A Stride Towards Populism: Overview of Berlin Film Festival 5-15 February 2015

After only the first few moments into the 65th Berlinale’s closing night awards ceremony, there was little doubt about who would be the winner of the film festival’s top prize. Last year, shock and even anger permeated through the main festival’s 1600 capacity venue, the Berlinale Palast, as Richard Linklater’s much-favoured Boyhood missed out on the Golden Bear to Diao Yinan’s thrilling yet gloomy Black Coal, Thin Ice. There was to be no repeat, with festival representatives taking every opportunity to describe Berlin as the “political” festival: it had to be the dissident Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Taxi.

The Berlinale is never lacking when it comes to films that are radical and subversive – Pablo Larrain’s critique of the Catholic Church in The Club and Patricio Guzman’s survey of the Chilean genocide under Pinochet in The Pearl Button, are examples in this year’s competition alone. But Panahi was barred from leaving Iran as well as filmmaking activities five years ago (though has made three films since, and smuggled his 2011 This Is Not A Film on a USB drive inside a cake, to Cannes Film Festival), and his film Taxi is a joyous semi-dramatised portrait of his hometown Tehran, all from the inside of one’s of the city’s cabs.

It was a deserving victory, though certainly a popular one too. The Berlin Film Festival has often suffered as a consequence of Cannes’ global dominance, with high-profile film productions usually willing to wait the extra months to premiere, but festival director Dieter Kosslick has responded by re-orientating Berlin as the film festival of the masses. Already the most publicly-attended film festival in the world, 2015 saw the addition of crowd pleasers such as Kenneth Branagh’s glossy reboot of Cinderella, and – controversially – Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (which required police crowd control). Whereas, A-Listers such as Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, James Franco, Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman were in abundance.

Even the jury had a sprinkling of star power. Led by Darren Aronofsky, the group including Audrey Tautou, Daniel Bruhl and Matthew Weiner, did made some peculiar decisions. The Best Director Silver Bear was split into a double prize between Romanian director Radu Jude for Aferim! and Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska for Body – there seemed to reasonable precedent for this. The trick was then repeated in the cinematography category, awarded to both Sturla Brandth (Victoria) as well as to Evgeniy Privin and Sergey Mikhalchuk (Under Electric Clouds). Emmanuel Lubezki, surely the greatest living cinematographer, missed out for his astounding work on Terrence Malick’s dizzying Knight of Cups. But although Charlotte Rampling’s Best Actress victory for her role in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years was a safe bet, a few eyebrows were raised when her co-star Sir Tom Courtenay also took Best Actor. The Best Script award, meanwhile, went to Guzman’s documentary, El Bóton de Nacár.

In the build-up to the festival, a lot was made of the new confidence in German cinema. But Werner Herzog’s beautifully shot, but lightweight Queen of the Desert, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes failed to inspire in the way that Downfall did, while Wim Wenders’ Every Thing Will Be Fine underlines the director’s worrying decline. That, however, did not prevent this from being the strongest Berlin in years: one of the most powerful films, Gabriel Ripstein’s film about Mexican gunrunners 600 Miles, was playing in the panorama sidebar. Berlin is not a festival just about the leading lights – much like the historic, untamed city itself, you can stumble upon hidden treasures in the least expected places.

Berlinale ran 5-15 February. Find out more at www.berlinale.de

Peter Yeung

1. The Berlinale Palast, premiere of theatre of the Competition.