Berlin Film Festival Gives Out Awards in Purgatory

Hopefully the only all-virtual Berlinale

The first and hopefully only all-virtual Berlin Film Festival wrapped up over the weekend, celebrating films about emotionally distant people in our socially distant world. Berlin plans a summer edition for the public, where the lineup will play in congregate settings—pandemic-pending, of course. But for now, the Berlinale was an industry-only, laptop-friendly event. And the recurring subjects—hot-headed condemnations, prickly nerves, misunderstandings, alienation, repressed feelings—felt apt, if not too on the nose, for our current global purgatory.

The Golden Bear, Berlin’s top prize, went to Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Radu Jude’s louche agitprop study of Romanian mores. A schoolteacher makes a sex tape with her husband, and suddenly we’re watching a semantic lecture on Eastern European hypocrisy through the ages. Shocking, boring, preachy, revelatory, the film lurches from goofy to enlightening as it peels back the layers of Romanian hypocrisy while reveling in explicit imagery. Is pornography the act of consensual intimacy or the willingness to let untrammeled fascist tendencies destroy a country’s moral fabric? One guess.

Berlin Film Festival
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

The runner-up Grand Jury Prize went to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a tender trio of Tokyo love stories that play like a cross between Raymond Carver and O. Henry. Japanese paramours take all forms: jilted cheaters, honeytrap avengers, middle-aged lonely hearts yearning for their youthful crushes. Hamaguchi paints vivid portraits of aching characters with humor and wit, turning quiet conversations into unfolding revelations that shock and delight with unexpected agility.

Mr. Bachmann and His Class won the third-place Jury Prize, a masterful and rightly adoring if overlong look at an inspirational teacher in the working-class German town of Stadtallendorf. Think Wilkommen Back, Herr Kotter, if Gabe Kaplan were a sexuagenarian mulling retirement and the Sweathogs were sixth-grade Turkish and Bulgarian immigrants. Also, instead of a zippy 20-minute sitcom it was a 217-minute deep-dive portrait worthy of Fred Wiseman. The slender, balding Dieter Bachmann is a good-humored sensei, sporting a knit cap and facial hair that fluctuates between stubble, beard, and handlebar mustache. And his class, unruly but attentive, clearly benefits from his encouraging, kind, tough-but-tender approach, expecting respect but also earning it. He’s deeply committed to his pupils’ education, and keenly attuned to each of their home-life hardships—most of them struggling to assimilate.

Berlin Film Festival
Mr. Bachmann and His Class.

A few of the other awards went to competent, though leaden, work, including Best Director to Dénes Nagy for his turgid Hungarian antiwar film Natural Light. This oh-the-humanity hand-wringer cribs from superior movies like the horrific Come and See in its you-are-there access to WWII soldiers in Russia. But the drama oddly manages to be both visceral and aesthetically distant: harrowing and yet also supremely dull, which in itself is a remarkable if unintended achievement. And festival darling Hang Sang-soo won Best Screenplay for Introduction, yet another of the South Korean auteur’s cookie-cutter miniatures about meek people in mundane places being emotionally tentative and turning to booze for brief confessional outbursts.

Maren Eggert nabbed Best Leading Performance for her totally adequate portrayal of a woman distraught over customized love robot Dan Stevens in the sci-fi dramedy I’m Your Man. And Lilla Kizlinger deservedly got Best Supporting Performance for her riveting portrait of a traumatized teen in one of the seven short films in Benedek Fliegauf’s otherwise overwrought portmanteau film Forest – I See You Everywhere.

The most successfully innovative film at Berlin, without question, was Alonso Ruizpalacio’s alt-documentary A Cop Movie, a formalistically clever and visually dazzling mash-up of interview material and reenactment footage. The Mexican film, A Netflix release that presumably will get the widest release of any Berlinale title, won a well-deserved special award for Outstanding Artistic Contribution due to Yibran Assad’s deft editing. The thrillingly disorienting structure sifts and re-shifts the viewer’s presumptions about the men and women in law enforcement, average people constantly in harm’s way due to their profession, yet caught between a resentful, ever-suspicious public and a corrupt bureaucratic hierarchy that won’t protect its own.

That theme—feeling trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare—echoed in other Berlinale titles and felt like this year’s festival leitmotif. Whether it’s endless Gitmo captivity in Kevin Macdonald’s righteous political thriller The Mauritanian, chronic state prejudice against women in the sorrowful and sobering Iranian tragedy Ballad of a White Cow, or the endlessly repeating rise of nationalism in the hyperventilating White Supremacist melodrama Je Suis Karl, there were few glimmers of hope. Which made HBO’s electric Tina Turner documentary Tina, with its revelatory archival footage and touching intimacy, all the more of a welcome reprieve. A middle-aged black divorcée surviving physical and psychosexual abuse to become an arena-rock global sensation? It’s a comeback story that feels pitch-perfect for what looks to be our vaccinated future: stronger, wiser, and roaring with life.


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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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