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Berlin film festival 2024 roundup – tasty treats and the odd potboiler

<span>Small Things Like These star Cillian Murphy, right, on the red carpet with Matt Damon, one of the film’s financial backers. </span><span>Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Small Things Like These star Cillian Murphy, right, on the red carpet with Matt Damon, one of the film’s financial backers. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Should we be talking about cinema at this year’s Berlin film festival? Not everyone thought so. After a post on X about a podcast discussion I took part in here, someone responded with a photo of Jean-Luc Godard at 1968’s politically fraught Cannes film festival, making his famous accusation: “And you’re talking tracking shots and closeups! You’re idiots!”

The 2024 Berlinale might not have been as turbulent as Cannes 68, but given the state of the world, mere movie talk risked seeming frivolous. This year’s festival was prefaced by the controversial inviting, then disinviting, of politicians from Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland party to the opening ceremony. It was also marked by pro-Palestine demonstrations at the industry market and by complaints from festival staff that the Berlinale was not taking a clear stance on the Gaza conflict. At their opening press conference, the competition jury headed by actor Lupita Nyong’o faced more questions about their political positions than about cinema.

Restaurant drama La Cocina makes The Bear look like a cuddly cub and Boiling Point like a gentle simmer

In content, Berlin has always been more markedly political than most film events, but now the debate is also internal – with controversy over the departure of festival directors Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek, the latter retiring, the former stepping down after the German ministry of culture announced it was changing the terms of the directorship. The duo have achieved much in their five-year tenure, under unusually challenging circumstances: the 2021 competition offered an absolutely vintage selection, although lockdown made it online-only. This, their swansong year, did not quite match that standard, possibly because it was felt that grim times called for due seriousness: no messing around here with feelgood titles as an antidote.

A notable exception was Iranian competition entry My Favourite Cake, with a buoyant performance from Lili Farhadpour as an elderly widow who decides to live a little. This tender, breezy chamber piece crackled with life and humour – although even here we faced a somewhat contrived dark ending. It was also a politically angry film, with its condemnation of Iran’s “morality police” – which explains why their governement banned directors Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha from attending the festival.

But there was a certain heroism to the overall severity. Programming an opening film as downbeat as Small Things Like These was an audacious move, more than justified by this drama from Belgian director Tim Mielants. Based on Claire Keegan’s novella, it stars Cillian Murphy on superb form – even more careworn than in Oppenheimer – as a coal merchant and family man in a wintry mid-80s Ireland who finds himself facing the truth about the Catholic church’s notorious Magdalene laundries. Its every image was imbued with cold, condensation and coal dust – and once again, the keynote was anger.

From Scandinavia came a steely psychological drama, Gustav Möller’s Danish-language Sons. Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen plays a guard in a men’s prison who discovers that she has unfinished business with a new inmate. Knudsen is empathic and downright terrifying in equal measure, all the more so because of how little her face gives away in a drama that is ruthlessly paced and often brutal – physically and emotionally.

But no one put us through the works quite as mercilessly as Austrian duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, best known as horror specialists. The Devil’s Bath could be classified as middle-European folk horror, but really it is a study of female depression and religious despair in 18th-century rural Austria, as a young woman experiences an unhappy marriage and worse, in a pitiless world. With superbly atmospheric photography by Martin Gschlacht, the film evokes a world of moss, mud and madness, with a fearlessly intense lead from Anja Plaschg, AKA musician Soap&Skin, who also contributed the suitably desolate score.

The competition featured two eagerly awaited documentaries. One was by Mati Diop, the French-Senegalese director who made the extraordinary supernatural/ Afrofuturist drama Atlantics. Her Dahomey was a succinct follow-up, just over an hour but buzzing with ideas and poetic conceptions. Documenting the return to Benin of a collection of historic artefacts plundered by French troops in the 19th century, it mused on colonialism, exile, museums, the question of cultural objects and how their meaning changes with time – with one of the artefacts, the statue of a king, narrating its own thoughts in a strange electro-processed voiceover.

Then there was Architecton, by Russian veteran Victor Kossakovsky, who delighted Berlin in 2020 with his pig portrait Gunda. His new film is a contemplation of buildings ancient and modern, and the stones that make them. The images range from cities destroyed by war or earthquake to apocalyptic cascades of boulders down the slopes of mountains and quarries. It made for an overwhelming, exhilarating experience – a very different kind of rock’n’roll spectacular.

