The first significant European film festival of the calendar year is the Berlinale, and amongst cinephiles it’s also considered one of the most serious. The Berlin-based film festival generally eschews glitz and glamour for a more challenging line-up that favours the progressive, the unconventional, and the international. This was reflected in last year’s top prize, the Goldener Bär (Golden Bear), going to Chinese director Diao Yinan’s riveting homage to film noir Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014).
Founded in West Berlin in 1951, even as a sextegenarian the Dieter Kosslick-led Berlinale remains in rude health – it draws the largest audience in the world for a film festival (around 500,000 admissions per year) into its 16 venues around the German capital. Yet in this 65th edition, there is perhaps a higher profile than usual. The jury will be headed by director Darren Aronofsky, while the public programme brims with international and European premieres. Here are a selection of 2015’s highlights.
Nobody Wants The Night (dir. Isabel Coixet)
Isabel Coixet has featured at the Berlinale six times and was a member of the jury in 2009, but this year the Spanish director becomes only the second woman in the history to hold the prestigious opening-night slot. Her film stars Juliette Binoche as Josephine Peary – the daring and dauntless wife of Arctic explorer Robert Peary – who befriends young Inuit woman Allaka in the cruel conditions of winter in 1908 Greenland.
Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick)
Named after the tarot card that indicates youth, transition, struggle and conflict, Terrence Malick’s new feature is about the perils of Hollywood fame. The infamously reclusive US director won Berlin’s Golden Bear for The Thin Red Line in 1999, while his film The Tree of Life took the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2011. A compelling hit is on the cards, especially given the A-list cast of Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Christian Bale.
45 Years (dir. Andrew Haigh)
British director Andrew Haigh brings a complete change of scenery to Berlin, following on from his popular HBO television series Looking, about a group of gay friends in San Francisco. Haigh’s 45 Years – which is in competition at the festival – is a surreal drama starring Charlotte Rampling that focuses on the discovery of a corpse and how it impacts a marriage nearing its 45th anniversary.
Taxi (dir. Jafar Panahi)
Rarely have artistic restraints on work been clearer than with the case of Jafar Panahi. The Iranian director was forced to smuggle his feature This is Not a Film (2011) through a USB hidden in a cake to Cannes Film Festival when under a government filmmaking ban. Now trapped in Tehran and under the threat of imprisonment, Panahi’s latest film is a portrait of the Iranian capital from the inside of a taxi, with the director interviewing the bric-a-brac of passengers that enter.
Queen of the Desert (dir. Werner Herzog)
In what is a rare foray away from hard documentary, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert is a biopic of audacious novelist and member of the British secret service Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman). After a tragic love affair with diplomat and inveterate gambler Henry Cadogan (James Franco), Bell decided to give up on her private life and discover the region as an explorer. In what is sure to be an inflammatory bit of casting, Robert Pattinson is lined up as TE Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia.
Every Thing Will Be Fine (dir. Wim Wenders)
Always the innovator, German director Wim Wenders will debut his new 3D film at Berlin, which stars James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rachel McAdams. The English-language film explores the consequences of accidental manslaughter, and process of forgiving oneself. The award-winning director, who played a key role in the New German Cinema movement, will also be receiving Berlin’s lifetime achievement award, while classics such as Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) will be screened.
Fifty Shades of Grey (dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson)
The heartbeats of housewives around the globe heightened with news that the EL James’s bestselling erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey would be adapted into a film. While the novel’s most infamous scene – which involved billionaire S&M enthusiast Christian Grey removing a tampon from virginal student Anastasia Steele without asking – it is still expected to be some of the steamiest cinema in a decade, with sex scenes reportedly constituting about a fifth of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film.
The Pearl Button (dir. Patricio Guzmán)
The only documentary in competition at Berlin is Patricio Guzman’s The Pearl Button. While in 2010’s Nostalgia for the Light Guzman gazed at the stars, the Chilean director’s latest film dives into the ocean. Chile, with its 2,670 miles of coastline, is the largest archipelago in the world, and Guzman surveys the human history – from Patagonia’s Indigenous people to the first English sailors that arrived – in this poetically shot gem.
Life (dir. Anton Corbijn)
Throughout his filmmaking career, Anton Corbijn has documented a diverse array of celebrity personas: from Arcade Fire, to Metallica, to Joy Division. But his latest release, Life, shifts from his previous musical preoccupations to the young, charismatic James Dean. Corbijn focuses on Dean’s encounter with Hollywood photographer Dennis Stock, who took a series of photographs that made the myth of the future cult icon.
Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad)
After producing a number of critically-acclaimed movies such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Tree of Life (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), Bill Pohlad comes to Berlin with only his second directing credit. Love & Mercy is a biopic of the Beach Boy’s reclusive singer-songwriter Brian Wilson (John Cusack), which explores the musician’s diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, through his relationship with then-future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
The 2015 Berlin Film Festival runs 5-15 February. For more information visit: berlinale.de/en