The Berlinale may not be the most prestigious film festival in the world — that honour goes to Cannes, closely followed by Venice — but it is the biggest physically. With over 500,000 members of the public going to see over 400 films, no other festival can match when it comes to the sheer quantity of films on offer. Taking place in freezing cold February, the festival gives a much-needed boost to a city that can get rather gloomy over the winter months. It also serves as a prognosis of the current state of cinema, both mainstream and independent, and shapes the cultural conversation for the rest of the year to come.
Returning to Berlinale for the first time since his Silver Bear win for Grand Budapest Hotel was Wes Anderson, premiering the delightful Isle of Dogs. An upbeat tale that is visually rapturous from beginning to end, Isle of Dogs gave off a false impression of what to expect from the festival, and from the competition slate in general. Nothing else in the competition matched Anderson’s wit and overall broad comic sense — the majority of films instead overburdened with serious subject matters and filmed in slow and contemplative ways. Taken on their own, films such as Dovlatov, The Heiresses and Daughter of Mine had a lot going for them, but watching them one after another did start to dull their individual impact. Damsel, of course, tried to be a comedy, but it was so unfunny that I think the effect was even worse. The Berlinale could do a lot better in future years to make the slate more varied in terms of its comedy/drama split.
Managing to watch 28 films in the space of 9 days isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are the early wake-up times, as competition films start from 9 am. Then there’s the lower back pain, and the headaches from looking at a screen for over 6 hours a day. And finally, there’s the absolute rubbish that becomes physically and mentally painful to endure. While I am partial to slow cinema, it has to be slow for a reason. During this festival, there were a few movies that were so slow that it felt like nothing less than torture. La Cama (The Bed) was a case in point. Depicting an old couple packing up the things in their house before finally leaving one another, every single scene took twice as long as it needed to. Additionally, while The Tree was incredibly beautiful to watch — the photography catching glistening snow in the dark with remarkable clarity — it still subjected the viewer to 45 minutes of an old man collecting water. Why on earth would anyone think one action needed to be that long? It’s worth remembering that film critics provide an essential service — they watch films like this so that you don’t have to. I failed on that front, as I nodded off to sleep.
Nevertheless, I don’t go to the cinema in the hope of gaining anecdotes about how bad a movie is. I’m looking for experiences — being transported to far-off places and gaining new perspectives. For the most part, Berlinale 2018 delivered on that promise, with films stretching all the way from 1980s Ecuador to present day Seoul. The subject matter was just as varied, whether it was finding love in an east German supermarket in In The Aisles or depicting one Polish man’s recovery from tragedy in Twarz (Mug). Perhaps the most prominent theme was satire — Khook, The Real Estate, Twarz, Unsane, and more poking fun at their respective countries, diagnosing the way we live now with brutal black comedy. As for stylistic innovations, look no further than Josephine Decker’s remarkable Madeline’s Madeline, which expertly blended experimental narrative with remarkably fluid performances, easily making it the best film of the festival. One of America’s most unique auteurs has finally delivered on her immense promise.
The most divisive movie of the festival was U — July, 22, which re-enacted the dreadful 2011 far-right terrorist attack in Norway in a brutal one-take experience. While some critics said that it was a necessary film to make people more aware of such attacks — especially in the light of the Parkland shooting just a week before — others accused it of being crass and emotionally manipulative. If it breaks out of the festival circuit and receives a wide release — something it might do considering the technical merit and the subject matter — expect it to be one of the most widely discussed movies of the year.
Berlinale 2018 was a festival that saw acclaimed directors innovate, refine, and break through with their unique styles. Despite this, some of the best films I saw this festival simply saw directors doubling down on what makes their styles so enjoyable. Take Grass, for instance, the latest movie by Hong Sangsoo: coming in at just over an hour, it is an impressive, and perhaps insubstantial doodle that shows just how much he can do with so little. Likewise, Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog retold the story of Hitchcock’s Vertigo using footage from old TV series and movies also shot around San Francisco. Here it felt like the director had found a natural apotheosis of his postmodern obsessions, making an entire movie simply out of clips from other films. Likewise, Steven Soderbergh showed off his experimental side once again with Unsane — a thriller shot entirely on an iPhone. While he went back to experimenting, his contemporary, Gus Van Sant (also known for switching between genres) scored success by going back to a crowd-pleasing comedy with the wonderful Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a largely sentimental tale of turning your life around.
All these interesting movies, and I still missed the Golden Bear winner, Touch Me Not. It speaks to the vastness of the festival that you can see 30 movies (including screeners) and still manage to miss the one that wins. In fact, I have only seen one Golden Bear winner in my past four trips to Berlinale. With an extremely unlikely chance of picking up the gong, Touch Me Not‘s victory seemed to surprise everyone, especially as Dovlatov — telling the politically relevant story of a Soviet Writer oppressed by his home country — felt like it was the perfect film for the current moment.
But only history will tell what will endure in future years. With over 400 films debuting at the festival, it is for some filmmakers the only place their movies will be seen. I predict that Madeline’s Madeline and U – July 22nd will be the subjects of the most think-pieces, and the warm-heartedness of In The Aisles or Isle of Dogs will find their way easily into people’s hearts. It comes at a fascinating time for movie-making in general — the current Best Picture nominees are more diverse than ever, and the nearly all-black Black Panther is currently smashing box office records. Traditional expectations are being upended all of the time. With Touch Me Not — concerning the sexual journey of a middle-aged woman — now the surprise winner of the Golden Bear, the Berlinale seems to already be ahead of the curve.
Check out all of our Berlinale coverage here.