Back to Berlinale - Kicking Off My First European Film Festival of 2019
by Alex Billington
February 8, 2019
"I don't know anything about life, but everything about cinema." From one film festival this January, right into another. The 69th Berlin Film Festival, also known as Berlinale, has kicked off this week in Berlin, Germany. Due to a change in the timing of the Sundance Film Festival, that festival ended and then only a few days later the Berlin Film Festival started up. Meaning for those of who go to both festivals (which isn't many people but there's a few of us out there) we didn't have any time to rest or recover. I hopped on the plane Monday afternoon in Salt Lake City and flew right over to Berlin, spending a few nights trying to get properly adjusted to this time zone (it didn't really work) while also figuring out and preparing my schedule for Berlinale. What is there to see? Well, not much. The line-up this year honestly isn't that exciting (to me).
What am I looking forward to at Berlinale this year? One of my most anticipated is the new film from Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland titled Mr. Jones, about a journalist who breaks the news in the western media of the famine in the Soviet Union during the early 1930s. Holland's other film just before this, Spoor (aka Pokot), premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2017 and it was my favorite film of the fest that year. I love her work and I'm excited to see this new one - hopefully it's just as thrilling and invigorating as her other films. Another one I'm looking forward to this year is Varda by Agnès, of course. Directed by iconic French filmmaker Agnes Varda, the new documentary "offers insights into her oeuvre, using excerpts from her work to illustrate – more associatively than chronologically – her artistic visions and ideas." I'm sure it's going to be a fantastic look back at her life's work and I have a feeling everyone will enjoy it no matter what.
I've also heard good things about a number of films playing in other sections at the Berlin Film Festival this year, including: Fourteen, a teen coming-of-age drama directed by Dan Sallitt; Monsters (aka Monstri), a Romanian relationship drama directed by Marius Olteanu; Stitches (aka Šavovi), a Serbian real-life drama about disappearing children and a scandal surrounding the investigation; and A Colony (aka Une Colonie), a film about three teenagers from Quebec directed by Geneviève Dulude-De Celles. There's also a few well-reviewed premieres from Sundance that are showing at Berlinale including: Monos, a Colombian thriller featuring a score by the talented Mica Levi; Divine Love (aka Divino Amor), a sci-fi drama from Brazil about evangelical Christians and sexuality; and Photograph, the latest film from Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra about two people who meet in Mumbai (read my full review). There's always a few great discoveries in the various sections of the festival outside of the main competition - I try to keep an eye on all these as well.
Berlinale has been struggling these last few years to secure impressive films for their line-up. Last year (in 2018) the festival was widely criticized for having a dismal selection of films, aside from a few gems (like Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs, Christian Petzold's Transit, Thomas Stuber's In the Aisles). The festival is also in the midst of a leadership shake-up, with a new director on the way in replacing one that has been here for a while. There was hope that things might recover this year and the festival might start bringing in more high profile, high quality work - but that doesn't seem to be the case (so far). Which is a shame, because this festival has been known for premiering some wonderful films over the years. This year it is the 69th Berlin Film Festival, which makes them one of the oldest festivals in the world (just behind Venice and Cannes). In previous years, they hosted the world premieres of films including: the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, and (believe it or not) Barry Levinson's Rain Man in 1989.
Nonetheless, I'm here anyway and I'm always happy to be at this festival. And hopefully there will be a few amazing discoveries in the Berlinale line-up. You never know what's out there? Every morning I wake up, head over to Potsdamer Platz, and watch two films in the morning to get the day going. Between Sundance and Berlinale, the best films seem to be documentaries - and I'm trying to keep my focus on different docs that might be real winners. I wrote about my favorites at Sundance this year, including three outstanding docs, and I've got my eye on a few others at Berlinale this year to catch before the fest is over. Mainly these: System K (about French street artists), What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (about the work of controversial film critic Pauline Kael), and Fly Rocket Fly (about the first private space launch company). The most important thing is to keep watching films and to keep an open mind and hope for something great.
As usual, you can follow my updates from Berlinale on Twitter @firstshowing throughout the festival. I'll be posting reviews and other blog recaps on the site as the festival continues on. I'm also keeping track of the films I see on my Letterboxd page /firstshowing with thoughts. I'm just going to keep seeing films and if there's any real gems or anything that really stands out, I'll try and bring attention to it and write about it. The rest of them, well, maybe you'll catch a few at another film festival near you. Not everything can be a masterpiece, and sometimes you might end up seeing a batch of bad films. But as always, I love film festivals and I love being back in the mix of people and cinema and all the excitement about what's on the big screen.