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The World of Cinema from Your Couch: An Overview of Berlinale 2021

Last year’s edition of the Berlin Film Festival was pretty much the last major film festival to go up before the entire world shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 panic. With current infection levels still too high to make a physical festival possible, co-directors Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek, now in their second year in those positions, were forced to go the way of most of the other festivals during the last 12 months and present this year’s installment in a virtual edition with the intention of having public screenings of the films in the lineup during this summer, if all goes well. As a result, the glitzier aspects that one might ordinarily find at such an event—red carpet galas, press conferences and the like—were nowhere to be seen.  

At this point, I believe I am supposed to bemoan the notion of a virtual festival, and mourn the loss of the communal cinematic experience that simply cannot be replicated by watching the films at home in one’s rumpus room. I miss all that too in theory, but in practice, I found it very easy to do without all of that stuff. Thanks in no small part to a crippling fear of travel, there's no way I would have been attending this festival in a typical year with a normal physical event; to get a chance to experience it, even in a virtual edition, was undeniably a big thrill to me. Making the thrill even greater was the fact that, despite all of the obstacles and complications, the lineup of films on display was very strong. At least a couple of titles may well find themselves riding high on my list of 2021's best films.

"Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porno"

This year, the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, went to “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porno,” a Romanian entry from Radu Jude as wild and outrageous as its title. The film opens with a few minutes from a homemade sex tape featuring Emi (Katia Pascariu) and her husband indulging in some reasonably kinky fun. Unfortunately, Emi is a schoolteacher and when the tape somehow turns up online, she is called before a tribunal of parents to decide whether she should be fired. Jude breaks hte film down into three distinct sections: In the first, we observe Emi from afar as she wanders around Bucharest trying to steel herself for the big meeting while weird and occasionally violent behavior goes on all around her. The second section is an exercise in essay filmmaking in which Jude presents a sardonic overview of Romanian history via “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders” that underline a pervasive sense of moral hypocrisy in the land. The final segment features Emi being grilled by the sneering and salacious parents and her spineless supervisor—everyone sitting outside and masked (ostensibly in accordance with COVID regulations but adding an extra edge to the proceedings)—and attempting to defend herself until a finale that I cannot even begin to describe, except to suggest that it might have even had John Waters rubbing his eyes out of sheer disbelief. Admittedly, the film is uneven at times and some viewers may find their patience tested during the long middle section (which, although it is funny and makes a number of strong points, runs perhaps a little too long for its own good). However, the stuff that does work—including the big jokes, a wonderful central performance from Pascariu, and the compelling mixture of wit and anger demonstrated by Jude throughout, especially during the brilliant final section—makes it worth watching. It will surely be one of the most talked-about films on this year’s festival circuit.

That central section will no doubt remind some viewers of the work of Jean-Luc Godard and indeed, the still-powerful specter of the French New Wave could be felt in a number of this year’s films, for better or worse. On the latter end of that scale is “The World After Us,” a tedious entry from Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas about a would-be writer (Aurelien Gabrielli) who gets a contract to write his first novel, but is so busy wooing his new girlfriend (Louise Chevillotte) and running scams to pay for the apartment he has impulsively rented for them to actually get any work done. “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” is an exercise in Rivette-style maxi-filmmaking from Georgian Alexandre Koberidze that begins as a romantic comedy with a classic meet-cute opening as the two lovers bump into each other in the street, and are so instantly thunderstruck that they make a date without even exchanging names. Alas, they end up suffering a whammy of a curse in which both of them wake up the next morning looking completely different and unable to find each other. As they go about their lives, gradually coming closer to each other without even realizing it, Koberidze gives us a full sense of the surrounding community—especially their local devotion to the upcoming World Cup. While the movie does have its undeniable charms, the 150-minute running time eventually proves to be too much of a good thing, though the number of raves has it received elsewhere makes me think that it might improve upon a second viewing. 

Using Godard's “La Chinoise” as an obvious point of reference, Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance mixes together fact and fiction to tell the story of a young black man in Philadelphia who inherits a house from his grandmother and transforms it into a leftist collective. I am not entirely sure the shifts from narrative to documentary and back again entirely add up but the scenes that do work—including an evocation of the MOVE collective that was infamously bombed by Philadelphia police in 1985—have a lot of power and energy behind them. This is the kind of film where a certain amount of raggedness actually works in its favor. 

"Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy"

That said, a far more successful example of New Wave homage is “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” the lovely and surprisingly powerful new film from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi. The movie initially feels like a single feature version of one of those multi-film collections from Eric Rohmer before going off in its own distinctive direction with a triptych of tales that examine themes of love, chance and coincidence. In the first story, Tsugumi (Hyunri) breathlessly recounts the details of a great first date she recently had to her friend, Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), not realizing that the man in question is Meiko’s former lover that she may still have feelings for. In the second, a student is compelled by her sometime lover to try to sexually entrap a professor as part of some half-assed revenge scheme, only to find herself forging a real connection with her target. In the last, and best, segment, set during a time when all electronic communication has ceased, two former classmates—an unemployed IT person and a housewife—run into each other on the street after missing a recent class reunion and make some surprising discoveries about each other. Each story is smart, thoughtful, and impeccably acted. And unlike most multi-story films of this sort, there is not a single dud in the bunch—they all could have easily been made into features of their own. The film won the festival’s Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize, essentially second place, and was easily one of the most winning films of the lineup.

The Silver Bear Jury Prize went to “Mr. Bachmann and His Class,” Maria Speth’s epic-length (217 minutes) documentary following an elementary school class in a small German town in which the students are mostly comprised of child immigrants and the teacher, Dieter Bachmann, stresses kindness and empathy towards his charges as the key to educating them. Utilizing an approach similar to that of Frederick Wiseman, Speth’s film is a lovely hymn to the power of education, largely thanks to the undeniably winning presence of Bachmann himself, who may look like a laid-back cynic in the mode of “Stripes”-era Bill Murray, but proves to be the kind of compassionate and resourceful teacher that everyone wishes they could have but who so few actually get. The Best Director prize went to Dénes Nagy for “Natural Light,” his grimly powerful World War II drama about a unit of Hungarian soldiers traveling through the territories of the occupied Soviet Union; an ordinary soldier (Ferenc Szabo) ends up taking charge when his commanding officer is killed in an ambush that will go on to have horrifying repercussions despite his best efforts. Best Screenplay went to “Introduction,” Hong Sangsoo’s short (66 minutes)-but-sweet collection of sketches about the fragility of human connection that tie together into a strong and surprisingly emotional whole that concludes with a beautiful payoff. A prize for Outstanding Artistic Contribution went to Yibran Asuad for his work editing “A Cop Movie,” Alonso Ruizpalacios’ audacious film (scheduled to appear on Netflix later this year) that begins as a documentary about two Mexico City police officers are partners both professionally and personally, and then shifts into something entirely different while offering a potent take on the state of policing as a whole.

"I'm Your Man"

The award for Leading Performance went to Maren Eggert for her work in “I’m Your Man,” Maria Schrader’s funny and perceptive comedy about a woman who, although gun-shy when it comes to relationships, is pressed into field-testing an android (a German-speaking Dan Stevens) that has been specifically programmed to be her ideal partner. Yes, the premise is familiar, and there are times when it threatens to spin off into complete ludicrousness, but it remains firmly anchored throughout by Eggert’s smart and impressive turn that lends some much-needed notes of grace and reality to the story. The Supporting Performance prize went to Lilla Kizlinger in “Forest - I See You Everywhere,” Bence Fliegauf's Hungarian portmanteau of seven vignettes depicting relationships in various forms of distress touching on themes of grief and retribution. To be honest, the movie as a whole is largely an exercise in tedium—the majority of the segments are not particularly interesting and grow increasingly repetitive as it goes on. However, the opening segment, in which a teenaged girl (Kizlinger) recounts a tragic anecdote involving the death of her mother, is the one sequence that works. It's due almost entirely to Kizlinger’s strong and soulful work, which brings a clear focus to the material that's lacking in other sections.

There were a number of other standout performances in this year’s lineup, sometimes in films that are not entirely worthy of them. For example, the Iranian movie “Ballad of a White Cow” tells a story that was often too melodramatic for its own good. In it, a woman tries to put her life back together in the wake of her husband’s execution for a crime the government now admits he did not commit, and is befriended by a man who, unbeknownst to her, is the guilt-ridden judge who sentenced her husband to death in the first place. The performance by Maryam Moghaddam (who also co-directed with Behtash Sanaeeha) as the woman is so compelling that she helps overcome most of the increasingly ridiculous plot twists. “Ted K,” writer/director Tony Stone’s examination of the life of Ted Kaczynski as he transforms from just another recluse to the domestic terrorist known as the Unabomber, is also uneven. But Sharlto Copley’s performance as Kaczynski is easily the most focused and committed work that he has done to date. “Fabian: Going to the Dogs” is Dominik Graf’s sprawling adaptation of the classic Erich Kastner novel chronicling life in Berlin in the 1920s, the turbulent period following one war and leading to another. The film centers on Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), an aloof veteran with a degree in literature now toiling away as a copywriter for a cigarette company. Fabian finds his cynical attitude changing when he meets and falls in love with Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl), an entertainment lawyer who becomes the mistress of a studio big shot in exchange for stardom as an actress. The film is very long, and some of its attempts to blend in deliberately anachronistic details to serve as commentary are a bit shaky. But the movie is ultimately a success, mostly due to the performances by Schilling and Rosendahl. 

