This Year, the Berlin Film Festival Sparkles

After two years of pandemic disruptions, the festival returns in full, with Kristen Stewart as the jury president and gems like Celine Song’s “Past Lives.”

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By Jessica Kiang

Jessica Kiang, a film critic, has been attending the Berlin International Film Festival for more than a decade.

In February, when the Berlin International Film Festival takes place, the German capital is reliably what meteorologists term “bloody cold.” The overriding fashion aesthetic is puffer jackets, the puffier the better, accessorized with a scarf and a scowl.

That might be one reason that, contrary to other major European festivals in Venice or Cannes, the Berlinale, as it’s also known, has never acquired much of a reputation for glamour: One can’t expect too many stars to hazard shoulder-frostbite in red-carpet gowns, especially as Oscar night looms in a couple of weeks.

But this year’s festival, which runs through Sunday, feels a little different. Call it the trickle-down effect of appointing Kristen Stewart — whose effortless, dressed-down cool and sulky, up-all-night charisma make her very much the Berlin of American movie stars — as the jury president. Or perhaps it’s the result of Steven Spielberg being in town to receive an honorary lifetime achievement award presented by Bono, or the fashionably late arrival of Cate Blanchett, alongside her German co-star Nina Hoss and the director Todd Field, to toast the German premiere of “Tár.”

Most probably it’s the rising tide of an unusually strong of lineup — which has scattered high-profile titles among debuts, documentaries and world-cinema darlings — that has lifted all ships. After an online festival in 2021, and a restricted, in-person 2022 edition, the Berlinale Bear has fully emerged from pandemic hibernation ‌‌this year, set to dazzle its attendees, however bulky their outerwear.

It’s a tricky line to walk, including starrier U.S. titles without seeming to be pandering. But not even the snobbiest cinephile could grumble at the selection of the American director Tina Satter’s “Reality,” based on her Off Broadway play “Is This a Room?” and starring a de-glammed, deeply convincing Sydney Sweeney as the whistle-blower Reality Winner. Using dialogue exclusively taken from an F.B.I. transcript, it is a gripping look at the mechanisms of state power brought to bear on an individual; every sniff, every pause and every non sequitur, culled from the original ‌recording, somehow highlight just how unreal reality can be.‌

In tension-building, closed-space prowess, that film is matched by Ilker Catak’s “The Teacher’s Lounge,” a thornily unsettling drama of clashing social and generational values set in a German school where a teacher (Leonie Benesch) copes with an outbreak of theft. Then there is Ira Sachs’s excellent, sexy and conflicted “Passages,” starring Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Such is the strength of the year’s selection that these two excellent films, along with “Reality,” played in the Panorama sidebar, when they could easily have slotted into the competitive sections.

Not that the main competition lacks in luster. After premiering at the ‌Sundance ‌Film Festival last month, Celine Song’s shimmeringly soulful debut “Past Lives” provides Berlin with some radiance. Greta Lee plays Nora, a Korean-Canadian playwright living in New York City, like Song herself, who reconnects with her Seoul-based childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) before meeting and marrying an American writer (John Magaro). It sounds like a standard love-triangle setup. In fact, it is anything but, unfurling into a gorgeous, glowing, aching thing that connects with viewers from every conceivable background, so universal are its highly specific observations on love and friendship.

If “Past Lives” doesn’t grab the Golden Bear, the festival’s highest honor for a feature film, my pick would be “Tótem,” the second film from the Mexican director Lila Avilés (“The Chambermaid”), a vibrant child’s-eye portrait of an extended family gathering to celebrate the birthday of a dying man. Blithely ignoring the W.C. Fields adage about never working with children or animals, Avilés manages to corral both, often in the very same shot, delivering deceptively naturalistic performances that plunge us into a young girl’s first experience of the terrible and beautiful coexistence of life and death.

The flagship German festival always debuts some outstanding homegrown work. “Afire,” from Christian Petzold, has many of the hallmarks of the celebrated director’s recent work: a woozy edge of ever-so-slight surreality; the transformative deployment of a music track, here “In My Mind” by Wallners, an Austrian band; the actress Paula Beer. But it’s also subtly different from Petzold’s recent titles “Undine” and “Transit,” unfolding largely in a chatty, Rohmerian register. Petzold’s films are many things, but rarely are they as funny as this discursive tale of an insecure writer struggling to finish his book — the press corps’ laughter felt ruefully self-directed — during a beachside getaway with a friend, while forest fires threaten nearby.

At the opposite end of the accessibility spectrum, there’s the severe German formalist Angela Schanelec’s “Music,” a beautifully composed but extraordinarily opaque riff on Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex.” It’s the definition of not for everybody, but if you’re the kind of masochist who enjoys the Sisyphean challenge of a movie that refuses to give up all its secrets, no matter how much you mentally wrestle with them, it might be for you.

The contrast between those two titles highlights the exciting diversity of this year’s thoughtful curation. One can only applaud a competition selection that includes a fun, true-story, rise-and-fall comedy from Canada (Matt Johnson’s “Blackberry”); a stark, despairing Australian colonial-oppression allegory (Rolf de Heer’s inaptly titled “The Survival of Kindness”); and a Spanish trans-themed coming-of-ager (Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s “20,000 Species of Bees”).

The competition also featured three pleasantly eccentric Asian titles: Zhang Lu’s “The Shadowless Tower,” a personal favorite; Makoto Shinkai’s wild-ride anime “Suzume”; and Liu Jian’s animated slacker memoir “Art College 1994.” Even the films that did not appeal to me — such as Philippe Garrel’s “The Plough” or Margarethe von Trotta’s “Ingeborg Bachmann — Journey into the Desert” — added something to the overall picture, both representing the old guard of European auteur cinema.

Toward the end of a festival I always get a little sentimental — chalk it up to lack of sleep or a surfeit of stories vying for space in my addled brain. But this robust, often sparkling edition of my beloved Berlinale has earned certain indulgences. When I sit in the Berlinale Palast for the last time this weekend, the lovely starburst trailer — my favorite festival ident, a glittering rain of gold briefly coalescing into the outline of a bear — will feel starrier still.

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