As the 69th Berlin Film Festival came to a close on Sunday, this year’s offerings were deemed to range from hapless to tasteless by Jonathan Romney in The Observer. Lisa Wehrstedt had the chance to spend a couple of days in Berlin at the very beginning of the film festival and make up her own opinion.

The Berlinale is not known to be the most glamorous of the festivals. It’s not as lively as Venice or as chic as Cannes, with the mid-winter setting and the all interior locations not helping its image.

Nonetheless, it has historically been a catalyst for some of the strongest films from around the globe and this year’s films were no different.

As it was my first Berlinale, I struggled with the passes, vouchers and tickets system and I am not sure I even fully get it now. I also had absolutely no time to do research on any of the films that were being shown, with my criteria being to choose what to go see by literally reading the movie titles and picking ones that sounded better.

This meant that I saw films across all sections and didn’t limit myself to those involved in competitions, although I did see almost all of the competing films that were screened in the brief couple of days I was there.

Two of  the best I saw were Systemsprenger (System Crasher) by Nora Fingscheidt, and Light of My Life, by Casey Affleck.

The former is the story of little 9-year-old Benni, a girl with psychotic episodes caused by infancy trauma who is failed by a system that is supposed to protect and nurture her, but also by her own mother whom she longs for so ardently. The film, by first-time feature director Nora Fingscheidt, is the most heart-wrenching I have seen in a long time. The performances were raw and passionate, especially that of protagonist Helena Zengel, whose desperate screams awoke the primal instinct of protection in every audience member at the premiere.

Anna Pniowsky and Casey Affleck in Light of My Life

Anna Pniowsky and Casey Affleck in Light of My Life (Credit: Cinetic)

The latter is also the story of a young girl. Twelve-year-old Rag and her father are in constant hiding from the people around them. A disease quickly decimated the female population all around the world just after Rag’s birth, with society yet to recover. Women are treated both as deities and rare treasures worth enough to be stolen from one another. When Rag’s dad, played by writer/director Casey Affleck, has to explain to his daughter the behaviour of other men, the film becomes apparent to be written by a new father of a girl who is now realising how his gender treats women and what it truly means to grow up female.

Some of the other films I saw and really liked were, unfortunately, not as appreciated by some audience members and critics.

During a press screening of the French Celle Que Vous Croyez (Who You Think I Am) by Safy Nebbou, most of the aged over-60 audience (who are quite prominent at film festivals) started walking out within minutes of the film starting. It is a shame that they couldn’t relate to the story, which revolved around catfishing and the way social media can give you newfound confidence in yourself, but ultimately it’s their loss as they missed a very enticing film with multiple plot twists. It also explored the power our words can have on people and the little care we put in them.

Similarly, The Kindness of Strangers by Lone Scherfig, which opened the festival, received negative judgements by critics who deemed it cheesy and condescending. And while in retrospect the story and the character treatment was insipid, in the moment it invoked a rollercoaster of emotions. Within seconds, the film managed to make me both bawl my eyes out and audibly laugh at the quirky sit-com style sketches.

However, within the plethora of films I got to see at this year’s Berlinale, some of them reached the other end of the spectrum and were absolutely dreadful and a pain to sit through.

Amongst them we have Mid90s by Jonah Hill. I don’t think I met a character more obnoxious than 13-year-old Stevie. Growing up we all had that one kid in our class who smoked, did drugs, drunk alcohol and had sex at an age which felt uncomfortably too young, especially being their peer.

Sunny Sunjic and Na-kel Smith in Mid90s (Credit A24)

Sunny Sunjic and Na-kel Smith in Mid90s (Credit: A24)

Of course, they felt extremely cool doing so and acted smug about it. I did not sympathise with any of the characters or their situations, with it feeling like the nostalgia element was being too overplayed, and I spent the whole 85 minutes of this barely-a-feature waiting for it to be over.

On a similar nostalgia note, an even more horrendous film I saw, The Plagiarists by Peter Parlow, went for the full on early 2000s home-video look: 4:3 aspect ratio, shaky shots, ruined-tape look and intentionally – I hope – cringy dialogues which sound like they come right out of a student film. I did not understand where the film was going and the build-up to the theme of the title was way too long; excruciatingly painful, and not worth the pay-off.

Another film which was way too wordy was Grâce à Dieu (By the Grace of God) by François Ozon. It tells the real story of a group of men who were all abused by a Catholic priest in their youth and are now, 30 years later, realising how pointless their efforts to speak up might have been. Characters fighting against an institution with experience in keeping things hidden and resolving these issues behind closed doors should provoke the viewer to feel something, but while this film’s subject matter was very interesting, it was not sufficiently captivating or emotional.

With a similar academic tone, Mr Jones by Agnieszka Holland tells the story of eponymous Welsh journalist Gareth Jones and the circumstances behind his exposé of the Ukrainian famine during the 1930s. It is a classic British historical drama, very educational but again struggles to pull at any heartstrings, even when the Ukrainian children resort to desperate lengths to survive.

James Norton in Mr Jones (Credit: Berlin Film Festival)

James Norton in Mr Jones (Credit: Berlin Film Festival)

A special mention needs to be given to one film that nauseated all of the festival attenders, Der Goldene Handschuh (The Golden Glove) by Fatih Akin, which tells the story of serial murderer Fritz Honka. The killer chose his victims amongst the regulars at the a squalid bar in the Sant Pauli district of Hamburg in the early 1970s. Although I cannot say I enjoyed this film, it didn’t lack to make me feel things, which was mostly nausea. However, I was also genuinely fearing for one of the characters, a young girl Honka was obsessing over, probably because many women know the feeling of being followed home at night by a creepy looking guy.

Overall, despite it not being the most exciting festival this year, I can’t say I regret spending a couple of days at Berlinale. Film festivals are occasions to see those films that you will never have a chance to, even in the most arthouse cinema in the UK. It is a chance to challenge and rediscover the potential of the film medium, even if it means at times sitting though some dreadful ones.