"We"

In addition to those playing in the main competition, prizes were also given to films appearing in the Encounters section, a sidebar introduced in 2020 designed to highlight more diverse and offbeat stories and voices. This year, the Encounters prize for Best Film went to “We,” Alice Diop’s lovely, nuanced, and bracingly humane documentary that introduces us to the lives of a number of diverse people whose only obvious connection is that they live and work along the RER B train that runs through all of Paris from north to south. The Special Jury prize was awarded to “Taste,” first-time filmmaker Le Bao’s audacious and oftentimes abstract look at an injured Nigerian football player living in Ho Chi Minh City, who moves in with a group of four local women as they essentially isolate themselves from the outside world. 

There were two recipients of the Best Director award in this section. Denis Côté won for “Social Hygiene” a short, sharp, and often very witty takedown of male privilege in the form of a series of vignettes, in which an obnoxious young man (Maxim Gaudette) stands in a field pontificating about his superiority to the world around him while a series of women in his life—all standing at a respectable social distance—take him to task for his delusions of grandeur. And Ramon & Silvan Zurcher won for “The Girl and the Spider,” an alternately funny, wise, and quietly affecting observation of a young woman over the course of a couple of days as she moves out of the apartment she has been sharing with a friend and into a place of her own. A Special Mention was given to American director Fern Silva’s essay film “Rock Bottom Riser”—since I unfortunately missed this one, allow me to cite the jury statement that stated that it was “A tale about the loveliness of a very agitated rock: alone in the ocean, in the galaxies, in the universe. Along the way, it encounters—in a virtuoso manner—unexpected and very diverse images for the necessity of a decolonization of science.”

In the end, my two favorite films that I saw during the festival went away without any awards, though both caused enough of a stir to ensure that they won't be forgotten anytime soon. The first was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of all of this year’s entries, “Petite Maman,Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to her breakthrough hit “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” The film was shot last fall in such secrecy that most people didn’t even know that it existed until it was named as part of the lineup. As the story opens, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to empty out the house that belonged to her recently deceased maternal grandmother. When the rush of memories becomes too much for her, Marion takes off and leaves the others to finish up. And when Nelly goes outside to play in the woods next to her house where her own mother once spent her childhood, she encounters another girl about her age (Gabrielle Sanz) whose name is ... Marion. What happens from this point, I will leave for you to discover. But even though the film may seem slight with its small cast and brief running time (72 minutes), it's as nuanced and thoughtful as anything that Sciamma has done before. With the help of the extraordinary young actresses (and real-life sisters) at its center, the film explores notions of love, grief and confronting both the past and the future in ways that put most other movies to shame. If there was any lingering doubt that Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers in the world today, "Petite Maman" should dispel them once and for all.

"The Scary of Sixty-First"

My other favorite film from this year’s festival was “The Scary of Sixty-First,” the debut feature of Dasha Nekrasova (co-host of the Red Scare podcast) that mixes horror, dark humor, savage social commentary, and pure surrealism into a one-of-a-kind blend so audacious that it makes even “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” seem practically staid by comparison. Two friends—aspiring actress Addie (Betsey Brown) and slacker Noelle (Madeline Quinn, who also wrote the script with Nekrasova)—rent an impressive apartment on the Upper East Side of New York that just happens to be suspiciously inexpensive. Soon, a mysterious woman (Nekrasova) arrives and informs Noelle that the place used to be owned by Jeffrey Epstein and may have been used to house and traffic some of his victims. While Noelle and the stranger begin an investigation that takes them into a rabbit hole of conspiracy, Addie begins demonstrating hints that she has become possessed by the spirit of one of Epstein’s victims. As ridiculous as it sounds, the end result works beautifully as it depicts its conspiracy-minded characters with a certain degree of empathy, while at the same time mining the concept for both a lot of weirdo humor and gruesome giallo-inspired shocks. A film with “cult sensation” written all over it, “The Scary of Sixty-First” is a work of genuine provocation that announces Nekrasova as a fascinating new voice in the world of horror cinema, one whose work can grab and hold onto viewers in a movie theater with a large crowd (this would have been a favorite on the midnight movie circuit of old) or on one's couch. A discovery like that is what film festivals should really be about.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to eFilmcritic.com and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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