How humanist films dominated the 2018 Berlin competition

Humanist themes of freedom, suffering and survival proved the flavour of this year’s Berlin Film Festival competition, found BFI Southbank’s programmer-at-large Geoff Andrew. Even in the animated dog movie.

Geoff Andrew

Touch Me Not (2018)

Touch Me Not (2018)

The 2018 Berlinale, many attendees agreed, did not provide the most exciting of competitions. However uneven the Berlin selection often is, there are usually at least two, maybe even three or four films that one might call ‘great’ competing. This year, after the early high of Wes Anderson’s opener Isle of Dogs, they proved harder to find.

Consequently, the age-old and very often futile pastime of trying to guess which films would be rewarded with prizes from the jury was all the more difficult this year. Indeed, the six-strong posse presided over by director Tom Tykwer – the others were actor Cécile de France, producer Adele Romanski, TIME critic Stephanie Zacharek, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and programmer-administrator-photographer Chema Prado – astonished everybody by awarding the Golden Bear to Adina Pinitilie’s Touch Me Not, a well-meaning but stilted, vaguely experimental documentary-of-sorts (much of it is clearly staged) about various issues related to the body, sexuality, intimacy and so forth.

I suppose the film stood out in that it was a bit different. Still, only by considering the competition as a whole, and looking at which titles were finally favoured by the jury, can one get a sense of what they might have been looking for.

One thing that struck this writer was the large number of films selected for the competition which were, in one way or another, based on real events or real people. Black 47, U – July 22, 3 Days in Quiberon, Entebbe, Sign of the Devil, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Dovlatov and Museo are all to some degree recreations of moments or figures from history. With only two minor exceptions, however, the jury passed over these films (understandably in a few instances).

Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Museo won the best screenplay prize while Alexei German Jr’s Dovlatov was praised for its production and costume design, winning the prize for outstanding artistic contribution – not exactly the highest-profile awards, then. Also going unrewarded were a couple of adaptations (Transit, Eva) and several black comedies (Damsel, Pig, The Real Estate). So what the jury appears to have preferred is humanist fare of some sort or another: tales of suffering and survival, self-improvement and redemption.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018)

This much was true even of the aforementioned Museo (where the thief protagonist played by Gael García Bernal finally sees the light and does the right thing) and of Isle of Dogs, an animated fable which won Wes Anderson the best direction prize – although the primary characters are all canine, they do speak, think and behave like humans, and the narrative, for all its typically offbeat wit, is very much a right-on tale about freedom, tolerance and the need to fight against injustice and persecution.

Cédric Khan’s The Prayer – which won Anthony Bajon the best actor prize – is about a young smack addict overcoming his habit and finding freedom and love, while Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses – which had Ana Brun named as best actress as well as winning the Alfred Bauer prize (essentially, for the third-best film) – centres on an ageing lesbian who’s wary and weary of the world suddenly becoming revitalised by an encounter with a younger woman. Whatever their respective virtues (and The Heiresses, though slight, was undoubtedly one of the better films in competition), both of these films fall firmly within the familiar territory of gentle humanist realism.

The Heiresses (Las herederas, 2018)

The Heiresses (Las herederas, 2018)

Less earnest, despite its subject matter, was Malgorzata Szumowska’s Mug, which won the Grand Jury prize (making it the runner-up to the Golden Bear-winner). For all its infectious energy and dark satirical elements – particularity at the expense of the Catholic church – this is nevertheless another tale of courage and determination overcoming prejudice and pain: in this case the consequences of a face transplant carried out after a young construction worker has a near-fatal accident.

And if it was indeed that kind of positive narrative dynamic that appealed to Tykwer’s jury, that could perhaps the explain the top prize going to Pintilie’s Touch Me Not, which from its opening moments announces itself as an up-close-and-personal look at the human body and its various effects on the lives of people who are experiencing some sort of suffering, be it  physical, social, emotional, psychological or whatever. Whatever else one may think about the film, at least it wears its heart on its sleeve.

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