Five key takeaways from the Berlin Film Festival

This year’s Berlin Film Festival, the 73rd and one of the largest in the world, seemed to focus on violence and unconventional love.

From Sean Penn’s passionate approach to the war in Ukraine to the search for sexual liberation, the Berlinale pushed boundaries.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Sean Penn’s love for Ukraine

By pure chance I attended the world premiere of Superpower, Sean Penn’s movie about the war in Ukraine. The screening was in a music hall far from the festival grounds. Germany’s Culture Minister Claudia Roth was there, as was Penn himself, visibly moved and looking a bit frail.


I felt like I had won the lottery, until the film started, as it does not reveal anything new. Other critics there laughed at its simplistic approach. Penn is mostly seen smoking and drinking and at one point, a government official gives an interview through a curtain of e-cigarette vapour.

One journalist called the film a love story, which it definitively is.

“Meeting [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky was like meeting my children at birth,” declared Penn.

“The film gives a lot of food for thought,” said critic Hugo Emmerzael. “Why did he {Penn} make it, why is it playing at the Berlinale, and why do we have this morbid curiosity to see it when there were so many other good films that we could have watched?”

2. The Survival of Kindness is an allegory of racism

The Survival of Kindness is an Australian film with no dialogue, apart from a few exchanges in a made-up language with no subtitles. It was screened to bleary-eyed festival goers at 09:00.

It starts with a black woman, played by Mwajemi Hussein, alone in a cage in the middle of the desert. She escapes but faces more misery over the next excruciating hour-and-a-half before returning to her cage to die.

The film is an allegory of racism, directed by a white man, Rolf de Heer. At the press conference, a journalist described it as “a masterpiece”.

Asked why we never see Hussein’s character eating or drinking and why she walks long distances barefoot, she replied: “People who are minimised or discriminated against also wonder why people in power don’t see how we are suffering.

“I come from [a place] where I was walking barefoot. It’s not a big deal or a problem if you don’t have any other options.”

3. A solid drama on a toxic masculinity cult

Manodrome, a gripping tale on toxic masculinity and cult dynamics, is a film that embodies the troubled spirit of America today.

Set in a snowy, dark New York City, it puts us in the shoes of Ralphie, played by Jesse Eisenberg, a young man who is about to become a father, but who has money problems and feels no-one respects him. He joins a cult led by a charismatic father figure played by Adrien Brody, and things go south from there.

For this film, South African director John Trengove studied the manosphere, the online community promoting misogyny, which delves into what he calls “a world of men that blurs the lines between camaraderie and sexuality”.

As we try to understand Ralphie, a victim of trauma himself, we might wonder if the film offers too much compassion to a violent movement.

“That was partly what was interesting to me – how radical ideology reaches the mainstream. And we see this in American politics all the time,” says Trengove.

The film’s pace is enjoyable, but I had to leave before the ending to rush to a meeting. Later I asked a critic how it ended, and he replied: “Very sadly, I was awake and had to watch it.”

4. Two women directors explore sexual freedom

Marlene Burow in Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything
Two films in the competition explore complicated relationships between women and somewhat abusive men. They are set 30 years apart; both are in German and have unusually long titles.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Emily Atef follows Maria, a 19-year-old girl who falls for her boyfriend’s neighbour, a 40-year-old farmer “who knows how to handle horses and women”. We are in East Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it is a hot summer.

Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert by German director Margarethe von Trotta looks at the Austrian poet’s tortured love story with Max Frisch, who comes across as a controlling partner and a writer with vampire tendencies. He uses his wife as material for his writing.

After they break up, in her nightmares, Ingeborg sees a scary dog named Max. She ultimately recovers during an exhilarating trip to the desert.

Both films celebrate women’s sexual freedom, but it is hard to forget the trauma the two protagonists had to go through and the fact that we are still discussing this topic 30 years later.

5. We need to live in the moment

“In the 21st Century, we are all homo distractus,” said Belgian director Bas Devos, whose film Here is a true gem.

“Even when we are sitting in a dark cinema, we are never really there because the whole world demands our attention, buzzing and making noises on our phones. But then, sometimes, it happens that you are suddenly very aware that you are in a place and that something real is happening. You connect with somebody.”

In his film, a young, handsome, and sensitive Romanian construction worker named Stefan who always wears shorts, meets Shuxiu, a second-generation Chinese PhD student who conducts scientific research on moss, and helps her aunt in a small restaurant.

It is about all the little things in life that we fail to notice, like the mosses which Shuxiu studies through her microscope lens, or the delicious soup that Stefan makes with leftover vegetables for his friends and family.

Nothing dramatic happens. It is a slow film that leaves you strangely energised, with a renewed trust in human connections.

After researching the Romanian community in Brussels, Devos said: “I started to understand the danger of making something that would be a film about migration. I am not the person to make that film. But I hope that I am the person that can make a film about a guy with leftover vegetables in the fridge.”

In that sense, it resembles the romantic and much more dramatic Past Life by Korean director Celine Song, a multi-decade love story about people who left their country, that became an instant festival hit. Both films ask us to be present, enjoy the here and now, and have no regrets.