Death and Rebirth

in 74th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Deniz Sertkol

The 74th Berlin International Film Festival unfolded amidst a backdrop of global conflicts, including Israel’s war on Gaza, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the rise of the far right in Germany. Regarded as an A-festival with a proud tradition of political engagement, this year’s edition struggled to assert any political stance. The turmoil began months prior when the German Ministry of Culture opted for a single-director model after financial director Mariëtte Rissenbeek announced her retirement, leaving artistic director Carlo Chatrian out of the equation – and without a job. 

Shortly before the festival, an ill-conceived invitation of five members of Germany’s far-right extremist party AfD to the opening ceremony triggered a widespread backlash, culminating in their last-minute dis-invitation. This misstep set the stage for further efforts to navigate political thresholds. Finally, the press roundup of the closing ceremony criticized some of the more outspoken prize winners, splitting the grounds between Germany’s political stances further away from the festival’s aim to platform discourse and free speech. 

Only five years after their promising start, sidelined by the pandemic and major budget cuts, the directing duo Mariëtte Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian are leaving the Berlinale. Tricia Tuttle, formerly head of the BFI London Film Festival, will be the sole director of the festival’s 2025 iteration. 

Endings and new beginnings

As this festival cycle is ending and headed for a new start, films throughout the program also deal with death and forms of resurrection.

Apart from apparent titles like Dying (Sterben), the Silver Bear winner for Best Screenplay by German director Matthias Glasner were works like the Senegalese-German co-production Demba by Mamadou Dia: a slightly glum narrative feature about a grieving father who gets immersed into a deep depression after losing his wife, and later his job. Or Arcadia, a fleeting reflection on reiterating past loves and failures by Greek director Yorgos Zois, where a couple is on a journey to identify the victim of a tragic car accident at a deserted coastal resort and discovers more about themselves, their fears and losses. 

As third Encounters film that holds up this theme, German director Eva Trobisch’s sophomore feature Ivo is a fictionalized glimpse into the work and life of a palliative-care nurse and single mom convincingly played by Minna Wündrich. Visiting her patients, who are at different stages of dying, much of Ivo’s work revolves around making their final days manageable within the limits of available care. At times, those limits are tested, and the boundaries between Ivo’s professional and private life get blurry. 

As part of the Competition, Another End by Piero Messina unfolds as a near-future fable in which the memories of the dead can be preserved through surrogates. And directing duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala bring folk horror into the Competition, winning their DoP Martin Gschlacht a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution. With The Devil’s Bath (Des Teufels Bad), they explore the notion of a life beyond the living in contrast to the psychophysical demise of a depression ridden woman in 1750 Upper Austria within the heavy burdens of a merciless catholic society. 

Germany, Bitter Homeland

Germany, a country that has been a so-called immigration society for decades, is still in a constant state of identity crisis. After the Second World War, Germany’s recovery was mainly yielded by so-called “guest workers”, people from across Southern Europe who helped to rebuild the country while being treated as second-class citizens. Expected to leave when their work was done, most of them never did. Their children and grandchildren still struggle to be accepted as part of German society, which sees itself as homogeneous as it has never been.

Three films out of different sections exemplify Germany’s ongoing identity crisis as a country that has yet to acknowledge its multi-ethnic population: Kismet, Kismet (Retrospective), Favoriten (Encounters), and Elbow (Ellbogen) (Generation). 

While Ismet Elçi’s black and white 16mm slacker film Kismet, Kismet from 1987 depicts a refreshingly boisterous glimpse into the ambitions of Turkish and Kurdish youth in 80s West Berlin, Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann’s documentary Favoriten is a long-time verité portrait of a multi-ethnic class in Vienna’s biggest elementary school. The head teacher, Ilkay Idiskut, who has Turkish roots, forms and informs the children of various backgrounds as best as possible while the school system utterly fails them. Over three years, the kids blossom alongside their teacher while being a vital part of the filmmaking process. Although the ending is quite harsh, it probably mirrors the reality of a marred educational system and the uneasy future of those children. 

Director Asli Özarslan’s Elbow is, in a way, consequential to these two films. While Ismet Elçi’s protagonist is still searching for his role in a relatively hostile German society, ready to accept his second-place stance, Elbow‘s protagonist Hazal is in full rage about it and has outgrown the sweet innocence of Favoriten. At odds with the opportunities she is given and the constant rejections she faces as a young POC, an unfortunate encounter with a German student tips her over the edge, and she erupts in violence. Fleeing to Turkey, a country she has never lived in yet is supposed to belong to, Hazal seeks acceptance amongst a diverse Turkish youth and fails to find alignment, just as Germany, has failed her.

With her FIPRESCI prize-winning second feature Sleep with Your Eyes Open (Dormir de olhos abertos), filmmaker Nele Wohlatz delivers a fluid and compelling view of hyper-globalized migrant societies and questions of belonging. Her protagonist, Kai, a heartbroken Taiwanese tourist visiting the Brazilian coastal city of Recife, delves into the lives of a group of migrant workers from China and finds herself mirrored in their stories. Like many other films of this year’s festival, Sleep with Your Eyes Open is a multi-hyphenated co-production, yet the various languages it employs work seamlessly with the story and its multilayered narrative and make it a quietly lingering highlight of this year’s program. 

Just as the festival is headed towards a new beginning with Tricia Tuttle, hopefully, it will find its way back to being a political and audience-friendly festival that embraces and empowers underrepresented voices on and off the big screen.  


Deniz Sertkol