In 2024, the Berlin film festival featured a mix of delicious offerings and the occasional crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

In 2024, the Berlin film festival featured a mix of delicious offerings and the occasional crowd-pleasing blockbuster.


Is it appropriate to discuss cinema at the current Berlin film festival? Not everyone agreed. In response to a post on X about a podcast I participated in, someone shared a photo of Jean-Luc Godard at the controversial 1968 Cannes film festival, famously criticizing the focus on technical aspects instead of political issues.

The 2024 Berlin International Film Festival was not as chaotic as the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but in light of world events, discussions about movies could have been seen as trivial. Prior to the festival, there was controversy surrounding the invitation and subsequent disinvitation of politicians from Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland party to the opening ceremony. There were also protests in support of Palestine at the industry market, and complaints from festival staff about the Berlinale’s lack of a clear stance on the Gaza conflict. During their opening press conference, the competition jury, led by actor Lupita Nyong’o, faced more inquiries about their political beliefs than about cinema.

Berlin’s film events have always had a strong political presence, and this has been particularly evident in recent discussions surrounding the departure of festival directors Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek. Rissenbeek is retiring, while Chatrian is stepping down after the German ministry of culture changed the terms of the directorship. Despite facing significant challenges during their five-year tenure, the duo has achieved impressive results, as seen in the exceptional selection for the 2021 competition, which unfortunately had to be held online due to lockdown. However, their final year did not quite meet the same high standard, possibly due to a focus on addressing the serious global climate. Feelgood titles were not prioritized as an antidote in this year’s program.

Lily Farhadpour sitting at a kitchen table.

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One standout was the Iranian film, My Favourite Cake, which featured a strong performance from Lili Farhadpour as an older widow who chooses to embrace life. This heartwarming and lighthearted film was filled with lively moments and humor, although the ending felt a bit forced. It also had a powerful political message, criticizing Iran’s “morality police,” which resulted in directors Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha being banned from the festival by the government.

However, there was a sense of courage in the overall seriousness. It was a bold decision to program Small Things Like These as the opening film, but it was more than justified by the powerful drama directed by Tim Mielants from Belgium. Adapted from Claire Keegan’s novella, the film features a superb performance by Cillian Murphy, who is even more worn-down than in Oppenheimer, as a coal merchant and family man in wintry mid-80s Ireland. He is forced to confront the truth about the Catholic church’s infamous Magdalene laundries. Every scene is filled with a sense of coldness, condensation, and coal dust – and once again, the dominant emotion is anger.

Cillian Murphy dressed as a coalman.

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A powerful psychological thriller, Sons, directed by Gustav Möller, emerged from Scandinavia. The Danish-language film stars Sidse Babett Knudsen from Borgen as a prison guard who realizes she has unresolved issues with a recently arrived prisoner. Knudsen’s performance is both empathetic and chilling, made even more impactful by her subtle facial expressions in this fast-paced and intense drama.

Anja Plaschg looking up through the shadow of bars.

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Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, known for their expertise in horror, have subjected us to intense scrutiny in their film The Devil’s Bath. Set in rural 18th-century Austria, the film delves into themes of female depression and religious despair as a young woman grapples with an unhappy marriage and a harsh world. The stunning cinematography by Martin Gschlacht captures the eerie atmosphere of the story, portraying a world of decay and insanity. Anja Plaschg, also known as musician Soap&Skin, delivers a raw and captivating performance as the lead character, and her desolate score adds to the haunting tone of the film.

The contest showcased two highly anticipated documentaries. One was created by Mati Diop, a French-Senegalese filmmaker known for her exceptional supernatural/ Afrofuturist film Atlantics. Her latest work, Dahomey, was a concise continuation, just over an hour long but filled with thought-provoking concepts and poetic ideas. It followed the return of a collection of historical artifacts looted by French soldiers in the 19th century to Benin, reflecting on themes of colonialism, exile, museums, and the changing meaning of cultural objects over time. One of the artifacts, a statue of a king, even had its own musings narrated in an unusual electro-processed voiceover.

Mati Diop’s Dahomey.View image in fullscreen

Then there was Architecton, by Russian veteran Victor Kossakovsky, who delighted Berlin in 2020 with his pig portrait Gunda. His new film is a contemplation of buildings ancient and modern, and the stones that make them. The images range from cities destroyed by war or earthquake to apocalyptic cascades of boulders down the slopes of mountains and quarries. It made for an overwhelming, exhilarating experience – a very different kind of rock’n’roll spectacular.

