After launching last year’s edition as a two-pronged event held last March and June, this year’s Berlin Film Festival is attempting to return to (relative) normalcy, complete with an enviable lineup of new films. While the Berlinale’s European Film Market has moved online, this year’s Berlin Film Festival is sticking to an in-person event with limited capacity, mandatory vaccines, and no parties.
But although moviegoers might not be literally partying it up during the course of the 10-day festival, there will still be plenty to celebrate, including new films from beloved auteurs like Claire Denis, Dario Argento, Quentin Dupieux, Ursula Meier, and Peter Strickland, plus new works from rising stars on the international circuit like Kivu Ruhorahoza, Ashley McKenzie, and Li Ruijun. There are COVID-made features and murderous revenge thrillers, small-scale romances and real-life twins making their debut, and at least one film that just might be less about food than what happens after we eat it (we will say no more).
M. Night Shyamalan serves as president of this year’s competition jury. The latest edition of the festival will kick off tomorrow and run through February 20. Ahead, IndieWire picks 10 of our most anticipated films of this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
“Both Sides of the Blade”
Always one to mine raw humanity from the darkest of circumstances (however troubling either of those things might be), Claire Denis naturally found a measure of inspiration in the pandemic. While gearing up to shoot her forthcoming Denis Johnson adaptation “The Stars at Noon” with Robert Pattinson and Margaret Qualley, Denis assembled some of her favorite collaborators — including Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, and “Let the Sunshine In” screenwriter Christine Angot — for an intimate chamber drama about a Paris woman, her second husband, and the former flame who continues to burn under her skin.
“Fire” (known as “Both Sides of the Blade” outside of the U.S.) is a COVID movie both on-screen and off, but Denis has a knack for painting seismic portraits on smaller canvases, and her latest promises to leverage a simple love triangle into a wide-reaching look at the personal and historical consequences that result from people trying to deny their pasts. —DE
“Brother in Every Inch”
Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov consulted on this intriguing new character study from filmmaker Alexander Zolotukhin, whose first feature, “A Russian Youth,” previously played at the festival. The new movie follows twin brothers both intent on becoming pilots in the Russian military, and attempt to lessen their bond to focus on the work ahead. Of course, twins don’t separate so easily, and drama ensues as they engage in military training while attempting to keep their distance.
Real-life twins Nikolay and Sergey Zhuravlev star in their feature film debut, which promises a rare cinematic deep-dive into the struggle of twins coming of age, with classical music and cinematography by Andrey Navydenov (“Dear Comrades!”) helping to draw out the unusual nature of their conundrum. As Russian military escapades dominate headlines around the world, “Brother in Every Inch” promises a deep look at a more personal struggle. —EK
It’s been 10 years since Dario Argento last directed a movie, but the giallo master’s presence has been strongly felt over the last decade all the same, as mainstream filmmakers the world over —including Edgar Wright, Jordan Peele, and most obviously Luca Guadagnino — have been inspired by the high style of his classic horror. Now 81 years old and still feverish with schlocky fantasies to share, Argento returns with “Dark Glasses,” a blood-stained revenge saga that naturally begins with a serial killer targeting Roman sex workers under the shadow of a solar eclipse.
“They Call Me Jeeg” breakout Illenia Pastorelli plays a victim who loses her eyesight but keeps her life as she escapes a crazed killer, and then teams up with a Chinese orphan (Xinyu Zhang) to make sure the murderer isn’t able to finish the job. Co-starring Asia Argento and said to leverage its gore into an Antonioni-esque exploration of the economic inequality that cuts Rome into bite-sized pieces, “Dark Glasses” may not restore Argento to his former glory, but it’s been too long since we’ve gotten a new chance to see the world through his eyes. —DE
Ten years after his debut “Grey Matter,” Rwandan director Kivu Ruhorahoza continues to explore contemporary Rwanda with another ensemble piece about the reverberations of genocide in everyday life. This time, his drama fixates on the younger generation born in the aftermath of those events, and contending with the national trauma that predates them. His trio of family stories include a criminal who attempts to introduce his son to his way of life, parents grappling with the death of their child, and a woman tasked with helping her sick father despite their estrangement.
The movie promises a sensitive, intimate style heightened by absorbing performances and the director’s complex relationship to these potent themes, which should further cement his status as one of the most intriguing talents to emerge from the African continent over the past decade. —EK
A giallo fetishist whose love for the genre’s soft underbelly — along with his perfumed imagination — have allowed films like “The Duke of Burgundy” and “In Fabric” to blow right past the limitations of pastiche, Peter Strickland has cobbled together a singular career from the table scraps left behind by his perverted heroes. With “Flux Gourmet,” the British auteur has cooked up another willdy indulgent feast for the senses, this one set at a remote culinary institute where a group has been invited to perform “sonic catering” for the guests.
