Berlin 2019: Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms wins Golden Bear

With Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick passing on the baton to former Locarno artistic director Carlo Chatrian from next year, no one knew quite what to expect from this year’s competition strand. In the end, it was very much business as usual, with the Golden Bear for Best Film eventually going to Nadav Lapid’s autobiographical study of national identity, Synonyms.

In truth, the Golden Bear could easily have gone to a host of daring and inventive films in what proved to be a unexpectedly strong lineup. The biggest surprise was that Denis Côté’s chilling allegory for Canada’s forgotten rural areas, Ghost Town Anthologies, and Wang Quan’an’s existential Buddhist fable Öndög, walked away empty-handed.

Elsewhere the jury, headed up this year by Juliette Binoche, awarded Silver Bears to François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas and Outstanding Artistic Contribution to Rasmus Videbæk for the cinematography in Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses. Angela Schanelec also walked away with the Best Director award for I Was at Home, But: a mystifying family drama that, despite its opaque narrative and challenging approach, was many critics’ favorite to take home the festival’s main prize.

One of the biggest talking points at this year’s event was the withdrawal of Zhang Yimou’s One Second. A Cultural Revolution-set drama about a man who escapes a rural labour camp was reportedly pulled for “technical reasons”, a term many have chosen to read as a euphemism for government censorship. Thankfully, China’s other competition entry, Wang Xiaoshuai’s decade-spanning family drama So Long, My Son, didn’t suffer the same fate, going on to win both acting awards for the remarkable performances of its two leads, Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun.

However, the best place to unearth the most innovative films at the Berlinale is the Forum sidebar, which once again proved to be a rich source of innovative and thought-provoking films. Two English language films stood out this year: American director Peter Parlow’s The Plagiarists, a dramatic comedy that pits film against literature to ask who possesses the authority to speak on behalf of art; and Mark Jenkin’s wonderfully weird debut Bait, about the effects of gentrification on a small Cornish fishing community. Both films used antiquated camera equipment to speak about their respective communities shift towards a dangerous sense of nostalgia, highlighting how romanticising the past becomes more dangerous when it shifts from the personal domain to become a powerful political force.

History, and how it often obscures as much as it reveals, would be the central theme to many films in this year’s Forum. Lei Lei’s Breathless Animals, Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s MS Slavic 7 and Mischa Hedinger’s African Mirror all used personal testimonies, letters and diary entries to explore the complicated relationship between individual experience and national events.

However, it was Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is A Space in Time that stood out most. A four-hour opus based on written correspondence and other documents from his own family history, Heise reconstructs his own genealogy as social history in this profoundly moving essay film that combines the personal and the political expose the fallacy of nationalism in a continent of ever-shifting borders.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

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