This year’s Berlin International Film Festival brought a lot of anticipation. The first edition assembled by artistic director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek required the team to push back on several years of backlash to lackluster programming while competing with a busy festival circuit.
The Berlinale isn’t Cannes or Sundance, but it turns out it didn’t need to chase either mold: In its 70th year, Berlin provided a range of international offerings large and small, more than enough to make the selection worth following across the 10-day event. Here are 10 highlights.
“The American Sector” (Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez)
Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s “The American Sector” may not have time to visit every section of the Berlin Wall that’s been imported to the country (the film runs a breezy 65 minutes without credits), but this light and thoughtful documentary road trip still manages to draw a comprehensive map of what the Cold War relic has come to represent — and what freedom means to the people of a nation that’s been defined by its pursuit.
A nonlinear portrait of the public imagination that was conceived in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, Stephens and Velez’s appropriately fragmented movie isn’t a reactionary time capsule so much as a gentle meditation on the relationship between history and the ideals that help to shape it (Velez co-directed “Manakamana,” and fans of that film will recognize a similar flavor of semi-voyeuristic humanity). —DE
“Charlatan” (Agnieszka Holland)
The Oscar-nominated Polish director’s latest period biopic was strong enough for the Competition but played in the Berlinale Special section. This time, the subject is dour Czech healer Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan), who gets into trouble with authorities from three government regimes for using medicinal plants to heal patients. During prison interrogations, the older man looks back to his World War I experience as a traumatized young soldier (Josef Trojan) and apprenticeship with a wise woman healer (Jaroslava Pokorná) who teaches him how to read urine samples and concoct herb remedies.
Later in his own popular healing practice, he’s attracted to his charismatic assistant Frantisek Palko, well-played by Juraj Loj. This sweeping but intimate epic explores the dark side of Mikolášek’s struggle to balance his conscience and his calling. —AT
“DAU. Natasha” (Ilya Khrzhanovskiy)
The most anticipated project of this year’s Berlinale did not disappoint. Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy initially set out to make a traditional biopic of Soviet-era physicist Lev Landau, but the production later transformed into an epic installation piece, and eventually the most ambitious filmmaking experiment in history. The filmmaker built a sprawling 42,000-square-foot set in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and cast some 352,000 people to live 24 hours a day in a meticulous recreation of a Soviet science institute. Ordinary people lived in full character, held normal jobs, and even used period-appropriate currency — and faced repercussions from on-set authorities if they deviated from routine.
Needless to say, the first installment, “DAU. Natasha,” has no credits to explain the wild concept behind its existence, but context is everything. The movie takes the form of a sexually explicit drama with a jarring Orwellian turn in its final act, and ends with a harrowing sexual assault, but the circumstances behind the scenes deepen the queasy intrigue that has defined the life of this project for more than a dozen years. Natasha Berezhnaya plays a woman who runs the local pub, sleeps with a traveling scientist, and deals with the horrifying repercussions from a KGB interrogator. It’s a dizzying experience to watch her endure the abuse to the best of her ability, and leaves one with the impression that the “DAU” experiment actually mustered some measure of time travel, providing an exacting window into the way Soviet rule crept into even the most personal aspects of daily life. Bring on more “DAU,” and the many questions that come with it. —EK
“Gunda” (Viktor Kossakovsky)
Daredevil Russian documentarian Viktor Kossakovsky follows up his watery feat of derring-do “Aquarela” with a more earth-bound environmental film — shot in stunning black-and-white with an Arri Mini camera and in Dolby Atmos sound — focused on a group of farm animals, from a charismatic mama pig (Gunda) to cows and chickens. The film crew visited Gunda just after she gave birth to about a dozen little suckling pigs squirming to attach to her engorged nipples. The filmmakers returned three more times over the next three months as the soft white piglets matured and followed their mother around the yard.
The movie is fascinating and immersive, without resorting to the sort of cutesy anthropomorphic manipulations that turned 2019 doc “The Biggest Little Farm” into a hit. “Gunda” is a documentary with no dialogue that follows around a bunch of farm animals in natural light, with long takes, and no score. But there’s no question that Gunda is the star. Sure enough, by the end of the movie, you do care for her, as she emotes straight into the camera — a sentient being indeed, as well as a natural actress in full close-up. The movie sold to Neon, partly because it’s not like anything else you’ve ever seen, but it also carries a powerful political message: humans should not eat animals. Kossakovsky was determined to make a film that would compel viewers to never eat meat again, and lured fellow traveler Joaquin Phoenix to join the vegan cause as executive producer. —AT
“The Intruder” (Natalia Meta)
Based on horror novel “The Lesser Evil,” the Argentine director’s sophomore film follows a young choir singer and voice artist (“Wild Tales” star Érica Rivas) who struggles with her voice after a traumatic loss. Her character is haunted, drug-addled, and afflicted, as the movie plays metaphorically with the ways men control women by getting inside their heads, moving fluidly between reality and dreamscape, not unlike “Black Swan.” This psychosexual thriller is at the same time, as the director put it, “dreams and wakefulness, fiction, fact and truth.” And it marks a breakout directing talent. —AT
“Last and First Men” (Jóhann Jóhannsson)
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work as a film composer transcended expectations of the craft, not only supporting a filmmaker’s vision but clarifying its appeal. His dynamic, soul-churning music for “Sicario,” “Arrival,” and “Mandy” reached for a visceral depth that suggested he might become one of the all-time greats. Sadly, the Icelandic talent died in 2018 at the age of 48, but not before completing one final achievement that elevated his artistry to a whole new level.
