Berlinale 2017: Beyond the Competition

We take a look at the rich but lesser known cinematic pleasures outside the main competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival

Article by Philip Concannon | 17 Feb 2017

It's hard to know how to approach a festival like the Berlinale. The natural inclination is to gravitate towards the highest-profile Competition titles, but the festival is so sprawling and boasts such an extraordinary range of films, it offers ample rewards for the adventurous cinemagoer who digs into as many of the strands as possible. I skipped a number of competition films this year in order to explore the Forum, Panorama, Retrospective and Berlinale Special strands, choosing films largely at random in the hope of stumbling across a gem, and the hit rate was gratifyingly high. Here are ten non-competition discoveries I made that represent the variety and richness of the Berlinale programme, and which are worth keeping an eye out for if they ever arrive at a cinema near you.

Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa)

Austerlitz is a film that doesn't seem to contain a great deal of incident, and yet it is full of jaw-dropping moments. Consider the family posing for photographs in front of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Sachsenhausen, or the tour guides blandly discussing unimaginable horror before advising guests on where they can eat lunch, or the teen wandering through the camp wearing a t-shirt incongruously emblazoned with the slogan 'Just Don't Care'.

Sergei Loznitsa captures these tiny but telling details by observing the throngs of indifferent tourists as they stroll casually through the grounds where thousands were exterminated, cameras permanently in their hands. Austerlitz does not explicitly condemn this behaviour; instead it raises questions about how we engage with the past, what the 'right' level of respect is and what we are ultimately looking for when we visit these sites. Loznitsa's film is stark and straightforward in its presentation, and its disquieting impact is profound.

The Bloom of Yesterday (Chris Kraus)

Adèle Haenel's appearance in The Bloom of Yesterday might be the most unexpected performance of the entire festival. This is a German-language screwball romance with Haenel playing quirky young intern Zazie, who is determined to cheer up depressed Holocaust researcher Toto (Lars Eidinger). Haenel has a natural melancholy that keeps her character from becoming too much of a Manic Pixie Dream Holocaust Researcher, and it also serves her well as revelations about Zazie's past come to light. In fact, the revelations and twists pile up with confounding speed in the second half, adding to the sense of tonal whiplash caused by the fim's breezy style and grim subject matter. But the sheer audacity and go-for-broke energy on display here, not to mention the uniformly committed performances, carries The Bloom of Yesterday an awful long way.

Casting (Nicolas Wackerbarth)

Few things could be more daunting for a German director than the challenge of remaking an iconic Fassbinder film, and the pressure is building on Vera (Judith Engel) as the first day of production is less than a week away and they still haven't cast their new Petra von Kant. Nicolas Wackerbarth's comedy observes the audition process and explores the power struggles between this perfectionist director and her ratings-driven producers, but the unexpected star of the movie is the enthusiastic rehearsal stand-in Gerwin (Andreas Lust), who spots a big opportunity for himself and consequently overplays his hand.

Casting is a smart commentary on creativity, power, gender and ageing, and it's also consistently very funny, with Wackerbarth keeping a tight rein on the narrative and drawing sharp, layered performances from his actors.

In the Intense Now (João Moreira Salles)

João Moreira Salles' essay film began with the discovery of footage shot by his mother on a visit to China in 1966, and from this personal entry point he has woven a complex discourse on the power of images, the passage of time and the failure of revolutionary movements.

In the Intense Now moves through Paris in 1968 and the Prague Spring, utilising a superb range of photographs and film clips and asking us to look at these images again in different ways. As his voiceover suggests, we never really know what we are capturing with a photograph until much later, when we can bring a fresh context to it.

In the Intense Now is a masterpiece of montage, flowing beautifully through a series of disparate narratives before weaving them together into a rich and moving whole, with the considerable assistance of Rodrigo Leão's score. It's an absorbing, beautiful, resonant film.

Kaygi (Ceylan Özgün Özçelik)

“What you see is the truth. What you hear is the truth.” This is the slogan for the TV news organisation that Hasret (Algı Eke) works for as an editor, but looking behind the scenes instantly shows us how things really work. Hasret is pushed to alter political speeches and shape the narrative of real-life events, and the idealistic young editor begins to crack under pressure.

