There’s something about a country foreign to your own which epitomises the said idea of ‘foreignness’ more-so than language barriers, culinary specialities and cultural idiosyncrasies. It’s more than exchanging ‘thank you’ for ‘danke’, fish and chips for currywurst, or eyes-down ignorance on the tube for the occasional cursory glance on the U-Bahn.
Berlin’s biggest ‘something’ is a smell. A very specific smell. It lies somewhere between car exhausts and concrete; menthol cigarettes and brick dust; döner houses and glass beer bottles. It evokes a very mid-eighties, industrial sense of urbanity as opposed to the more clean-cut metropolitanism offered by the likes of London, or the traditionally European marble and stone presented by Milan.
For all of my German, particularly Berlin-native friends – of which I have rather a few – I must elaborate: all of this, as unappealing as I might make it sound, comes from a place of pure, absolute endearment. At the risk of sounding like yet another writer who visits Berlin, becomes inspired and rushes off to write an ode, there’s something truly gorgeous about the flaws.
I stayed in Berlin for four days. It was my first time in a Western European city, my only previous experience of Europe being family trips to the Turkish and Spanish islands. Ostensibly it was a last minute trip to see the Berlinale – the Berlin International Film Festival, for those less pretentious than I am, of which this year’s was the 69th iteration – with the intention of devouring every film possible.
In reality, I saw three, during one of which (the cutesy, albeit monotonous Varda by Agnés; we’ll elaborate later on) I fell into a hungover snooze. From what I could ascertain I wasn’t alone in this: the all-nighter, red-eyed atmosphere of Berlin is very much woven into the culture of the Berlinale. Early morning screenings are peppered with hungover press delegates and members of the public. Whilst this isn’t unique to Berlin, a similar atmosphere being present when I attended the London Film Festival last year, it felt amplified by the city’s already laid back, casual attitude.
Indeed, from a cultural perspective, Berlin and the Berlinale are very closely entwined. Whilst the festival hosts a very international congregation, and I wouldn’t argue it to feel ‘German’ (most conversations you overhear, particularly around the Berlinale hub at Potzdamer Platz, will not be in the Germanic tongue), it holds many clear Berliner values to heart. Democracy, equality and diversity are the clear festival columns, from the programme categories, to the competition voting structure, to the accessibility of screening tickets.
It’s all fed by an attention to the recent, somewhat obvious history which permeates the German capital. Outside of the Sony Center remains a stretch of the Berlin Wall, one of many enduring scars which carries the divisions of the Cold War into the present. Standing on its own like a tombstone for Berlin’s fractured past, it’s a symbol of unity; one which sits a mere fifty metres from the centre of festivities, its message being upheld not only by native Berliners but also by the largely liberal festival delegation.
But what of the films themselves? The atmosphere was muted, to say the least. As stated previously, I attended three public screenings (whilst screenings at Berlinale are famously more accessible than at the other major film festivals, the most in-demand tickets are hard to come by). First was Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a largely self-indulgent, bourgeois climate change documentary with all of the visual grandiosity of a Luc Besson flick.
As one might expect from a Besson-style film, a genuine conversation leading towards a cohesive conclusion is minimal. The film is compiled of a series of vignettes, studying the impact of humanity on the environment – the devastation inflicted upon the Great Barrier Reef, marble excavation in Italy and nickel mining in Russia, to name a few – further broken down into chapters examining specific environmental sins, extinction being the final bell toll.
Unfortunately, the central exploration of humankind’s impact on the natural world is consistently undermined by a style akin to visual braggadocio; everything is made to look aesthetically gorgeous, and oftentimes epic – as if in celebration – resulting in a presentation which feels tonally inconsistent at best, and incredibly confusing at worst.
With the next morning came Varda by Agnés, one of my more anticipated films from the programme: a documentary studying the life and career of Agnes Varda, the ‘grandmother’ of La Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave, again, for those less pretentious than I – typically accepted to be the most influential movement in the history of cinema, although this will be debated for as long as cinema exists).
There’s none of the self-indulgence or irritation I found with Anthropocene, but it’s bland. It’s just, effectively, an extended lecture in a similar vein to a TEDxTalk, presented during certain skits with a bit of fun imagination, as you’d expect from a pioneering mind of La Nouvelle Vague.
Perhaps, I concede, my hungover tiredness detracted from the experience; I’m sure that if I was better prepared for a lecture, I would’ve shared the fascination and enjoyment that many festival attendees expressed. Varda’s narration and insight on her own career and life is endearing, and at some points, heartrending – in one particular moment, she reflects on the tragic irony of her eyesight slowly degrading, which instils in you both sympathy and existential dread – but, unfortunately, I left questioning what the intention of the film really was, past an interesting insight into the life of a filmmaking pioneer.
By this point into the festival, I was feeling a tad bit disappointed. The highlights of my trip had very much been Berlin rather than the Berlinale; and it wasn’t just me, either. Audience murmurs across the auditoriums and venues all seemed to agree that this year’s programme was a bit of a dud.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was a hot topic (and is available in select UK cinemas from this weekend); as was Armando Praça’s daring Greta, a Brazilian feature detailing a friendship between an ageing queer duo (showing as part of BFI Flare’s ‘Bodies’ programme in March); the loudest applause was typically held for Nadiv Lapid’s Synonymes, the eventual winner of the Berlinale Golden Bear – the most prestigious award available at the festival.
For me? At my final screening, I sat down on my velvet fold-out chair largely in trepidation. I was determined not to spend my first Berlinale, my first international film festival outside of my native London, in the company of duds; but there was this strange-yet-obvious feeling that it was out of my control. Thankfully I’d picked wisely for my final screening: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, which had already debuted at January’s Sundance Film Festival to widespread acclaim, is nothing short of a masterpiece.
It follows a young film student (portrayed by Honor Swinton-Byrne; yes, the daughter of Tilda) in the early 80’s as she falls into a complicated relationship with a complicated, shadowy man. Their romance is drenched in pathos. As with Swinton-Bryne’s protagonist, we’re kept in the dark up until the incredibly bitter end, to phenomenal effect.
I’ll be quick to return to Berlin this year, and Berlinale for the next. I’d encourage any cinephiles who’re yet to attend – maybe you’re concerned about navigating a foreign country, or maybe you’re just ever so slightly lazy, like me – to get there when you can, and in the short-term, to keep an eye out for most (forget Anthropocene) of the films I’ve mentioned.
As for my last thoughts? They’re very simple. Thank god for Joanna Hogg.