The Joy (and Pain) of the Physical, at an In-Person Berlin Film Festival

BERLIN — What is your strategy during a nasal-swab antigen test? Personally, I look up and to the right as the technician inserts the little wand, either affecting an air of nonchalance or pretending I’ve been struck by a highly original thought. I know others make idle chitchat, and at least one fellow critic has taken to staring deeply into the tester’s eyes. It’s a pandemic: You get your kicks where you can.

At the Berlin International Film Festival — which announced its prizewinners on Wednesday but is continuing public screenings through Feb. 20 — attending members of the press have had ample opportunity to hone their swab technique. Mandatory tests every 24 hours — even for the boosted — were part of a package of restrictions that the organizers of the festival, which is known as the Berlinale, agreed to so it could take place as a physical event.

There were complaints. But every time someone whinged about the new ticket booking system or became exasperated by the Escher-inspired exit routes, which always seemed to involve multiple uphill flights of stairs, I found myself thinking: “Deal with it.” Or sometimes, less charitably: “Suck it up.”

The category error from complainants is to compare this reduced-attendance edition with Before Times Berlinales. The real comparison is with last year’s online version, which debuted a stronger selection of films but didn’t feel like a festival at all. Consider that lonely experience as the alternative and the staircases, seating hassles and swabbing become a small price to pay.

And however deep your tester probes, it could hardly be as invasive as the public colonoscopy undergone in Peter Strickland’s willfully outré “Flux Gourmet,” one of the event’s buzzy early titles. Surely the most single-minded evocation of the discomfort of suppressing flatulence ever to get a major festival berth, Strickland’s film was only rivaled by François Ozon’s festival opener “Peter von Kant” for fun, gaudy aesthetics adorning an oddly disposable story. Ozon’s film quite amusingly pulls off its trick of overlaying details from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s biography onto a gender-flipped reworking of Fassbinder’s 1972 classic “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” without ever actually justifying why.

The single-location “Peter von Kant” is one of several Berlinale films that bears the hallmarks of shooting under pandemic conditions. “Fire,” which brought Claire Denis (incredibly) her first best director award at a major film festival, is another. Here, Juliette Binoche plays a woman torn between two lovers (or between “Both Sides of the Blade,” as the film’s more evocative international title puts it). If it falls short of Denis’s highest watermarks, it is at least notable for how it acknowledges the pandemic without making it the subject of the film.

Quentin Dupieux’s highly enjoyable “Incredible But True” takes an oblique approach, not referencing coronavirus restrictions directly but creating unmissable parallels in what is essentially a time-travel movie. Witty and unassumingly profound, it’s a marked contrast to Bertrand Bonello’s chaotically indulgent “Coma,” which involves lockdown navel-gazing of a borderline incomprehensible nature. It received a wildly divided reception, represented by the guy beside me leaving in a huff partway in and the guy in front of me leaping to his feet shouting “Bravo!” at the end.

Two lower-key Asian titles also unfold in coronavirus times, without being overwhelmed by pandemic paranoia. Hong Sangsoo’s “The Novelist’s Film” is another deceptively breezy slice of life from the Korean director, which brought him — a perennial prize taker at the Berlinale — the runner-up Grand Prix award. The notion that this makes the festival’s jury president, M. Night Shyamalan, a de facto member of “the Hong Hive” is remarkable for anyone acquainted with their respective oeuvres — the kind of thought it’s useful to have strike you when you’re having your nose swabbed and want to look loftily away.

The accurately named Japanese gem “Small, Slow But Steady” also featured masks, though here we notice the difficulties they present for lip readers. The beautifully absorbing story of a deaf female boxer whose beloved gym is facing closure, ​​Sho Miyake’s affecting drama is miniature in every way except emotional impact. Its bittersweet main idea, about a treasured place facing its imminent end, is writ in larger, bolder, colors in Carla Simón’s “Alcarràs,” which won the Golden Bear, the festival’s top award.

“Alcarràs” follows the windy, sun-blasted fortunes of the Solé family, from the Catalonia region of Spain, during the family peach orchard’s last harvest before demolition. It’s a lovely, chattering, life-filled title featuring irresistible performances from its nonprofessional, all-ages ensemble cast. Its triumph here makes it the third consecutive time, after Cannes and Venice, that a major European festival’s highest honor has gone to a woman for her second film.

But for all its sunshine and sad, brave wisdom, “Alcarràs” was, for me, outmatched by a much wintrier competition title. Ulrich Seidl’s “Rimini” is an uncompromising, coldly provocative drama that gathered no prizes, which is a shame. But that its star, Michael Thomas, playing a washed-up club singer in an off-season Italian beach town, was not specifically recognized is more or less a crime. My other competition favorite, Natalia López Gallardo’s formally striking debut feature “Robe of Gems,” did pick up the Jury Prize. But otherwise, as has been the case since the Encounters sidebar was inaugurated in 2020, a lot of the more interesting titles ended up there rather than in the main competition.

In particular, Jöns Jönsson’s “Axiom” is a clever examination of the psychology of a compulsive liar. And best of all — in this section, this festival and, for me, this year so far — there’s Cyril Schäublin’s utterly singular “Unrest,” a movie that is defiantly uncategorizable, unless you have a category earmarked “playful, otherworldly tales of watchmaking and anarchism in 1870s Switzerland.”

“Unrest” was the most transporting movie I saw in Berlin, at least until I physically transported myself to the city’s planetarium to watch Liz Rosenfeld’s experimental “White Sands Crystal Foxes.” The film itself is a rather exasperatingly overwritten art piece, but the experience was little short of transcendent. Lying under a domed 360-degree projection, suspended amid cascading imagery, I felt pleasantly disembodied. Later, it occurred to me how odd it was to yearn for a return to the real world, just to better escape it again.

Five Movies to Watch This Winter

To that end — escapism — the most all-cylinders-firing section of this year’s Berlinale was undoubtedly the terrific retrospective, called “No Angels” and comprising 27 Golden Age Hollywood comedies, each starring Mae West, Rosalind Russell or Carole Lombard. The actresses’ big hits, like “My Little Chickadee,” “His Girl Friday” and “My Man Godfrey” were there, but this blast of a selection also unearthed less well-known but no less delightful titles. “Four’s a Crowd,” starring Russell alongside Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland is one, as is “Lady By Choice,” in which Lombard plays a showgirl-come-good who “adopts” a fake mother as a publicity stunt. Retreating into a screwball-comedy world might just be the best way to massage away the annoyances of the real one.

Then again, as the days zipped by and the staircases seemed to just get longer, it became clear that the irritations of real life are an integral part of what we missed so sorely during last year’s remote edition. At one public screening, a couple started arguing loudly with an usher when she told them they must leave an empty seat between them. I was annoyed by them. And then I remembered to be delighted that I could be annoyed by other physical humans being physically annoying in a physical place. “Suck it up,” I wanted to tell them. But also, “I love you.”

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