Max Borg’s Berlin 2024 Diary

There was an air of melancholy hanging over Berlin for the duration of the 74th edition of its film festival, and not just because of the consistently gray sky (in a masterstroke of cosmic irony, the sunniest day happened to be the last one). The 2024 Berlinale, as announced in September, was the fifth and final edition overseen by artistic director Carlo Chatrian (Tricia Tuttle, formerly of the London Film Festival, is taking over in April). 

It was a fairly momentous five years, with two editions plagued by the pandemic (I wrote about the 2022 experience on this very site), a more streamlined selection – 300-ish films as opposed to the 400+ of the Dieter Kosslick era – and additions like the Encounters section, a competition aimed primarily at emerging talents and outside-the-box filmmaking. But there was also room for something as simple as this year’s opener, the Austrian documentary Favoriten, a touching, fly-on-the-wall portrait of the relationship between a Viennese elementary school teacher and her pupils over a three-year period. 

The opening film of the festival proper, as well as the inaugural entry in the main competition, was the Irish-Belgian production Small Things Like These, starring Cillian Murphy (who also produced alongside Ben Affleck and Matt Damon). I didn’t fully connect with this one, as the narrative – based on a novel by The Quiet Girl author Claire Keegan – is too vague vis-à-vis the topic it’s dealing with. But it does have its moments, not least when Emily Watson regaled us with her delightfully scenery-chewing turn as an evil nun (which earned her the Best Supporting Performance prize). 

Another prize-winner was Bruno Dumont’s The Empire, sold as a Star Wars parody (with a riotously funny Fabrice Luchini as the ersatz Darth Vader). In reality, beneath the surface-level George Lucas potshots paired with generic jabs at American pop culture in general (“Winter is coming”, says one character early on in the film) lies a profoundly pessimistic comedy about the human condition and the imminent end of the world, set in the director’s native Northern France (in fact, the movie is basically the third installment in Dumont’s Quinquin series, with two buffoonish cops once again witnessing strange events). 

While Dumont won the Jury Prize, fellow Frenchman Olivier Assayas went empty-handed with his bucolic comedy Suspended Time. A covid romance by way of Eric Rohmer, it’s is based on Assayas’ own experiences during the first 2020 lockdown, during which he quarantined – with his brother and their respective significant others – at the family house in the countryside. An amusing exercise in autofiction, the film consistently and brilliantly alternates between Assayas’ own recollections, expressed in voice-over, and the fictionalized daily routine of his alter ego, played by French cinema’s favorite sadsack Vincent Macaigne. Presumably, the jury didn’t consider it because, charming though the movie may be, the pandemic is a bit yesterday’s news nowadays. 

Also (partially) French was the Golden Bear winner Dahomey, a co-production between France, Senegal and Benin. The second feature of Mati Diop (Atlantics), the documentary deals with the restitution of artifacts that France stole from the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin. While not particularly original in premise or execution, it is a classic good story well told, and bestowing the main prize upon it also spotlights the quality of contemporary African cinema, frequently overlooked even at the big festivals (Venice has a major blind spot in that regard). 

On the weirder end of the spectrum, and probably a film that would have been in Encounters in any other year (the selection partially felt like Chatrian and his team going all out since it was their final edition), was Pepe, which won Best Director. Based on the true story of Pablo Escobar’s hippos, it’s a deliberately scattershot narrative across two continents from the vantage point of one of the hippos – who speaks in three different languages, depending on where the non-linear story is set at any given time. 

Also based on true events, but far more audience-friendly, was The Devil’s Bath, the third feature of Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (the wife and nephew of master provocateur Ulrich Seidl, who produces their films). Rooted in historical records from the 1750s, it’s still unequivocally a horror story, albeit more subdued compared Goodnight Mommy or The Lodge – until it hits with the sheer force of real incidents that are far more terrifying than the supernatural happenings in the duo’s previous movies (the third act is a sight to behold). 

The Berlinale Special strand – which featured among other things one of Adam Sandler’s more restrained performances in the Netflix movie Spaceman (which didn’t originate from his production company, and it shows) – was dominated by two documentaries featuring the festival’s main guests of honor: Martin Scorsese and Edgar Reitz. 

The former, who had two movies at the event (a special screening of The Departed to accompany the Honorary Golden Bear ceremony, as well as the new restoration of After Hours in Berlinale Classics), was also the narrator of Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger, a loving tribute to two of his favorite filmmakers (and in the case of Michael Powell, an eventual good friend who married Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker). It’s a must-see for fans of British cinema, especially for its inclusion of footage from little-seen early work that is currently being restored in the UK (some of Powell’s pre-Pressburger films were shown at last year’s Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, a festival Scorsese openly champions for its spirit of rediscovery). 

Reitz, well known in arthouse circles for his epic Heimat saga (three separate television series that were also released theatrically, chronicling the 20th century in Germany via the life of one family in a small village, as well as a 2013 feature film prequel), received the Berlinale Camera and came to the festival with Subject: Filmmaking. Having taught the craft in an all-female high school class in the 1960s, he reconnected with his former students 55 years later, and the film alternates between archive footage – Reitz turned the class into a documentary of his own – and the participants reflecting on how that experience changed their lives. Naturally, the director’s statement about cinema needing to be a mandatory school subject was met with thunderous applause from the audience. 

And while films are generally perceived today as being more prudish, the Berlinale has always had a sex-positive attitude, especially with the Panorama section that is the go-to sidebar for queer stories. So it came as no surprise that they would showcase the latest by Canadian director Bruce LaBruce: The Visitor, a gleefully gay reinterpretation of Pasolini’s Teorema set in post-Brexit Britain. Joyously in-your-face (as well as other body parts), its unabashed pornographic sensibility drew some of the biggest laughs of the festival. 

The biggest one, though, at least as far as this writer is concerned, came from a far more unexpected source: the screening of the restored version of John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975). In fact, the laughter was not even due to a joke: it just so happens that Donald Sutherland’s character has a certain name, and he brought the house down when he introduced himself on screen as “Simpson, Homer Simpson”. D’oh! 

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