Berlinale film festival to award top prizes under Covid shadow

The 72nd Berlinale film festival awards its top prizes on Wednesday including its Golden Bear for best picture and a gender-neutral acting gong after a reduced in-person run under the pandemic.

French actress Isabel Huppert receives the Best Actor award at the Berlinale
French actress Isabel Huppert receives the Best Actor award at the Berlinale on February 15th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

The 11-day festival, which ranks along with Cannes and Venice among Europe’s top cinema showcases, conducted a shorter competition this year with strict regulations for audiences just as coronavirus infections peaked in Germany.

The Hollywood reporter said that the competition’s “small casts, contained sets and limited location shoots provide a glimpse of a new Covid-era cinema”.

There are 18 films from 15 countries vying for this year’s Golden Bear, which will be awarded at a gala ceremony from a jury led by Indian-born American director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”).

The contenders span a range of moods from “Both Sides of the Blade”, a tense French love story directed by Claire Denis and starring Juliette Binoche, to “Robe of Gems”, a gritty Mexican crime mystery.

Critics lavished praise on Binoche for her performance in the French film, where she is caught between two men — her longtime husband Jean and her elusive ex Francois.

READ ALSO: In-person Berlin film fest stands up to pandemic and streaming

‘Dazzlingly accomplished’

The Hollywood Reporter called it a “smart, moody, superbly acted melodrama”, while Britain’s Screen Daily said Binoche and co-star Vincent Lindon, who plays Jean, were “at the top of their game”.

In “Robe of Gems”, writer and director Natalia Lopez Gallardo explores the trauma inflicted on families in Mexico when relatives go missing.

The Guardian called it “dazzlingly accomplished and confident… The film that everyone is talking about this year in Berlin”.

Critics also praised “Before, Now and Then”, a family drama set in 1960s rural Indonesia from Kamila Andini, the first woman from her country to direct a film in competition at the Berlinale.

The Hollywood Reporter said it was a “precisely calibrated” and “emotionally nuanced” film that “both looks and sounds stunning”.

Chinese film “Return to Dust” also impressed with its understated love story between two social outcasts who make the best of an arranged marriage as they build a simple life together in the countryside.

Screen Daily called it 39-year-old director Li Ruijun’s “most affecting and accessible work to date”, saying it “packs a quiet emotional punch”, while US movie news site Deadline noted the “wonderfully atmospheric” rendering of life in bleak rural China.

READ ALSO: Love in the time of corona in focus at Berlin festival

‘Challenging but riveting’

On a rather less understated note, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl served up a dark, sexually explicit drama “Rimini”, which tells the story of a washed-up pop singer who makes his living performing for pensioners and bedding lonely women for money.

Variety called it “challenging but riveting”, while the Guardian said protagonist Richie Bravo was “so horrible he may be brilliant”.

Also exploring questionable sexual escapades, “That Kind of Summer” from Canadian director Denis Cote follows three women on a summer retreat for sex addicts as they attempt to make peace with their demons.

Deadline said it was “entertaining” but “it remains unclear what (Cote) wants to discover or tell us about these unreformed Lolitas”.

Director Denis Cote gives a press conference in Berlin

Director Denis Cote gives a press conference in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Another contender for the top prize is Andreas Dresen’s “Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W. Bush”, the true story of a mother’s battle to bring her son back from Guantanamo Bay.

Spanish film “One Year, One Night” also reconstructs real-life events as it focuses on a young couple who survived the 2015 attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.

Elsewhere, Charlotte Gainsbourg was feted for her performance as a single mother in 1980s Paris in the Mikhael Hers drama “The Passengers of the Night”.

And Michael Koch’s meditation on death and loss set in the Alps, “A Piece of Sky”, was hailed by Deadline as “both beautifully made and a thing of beauty in itself”.

By Femke Colborne

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How Germans are rethinking their way of death

Traditionally a very religious country, Germany is rethinking its way of death. One start-up is even claiming to have found a way of prolonging life - digitally at least - beyond the grave.

How Germans are rethinking their way of death

Youlo – a cheery contraction of “You Only Live Once” – allows people to record personal messages and videos for their loved ones, which are then secured for several years in a “digital tombstone”.

Unveiled at “Life And Death 2022” funeral fair in the northern city of Bremen this month, its creators claim it allows users to have their final word before they slip gently into the good night.

Traditionally, Lutheran northern Germany has long had a rather stiff and stern approach to death.

But as religion and ritual loosened their hold, the crowds at the fair show people are looking for alternative ways of marking their end – a trend some say has been helped by the coronavirus pandemic.

“With globalisation, more and more people live their lives far from where they were born,” said Corinna During, the woman behind Youlo.

When you live hundreds of kilometres from relatives, visiting a memorial can “demand a huge amount of effort”, she said.

And the Covid-19 pandemic has only “increased the necessity” to address the problem, she insisted.

READ ALSO: What to do when a foreigner dies in Germany

No longer taboo

During lockdowns, many families could only attend funerals by video link, while the existential threat coronavirus posed – some 136,000 people died in Germany – also seems to have challenged longtime taboos about death.

All this has been helped by the success of the German-made Netflix series “The Last Word” – a mould-breaking “dramedy” hailed for walking the fine line between comedy and tragedy when it comes to death and bereavement.

An angel figure stands on a grave at the Westfriedhof in Munich.

An angel figure stands on a grave at the Westfriedhof in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Much like British comedian Ricky Gervais’ hit series “After Life”, which turns on a husband grieving the loss of his wife, the heroine of “The Last Word” embraces death and becomes a eulogist at funerals as her way of coping with the sudden death of her husband.

“Death shouldn’t be a taboo or shocking; we shouldn’t be taken unawares by it, and we certainly shouldn’t talk about it in veiled terms,” Bianca Hauda, the presenter of the popular podcast “Buried, Hauda”, told AFP.

It aims to “help people be less afraid and accept death,” she said.

“The coronavirus crisis will almost certainly leave a trace” on how Germans view death, said sociologist Frank Thieme, author of “Dying and Death in Germany”. He argued that there has been a change in the culture around death for “the last 20 to 25 years”.

These days, there are classes to teach you how to make your own coffin and even people who make a living writing personalised funeral speeches. Digital technology which was “barely acceptable not so long ago” was also beginning to make its mark, he said.


Historian Norbert Fischer of Hamburg University said they have been a shift toward individualism in the “culture of burials and grief since the beginning of the 21st century.

“The traditional social institutions of family, neighbourhood and church are losing their importance faced with a funeral culture marked by a much greater freedom of choice,” he said.

However, the change has been slower in Germany because “legal rules around funerals are much stricter than most other European countries,” said sociologist Thorsten Benkel, which is at odds with “what individuals aspire to”.

Some political parties like the Greens also want to loosen this legislative “straitjacket”, particularly the law known as the “Friedhofszwang”.

The 200-year-old rule bans coffins and urns being buried anywhere, but in a cemetery. Originally passed to prevent outbreaks of disease, it has been largely surpassed as a public health measure, particularly since cremation became popular.

Germany also had a very particular relationship with death in the aftermath of World War II.

Back in 1967, the celebrated psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich put Germany on the couch with their book “The Inability to Mourn”.

One of the most influential of the post-war era, the book argued that Germans had collectively swept the horrors committed by the Nazis in their name — and their own huge losses and suffering during the war –under the carpet.

Thankfully, said Benkel, mentalities have “changed an awful lot since”.