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Berlinale: What to expect at the 2023 Berlin film festival

February 14, 2023

A look at the highlights of the Berlinale, from the stars on the red carpet to the competition for the Golden and Silver Bears, and the festival's focus on Ukraine and Iran.

Statues of awards, the Golden and Silver Bears
19 films are in the race for the Golden and Silver BearsImage: picture alliance/dpa

Following two years of pandemic restrictions, the Berlin International Film Festival finally returns to its regular format.

Nearly 300 films will be screened across the festival's different sections from February 16-26.

Considered the most political of all the major film festivals, this year's Berlinale aims to express its solidarity with the people of Ukraine and Iran who are fighting invasion and for their human rights.

A series of special events and screenings will be dedicated to the two countries.

A year of war in Ukraine

Beyond Sean Penn's headlining documentary "Superpower," on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, several other world premieres also deal with Ukraine's plight. The festival happens to fall on the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Film still 'Eastern Front': A man in battle fatigues looks discouraged as a military vehicle drives away behind him
'Eastern Front' is one of numerous films documenting life in Ukraine amid the warImage: Vertov

Highlights include "Eastern Front," a documentary by Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko, filmed directly on the frontline last year; "Iron Butterflies," a poetic essay film by Roman Liubyii that takes the downing MH17 flight over eastern Ukraine in 2014 as a starting point; and "In Ukraine" by Piotr Pawlus and Tomasz Wolski, described by the festival as "a deep dive into the reality in which the country has been living since February 24, 2022."

Support for Iran's protest movement

With Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi and Mohamad Rasoulof among its Golden Bear winners, the Berlinale has always been a strong supporter of Iranian filmmakers.

The 2023 special program dedicated to Iran includes a panel discussion that will explore the role of cinema and the arts in the "Woman, Life, Freedom" protests in the country.

DW talks to Iranian-German filmmaker Siba Shakib on current Iran situation

Stars on Berlin's red carpet

A film festival also shines thanks to its stars on the red carpet.

Actors Anne Hathaway, Peter Dinklage, and Marisa Tomei, who co-star in the festival's opening film, "She Came to Me" by Rebecca Miller, are to be present at the gala premiere on February 16.

Helen Mirren will also be in Berlin for the world premiere of Guy Nattiv's "Golda," a biopic on former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, set during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Cate Blanchett and different members of the crew of Todd Field's "Tar" are in town as the film is screened during the festival. They will also be giving a talk on the genesis of their award-winning music-drama, which was shot in Berlin and portrays a fictional female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Film still from 'She Came to Me': shot from above of a man playing the piano, looking at handwritten score.
'Game of Thrones' actor Peter Dinklage stars in the festival's opening film, 'She Came to Me'Image: Protagonist Pictures

Acting legends Geraldine Chaplin and John Malkovich, who co-star in "Seneca — On the Creation of Earthquakes" by German director Robert Schwentke, will also be discussing their work as part of Berlinale Talents — the festival's development and networking program for emerging filmmakers.

As the star of "Inside," a psycho-thriller directed by Vasilis Katsoupis, Willem Dafoe is also expected on the red carpet.

Documentary premieres are also attracting a number of prominent names. Actor-filmmaker Sean Penn will be present to celebrate the premiere of "Superpower," while U2 singer Bono is set to be among the festival's guests for "Kiss the Future," which portrays the band's awareness campaign during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s.

Berlinale 2023/Kiss the Future
'Kiss the Future' is about U2's campaign for SarajevoImage: Bill S. Carter/Not Us Ltd

Alex Gibney's "Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker" portrays the German tennis star, who was jailed in the UK in 2022 for hiding assets to avoid paying debts.

Having returned to Germany following his recent release from prison, Becker is also expected at the festival.

Director, producer, and screenwriter Steven Spielberg will come to Berlin to receive the Honorary Golden Bear, awarded for his life work on February 21. A selection of his films will also be screened at the festival.

Competiton showcases diverse film genres

Meanwhile, 19 films are in the running for the festival's top awards, the Golden and the Silver Bears.

Five films in the line-up are directed by Germans, among them cinema veterans Margarethe von Trotta with "Ingeborg Bachmann — Journey Into the Desert," a biopic on the Austrian poet and author; and Christian Petzold with "Afire," the second part of his series of films inspired by the classical elements of water, earth, fire and air which began with "Undine" in 2020.

Philippe Garrel, a director of the French New Wave movement, returns with a new feature titled "The Plough."

"On the Adamant," by French master of observational documentaries, Nicolas Philibert ("To Be and to Have," 2002), is the only documentary in the race.

Film still from 'Disco Boy': Three men in military uniforms grasp another man who stares into the void.
German actor Franz Rogowski portrays a Belarusian who joins the French army in 'Disco Boy' by Italian Giacomo AbbruzzeseImage: Films Grand Huit

The competition mostly shies away from star power, as the selection does not include any major production by a US studio or streaming platform.

Still, Jesse Eisenberg and Adrien Brody star in "Manodrome," a thriller directed by John Trengove which tells the story of a young man whose encounter with a libertarian masculinity cult leads to chaos in his life.

"Past Lives," a debut feature by South Korean director Celine Song, already garnered acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Two animated films from Asia are also in the running.

Japanese anime "Suzume," by Makoto Shinkai, is already a commercial hit in its home country, while "Art College 1994," by Chinese director Liu Jian, was added at the last minute to the competition.

Film still 'The Survival of Kindness': A Black Woman with bleached hair with a riffle barrel pointed at her head.
Australian entry 'The Survival of Kindness' by Rolf de Heer stars Mwajemi Hussein in the role of BlackWoman Image: Murray Rehling/Triptych Pictures and Vertigo Productions/Berlinale 2023

Only six films directed by women 

US actor Kristen Stewart heads the international jury, alongside her six co-jurors: Iranian-French actor Golshifteh Farahani, German director and writer Valeska Grisebach, US producer Francine Maisler, Hong Kong director and producer Johnnie To, and two recent Golden Bear winners, Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude ("Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn," 2021) and director Carla Simon from Catalonia ("Alcarras," 2022).

The festival publishes detailed statistics related to gender diversity. Only six films in the competition are directed by women; but taken together, 38.7% of the current productions are directed by women, and 4% of them by non-binary filmmakers.

While there are not any African titles in the main competition, sections such as Panorama and Forum feature several works from the continent.

The award ceremony for the Golden and Silver Bears takes place on February 25.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture