Review: Berlinale 2016

©Collage / Julia Zierer

Out of Cannes, Venice and Berlin, the Berlinale is certainly the most political of the three major European film festivals. Every year film fans from around the globe flock to the German capital  to attend. And as usual, the 66th Berlinale triumphed with highlights from international independent cinema: in total, 434 films were screened during the ten day event, including 19 world premieres.

This year’s motto was “Right to Happiness,” a reference to the current  refugee debate. Hail, Caesar!, the opening film by Ethan and Joel Coen is a satirical homage to Hollywood’s golden era in the 1950s. The cast, most of whom attended the opening, includes George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and the Coen brothers themselves. The festival shone with a major international roster of stars and there was definitely a touch of Hollywood in the air. Plus, this time the gowns on the red carpet were – highly unusual for Berlin – worth seeing. More on that later, first the facts:


  • Fuocoammare  by Gianfranco Rosi won the Golden Bear for best film. The documentary about the Mediterranean peninsula of Lampedusa portrays the experiences and fates of refugees and was designated as the “heart of the Berlinale” this year.
  • The Silver Bear went to Danis Tanović’s Death in Sarajevo – a satirical examination of Bosnia’s past and present.
  • The jury honored Mia Hansen-Løve with a Silver Bear for best director for L’Avenir (Things to Come). The German-French co-production – with Isabelle Huppert as the female lead – centers on self-discovery and aging. With the victory, Hansen-Løve has been recognized as the up-and-coming secret in French cinema. She already experienced a good deal of acclaim for her DJ biopic Eden.
  • The Berlinale honored Trine Dyrholm (The Commune) as best actress. The prize for best actor went to Majd Mastoura (Hedi).
  • German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus received the Honorary Golden Bear for his lifetime achievements. He began his film career with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and made it to California in the 1980s and 90s to work with Hollywood icons like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
  • The prize for best first film went to Hedi by Mohamed Ben Attia. It tells the story of a young Tunisian living between tradition and self-realization and his quest for love and freedom.


  • Kirsten Dunst presented Midnight Special: a science fiction drama about a small boy with supernatural powers, falling victim to both the FBI and a religious cult. In the film she plays alongside Adam Driver and Michael Shannon.
  • Julianne Moore introduced the film Maggie’s Plan. She joins Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke in a New York comedy à la Woody Allen.
  • Spike Lee and John Cusack screened the hip hop musical Chi-Raq, an adaptation of “Lysistrata,” the ancient comedy by Aristophanes.
  • James Franco, the king of the Berlinale in 2015, was unfortunately absent this year, but he could still be seen on the big screen in Goat. The drama produced by Franco himself, examines the brutal initiations of American fraternities.
  • Quand on 17 ans (Bring 17) by the French André Téchiné and Soy Nero from the ex-Iranian Rafi Pitt were considered secret tips. Both filmmakers were taking place in the competition for the third time this year.
  • Colin Firth and Jude Law presented Genius, a biographical drama about American writer Thomas Wolfe.
  • The only German film entered in the competition was 24 Wochen (24 Weeks). An intense movie about an artist couple and their decision of whether they want to bring their seriously ill child into the world.
  • The biggest film surprise came from Saudia Arabia and was presented in the Forum program, which specializes in experimental films and political documentaries. With Barakah yoqabil Barakah (Barakah Meets Barakah) director Mahmoud Sabbagn tells the story of an unequal couple that test the limits of romance between tradition and faith.


  • Anke Engelke delighted with her courageous speech on opening night, where, among other topics, she spoke on themes such as rising right wing extremism in Germany.
  • There was a special screening of the 70s Sci-Fi classic The Man Who Fell to Earth by Nicolas Roeg to honor the deceased David Bowie.
  •  Ai Wei Wei covered Berlins famous Konzerthaus venue in 14 000 life jackets, its columns gleaming in bright orange  – a project for the festival’s 2016 gala “Cinema for Peace.” At the gala, guests appeared (as part of the happening) shroud in gold emergency blankets. The Chinese artist and activist strove to call attention to the countless refugees who have died in the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Even Oscar winner Charlize Theron attended the “Cinema for Peace” gala as a guest of honor to talk about her charity work in South Africa.
  • In an interview Tilda Swinton affectionately referred to the Berlinale as her “kindergarden”. In fact she first visited the festival in 1986 for the release of  Caravaggio and has been a regular since then.
  • Enfant terrible Lars Eidinger happily joked around on opening weekend, raving about Meryl Streep and her “insane charisma.” He claimed he had spent the night with the head of the jury, “We were at Berghain.”
  • At the press conference for Hail, Caesar! one journalist couldn’t get to the point, causing George Clooney to interrupt her, “Are you flirting with me? I’m a married man now, it won’t work anymore!” – he surely hasn’t lost his charme!
  • George and Amal Clooney met at the Federal Chancellery for coffee and biscuits with Angela Merkel to congratulate her on her courageous refugee policy.
  • Last, but not least, another small declaration of love for Meryl Streep – our absolute festival highlight. The grand dame of cinema shone not only as a charming jury member, but also caused a furor with a political comment. Namely, when she mentioned the proportion of women on the festival’s jury: “This jury is evidence that at least women are included, and in fact dominate this jury, and that’s an unusual situation in bodies of people who make decisions. So I think the Berlinale is ahead of the game.”


  • Let’s keep Meryl Streep’s words in mind when considering the red carpet looks. The outfits were totally amazing this year. What do they say? “Who run the world? Girls!”
Translation: Alicia Reuter

After spending a gap year in Paris, Jessica Aimufua set her heart on Berlin, starting her art history and cultural studies undergrad in 2012. As a keen observer and critical thinker she developed an urge to express herself inventively at an early age. In both English and German she writes about contemporary culture and modern aesthetics, with a focus on film, fashion and art . At hey woman! she writes, edits and translates.