Berlin Film Festival Unveils Competition Lineup; Sean Penn’s Ukraine Doc to Screen Out of Competition

New films from Christian Petzold, Celine Song and Margarethe von Trotta will compete for the 2023 Golden Bear.

The Berlin International Film Festival unveiled the competition lineup for its 2023 edition on Monday morning, naming the 18 movies that will compete for the coveted Gold and Silver Bears at the 73rd Berlinale.

Berlinale executive director Mariette Rissenbeek and artistic director Carlo Chatrian presented a very international and arthouse-heavy lineup, with a strong focus on politically-charged cinema.

In a late addition, Superpower, Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufman’s documentary on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Russian invasion of the country and the ongoing war, will have its world premiere in Berlin’s out-of-competition Berlinale Special section. The doc, made for Vice Studios, Aldamisa Entertainment and Fifth Season, is being sold internationally by Fifth Season.

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Berlin 2023, taking place a year after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, will have a major focus on Ukraine. Even the festival’s official pin will be in the Ukraine colors of blue and yellow.

In competition, German auteur Christian Petzold will mark his sixth time in the Berlinale competition with Afire (Roter Himmel). 

‘Afire’ @Christian_Schulz_Schramm_Film

Petzold’s last feature, Undine, won the FIPRESCI critics prize at the 2020 Berlinale, and he took the best director Silver Bear in 2012 for Barbara. His latest re-teams Petzold with his Undine and Transit star Paula Beer in an intimate drama about four young people vacationing together at a holiday home on the Baltic Sea. But all around them, forest fires are raging, getting closer and closer as the emotions inside the house also threaten to erupt. Thomas Schubert, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, and Matthias Brandt co-star.

Pioneering German director Margarethe von Trotta (Hannah Arendt, Rosenstrasse), brings another of her portraits of extraordinary women to this year’s festival. Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert, a look at the famed Austrian poet (played by Vicky Krieps) and her relationship to Homo Farber writer Max Frisch (Ronald Zehrfeld), will premiere in the Berlinale competition.

Another German veteran, director Christoph Hochhäusler, will bring his latest, the film noir Till The End of Night, to the Berlin competition. Another established filmmaker, French director Philippe Garrel (Liberté, la nuit), will premiere his new feature, the family-focused The Plough in the Berlin competition.

Celine Song’s Past Lives, which premiered in Sundance, will have its international premiere in a competition in Berlin.

Other highlights include Manodrome starring Jesse Eisenberg and Adrien Brody, the Berlinale competition debut of South African director John Trengove; Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson’s biopic comedy BlackBerry, about the Canadian smartphone company, featuring Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton and Cary Elwes; the drama Disco Boy from director Giacomo Abbruzzese; Angela Schaneliec’s Music; and Ivan Sen’s Limbo featuring Australian star Simon Baker (The Mentalist).

Dutch Australian director Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes, Charlie’s Country), will bow his latest, Survival of Kindness, in a competition slot in Berlin. The drama, which premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival last October, follows BlackWoman (Mwajemi Hussein), an aboriginal woman left in a cage in the middle of the desert to die who escapes and journeys through the wilderness to the city.

From Japan, Your Name director Makoto Shinkai will bring his new feature, Suzume, to Berlin, where it will have its international premiere in competition. The feature, which Crunchyroll is distributing outside Asia, in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, Wild Bunch International and Eurozoom, will mark the first Anime to screen in Berlinale competition since Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won the Golden Bear here back in 2001.

‘Suzume’ Crunchyroll

Chinese director Zhang Lu returns to Berlin competition with his latest, The Shadowless Tower. Zhang last appeared in the Berlin competition with Desert Dream in 2007, but screened the 2019 drama Hukuoka in Berlin’s Forum sidebar, and his feature Dooman River won best film in the Generation section in Berlin in 2010. 

Spanish director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren and Mexican director Lila Avilés (The Chambermaid) both make their Berlinale competition debuts with 20,000 Species of Bees and Totem, respectively.

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Chatrian on Monday also unveiled the films for its Encounters section, a competition lineup for more avant-garde and experimental films. Among the highlights: Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults starring Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson and Tavi Gevinson; the Hungarian feature White Plastic Sky, from directors Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó, an animated drama set in a post-apocalyptic Budapest in the year 2121; and The Echo, a new documentary from South American filmmaker Tatiana Huezo, whose Prayers for the Stolen won a special mention in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2021 and was picked as Mexico’s best international feature contender for last year’s Oscar race. 

‘White Plastic Sky’ Films-Boutique

Family Time, the first full-length feature from Finnish director Tia Kouvo, also made the cut for the 2023 Encounters program, and prolific South Korean director Hong Sangsoo, who has won back-to-back Silver Bears with The Novelist’s Film (grand jury prize 2022) and Introduction (best screenplay 2021), returns to Berlin with his latest, In Water, also in Encounters.

The 73rd Berlinale, which runs Feb. 16-26, will open with the world premiere, out-of-competition, of She Came to Me, a romantic comedy from director and screenwriter Rebecca Miller (Maggie’s Plan) starring Peter Dinklage as a composer with writer’s block and Anne Hathaway as his wife and former therapist. Damon Cardasis, Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon, Rebecca Miller, Len Blavatnik and Hathaway produced the film, which Protagonist Pictures and CAA Films are selling in Berlin.

After the triumphant returns of the Cannes and Venice festivals last year, all eyes will be on Berlin to see if the German fest can successfully bounce back from COVID-era restrictions.

The performance of the festival, and its accompanying industry event, the European Film Market (EFM), will be seen as a barometer for the overall health of the independent industry. More so even than Cannes or Venice, Berlin is an arthouse-focused festival with a program celebrating movies that often lack backing from major studios, and are reliant on the mosaic of indie distributors worldwide for their success.

“Almost every film needs the platform of a film festival to have a life,” noted Chatrian. “Independent films without a festival are in danger of disappearing.”