There were also disappointments, particularly the clunky and expensive Netflix film “Spaceman” starring Adam Sandler as a Czech astronaut who has a dull close encounter with a CGI alien (voiced by Paul Dano) who offers him relationship advice. Another cosmic-themed film, “The Empire,” seemed promising with its eccentricity from French director Bruno Dumont. However, it turned out to be a tedious battle between good and evil in Dumont’s usual setting of the northern French coast, complete with impressive but exaggerated CGI. A colleague accurately described it as if someone had asked an AI app to create a Star Wars-style film in the same vein as Dumont. I would agree, although the film seems more like a cheap and overly cheerful version of “Battlestar Galactica.”

Occupying a prestige sidebar slot was one of those earnest dramas about Germany’s past that are Berlin’s traditional bread and butter, as stodgy as that suggests: Julia von Heinz’s Treasure, with Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry as an American woman and her Auschwitz-survivor father, who take a journey to confront the past. Dunham is nervily impressive, Fry – ladling on wise-owl affability and a dubious Polish accent – somewhat misjudged, in one of those films that take the spoonful-of-sugar approach to Holocaust drama.

Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry on the Berlin red carpet.

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For a more visually dynamic display of political urgency, the most impressive fictional entry in the competition – and a strong contender for the top prize, the Golden Bear – was La Cocina by Alonso Ruizpalacios, the Mexican filmmaker behind the remarkable 2021 docudrama hybrid A Cop Movie. In this film, he adapts The Kitchen, a British drama from the 1950s by Arnold Wesker, and sets it in New York City, specifically in a bustling Times Square restaurant where the employees struggle to maintain their sanity during the demanding workday. Ruizpalacios hones in on the experiences of migrant workers, particularly a stressed-out cook (Raúl Briones) who is involved in a tumultuous relationship with a waitress (Rooney Mara, delivering an exceptional performance in a more challenging role than usual).

Besides a peaceful lunch break, La Cocina is constantly busy with a lively dance of actors and cameras, and a thrilling performance by Briones that rivals the early days of Al Pacino. Even though we may be overwhelmed with restaurant dramas, La Cocina stands out as The Bear’s fierce sibling and Boiling Point’s intense boiling.

The best of Berlin

Best fictions

The films featured in this notification are La Cocina directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios, Small Things Like These directed by Tim Mielants, and Sons directed by Gustav Möller.

Best documentaries
Dahomey (Mati Diop); Architecton (Victor Kossakovsky); At Averroes & Rosa Parks – Nicolas Philibert follows his 2023 Golden Bear winner On the Adamant with another study of patients and staff at a French psychiatric hospital; No Other Land (Basel Adra et al) – a Palestinian-Israeli collective’s sobering inside view of village demolitions in the West Bank.

Sidse Babett Knudsen standing in front of a prisoner. View image in fullscreen

Best performances

Sidse Babett Knudsen stars in Sons, Cillian Murphy appears in Small Things Like These, Raúl Briones plays a role in La Cocina, Anja Plaschg portrays a character in The Devil’s Bath, and Liv Lisa Fries, known for her role in TV’s Babylon Berlin, takes on the role of a young anti-Nazi resistance fighter in the wartime drama From Hilde, With Love.

Best supporting performances

Emily Watson portrays a threatening mother superior in Small Things Like These; Motell Foster captivates with his solo storytelling in La Cocina; and Adam Pearson plays a derisive doppelganger in Aaron Schimberg’s recently released film A Different Man, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Best music
Soap&Skin for the folk-drone atmospherics of The Devil’s Bath; Evgueni Galperine’s suitably monumentalist score for Architecton; Richard Strauss’s Salome, as heard in Seven Veils, about the travails of an opera director (Amanda Seyfried) – a dizzyingly self-referential hall-of-mirrors drama from Canada’s Atom Egoyan.

David Scheid and Anja Plaschg, AKA Soap&Skin.View image in fullscreen

Slowest slow cinema

Tsai Ming-liang’s Abiding Nowhere, the tenth installment in his “walker” collection, features a Buddhist monk (Lee Kang-sheng) slowly traversing various landscapes, specifically Washington DC. The expression “It is what it is” takes on a deeper metaphysical meaning.