The 66th annual Berlin Film Festival kicked off on February 11th with the most recent Coen brothers film HAIL, CAESAR!, a cinematic valentine to a bygone Hollywood of the 1950s. Returning staples–George Clooney and Josh Brolin–along with other A-list talent–Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Ralph Fiennes–are comically interwoven in a tale of kidnapping, creativity, and controlled chaos throughout the soundstages of Capitol Pictures (a fictionalization of MGM) and streets of Los Angeles. A companion piece of the earlier Coen film BARTON FINK (1991), a satire focusing on an East Coast playwright turned screenwriter in 1940s Hollywood, the brothers continue to enlighten and entertain audiences through their observations on the necessity of art (and filmmaking) within an increasingly industrialized society.
Jeff Nichols’s MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, a science-fiction chase and family drama in the vein of John Carpenter’s STARMAN (1984) and Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), follows Roy (Michael Shannon) as he flees across the South with his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who exhibits strange supernatural powers. For much of the film the audience is left on their own in the dark (literally and metaphorically) to unravel the complex mysteries of the plot: Nichols made it a rule to not include expository dialogue within the film if two characters already shared knowledge of it. As a result, the audience remains engaged with the material throughout the course of its nearly two hour running time.
Directorial debut of producer James Schamus’s INDIGNATION, an adaptation from the 2008 Philip Roth novel of the same name, is a measured, solid character study of an introverted working-class Jewish student, Marcus (Logan Lerman), from Newark, New Jersey who attends a small college in Ohio during the Korean War in the 1950s. Focusing exclusively on his studies, Marcus struggles with sexual repression and cultural dissatisfaction and is changed by his encounter with a beautiful, but emotionally fragile, student Olivia (Sarah Gadon).
ALONE IN BERLIN is this year’s artistic Europudding that is grounded with strong performances from Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson. Based on the real life Otto and Elise Hampel and Hans Fallada’s posthumous book EVERY MAN DIES ALONE, this war drama follows a couple who starts writing postcards of resistance, protesting against the Nazi regime and Hitler, and leaving them anonymously around Berlin. Vincent Pérez crafts a beautifully designed film and captures the paralyzing conditions of living in Berlin in 1940: the atmosphere of fear pervades the piece, and puts the audience at the heart of resistance anxiety and terror.
Bosnia’s competition entry DEATH IN SARAJEVO is a satirical parable for a post-twentieth century Europe. Influenced by and interwoven with Bernard-Henri Lévy’s play HOTEL EUROPA, the film interweaves political and personal conflicts that reflect the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination of 1914 by Gabrilo Prinicip. Following characters throughout the labyrinthine hotel, they struggle to keep the hotel running smoothly for that evening, but the threat of insurrection threatens to collapse their order.
Italian FIRE AT SEA focuses on the flight of African refugees to Lampedusa, which Gianfranco Rosi captures with Neorealist, meticulous attention to detail. A documentary that eschews explanations about the migrant crisis, the story has two story lines, apparently unconnected: a young boy Samuele who lives on the island and a doctor who sees to the many hundreds of refugees.
Although there have been a variety of brilliant films have screened already, with less than half of the festival left to go, there are still many more films to be seen!