There were duds, too, none clunkier than expensively glum Netflix title Spaceman, with Adam Sandler as a Czech astronaut experiencing a close encounter of the third and dreariest kind, as he gets relationship advice from a CGI alien, voiced by Paul Dano. In a different cosmic vein was The Empire, an ostensibly promising oddity from mercurial French auteur Bruno Dumont. This was a played-for-knowing-laughs battle between intergalactic good and evil on Dumont’s familiar stretch of northern French coastline, laden with handsomely outre CGI, but ultimately a bore for all its emphatic goofiness. A colleague nailed it: it was as if someone had asked an AI app: “Give me Star Wars in the style of Bruno Dumont.” I’d concur – except that this cheap and (forcedly) cheerful conceit is a touch more Battlestar Galactica.

Occupying a prestige sidebar slot was one of those earnest dramas about Germany’s past that are Berlin’s traditional bread and butter, as stodgy as that suggests: Julia von Heinz’s Treasure, with Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry as an American woman and her Auschwitz-survivor father, who take a journey to confront the past. Dunham is nervily impressive, Fry – ladling on wise-owl affability and a dubious Polish accent – somewhat misjudged, in one of those films that take the spoonful-of-sugar approach to Holocaust drama.

For a more cinematically exuberant burst of political urgency, the most arresting fiction in competition – and a strong contender for top prize the Golden Bear – was La Cocina by Alonso Ruizpalacios, the Mexican director of 2021’s extraordinary docudrama hybrid A Cop Movie. Here he adapts The Kitchen, the 50s British drama by Arnold Wesker, transplanting it to New York, to a vast factory of a Times Square restaurant, where staff struggle to keep sane together through the rigours of a working day. Ruizpalacios focuses on the experience of the migrant workers, notably a harassed cook (Raúl Briones), who is in an intense, fraught relationship with a waitress (Rooney Mara, excellent in a far harder-edged role than usual).

Apart from a beautifully contemplative lunchbreak interlude, La Cocina is nonstop – with bustling choreography of cast and camera, and an electrifying performance from Briones, on a par with early vintage Al Pacino. We might be feeling a bit stuffed with restaurant dramas, but La Cocina makes The Bear look like a cuddly cub and Boiling Point like a gentle simmer.

The best of Berlin

Best fictions
La Cocina (Alonso Ruizpalacios); Small Things Like These (Tim Mielants); Sons (Gustav Möller).

Best documentaries
Dahomey (Mati Diop); Architecton (Victor Kossakovsky); At Averroes & Rosa ParksNicolas Philibert follows his 2023 Golden Bear winner On the Adamant with another study of patients and staff at a French psychiatric hospital; No Other Land (Basel Adra et al) – a Palestinian-Israeli collective’s sobering inside view of village demolitions in the West Bank.

Best performances
Sidse Babett Knudsen in Sons; Cillian Murphy in Small Things Like These; Raúl Briones in La Cocina; Anja Plaschg in The Devil’s Bath; Liv Lisa Fries, from TV’s Babylon Berlin, as a young anti-Nazi resistance fighter in the wartime drama From Hilde, With Love.

Best supporting performances
Emily Watson as a menacing mother superior in Small Things Like These; Motell Foster in La Cocina, for his mesmerising interlude of solo storytelling; Adam Pearson as a mocking doppelganger figure in Aaron Schimberg’s fresh-from-Sundance A Different Man.

Best music
Soap&Skin for the folk-drone atmospherics of The Devil’s Bath; Evgueni Galperine’s suitably monumentalist score for Architecton; Richard Strauss’s Salome, as heard in Seven Veils, about the travails of an opera director (Amanda Seyfried) – a dizzyingly self-referential hall-of-mirrors drama from Canada’s Atom Egoyan.

Slowest slow cinema
Taiwanese maestro Tsai Ming-liang’s Abiding Nowhere, the 10th in his “walker” series, in which a Buddhist monk (Lee Kang-sheng) proceeds very, very slowly across different landscapes, here Washington DC. The phrase: “It is what it is” acquires an altogether metaphysical resonance.