Tommaso Tocci is an Italian freelance film critic currently based in Paris. He regularly covers the European festival circuit writing for Italian and international publications. He is a programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival and has worked for Berlinale Talents and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
2022 was the year that Berlin felt decidedly less like the Berlin of old. Not merely because of the quieter, dampened atmosphere around Potsdamer Platz, which saw the festival hub now stripped of entire Berlinale sections and of a sizable chunk of its regular attendees. Beyond that, the forward-looking organization that for years was a bastion of stability and a paragon of conduct seemed suddenly uncertain, navigating the dawn of a post(?)-pandemic era with a wobbly hand and preparing the event that it wanted at all costs to take place regularly, no matter the inconveniences.
Coming off what is now regarded as a fine online-only 2021 programme, there is no doubt that the true achievement this year was being there at all, taking solace in the chance of meeting friends and colleagues (and seeing the notoriously passionate Berlin audience flock back to the cinemas) which for many made up for a less than stellar crop of films. Of course, grading the quality of a festival offering from one year to the next is a largely pointless endeavor – more worrying in terms of excitement and diversity was the scaling back to a perspective that seemed anchored in central Europe, something that could rarely be said about the Berlinale in the past. A few outliers were there, some promptly recognized by M. Night Shyamalan’s jury.
The first was Hong Sang-soo, upgrading to a Grand Jury Prize for The Novelist’s Film from a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay last year (Introduction). Neither the multiple awards for his standing in world cinema nor his methods of production seem to have much of a ‘courageous’ aura around them, contrary to what was said on stage on closing night; nonetheless, his latest is another perfectly-crafted entry in a continuous, seamless oeuvre, dealing mostly with the frustration of artists (writers, actors, directors) who are driven to burnout or personal animosity among them by the laws of the market.
More of a novelty element came from an Indonesian melodrama of exquisite making: Before, Now & Then by Kamila Andini, which proved a strong follow-up to her previous Yuni. Awarded a Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance (Laura Basuki), it had a clear case for Best Lead as well, thanks to a spellbinding turn by Happy Salma. With the lightest of touches, Andini revisits the troubled history of Indonesia (explored by Joshua Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) indirectly and through the lens of a marriage rooted in pragmatism. Desire meets restraint to remarkable effect, which is likely what sparked the In the Mood for Love (2000) comparisons besides the score and lush costumes.
Back to European cinema, the aforementioned center of gravity of this Berlinale Competition. One that felt somewhat insulated, perhaps navel-gazing, although that would be unfair to the raw naturalism of Golden Bear winner Alcarràs, whose fleeting portrait of life in a Catalan orchard surprises the viewer with a sticky permanence in the mind well after the film’s conclusion. But Europe has a tendency to wake up and find itself different in the immediate aftermath of the Berlinale, from all the way back in 2014 with the Maidan protests, and indelibly more so now with a full-blown invasion and war in Ukraine. Through no fault of the films themselves, history is speeding up and finding us responding to constantly outdated upheavals.
Even the opener felt programmatic, with François Ozon chasing down the rabbit hole of his Fassbinder-ian niche divertissement Peter Von Kant. As is customary for the director, this was astutely thought-out in how it revisits The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) by gender-swapping the main character with an approximation of Fassbinder himself, and gifting Denis Ménochet a role that both finally gives him the elevated profile he deserves, and cleverly showcases the broader range of his repertory.
A commanding male performance possibly topped by Michael Thomas’ in Rimini by Ulrich Seidl: the kind of lead turn so precision-engineered to win an acting prize that it makes festival journos tired of predicting it within a day of the screening (that such a prize never materialized is one of the most egregious oversights on the jury’s part). The film is more affecting and richer in moments of compassion than what is normally expected when it comes to the Austrian director, who makes a fine return onto the scene and deploys to perfection the wintery desolation of its titular seaside Italian town. It’s the entry that best captures a certain sense of residual ennui in the old continent, and one that also introduces the domestic space – fought over, under siege, the ultimate refuge – as the key realm of human existence as seen at this Berlinale.
This is particularly evident in the core of the Competition, which to my eyes is constituted by French (and French-adjacent) titles, although I’m prepared to admit this may be informed by my own experience of Paris and the added meaning of finding your home there. Both Sides of the Blade («Avec amour et acharnement») carried the signature of the most important auteur competing for the Bear, Claire Denis. She took home Best Director, in a puzzling first for her at big festivals (with a film that, incidentally, was available to both Cannes and Venice last year).
While not her best or more memorable work, Both Sides of the Blade follows up the high-concept international sci-fi of High Life with the very Parisian, claustrophobic story of a love triangle built around such heavyweights as Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche, shot during the pandemic lockdowns and co-written by novelist Christine Angot, who also worked on Let the Sunshine In (2017). It is visceral, hard-hitting and strangely mysterious in how it obfuscates the emotional process of its characters, really bringing out language as a conflict strategy in the superbly detailed and nuanced dialogue fed to incredible actors. The home takes center stage, as a descriptor of the couple’s life, as a measure of their position in the context of the Parisian middle class, and as a physical turf with multiple entry points and no separation, except for the transparent one of a glass door leading to the balcony, which plays a critical part itself. It is treated as a labyrinth where you can get lost even without seeing walls around you.