Kaygi's exploration of lies, cover-ups and media manipulation couldn't be more timely, but it has its roots in the 1993 Sivas massacre, with the fog of lies and the pain of unresolved trauma manifesting through Hasret's nightmares, muscle aches and skin rashes. Kaygi is heavily symbolic and cryptic, in a way that only clarifies in the closing credits, but what really impresses is how Özçelik's slick manipulation of the camera, sound and production design emphasises Hasret's creeping anxiety.

Letters from a Dead Man (Konstantin Lopushansky)

Set in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, and following a small band of survivors as they live in bunkers under the scorched earth, Konstantin Lopushansky's stunning film dealt with very contemporary concerns when it was made in 1986. In fact, the director claimed he finished his film on the day of the Chernobyl disaster. Shot in a sickly yellow haze, Letters From a Dead Man is a harrowing vision of the apocalypse, with Lopushansky immersing us in his brilliantly realised world so completely we can almost smell the death and decay.

As bleak as the film is, however, this is also a story about hope, with the lead character (Rolan Bykov) holding on to his belief that his son is alive and writing letters to him, while a group of children are left to carry the flame at the film's end: “As long as a human being walks on, he has hope." Letters From a Dead Man questions the direction mankind is taking and makes a desperate plea for sanity in a world gone mad. It was a vital film then, and it remains so today.

Motherland (Ramona S. Diaz)

There are maternity wards, and then there is the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, the busiest in the world, delivering up to 100 babies per day. Ramona S. Diaz's camera tracks along endless rows of beds, with pregnant women often lying head-to-toe, and she follows a few young mothers on their difficult journeys.

The hospital is overworked and under-equipped, but what shines through in this intimately revealing film is the calm professionalism of the nurses as they try to guide these young women through an experience for which they seem completely unprepared. Motherland is a perceptive and empathetic piece of documentary filmmaking, with Diaz finding both amusing and painful moments amid the cacophony of crying babies and placing the Philippines' overpopulation crisis in the context of the country's poverty, lack of education and religious beliefs.

Qiu (Ma li)

Not many filmmakers can sustain a five-hour documentary set in an institution – there's only one Fred Wiseman after all – and in the first hour of Qiu, some of Ma Li's misjudged camera and editing choices don't inspire confidence. The film gradually settles into a compelling rhythm, however, and by the time we've reached the end of this long journey, the hours we've spent with the inmates of this Chinese mental hospital feels like time well spent.

Some of the subjects are catatonic and aggressive, but many are lucid when discussing their condition and that of others, with the patients often appearing to give each other greater support and assistance than the hospital staff. Qiu is a film about the fine margins between sanity and insanity, the incidents that leave a mark on a life, and it's a film that allows the afflicted to tell their own stories. “Thank you for listening to my babbling,” one elderly patient tells the director. “People don't usually pay attention to me.”

Somniloquies (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel)

After the visceral intensity of Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's new feature is a real change of pace. Somniloquies immerses us in the mind of 1960s songwriter Dion McGregor, who is regarded as the world's most prolific sleep-talker, with his nocturnal narrations being recorded by his flatmate every night.

These audio tracks are astonishing. McGregor seems to create whole worlds, characters and storylines in his dreams, often speaking both sides of a conversation and adopting different voices or even languages. They sound like radio sketches scripted by John Waters rather than the ramblings of a slumbering man, and the tales he tells are often hilarious, notably the visit to a land of midgets early on.

The lack of variety in the film's hazy visual scheme can get a little wearying before the film's 73 minutes have elapsed, but Somniloquies is still an entrancing and unique experience.

Tiere (Greg Zglinski)

Sometimes a film doesn't quite stick the landing but you can forgive such missteps because the ride up to that point has been so much fun. Tiere is a bewilderingly twisty thriller that eventually eats its own tail, but from the first frame it's clear that we are in safe hands with director Greg Zglinski. He has the ability to draw us slowly into an unsettling situation before rapidly pulling the rug out from beneath us, and he upends our expectations throughout the film, often to hilarious effect.

Birgit Minichmayr (in a too-rare leading role, eight years after Maren Ade's Everyone Else) is superb as the confused wife stuck in an isolated cottage with her philandering husband, who finds dreams, reality, past and present all getting mixed up into one indistinguishable whole. Cat fans will also be delighted by the presence of a talkative feline, while sheep fans may want to look away.