So here we are, all 16 films in competition at the 69th Berlinale have screened. By all accounts it’s been a lesser (and definitely shorter, especially after the last-minute withdrawal of Zhang Yimou’s ONE SECOND) lineup which many had expected beforehand, seeing it’s longtime festival director Dieter Kosslick’s last year on the job. But then again, people say that about the Berlinale every year. And the truth is, when you take a moment to look back on the entire roster of films selected to compete, there’s always bold, distinctive or just outright great ones worthy of being discovered and celebrated.
Compared to Cannes or Venice, the Berlinale has a much higher surprise factor. This applies not just to the film selection but also to the utter unpredictability of its jury’s choices. Last year I was able to narrow down the Palme d’Or contenders to five, including the eventual winner SHOPLIFTERS. In Venice I didn’t even need to name alternatives when calling ROMA the top winner. Meanwhile, I scored a grand total of 0 correct call for my Berlinale predictions.
That being said, we never pass on a chance to put our guesswork to the test and this is as good an opportunity as any to recap this year’s comp film highlights, so we shall venture fearlessly ahead with a go at reading the minds of Madam President Juliette Binoche (Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Oscar winner) & Co.
Outstanding Artistic Contribution
Will win: Aymerick Pilarski (cinematography of ÖNDÖG)
Should win: Aymerick Pilarski (cinematography of ÖNDÖG)
This is a near-impossible category to predict as the jury may pick any individual (technical) achievement from any competition film. Last year, rather randomly, the costume and production designer of DOVLATOV was named the winner. The year before that it was the editor of ANA, MON AMOUR.
This year, the cinematographer of the Mongolia-set ÖNDÖG would appear to be the most obvious and also worthy choice. The film looks stunning (you haven’t really seen widescreen etc) and derives much of its mystique from the enchanting, otherworldly beauty of its imagery. Alternatively, the rhythmic, sophisticated editing of SO LONG, MY SON would also deserve to be singled out, ditto the splendid, poetic cinematography of A TALE OF THREE SISTERS.
Will win: SO LONG, MY SON
Should win: SO LONG, MY SON
I think Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s screenplay is the best of the fest. It succeeds not only on a plot level, commanding your attention and emotional involvement from the get-go, but also works as an insightful, immensely humanistic commentary on late-20th century China. Its main challengers come in the form of François Ozon for his compellingly written BY THE GRACE OF GOD, Emin Alper for the rich, introspective parable A TALE OF THREE SISTERS and Teona Strugar Mitevska’s blast of originality GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA.
Will win: Wang Jingchun (SO LONG, MY SON)
Should win: Wang Jingchun (SO LONG, MY SON)
It’s probably unwise to bet against French/Israeli newcomer Tom Mercier for his forceful star-is-born performance in hotshot auteur Nadav Lapid’s SYNONYMS, considering how he more or less carries this enigmatic firecracker of a film. But something tells me Binoche might go for something a bit more subdued from a seasoned performer like Wang. It’s my impression that Berlin doesn’t enforce the “you can’t win more than one award” rule as strictly as in Cannes, so technically multiple wins for SO LONG, MY SON is possible. Obviously if the jury wishes to spread the wealth, we could be looking at Jonas Dassler taking this for his shocking physical transformation in Fatih Akin’s serial killer profile THE GOLDEN GLOVE, or any of the male leads (Swann Arlaud in particular) from BY THE GRACE OF GOD.
Will win: Valerie Pachner (THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET)
Should win: Zorica Nusheva (GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA)
As usual, the best actress race is more competitive than its male counterpart. I could see Binoche most drawn to Pachner’s performance as a strong-willed but guilt-ridden businesswoman. This is a role that she herself would have knocked out of the park. But Zorica Nusheva as the striking personification of authority-challenger Petrunya should have left a strong impression too, ditto the wonderfully naturalistic performance by child actor Helena Zengel in the social-minded little heartbreaker SYSTEM CRASHER. The female leads of either A TALE OF THREE SISTERS or period biopic about famed lesbian couple ELISA & MARCELA can’t be ruled out either.
Will win: Emin Alper (A TALE OF THREE SISTERS)
Should win: Angela Schalenec (I WAS AT HOME, BUT)
The four remaining prizes are generally shared between the jury’s four favorites. Strictly looking at directorial achievements, I think Alper and German filmmaker Angela Schanelec should be the top picks. But Wang Quan’an (ÖNDÖG), Teona Strugar Mitevska (GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA), Nadav Lapid (SYNONYMS) are all legitimate contenders. Giving this award to a female director in a year where female directors are responsible for 7/16 of the competition films would be a fitting gesture, I’m predicting a male winner here because…
Alfred Bauer Prize (for a feature film that opens new perspectives)
Will win: GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA
Should win: I WAS AT HOME, BUT
Female-directed films would probably have a good night overall, and with this category I see a great opportunity to give adventurous, provocative female filmmakers their due. Whether it’s through the unlikely crowd-pleaser GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA or the formally radical arthouse head-scratcher I WAS AT HOME, BUT, these women do open new perspectives, socially, politically, artistically. But of course, if the jury is simply going by giving the top four prizes to their four favorites, then any of the ones named above could triumph.
Grand Jury Prize
Will win: ÖNDÖG
Should win: ÖNDÖG
ÖNDÖG is something else all right. Set against the spellbinding backdrop of Mongolia, it morphs from a murder mystery to a Malick-esque meditation on life, death, our place in the universe. It’s not exactly accessible and may require multiple viewings to properly digest all it has to say, but a memorable, gorgeous piece of cinema it is. No doubt about it. My thinking is with a jury that consists of such arthouse veterans as Binoche and Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, critic Justin Chang and MOMA curator Rajendra Roy, the choices may be more arthouse-inclined. Speaking of…
Will win: I WAS AT HOME, BUT
Should win: SO LONG, MY SON
Yeah, might as well admit that I have no idea what I WAS AT HOME, BUT is about. And those who consider ÖNDÖG inaccessible should not bother with the new Schalenec. This exceptionally idiosyncratic drama (using the term very loosely here) features shots of farm animals, unidentified places in nature, people talking to each other while looking stiffly past each other (a lot of those!), a musical sequence out of nowhere and next to nothing in terms of a coherent plot. It’s the work of an uncompromising director with a unique vision, so you leave the film feeling struck by something. What that thing is, though, may take an entire seminar to decipher.
Like I said, I’m assuming an arthouse-friendly disposition from this jury, hence the top two predictions. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gold Bear ends up going to any of:
I WAS AT HOME, BUT
SO LONG MY SON
GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA
A TALE OF THREE SISTERS
Well, we won’t have to wait much longer to find out if another German film will triumph on home turf after 15 years (Fatih Akin’s HEAD-ON was the last one to win the festival top honor) and if a German female director will take home the Bear for the very first time. The awards will be handed out tomorrow (Feb. 16) night at 7pm local time.