Female Voices, Daring Films

in 71st Berlinale – International Film Festival, Berlin

by Pamela Jahn

Taking place in two parts, at different times and in a hybrid format, the 71st Berlin International Film Festival felt different by any measure. But it was the high quality and content of the films screening in competition this year that was most surprising. The selection of 15 feature films, carefully chosen by artistic directors Carlo Chatrian and his programming team, offered a fresh and inspiring global window on the state of world cinema in times of the pandemic and made the slightly manic five-day virtual film marathon at the beginning of March, which formed the first part of the 2021 Berlinale edition, all the more enjoyable.

What’s more, this year’s competition also presented great insight into the strength, vitality and diversity of German cinema, with four titles by German directors and the Georgian-German co-production What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (2021) by Aleksandre Koberidze adding additional weight to an already impressive group of films. In fact, it was Koberidze who won over most of the critics with his wonderfully unpredictable feature, so much so that our FIPRESCI Competition jury decided to grant its main prize to the film, which was completely overlooked by the international jury. Combining an intelligent and often poetic approach to storytelling with his special eye for capturing everyday life and a truly enchanting sense of wonder, the Georgian-born director might have relocated to Berlin to study film at the directing at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB), but the deep love and compassion he shows for his home country, its people, customs, and culture is visible in every shot and makes this film a cinematic experience as compelling and uplifting as it is magical.

Exactly how and why the international jury (which, for the first time, comprised only previous Golden Bear winners) managed to disregard Koberidze’s film remains a mystery. More importantly, though, the two films by German female directors in the competition both got recognised with an award, and deservedly so: Maria Speth received the Silver Bear Jury Prize for her exceptional documentary feature Mr Bachmann and His Class (Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse, 2021), whereas actress Maren Eggert won the inaugural best performance prize for Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch, 2021). Eggert’s character in this hugely enjoyable rom-com with sci-fi affectations is a researcher with the Pergamon museum in Berlin who agrees to take part in a trial to spend three weeks with a cutting-edge android (Dan Stevens) designed to become her ideal partner—and after some initial disapproval the two begin to fall for each other. It’s a simple premise, and not an entirely original one for that matter. However, what makes it intriguing is the mature, witty, and bold way it is executed by Schrader, along with the composite of the personalities by the two leads, that give the film its soul.

Perhaps the most intriguing character on screen across this year’s selection, however, turned out to be real person. Herr Bachmann, the extraordinary teacher who is portrayed in Speth’s film during his last year in service, offers a compelling perspective on how to educate kids in our modern times, at a place where immigration rates are high and the kids are confined by language barriers and the social environment they grow up in. Admittedly, at first, a three-and-a-half hour long documentary set almost entirely in classroom full of rowdy youngsters did not necessarily appeal as ideal viewing in the context of a bustling festival—but an outstanding film such as this, whatever its length, is always a better choice than a bunch of mediocre 90-minute films that play safe and risk little.

This harks back to a common critique from German filmmakers and audiences alike that its national cinema isn’t radical enough and the local film business too risk-averse. However, the films in this year’s Berlinale competition provide strong evidence for the need and desire of different creative approaches that are not driven solely by commercial interests but rather by artistic inspiration and expression. Since the heyday of the Berlin School, which included directors like last year’s FIPRESCI Berlinale winner Christian Petzold, no significant New Wave or film movement has emerged on the German scene at the start of the century. But it’s inspiring and promising to see so many great German female filmmakers emerge on the international film circuit in recent years, including Nora Fingscheidt, the director of Germany’s Oscar entry, System Crasher (2019), which premiered at the Berlinale in 2019, and Julia von Heinz, whose film And Tomorrow the Entire World (2020) celebrated its world premieres in Venice last autumn.

On the other hand, Daniel Brühl and Dominik Graf, the other two German directors in competition, did not disappoint either. And they also both took risks in their own ways in respect of their creative decisions: Brühl as he portrays a heightened version of himself in his directorial debut, Next Door (Nebenan, 2021), a biting satire on gentrification, privilege, class, and today’s cultural norms; and Graf with a literary adaptation of Erich Kästner’s Fabian – Going to the Dogs (Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde, 2021), one of the most important novels of the Weimar Republic, about a recent college graduate who finds himself mixed up with the teeming underbelly of Berlin society and soon falls in love with a woman who proves his downfall. With its striking, playful and well-balanced use of split screens, black and white shots and bursts of archive footage, Fabian clearly aims high, visually and sensually, in an attempt to address Germany’s steady decline into National Socialism in the 1930s; the film does not always succeed, but its ambition is truly admirable, and Tom Schilling as Fabian is compelling and engaging throughout. Albrecht Schuch and Saskia Rosendahl also provide strong acting support as broken best friend and fateful lover respectively, and Graf, who seems equally comfortable directing for the small or big screen, once more demonstrates the full range of his talent and his versatility as one of the greatest German auteurs of his generation. As with the other films in this year’s excitingly strong Competition selection, it will be a very special treat to see Fabian together with an audience in a real cinema during the Berlinale Summer Special event that is currently planned for June 2021.

Pamela Jahn
Edited by Robert Horton