian aristocrats debating morality and human behavior in a single room for almost the entire time. Malmkrog is such a fascinating resistance test that one emerge enlightened and energized by Puiu’s epic film experiment. A rebellious non-commercial proposal, the movie is predicted to have long life beyond the festival circuit.

Main Prizes

Golden Bear for the best film: There is No Evil (Iran) by Mohammad Rasoulof.

Silver Bear, Grand Jury Prize: Never Rarely Sometimes Always (USA), by Eliza Hittman.

Best Director: Hong Sang-soo for The Woman Who Run (Korea)

Best Actress: Paula Beer for Undine (Germany)

Best Actor: Elio Germano for Volevo Nascondermi (Italy)

Best Screenplay: Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo by Favolace (Italy)

Best Artistic Contribution: Jürgen Jürges for the photography of DAU.Natasha (Rusia)

The Silver Bear – 70th Berlinale Delete History

Prize for the Best Documentary: Irradiés (France) by Rithy Panh

Best Encounters Film: The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (USA / Japan) by C.W. Winter and Anders Edström

Best Encounters Director: Cristi Puiu for Malmkrog (France / Romania)

Special Mention Encounters: Isabella (Argentina) by Matías Piñeiro

Prize for the Best First Feature Film: Los Conductos (Colombia) by Camilo Restrepo.

Golden Bear of Honor for a lifetime career to Helen Mirren.

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