Refugee comedy, transgender love story tipped at Berlin festival

A European refugee comedy and a transgender love story are tipped to clinch prizes Saturday at the Berlin film festival, an event dominated by criticism of US President Donald Trump.

Refugee comedy, transgender love story tipped at Berlin festival
Photo: John MacDougall/AFP

Audiences have lavished applause on the cult Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's “The Other Side of Hope”, his first picture in six years, and “A Fantastic Woman” by Chile's Sebastian Lelio.

The two films led a critics' poll in British film magazine Screen and played well among reviewers surveyed by the German dailies Der Tagesspiegel and Berliner Zeitung.

A seven-member jury led by Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”, “Elle”) and including US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Dark Knight”) and Mexican director and actor Diego Luna (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) will hand out the Golden and Silver Bear trophies at a ceremony beginning at 1800 GMT.

Last year, jury president Meryl Streep gave top honours to Italy's “Fire atSea”, a portrait of the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa. It is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this month.

The 11-day Berlinale, Europe's first major cinema showcase of the year, screened nearly 400 features, 18 of which are nominated for the main prizes.

But on and off screen, celebrities and filmmakers have used the festival spotlight to sound off about Trump's policies, particularly his now suspended travel ban on refugees and travellers from seven mainly Muslim countries.

“I want people to know there are many, many people in my country that are ready to resist,” Gyllenhaal told reporters as the festival opened.

'Gorgeous, cuttingly poignant'

Kaurismaki's movie was cheered as a moving call to conscience on behalf of the hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in the West from war and persecution.

It recounts the story of Khaled (Syrian actor Sherwan Haji) who ends up in remote Finland and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a group of Helsinki eccentrics.

Britain's Daily Telegraph swooned over the “gorgeous, cuttingly poignant” movie. German newspaper Die Welt declared it an instant classic that was “full of warmth” and noted Kaurismaki singled out Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal asylum policy for praise.

“This film will be watched long after (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad is history,” its reviewer, Barbara Moeller, said.

“A Fantastic Woman” features a knockout performance by transgender actress Daniela Vega as a nightclub singer fighting for her right to attend the funeral of her much older lover after his sudden death.

The Guardian newspaper gave the picture five stars, saying it could “make Vega the first transgender performer to scoop a major acting award”.

Late Friday, the picture won the Teddy Award for best LBGT-themed feature,which Vega collected.

Film industry bible Variety said director Lelio had “crafted perhaps the most resonant and empathetic screen testament to the everyday obstacles of transgender existence since Kimberly Peirce's 'Boys Don't Cry' in 1999”.

It noted that unlike that film or “The Danish Girl” — both of which scooped Oscars — and TV's acclaimed “Transparent”, “A Fantastic Woman” featured a trans actress playing a trans part.

'Indigestible ham'

Oren Moverman's “The Dinner”, a thriller about America's festering racialand class divisions starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Steve Coogan fared less well with critics despite its ripped-from-the-headlines plot.

The Guardian labelled the movie, the only US production in competition, as a “soggy melodrama” and savaged the “indigestible ham” of the main performances.

The all-star Brexit satire “The Party” fared better, with Screen calling the “brisk comedy” British director Sally Potter's “most enjoyable film to date”.

Festival guests also embraced China's animated heist thriller with apolitical edge, “Have a Nice Day”.

Eastern Europe put in a strong showing with Polish director AgnieszkaHolland's feminist fairy tale “Spoor”, the dysfunctional couple drama “Ana, mon amour” by Romania's Calin Peter Netzer and “On Body and Soul” by Ildiko Enyedi, a love story set in a Hungarian slaughterhouse.

Reviewers also adored mesmerising performances by the lead actresses in Senegalese director Alain Gomis' “Felicite” and Hong Sang-soo of South Korea's “On the Beach at Night Alone”, Vero Tshanda Beya and Kim Min-hee.


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)