Postcard from the Berlinale 2014

Jan Windszus © Berlinale

The 64th annual Berlin International Film Festival spotlighted Wes Anderson‘s "The Grand Budapest Hotel," but there was plenty more to see.

The Toronto Film Festival is to Sundance what the Berlinale is to Cannes. And while La Croisette may have the glitter, Potsdamer Platz has the people—even though a Berlin February is a tad nippier than a Mediterranean May.

Much like Toronto, the Berlin International Film Festival is a grand, urban affair with multiplexes moonlighting as art houses, swaths of press and screenings accessible to the public. Set all that against the backdrop of a German capital that feels nearly fully reunited culturally, physically and spiritually (there are cranes everywhere rehabbing the remaining bits of Eastern Bloc architecture) and you have an event that’s both fun and sophisticated.

Wes Anderson’s fantastical The Grand Budapest Hotel started things off with a delightful bang. The director has outdone himself, chronicling the madcap adventures of a legendary concierge (Gustave H, played by Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby-boy protégé (Zero Moustafa, played by Tony Revolori) in an evocative, playful film. (See our piece on the meticulous attention to detail Anderson and production designer Adam Stockhausen used to construct the film’s world.)

Nymphomaniac, the latest from enfant terrible Lars von Trier, was the other movie that had everyone talking. It follows the life of a sex addict, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. I couldn’t board my hotel elevator without some festgoer raving about having seen the extended edit of what Von Trier previewed a few weeks ago at Sundance. I’ll catch it in sunny Southern California when it comes stateside.

Some of the real joys, however, are the films that might not make it across the Atlantic. My first great surprise—Bing Du (Ice Poison), from Burmese-Chinese director Midi Z., a protégé of Taiwanese film giants Ang Lee and Hou Hsiao-hsien—turned up in an Alexanderplatz multiplex.

A young farmer’s son trying to support his father in Burma meets a local girl who wants to earn enough money to bring her daughter back from a forced marriage in China. Since the Burmese economy is not yet brimming with opportunity, they turn to selling meth. Watching it chart the subsistence-level struggles of the Chinese diaspora, you could easily describe it as Breaking Bad in Burma, although that belies the simple yet powerful style that is uniquely Z.’s.

It’s a tale that rings true around the globe, but the director’s gift is that he not only paints a starkly convincing portrait of contemporary Burma, he also manages to elicit heartbreaking moments of tragedy from the simplest material (a girl on a hill, high on “ice” and humming her favorite karaoke tunes while she dreams of her child). For a film of such small means, Bing Du packs one hell of an emotional punch.

My other great discovery was the dark Norwegian comedy Kraftidioten (In Order of Disappearance), starring an always phenomenal Stellan Skarsgård as a Swedish-Norwegian snow plower who investigates his son’s supposed death by drug overdose and sets out on a bleakly hilarious revenge mission that causes a turf war between rival Norwegian and Serbian drug cartels. While those who want to sell the remake rights may bill it as an action comedy, Kraftidioten has quiet, poignant moments in between the grim belly laughs.

Even more impressive, the half parody of Nordic noir, with its beautiful vistas of a snow-covered Norway, made Berlin seem balmy by comparison. The sun did come out for a while, and when I exited the Friedrichstadt-Palast theater, I couldn’t help but wander through Germany’s resurgent and lively capital. The great thing about a film festival in a bustling city (particularly this one) is that you don’t have to see a new movie every hour of the day—and the doner kebabs were delicious!