Who’s who in competition at the Berlin Film Festival 2019

From festival favourites to dark horses, here's your tip sheet on the directors featured in the newly announced competition lineup at Berlin.

18 January 2019

By Geoff Andrew

The Kindness of Strangers (2019)

True to form, the recently announced lineup of films at this year’s Berlinale – the 18th and final year of Dieter Kosslick’s reign as the festival’s director – is, on paper at least, a mixed bag. That’s true of all festivals, of course, though Cannes in recent years has cemented its position as the European event that the A-list auteurs tend to aim for, while Venice, coming later in the year, has established itself as the place to catch the premieres of the big titles that are hoping to make a mark during the awards season. In comparison, Berlin’s competition has often felt… well, a little undernourished.

That’s not to say strong titles can’t be found. Indeed, very often quite a few of the best movies of the year are first encountered competing for the Golden Bear. Rather, it’s simply the case that the highest-profile directors tend not to turn up in the Berlin competition that often, unless they’re given the opening night slot.

This means predicting any award-winners – always a foolhardy pursuit until all the films have been seen – is out of the question. That said, the Berlinale does have its favourites – those filmmakers who have been regular visitors to the festival in one strand or another. So it’s worth taking a moment to consider the ‘form’ of this year’s contestants, seven of whom – more than a third of the 17 – are women.

The Kindness of Strangers, which opens the festival, is an English-language international co-production by Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig; she’s been a regular in Berlin since her feature debut The Birthday Trip screened in the Panorama in 1990; On Our Own (1998) played in the children’s section, and both Italian for Beginners (2000) and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002) were selected for the competition. An Education (2009), meanwhile, played out of competition in the Berlinale Special section. So Scherfig, clearly, is one of the favourites; here are the films she’s up against…

Mr Jones

Another English-language co-production, this time by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland, whose first competing film was Goraczka, back in 1981; it won a best actress Silver Bear for Barbara Grabowska. That said, the peripatetic director hasn’t been that frequent a visitor. Angry Harvest (1985) and The Third Miracle (1999) played in the Panorama, but it was only in 2017 that Spoor returned her to the competition.

Elisa y Marcela

Catalan director Isabel Coixet is undoubtedly (and, for this writer at least, rather unfathomably) a Berlin favourite. After making her debut in the 1995 Panorama with Things I Never Told You, she went on to the competition in 2003 with the English-language My Life without Me. Since then, Listening to the Judge (2011) and Yesterday Never Ends (2013) screened in the Panorama, Elegy (2008) returned her to the competition, Nobody Wants the Night opened the festival in 2015, and last year’s The Bookshop was given a Special screening.

By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu)

Prolific French writer-director François Ozon has turned up in the competition with limited frequency since making his first appearance there in 2000 with Water Drops on Burning Rocks, his Teddy-winning adaptation of a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Since many of Ozon’s other films have premiered in Cannes, his only other Berlin contestants have been 8 Women (2002), Angel (2007) and Ricky (2009).

Ghost Town Anthology (Répertoire des villes disparues)

Canadian writer-director Denis Côté first made his mark in Berlin with the 2012 documentary Bestiaire, which like 2014’s Joy of Man’s Desiring – also a documentary – screened in the Forum. The new film is his third in the competition, following Vic + Flo Saw a Bear – which won the 2013 festival’s Alfred Bauer Award – and Boris without Béatrice (2016); all these have been fiction features.

Out Stealing Horses (Ut og stjæle hester)

Norway’s Hans Petter Moland first appeared in the competition in 2004 with The Beautiful Country; though he’s not the most prolific of filmmakers, he is clearly liked by the Berlinale team since both A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010) and In Order of Disappearance (2014) were selected for the competition, making his latest movie his fourth stab at the Golden Bear.

One Second (Yi miao zhong)

Ever since his first feature, Red Sorghum, won the Golden Bear in 1988, the Berlinale has had a very soft spot for China’s Zhang Yimou, even though his recent movies are noticeably different from his earlier, more radical work. The Road Home (1999), Hero (2002), A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009) and The Flowers of War (2011) were all contestants for the Golden Bear, while Happy Times (2000) and Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010) screened out of competition.

So Long, My Son (Di jiu tian chang)

Another Chinese director with Berlin history, Wang Xiaoshuai made his debut in the Forum strand with 1993’s The Days before moving on to the competition in 2001 with Beijing Bicycle, which won the Silver Bear jury prize. More recently, In Love We Trust (2007) won Wang the Silver Bear for best script.


Yet another Chinese director with strong Berlinale form, Wang Quan’an first made his mark by carrying off the Golden Bear with Tuya’s Marriage in 2007. This new film is only the fourth subsequent feature made by the far from prolific Wang, but it’s the third in the competition, following Apart Together (2010), which won the Silver Bear for best script, and White Deer Plain, which won a further prize for its cinematography.

The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh)

Germany’s own Fatih Akin hasn’t been as much of a presence at the Berlinale as one might expect, following his having won the Golden Bear in 2004 with Head-On. Because his movies have sometimes premiered in Cannes, though a couple of films he produced have played in Berlin, this new film is his only other competition contestant as writer-director.

System Crasher (Systemsprenger)

This is Germany’s Nora Fingscheidt’s first feature after a number of shorts, though her documentary Without This World did screen in the Berlinale’s Perspektive Deutsches Kino – a strand highlighting new German movies – in 2017.

I Was at Home But (Ich war zuhause, aber)

Angela Schanelec is another German making her debut – with a German-Serbian co-production – in the competition. Hitherto she has had three films play in the Forum: Mein langsames Leben (2001), Afternoon (2007) and Orly (2010).

The Ground Beneath My Feet (Der Boden unter den Füßen)

Before stepping up to this year’s competition, Austria’s Marie Kreutzer had made several shorts and three features, the first of which – The Fatherless (2011) – screened in the Panorama, getting an honourable mention for best debut.

A Tale of Three Sisters (Kız Kardeşler)

This third feature marks the first film in the competition for Turkey’s Emin Alper, though his debut, Beyond the Hill, did win the Calgary Film Award when it screened in the Forum in 2012.

Synonyms (Synonymes)

Having had two shorts – Road (2005) and Why? (2015) – screen in the Panorama, Israel’s Nadav Lapid makes an appearance in the competition with his third full-length feature, an Israeli-French-German co-production.

God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya (Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija)

Though it’s her first time in the competition, Macedonia’s Teona Strugar Mitevska is no stranger to the Berlinale. Prior to this latest film (with what is arguably the best title of the 17 contestants), she had her debut short – Veta (2001) – and three of her four features – I Am from Titov Veles (2007), The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears (2012) and When the Day Had No Name (2017) – all screen in the Panorama.

Piranhas (La paranza dei bambini)

Italy’s Claudio Giovannesi, making his competition debut, has made a number of shorts, documentaries, television series episodes and three features; some of them have won awards, but not one played at the Berlinale, which probably makes him the the darkest horse of all in this year’s race for the Golden Bear. 

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