Berlinale 2019: A Review

Berlinale’s Festival Director Dieter Kosslick offers a selection that has proved robust and stimulating, even if Lone Scherfig’s New York-set opener The Kindness of Strangers appeared to irritate large portions of critics with its non-cynical view of the world.

Still from Öndög.

One of the more pleasurable experiences in the competition was Chinese filmmaker Wang Quan’an’s new movie Öndög. A Berlinale regular, Wang previously won the Golden Bear for his 2006 movie Tuya’s Marriage and once more he returns to Mongolia for a mysterious and playful film set on the beautiful, windswept Steppe. It begins with the discovery of a dead body, but Öndög – Mongolian for “egg” – is more concerned with the cycle of life, as it turns its focus on a local herdswoman nicknamed Dinosaur (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who finds human comfort wherever she can.

Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet is another old hand in Berlin, with films like Elegy and last year’s The Bookshop. She returned with a very resonant film, Elisa y Marcela. Rapturously shot in black-and-white, it’s a true story set in the early 1900s in Spain about two women, Elisa (Natalia de Molina) and Marcela (Greta Fernández) who fall in love and marry when Marcela takes on the identity of her male cousin. Gradually building into something painful and potent, Coixet offers a stark reminder that even now gay marriage is still outlawed in so many countries. 

Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland was also on form with Mr. Jones, a harrowing story about how a largely forgotten Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones (played by Happy Valleystar James Norton) who travelled to the Ukraine in the 1930s to expose the wide-reaching famine that killed millions during Stalin’s reign. Known as the Holodomor, this horrifying event is sensitively but strongly handled by Holland, who never sensationalises as she delivers a film that feels very apt in the era of fake news. 

Another cast-iron true story was François Ozon’s By The Grace of God, a film that could easily be described as the “French Spotlight” in that it deals with the very difficult topic of paedophilia in the Catholic Church. Here Ozon, delivering something very different to his earlier films, shows how three men abused by a priest in their youth come together to take on the Church. Never hysterical in its approach, it proved to be an utterly absorbing drama. 

Still from The Souvenir.

Arguably the best film I saw here was British. Playing in the Panorama strand, after it received its world premiere at Sundance last month, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a semi-autobiographical tale of her early years as a film student. Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Hogg’s old actress-friend Tilda Swinton, who also appears, plays the central character, Julie, who lives a privileged Knightsbridge existence and begins a relationship with a mysterious but charming man named Anthony (the excellent Tom Burke). Wonderfully recreating early Eighties London, it’s a very subtle exploration of the unknowable in relationships. Better still, Hogg is already planning a second part. 

Berlinale runs until 17 February. For more information, click here.

James Mottram

1. Still from
The Kindness of Strangers.