Politics wins prizes: how big themes prevailed in the 2019 Berlin competition

BFI Southbank's programmer-at-large Geoff Andrew gives his verdict on this year's prize-winning films at the Berlinale.

19 February 2019

By Geoff Andrew

By the Grace of God

Introducing his last line-up of films as director of the Berlin Film Festival, Dieter Kosslick wrote in the festival brochure: “We have remained true to our original aspiration, that the Berlinale should be both a festival for the public and a political festival.” That pretty much sums up what the festival is about: a massive, unwieldy event of many strands that sprawls all over the city, it succeeds in attracting lots of locals, while most of the films on offer can be described as in one way or another ‘political’.

What it doesn’t do, or at least hasn’t done in the last few years, is provide a treasure trove of the best new movies from around the world. The overall standard of films is middling at best, and one often leaves a screening relieved if the film in question can be categorised simply as ‘good’. ‘Very good’ is still occasionally on the menu, I’m glad to say, but ‘great’? Those were in short order this year.

Which must make things pretty difficult for the main competition jury. Tastes differ, of course, and perhaps Juliette Binoche and her fellow jurors – director Sebastián Lelio, actress Sandra Hüller, producer Trudie Styler, critic Justin Chang and programmer Rajendra Roy – found more to enjoy than the critics, most of whom, as far as I could tell, shared my muted enthusiasm for the movies on display.

Whatever, the prizes they awarded reflected Kosslick’s concern with the political. That said, given that there were so few titles in competition that didn’t feel especially ‘political’ – Denis Coté’s Ghost Town Anthology, Wang Quan’an’s Öndög, Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters, Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove and Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses were the only contestants for the Golden Bear that didn’t foreground sociopolitical issues – it’s hardly surprising that the jury’s decisions felt as if they were inflected by political considerations.

It’s difficult, otherwise, to fathom what they were keen to reward, given that the prizewinners were so very varied in terms of style and aesthetic. (One gets the impression, as with Cannes last year, that a fair amount of horse-trading may have occurred during the deliberations, ensuring that each jury member could at least feel pleased that one of their favourites came away with an award.)

Synonyms (2019)

Certainly, the three main prizewinners could hardly have been more different from one another. Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, which carried off the Golden Bear, had received an extremely divisive response from the critics; while some evidently liked the fact that it was brash, provocative and (for want of a better term) elliptical in terms of plot logic and character motivation, others, myself included, found it noisome, obscure, inconsequential and implausible, not to say unfunny in its attempts at comedy.

All that was clear was that its protagonist – a young Israeli who’s left the homeland he detests for an imagined utopia in Paris – undergoes some sort of identity crisis while the film mounts some sort of critique of aggressive Zionism; perhaps it was that aspect of the film that appealed to the jury.

By way of contrast, the Silver Bear winner, François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, was entirely lucid in both its intentions and its achievements. Based on real events, it charts the progress of a disparate group of men campaigning for justice not only against the Catholic priest who abused them all as young boys, but against a Church establishment that has repeatedly concealed and failed properly to address the crimes.

Notwithstanding Ozon’s deft and rather audacious decision to switch protagonists at various points in the narrative (which allows him to explore different facets of contemporary French society), this is essentially solid humanist storytelling with a strong, clear message, and all the more rewarding, both intellectually and emotionally, for that.

The best director prize, meanwhile, went to Germany’s Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But. Unlike the Lapid and Ozon films, this film isn’t highly political in terms of its content; rather, it is its narrative aesthetic that might be regarded as radical in terms of representation. The central character, if she may be described as such in a movie that de-centres just about everyone and everything involved, even delivers a lengthy rant at one point about the politics of representation in film and art.

I Was at Home, But (2019)

So elliptical and taciturn is the narrative, and so off-centre and unilluminating the compositions, that it’s often hard, even impossible, to discern exactly who is doing what and why. All we are allowed is a vague impression of a storyline whereby a woman – widowed a couple of years earlier, we learn halfway through the film – is having problems (though what they are is never made clear) with her teenage son, who is in some undefined kind of trouble at school, and losing her patience for some reason with her younger daughter.

Meanwhile, every so often, we see schoolkids rehearsing scenes from Hamlet and follow the woman’s troubled purchase of a second-hand bike. One can only presume that the jury was invigorated by this take on cinematic storytelling. I was not.

Politics may have swayed the choices for the other prizes. The Alfred Bauer prize (which goes to the second runner-up for best film) went to Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, a sensitive, intelligent, faintly predictable look at a psychologically volatile nine-year-old girl and the attempts of various professionals and others to find a ‘normal’ home for her in society.

The best screenplay went to investigative journalist Roberto Saviano (of Gomorrah fame) for his hard-hitting screenplay for Piranhas, adapted from his own novel about teenagers getting caught up in organised crime in Naples. And the best actress and best actor prizes were given to Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun for their work in Wang Xioashuai’s So Long, My Son. While each performance was good, there were equally fine ones in other films, and one wonders whether it was really the film itself – a tale of family life which depicts the dramatic changes that have transformed everyday life in China from the early 1980s to the present – that was being rewarded.

Out Stealing Horses (2019)

Indeed, the only award given to a film which could not be said to be primarily political in form or content was the one presented to Rasmus Videbaek for his cinematography in Out Stealing Horses – though even that film touches in passing on Norwegian collaboration and resistance during the Second World War. At the Berlinale, it seems, the political is probably inescapable.

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