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What you need to know about this year’s Berlinale film festival

The Berlin film festival, one of Europe's top cinema showcases, gets under way Thursday, bringing a parade of stars to its famed red carpet.

What you need to know about this year's Berlinale film festival
Trine Dyrholm and Meryl Streep at the Berlinale 2016. Photo: DPA

Nearly 400 movies will be screened during the 11-day gathering. Here's a preview of highlights from the Berlinale, now in its 67th year, that are already generating a buzz.

Portraits of the artist

Right from opening night, the festival will throw a spotlight on biopics and documentaries that explore famous creative lives.

Etienne Comar's debut feature “Django” is focused on the Gypsy-jazz great Django Reinhardt and the little-known story of his family's persecution by Nazis in occupied Paris.

Geoffrey Rush plays Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti in “Final Portrait”, directed by Hollywood actor Stanley Tucci.

Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis comes to life in “Maudie” starring Sally Hawkins as the beloved painter with a debilitating illness and Ethan Hawke as her devoted husband.

Long before there was Damien Hirst and shark preserved in formaldehyde, there was Joseph Beuys and his dead rabbit. The documentary “Beuys” explores the controversial life of one of Germany's most important post-war artists.

And veteran German filmmaker Volker Schloendorff (“The Tin Drum”) tells the story of his friend Max Frisch, played by Stellan Skarsgard, in “Return to Montauk” based on the Swiss novelist and playwright's life.

'No country for old women'

Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa”) returns with “Spoor”, a humour-tinged “feminist fairy tale” about an eccentric retiree facing bloody high jinx in her male-dominated village.

The prize-winning filmmaker says the movie, with its unflinching look at the failings of post-communist Polish society, could have been called “No Country for Old Women”, a play on the Coen brothers' classic.

Holland is one of four female filmmakers in competition this year, including Britain's Sally Potter who has brought together Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Bruno Ganz and Kristin Scott Thomas for “The Party”, set during one night in contemporary London.

Rounding out the list are Teresa Villaverde, whose “Colo” looks at a family buffeted by Portugal's economic crisis, and Ildiko Enyedi with “On Body and Soul”, a tender love story set in a slaughterhouse in Budapest.

Trump talk

Berlin has a reputation for being the most politically minded of the big film festivals. With actors and directors from around the world in front of the microphones, expect many to sound off on Brexit, populism, fake news and, of course, Donald Trump.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick refused to mention the US president's name as he discussed this year's line-up. But he said the choice of films was a “kind of protest” against the global state of affairs.

“But despite all the discontent in the world, this is a programme that says 'yes' to life. The artists describe everyday apocalypses, but not without escape routes,” he said.

Refugees on and off screen

Quirky Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki will present “The Other Side of Hope” about a Syrian refugee who winds up in Helsinki.

But off-screen too, the festival has also launched initiatives to help the more than 100,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in Berlin since 2015.

Fundraisers, screenings for newcomers accompanied by local volunteers and educational events for refugee kids have all been folded into the programme.

And after George Clooney popped in to talk to German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the migrant influx during last year's festival, Richard Gere, in town to present his new thriller “The Dinner”, will have an audience with the world's most powerful woman to discuss Tibetan rights.

Bears and Wolverines

Eighteen movies will duke it out for the Golden and Silver Bear top prizes, to be awarded on February 18th by a jury led by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (“RoboCop”, “Elle”).

But while the contenders are expected to pack a dramatic punch, the festival has a long tradition of popcorn fare too.

This year's biggest blockbuster is the latest Wolverine instalment of the X-Men superhero series, “Logan” starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Richard E. Grant, which will have its world premiere.

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WOMEN

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)

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