Whatever that entails (and those scare quotes should be reason for concern!), it’s safe to assume that Asa Butterfield, Gwendoline Christie, Ariane Labed, and the rest of Strickland’s cast are in for more than a light bout of indigestion as their characters suffer through what the Berlinale is billing as “a gory comedy” that “takes food intolerances to hallucinatory and nightmarish ends.” Already desperate for a taste? Don’t fret: IFC Midnight will begin serving “Flux Gourmet” to American audiences this summer. —DE
“Incredible but True”
By now, you’re either on Quentin Dupieux’s wavelength, or you’re not. The singular auteur has managed to build stories around everything from a murderous tire to a natty deerskin jacket to an absolutely massive housefly, and now heads to Berlin with…well, a film that is clearly hiding lots of wacky delights in its relatively staid longline. Per Unifrance, the film follows “Alain and Marie [as they] move to a quiet suburb. A mysterious tunnel in the cellar of their new home will turn their lives upside down.” The film’s IMDb page lets on a touch more, indicating that (duh) the tunnel will lead them to in the basement that will change their lives.
Dupieux’s ability to spin both profundity and big laughs from the seemingly everyday is uniquely suited to a suburbs-centric comedy, and Dupieux is due for a big breakout. Think of it this way: he’s one of the few filmmakers whose “guess what’s in the basement?!” shocker could be a tire or a jacket or a giant fly, and we’d eagerly sit up and ask, “And then what?” Whatever it is, it will surely be a thrilling surprise. —KE
French-Swiss auteur Ursula Meier returns to Berlinale 10 years after winning the Silver Bear for her sensitive drama “Sisters” with a very different sort of family dynamic on display. “The Line” stars Stéphanie Blanchoud as Margaret and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as her mother, who blames her failed career as a concert pianist on her beleaguered offspring.
After the pair have a physical altercation that leads to police involvement, Tedeschi’s character obtains a restraining order against her daughter — so Margaret decides to stand just outside her mother’s property, attempting to reconnect with her kid sister inside. This outlandish setup suggests another alternately bleak and entertaining look at broken relationships and desperate acts to heal them through Meier’s ever-perceptive style. Expect an enthralling actors’ showcase. —EK
“Queens of the Qing Dynasty”
Canadian writer-director Ashley McKenzie follows up on her 2016 debut “Werewolf” with this intriguing story about a small-town suicidal teenager (Sarah Walker) who bonds with an international student from Shanghai (Ziyin Zheng) tasked with looking after her at the hospital. With its delicate focus on genderqueer characters, the movie is said to explore their candid relationship and show how it transcends the cultural boundaries on the surface.
An intimate setting is an ideal backdrop for its first-time actors to explore what it means to feel like a pariah at a critical moment in young adulthood while coming to terms with their sexual identities. It’s a compelling setup that should further clarify McKenzie’s filmmaking ambitions as she develops her fixation on alienated youth through a precise lens. —EK
Ulrich Seidl fans have spent the last few years waiting for the ultra-severe Austrian filmmaker (the “Paradise” trilogy, “In the Basement”) to make good on the promise of his magnum opus, a three-hour epic about a pair of brothers who are haunted by the death of their mom. The bad news is that the wait for “Wicked Games” will have to continue for a little longer — look for it to make its annual appearance on our Cannes wish list in a couple of months. The good news is that Seidl has cobbled together another movie about a dead mom to help tide us over in the meantime; one that, in vintage Seidl fashion, will likely be all the more harrowing because of how breezy it sounds.
“Rimini” stars “Paradise: Hope” alum Michael Thomas as faded pop star Richie Bravo, who returns from Italy to his Austrian hometown in order to bid farewell to his parents, bury the past they kept alive for him, and seduce a few women of a certain age while he’s there. The premise might sound ready for Sundance, but we’re bracing ourselves for some unvarnished despair from one of the people who does it best. —DE
“Return to Dust”
Rising Chinese auteur Li Ruijun’s first competition title (he has previously screened films in Berlin’s Generation section) brings his special brand of cinema to Berlin in the form of “Return to Dust,” which follows a couple pushed together through arranged marriage and discover their own love story. It’s the kind of gentle, serious romance that can be lost amongst flashier titles, but one well worth seeking out as a cinematic salve.
The film is described as following “the human need for connection and the transformative nature of love. It is a masterfully crafted, heartwarming fable that conveys how just like botanical life, all humans require is some nurturing and care to flourish. Ruijin delicately explores the challenges of those who are ostracized, painting a rich, visually arresting aesthetic of the rugged landscape to reinforce the characters’ isolation.” —KE