A year ago, the Berlinale went hybrid, with press and European Film Market attendees watching the films online in March and regular audiences seeing them at open air screenings in June. Aiming for a return to (relatively) normal circumstances, the festival decided to go ahead with its 72nd edition as a fully in-person event, with the usual February dates. With it came a new set of Covid rules: seating capacity in theaters was at only 50%, and all attending journalists had to get tested daily to access press screenings, conferences, and the writing room (for the record, yours truly tested negative every single day). For public screenings, testing was only required only for those who hadn’t received a booster.
As a result, many members of the press chose to sit this one out, adding to the overall feeling of Potsdamer Platz, the festival’s main hub, as a kind of ghost town. The red carpet was still in place, but not everyone got to grace it with their presence: Isabelle Huppert, this year’s honorary Golden Bear recipient, had to cancel her visit at the last minute after testing positive on the day she was supposed to fly to Germany.
And yet, based on the public showings I attended, the audience was largely present and willing to engage with the 2022 selection, eager to discover what artistic director Carlo Chatrian and his team had put together, and to be part of the first properly physical major festival of the year, after the virtual formats adopted by both Sundance and Rotterdam.
Despite limitations, there was a spirit of celebration in the air, perfectly encapsulated in the choice of opening film: Peter von Kant, François Ozon’s loose and gender-swapped remake of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, itself a Berlinale participant fifty years ago (for US viewers curious to check it out, it’s currently available on the Criterion Channel). An ode to filmmaking, with Denis Menochet’s Peter an obvious avatar of Fassbinder, Ozon’s version is a pleasant piece of erudite entertainment, a return to his playful side after a recent string of more serious fare.
Ozon was one of many French filmmakers showcasing their new works in Berlin, alongside the likes of Claire Denis and Bertrand Bonello. The former won the Best Director prize for the deceptively straightforward Both Sides of the Blade, a pandemic-set relationship drama boasting painfully compelling performances by Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. For my money, it was easily the best entry in a not-so-stellar Competition lineup, which featured its fair share of interesting films, but few genuine standouts.
Bonello was part of the Encounters strand with his new film Coma, a teen-centric oddity depicting the early stages of the 2020 lockdown via surreal YouTube videos, Zoom chats and delightfully eerie dream sequences. Focusing primarily on two young performers, the movie also features a handful of celebrity guest appearances, including a hilarious voice role by Gaspard Ulliel. The premiere screening was touchingly dedicated to him, as he tragically passed away a few weeks ago from injuries incurred in a skiing accident.
Going back to the Competition, this was the third consecutive major European festival, after Cannes and Venice, where the main prize went to a female-directed film: Carla Simón’s sophomore effort Alcarràs, set in the Catalan village of the same name, where a family of farmers – loosely inspired by the director’s own – faces the risk of eviction at the end of the summer. Not a particularly bold film, but a reasonably poignant one, thanks to the naturalism of a cast consisting entirely of non-professional locals. In a lineup with multiple polarizing entries, it’s easy to see how this was one that M. Night Shyamalan and his fellow jury members would be on the same page about.
Another safe choice, but more annoyingly so, was giving the Grand Jury Prize to Hong Sang-soo for his latest collection of vignettes about art and life captured in black-and white static shots. Sure, The Novelist’s Film – no prizes for guessing the main topic of discussion – does have its moments, but we have now reached the less flattering end of the comparison between Hong and Woody Allen: much like the latter, his trademark navel-gazing is starting to feel stale and complacent.
Conversely, a far more lively and original meditation on the nature of cinema took home the main Encounters prize: the Austrian documentary Mutzenbacher, directed by Ruth Beckermann. Ostensibly a casting call for the male lead in a proper film adaptation of the infamous novel Josefine Mutzenbacher (an increasingly smutty depiction of a Viennese prostitute’s life), the project rapidly turns into an amusing dissection of masculinity, as the various dudes read passages of the book out loud and expose their own sexual kinks or insecurities.
In an exceptionally strong year for women in the overall selection (as well as the retrospective, devoted to Mae West, Carole Lombard, and Rosalind Russell), Beckermann’s film could serve as a companion piece of sorts to Nina Menkes’ Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, which received its international premiere in the Panorama section after its Sundance debut last month and impressed Berlinale attendees with its thorough breakdown of the history and evolution of the male gaze.
And finally, the title that wasn’t necessarily my favorite of this year’s Berlin selection (that would be a tie between Denis and Bonello), but certainly the one I’ve found myself thinking about the most with a special kind of fondness. Playing out of competition on a double bill with Lucrecia Martel’s North Terminal, Hlynur Pálmason’s Nest saw the Icelandic filmmaker return to the short format to offer his own peculiar spin on how to cinematically recount the pandemic.
Specifically, the film – shot over the course of a year – captures the hardships and joys of the director’s three children, as the static camera follows their joint project of building a treehouse. Rather than finding ways to incorporate facemasks or hand sanitizer in a fictional narrative, Pálmason elects to zero in on the kids’ joyous cure for lockdown tedium, allowing them to be themselves in a restrictive, but ultimately uplifting context. I would gladly watch three hours of their construction endeavor, and those 22 minutes are one of the reasons I don’t really regret returning to an in-person Berlin, even with the somewhat nonsensical testing requirement. And hopefully, next year will be even closer to a normal edition.