The home in the Denis film is not only the place where a relationship dissolves, but also the crumbling shelter against a menacing outside world, hinted at by Denis with great mastery of mood. Another film I was anticipating just as much is Mikhaël Hers’ Les Passagers de la Nuit, coming on the heels of the little jewel that was Amanda, in 2018. In this sweet, optimistic throwback to the eighties, following a single mother somehow reshaping her whole life and seeing her kids grow up, Hers also finds one constant throughout the years, the jobs, and the shifting outlooks on life – the family’s flat up in the tall residential buildings of the 15th arrondissement, with its huge window providing the airy backdrop for much of the action. It’s not a stereotypical choice of Parisian architecture, which makes it interesting and connected to a story that begins with François Mitterrand’s auspicious election in 1981, shortly after that neighborhood was erected and families started moving in.
While Denis tells a story in which not much happens and yet it looks like the end of the world, it won’t come as a surprise to fans of Hers’ work that there’s a decade’s worth of big events here, but not much conflict. His perceptive, tender style of filmmaking never shouts and yet conveys the full emotional scope of characters he clearly adores. Perched up in her refuge in the sky, Charlotte Gainsbourg is connected to the outside through the radio, to the era of which Hers crafts a heart-warming tribute, linking all the insomniac ‘passengers of the night’ in listening to the same program while the camera roams through Paris courtesy of grainy archival footage. It’s the only example of a benign energy radiating from the domestic experience, and not coincidentally it focuses on bringing other people into the familial circle, even when they’re outsiders.
The domestic-space thread ran through other French-language titles. In One Year, One Night, it falls to Spanish director and San Sebastián darling Isaki Lacuesta to tackle the delicate subject of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which he reframes as a compelling study of long-term trauma rather than a chronicle of the events. Focusing on a young couple who survived the Bataclan shooting, the film begins with the strangeness of the day-after and their going back to the banality of daily things after witnessing such horrors. Their Parisian flat is simultaneously a return to safety and an insufficient support for what their emotional state now requires, prompting them to leave it as often as possible while also being stuck in it, mirroring the architecture of their whole relationship.
In French but set in a small Swiss town, The Line marked the return of another brilliant director in Ursula Meier, who knows a thing or two about what home is since, well, her feature debut Home back in 2008. Generating little buzz among Berlinale attendees, The Line doesn’t reach the heights of the impressive Sister, but it does provide the most literal use of domestic space as a militarized perimeter, with one agent of chaos (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s egocentric, careless mother) under attack by another (Stéphanie Blanchoud’s rebel daughter) who has to stand outside of a 100-meter radius, helpfully painted across town by her little sister.
The in-the-flesh re-encounter with Encounters, the most notable addition when Carlo Chatrian came onboard in 2020, was a key attraction on the agenda for Berlinale 2022. It brings the event on par with Cannes and Venice in having a secondary official section and it is now starting to take a shape of its own, albeit with the massive caveat of never being able so far to run unencumbered by pandemics and festival upheavals. Marketing and positioning such sections is tricky, which makes it so intriguing to see one develop in real time; the 2022 slate was generally strong, and yet the daring incisiveness of some of the titles begs the question of whether the organizers are filling it with the most out-there material while dulling the edge of a main Competition which has, for all the easy clichés of the Kosslich era, never been afraid to include uncompromising, challenging films.
In any case, surprises were had – starting with the fact that the two highest-profile names (Bertrand Bonello and Peter Strickland) struck this ardent fan of both as colossally disappointing in their offerings, Coma and Flux Gourmet respectively. With the latter, Strickland doubles down on his own satirical, grotesque weirdness, this time directing it toward the art world but making it increasingly inconsequential. The former stems from two powerful but perhaps not entirely lucid impulses (the love for a daughter and making sense of the pandemic) which result in a rambling essay displaying little understanding of a young generation’s psyche – certainly for the director of Nocturama (2016) – and a cheap parody of its dominant visual forms.
These two removed, the field of Encounters was left wide open. Sonne, Iraqi-born Austrian director Kurdwin Ayub’s winner of the GWFF Best First Feature Award, delivered an actual, deep-cutting meditation on digital media and influencer culture packed into a cheeky coming-of-age format. My two favorites, however, were bold and ambitious works trapping the savage currents of history into the shifting confines of the city.
Possibly the closest thing to a revelation in the entire Berlinale programme, Cyril Schäublin’s Unrest took home a Best Director prize and struck unique chords in its slightly absurdist, black-and-white, late 19th-century symphony of life in the Jura Valley, home to the finest watchmaking of Switzerland. Here, in a town dominated by the local manufacture horlogère, where the illusion of efficiency and market laws already bends toward the paradoxical (the time changes depending on whether you follow the clock of the factory, the municipality, the telegraph or the railway, while discussing the price of pictures with the local photographer will return different numbers as he gauges your interest), a Russian cartographer arrives to draw new maps and – perhaps – introduce a little anarchy.
My final pick from the Encounters section is The City and the City, to which I was drawn as a fan of Syllas Tzoumerkas, director of 2019’s sui generis Greek noir The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea. He returns as co-director (together with Christos Passalis) on this fragmented ode to the city of Thessaloniki, sometimes as difficult to piece through as it is hard to stomach. It chronicles the persecution of the city’s Jewish population in the years leading up to the second World War, but positioning history as unstuck in time, and haunting a geographical place through a myriad different stories, video formats, epochs and people. Only the city as a collective entity bears witness to the full extent of what happened, spilling over onto the present and generating a sense of urban memory and sorrow.
With its depiction of casual cruelty and a mosaic-like quality, it’s not only an ambitious effort that strives to be completely original, but also the Berlinale film most difficult to reminisce about now, just a few days from the festival’s closing, when history has jumped forward again and other cities become its new, tragic vessel.