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Berlinale 2024
A balance with mixed feelings

Golden Bear for Best Film “Dahomey” by Mati Diop, here with jury president Lupita Nyong'o
Photo (detail): @ Ali Ghandtschti, Berlinale 2024

The jury has decided: a Golden Bear for Mati Diop, and a Silver Bear went to Germany too. The last festival under the direction of Chatrian and Rissenbeek gave the impression of being especially political and diverse. So what happens next?

By Ula Brunner

In the end, the Berlinale somehow managed to surprise us a little. That’s twice in a row that a documentary film has won the festival’s Golden Bear with Dahomey. In this film, Senegalese-French director Mati Diop focuses on the return of plundered African artefacts. She follows 26 exhibits on their journey from a Paris museum back to their country of origin, Benin – formerly known as Dahomey. Within just over an hour, Diop manages to distil complex issues about restitution down to the key points. An impressive artistic achievement, a controversial political topic – those qualities alone make the film a good candidate for a Berlinale Bear.


“Dahomey”, director: Mati Diop

“Dahomey”, director: Mati Diop | Photo (detail): © Les Films du Bal – Fanta Sy

Bears for African coproductions

Dahomey is one of three entries coproduced by African countries. So the continent fielded a strong presence in the competition – at long last, you might say. Yet another unconventional African coproduction received an award: in the film Pepe the eponymous and already deceased hippo tells the story of how it was transported from Africa to Colombia, where it lived in a private zoo belonging to drug lord Pablo Escobar. A bold cinematic experiment, for which Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias deservedly won the Director’s Prize.

With the Bears for Dahomey and Pepe, the jury is shining a spotlight on African cinema – which is still too much of a void at festivals. Do we need to point out that Mati Diop is the first Black female winner of a Golden Bear? And that Kenyan-Mexican actor and director Lupita Nyongo'o realised at the opening ceremony that she was the first ever Black woman to hold the office of Jury President? This is another example of the Berlinale making a pro-diversity statement

A wide variety in the Silver Bears

If Dahomey was the shortest film in the competition at 67 minutes, Matthias Glasner’s Sterben (Dying) is the longest at 180 minutes. In three highly emotional hours and from three different perspectives, Glasner unpacks a complex family story. Corinna Harfouch, Lars Eidinger and Lilith Stangenberg are utterly superb in the leading roles. Glasner received the prize for Best Screenplay for the autobiographically influenced storyline, and rightly so – his actors would have more than merited an award as well.

Corinna Harfouch in “Dying” (2024). Director: Matthias Glasner

Corinna Harfouch in “Dying” (2024). Director: Matthias Glasner | Photo (detail): © Jakub Bejnarowicz / Port au Prince, Schwarzweiss, Senator

But the Berlinale jury probably wanted to be certain of awarding the prizes to as broad a spectrum as possible of films and styles. Nevertheless many of the decisions are understandable: for instance the Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance went to Sebastian Stan in A Different Man. The American Marvel action star brilliantly portrays a man with facial deformities who is searching for his identity. British actor Emily Watson received Best Supporting Performance. She plays the corrupt Mother Superior of a village convent in the otherwise bleak opening film Small Things Like These

However, even director Hong Sang-soo seemed amazed to win the Grand Jury Prize for A Traveler's Needs: “I don’t know what you saw in my film,” he explained. “I’m curious.” His latest work takes a light-hearted, effortless approach to the story of a Frenchwoman – played by Isabelle Huppert – who is a language teacher in Asia. Not very sophisticated but entertaining from time to time is Bruno Dumont’s L'Empire. In this science-fiction spectacle, aliens fight the eternal battle between good and evil – ironically enough in a sleepy French seaside town.

A political Berlinale

Overall, this year’s competition offered some diverse insight into international filmmaking, with 20 entries originating from 30 countries. The programme was robust, but the selection seemed a bit random. One minute a hippo’s playing the lead role, the next we’re seeing a trashy science-fiction film, there’s a broad mix of genre and style – the only thing that’s missing once again is a masterpiece, a film that has us dreaming of the cinema.

There was plenty of talk about politics at the festival. After the clumsy invitation and disinvitation of the far-right AfD party to the opening gala, the Berlinale director duo Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek took a public stance against right-wing extremism and hate. The Middle East conflict was also the focus of several debates. At the closing ceremony, a few of the award-winners were applauded as they expressed criticism – in some cases quite blatantly – of Israel’s actions, while a viewpoint on the vicious terrorist attacks by the Palestinian Hamas in Israel was not stated and there was no distancing from them. That could be damaging to the Berlinale: it’s considered a political festival, yet being held to ransom unilaterally by activists must not be permitted. 

This was the fifth and last edition under the Chatrian/Rissenbeek double-act. Looking back, it was a difficult, not to say joyless, time for the director duo. The pandemic, the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine, the terrorist act by Hamas – they all cast a shadow over the festival.

So what happens next?

What’s left in artistic terms of the five-year era of Chatrian and Rissenbeek? Carlo Chatrian implemented the most important change at a very early stage: slimming down the competition and the programme as a whole. This year around 230 films were showing at the festival, in the days of their predecessor Dieter Kosslick the number was almost double that. The Berlinale has benefited. Nevertheless, there have been significant problems – competition on the one hand from festivals like Cannes and Venice, and on the other from streaming services, and then the proximity to the date of the Oscar awards, as well as the wretched state of the Festival Hall on Potsdamer Platz – all of which were more or less beyond the control of Chatrian and Rissenbeek.

As of April, Tricia Tuttle – an American – will step into the director’s role at the Berlinale. How will she align the festival? The experienced festival manager did after all recently achieve impressive audience growth at the London Film Festival. However she isn’t willing to reveal specific details of her concepts until she has taken up her office. So we must wait and see. But as Tuttle once said in an interview, anyone who works in the festival industry knows that you don’t actually get a chance to find your feet, and everything progresses at top speed. You make great plans and then things turn out differently or go wrong, and you spend your time reacting to that.