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Berlinale Bloggers 2020
Dark pictures, dark stories

Photo (Detail) Welket Bungué in “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, director Burhan Qurbani
Photo (Detail): Welket Bungué in “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, director Burhan Qurbani | © Frédéric Batier/2019 Sommerhaus/eOne Germany

Three films in this year’s competition, “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, “Undine” and “Schwesterlein”, are set in Berlin. They’re about crime, love and death.

By Philipp Bühler

Why not open the Berlinale with Burhan Qurbani's Berlin Alexanderplatz? This remake has stirred up huge expectations, but the festival’s new artistic director, Carlo Chatrian, has picked another opener instead, perhaps to put a slight damper on local patriotism.

Berlin looms large in no fewer than three of the 18 films in competition this year – especially in the new, eagerly-awaited adaptation of Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel. Qurbani, who also made We Are Young, We Are Strong (2015), transplants the story to the present day and age. Francis, a young African refugee, serves as a modern-day avatar of the novel’s original protagonist, Franz Biberkopf. After narrowly escaping death at sea, Francis swears an oath to God to change his ways and become a better man. But as an illegal refugee in Berlin he gets sucked into a maelstrom of underworld crime and cruelty, and finds himself adrift in troubled waters once again. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's legendary 1980 TV series was faulted for being too dark – literally so dark, in fact, that one couldn’t even make out some of the images on the screen. Judging from the first impressions of the latest remake, it looks as though we’re in for a similarly dark visual experience.

Enchanted love under water

According to Chatrian, “dark” films that recast the “relationship of the present to the past” are the distinguishing feature of this year’s competition. Christian Petzold, a regular among featured Berlinale directors, has also reworked old material: Undine is a mythological female sea creature who is fated to murder her unfaithful lovers. But Petzold’s modern-day Undine, a historian employed by the Berlin Senate, refuses to accept her destiny. After Transit (2018), Petzold has cast Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in the leading roles again. And he has drawn inspiration for the abundant underwater scenes from classics like Richard Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Love, death and rebirth

The third entry set in the German capital, Schwesterlein (My Little Sister) by the Swiss directorial duo Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, also plunges into the Berlin underground to tell a tragic story about a burnt-out playwright who wants to help her terminally ill twin brother play one last part in a new play. Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger, both famed for the intensity of their performances, play the leads in this film about love, death and rebirth. And maybe this year’s reboot will give a fresh boost to the Berlinale!