David Bowie once described Berlin as “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine”, and true to those words, it’s a city pulsing with a creative prowess that’s as bracing as the frost from a midwinter’s morn. With over 1500 theatres, 600 art galleries, and 175 museums to choose from, the German Capital has rightly come to be recognised as a stronghold of contemporary culture; one that looks to the future with triumph, without ever forgetting the tragedies of its past.
Berlin’s reputation as as bastion of extraordinary cultural significance is, perhaps, best expressed in February, when the city plays host to one of the world’s biggest international film festivals. Every year, film fanatics from all over the globe brave the brutal German cold to attend the Berlinale, intent on catching an all-important first look at some of year’s finest forthcoming releases, and, hopefully, discover a hidden gem or two along the way.At the core of the programme, of course, is the Competition, which this year sees 18 of the section’s 23 selected films compete for the festival’s converted Gold and Silver Bear awards. With fantastic filmmakers from all over the world participating – including festival favourite Mia Hansen-Løve, whose new film Things to Come sees Isabelle Huppert play a philosophy teacher who looks to reinvent her life after her husband leaves her for another woman, insightful investigator Alex Gibney, who turns his attentions towards cyber-crime for his latest documentary Zero Days, and dexterous debutant Michael Grandage, no doubt hoping to leave a lasting impression with his first feature Genius, which chronicles the life of Scribner book editor Max Perkins – it’s safe to say the Berlinale jury, led this year by Meryl Streep, will have their work cut out trying to decide on a victor.
Outside of the Competition, there’s still plenty to get excited about. The Coen Brothers, leaders of last year’s Cannes jury, kickstart proceedings on Thursday night with a screening of their latest cynical celebration Hail, Caesar!, which sees the siblings once more turn their gaze towards the Hollywood Machine. While Kiwi director Lee Tamahori looks set to finally redeem himself following a slew of sloppy Hollywood blockbusters with The Patriarch, a tale of domestic rivalry and reconciliation set against the stunning rural backdrop of his native New Zealand.Like crowbarring open a lost chest to find a mountain of missing gold, the real riches of the Berlinale are to be found hidden deeper within the programme. The Panorama selection is a chance to discover new films from globally recognised directors old and new, and acts as a timely reminder that there is plenty of diversity in this industry, which deserves to be recognised. As ever, Western directors are well represented, with British visionary David Farr being one of the filmmakers flying the flag for Britain with The Ones Below, a wickedly spun domestic thriller centred on the differences that emerge between two couples who are both expecting their first child. Traveling to Berlin from across the pond is Andrew Neel, whose new film Goat explores one man’s traumatic experiences of enrolling into college and pledging to a fraternity, and Ira Sachs, who captures the devastating reality of a disintegrating childhood friendship in Little Men.
There’s also a notable emphasis on female-focused films produced within Europe this year too, with Ali Abbasi’s Shelley interweaving a couple’s desire to have a child with the migration of Eastern Europeans searching for work, and Czech directors Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda making their debut with Já, Olga Hepnarová, which follows a young woman facing the death penalty after a devastating attempt to liberate herself whilst living in the former Czechoslovakia.Most tantalising, however, is the strong show of support for films from further afield; particularly Latin America, Korea and China. Chilean director Alejandro Fernández Almendras observes the consequences of class and corruption between a group of privileged teens in Much Ado About Nothing, while German auteur Monika Treut returns to the streets of Rio 15 years after her award-winning documentary Warrior of Light with Zona Norte, which once more visits the internationally acclaimed human rights activist Yvonne Bezerra de Mello to investigate the development and sustainability of her alternative educational project that’s aimed at local street kids.
From Korea, meanwhile, comes The Lovers and the Despot, a dark documentary directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam, which tells the true tale of a dream couple from South Korea’s movie scene who were kidnapped by Kim Jong-il’s regime and forced to produce films for the North. And South African cinema is symbolised strongly by director Oliver Schmitz, who brings to life a tragic account of apartheid with his new film Shepherds and Butchers.If all that isn’t enough though, there’s also a number of special events taking place over the 11 days of the Berlinale, including a showing of Sense and Sensibility in loving memory of Alan Rickman, and a tribute screening of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth starring the legendary David Bowie, whose immortal words on Berlin’s cultural supremacy live on with this colossal celebration of cinema.
The 66th Berlin International Film Festival runs from Feb. 11th – Feb. 21st. For full details of this year’s programme, click here.