Berlinale: Soderbergh unveils ‘Unsane’ thriller shot only on iPhone

Steven Soderbergh premiered his new thriller shot on an iPhone at the Berlin film festival Wednesday, showing what little gadgets can do to push the limits of style on the big screen.

Berlinale: Soderbergh unveils ‘Unsane’ thriller shot only on iPhone
Unsane. Photo: DPA

The American director, who had only a few years ago declared his retirement from filmmaking, told reporters that “Unsane”, his first time using a smartphone for a full feature, had been invigorating.

“This is a really fascinating time to be making films,” he said, noting that “Unsane” had been shot in just two weeks.

“The gap now between the idea and the execution of the idea is shrinking. I wish I had had this equipment when I was 15.”

“Unsane” stars British actress Claire Foy of the Netflix series “The Crown”, who swaps her cut-glass accent as a young Queen Elizabeth II for the drawl of Sawyer Valentini, a Pennsylvania office worker.

Sawyer has left her hometown under mysterious circumstances and, feeling lonely, turns to online dating to meet men.

After an ambiguous encounter that leaves her upset, she seeks help from a counsellor at a local clinic, who tells her to sign a routine form before she leaves.

Within minutes, she is committed to a mental institution against her will and pumped full of pills.

A fellow patient, who says he is an investigative journalist, tells her she's been locked away as part of a massive insurance scam but that if she keeps her head down, she will be released within days.

However when Sawyer encounters an orderly she claims has been stalking her for two years, the audience begins to question her sanity as well — giving the film its ambiguous title.

'Inches from their faces'

Occasionally grainy iPhone sequences resemble surveillance camera footage, enhancing the Hitchcockian sense that Sawyer is being watched.

Soderbergh, 55, who also serves as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, said working with the smartphone had created an unprecedented speed and immediacy for him on set.

“I had the lens closer to the actors in this movie than I ever had a lens close to an actor before,” he said, after a well-received press screening.

“There were moments where it was inches from their faces. I felt it was necessary and appropriate for a movie that had to feel very visceral.”

Soderbergh said that for audiences, seeing phone images on a big screen should create an eerie sense of deja vu.

“We're so familiar with the aesthetic of phone imagery that I think without even knowing it, there's an intimacy between the viewer and the screen,” he said.

“There's a quality to those images that you're surrounded by in your life.”

The plot resonates in the #MeToo moment, with various characters appearing to try to “gaslight” Sawyer by telling her that her ordeal is all in her head.

“Unfortunately these are issues that have been around forever,” Soderbergh said, adding that the “topicality” had been “pure coincidence”.

“But I'm certainly interested in these kinds of dynamics, not just gender driven dynamics but power dynamics,” he said.

'Tricky to go back'

Soderbergh said that despite a few technical hiccups like a greater sensitivity to vibration, iPhones were likely to remain in his filmmaking toolbox.

“It's going to be tricky to go back to a more conventional way of shooting,” he said.

“Unsane” is not the first feature film made on a smartphone.

US director Sean Baker, whose current movie “The Florida Project” is nominated for an Academy Award, made his name in 2015 with “Tangerine”, which was shot on iPhones due to his shoestring budget.

And France's Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) made the short film “Detour” last year on iPhones for Apple.

Soderbergh, best known for the “Ocean's” heist movies, “Erin Brockovich” and “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, is an avid innovator who likes to play with genres and formats.

His recent HBO series “Mosaic” with Sharon Stone was released last month on television and as an interactive mobile app, allowing the viewer to choose the perspective from which to watch.

Further features let audiences do their own research, supplying background material on the plot such as characters' emails and voice mails.

“Unsane” is screening out of competition at the Berlinale, which will award its Golden and Silver Bear top prizes on Saturday among 19 contenders.


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)