“Last and First Men,” which Jóhannsson directed as a live multimedia performance prior to his death, has been finally completed as a singular 70-minute cinematic event. Guided by Jóhannsson’s ethereal score, this dazzling apocalyptic immersion blends cosmic 16mm black-and-white images of Yugoslavian architecture with a deadpan Tilda Swinton voiceover, resulting in a profound lyrical rumination on the end of days. Its posthumous existence injects the message with additional poignance: The movie is a testament to the strength of wisdom more powerful than death itself. —EK
“My Little Sister” (Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond)
This sophomore feature from the Swiss directing team — who debuted their first film “The Little Bedroom” in Locarno — follow up with a heart-tugging family drama about a pair of twins. Sven is a famous theater actor (Lars Eidinger) fighting cancer, whose playwright sister Lisa (Nina Hoss of “Barbara,” “Phoenix,” and “Homeland” fame) takes on her older brother’s convalescence when her mother (hilarious Marthe Keller) clearly can’t manage. Lisa struggles not only to save her rapidly declining brother but her marriage to a controlling husband (Jens Albinus) as they raise two frisky kids. Hoss gives a towering, intimate, empathetic, awards-worthy performance. —AT
“Pinocchio” (Matteo Garrone)
Already a hit in the auteur’s native Italy (where it’s raked in $17 million to date), “Dogman” director Garrone’s $12 million all-ages comedic take on Carlo Collodi’s classic fairy tale goes broad, dark, and sumptuously visual. Roberto Benigni — who played the title role in his own disastrous 2002 adaptation of the same material— stars here as the impoverished lonely toymaker Geppetto, who carves a boy out of a special piece of wood after being inspired by a puppet show. Little Pinocchio wanders off to the circus rather than go to school after his father trades his own skimpy jacket for a spelling book. Given five gold coins by the circus master, Pinocchio falls prey to the cunning Fox (Massimo Ceccherini) and his whiskered partner who promise him riches but steal his money.
A kindly fairy (Marine Vacth) keeps rescuing the lying puppet, who tries, as ever, to be a good son, but he is waylaid by mischievous characters. Yes, Pinocchio turns into a donkey and winds up with his father in the belly of a giant fish. Who needs CG? Pinocchio and the rest of the characters are defiantly bigger than life, disguised by ingenious costumes and prosthetics. (The film is nominated for 15 David di Donatello Awards.) —AT
“There Is No Evil” (Mohammad Rasoulof)
“There Is No Evil” spends 30 minutes establishing its premise, and another two hours taking it in surprising new directions. Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s brilliant anthology feature unfolds across four stories about military men tasked with executions as they grapple with their options, contend with the fallout, and witness the impact it has on the people closest to them.
Rasoulof, who has been barred from leaving his country since 2017, has made an absorbing ride defined by the paradoxes of its people. Nobody in “There Is No Evil” has it easy: There’s no simple moral code when every possible option leads to a point of no return. —EK
“The Woman Who Ran” (Hong Sang-soo)
Where many filmmakers aim to stretch their stories across a broad canvas, Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo scribbles, but there’s plenty of depth lurking in the small, unassuming moments that contribute to a larger whole. “The Woman Who Ran” exemplifies some of the best aspects of Hong’s fast-and-loose approach, and why it can never be easily dismissed. An episodic triptych starring regular collaborator and romantic partner Kim Minhee, the movie has a breezy, almost amateurish quality to its production that suggests another rush job from a filmmaker unwilling or unable to slow down. But the structure reveals its deeper layers with time, congealing into a perceptive and often charming bite-sized study of smart women contending with a series of annoying men.
The essence of “The Woman Who Ran” revolves around Gamhee (Kim), a young woman who visits a trio of old female acquaintances over the course of three days. Gamhee’s husband has left town on a business trip, and it’s the first time she’s been away from him in five years. As Gamhee travels from one encounter to the next, the movie finds her absorbing new ways of seeing the world on her own, regardless of whether she prefers companionship. It all comes to a head with a fascinating coda, as Gamhee completes her journeys and slips back into a movie theater she visited earlier that day. Hong seems to imply that just because you think you’ve seen this story before — or think you’ve got it all figured out — doesn’t mean it lacks additional wisdom to impart. —EK