Blurring Fact and Fiction: How a Handful of Berlin Titles Force Viewers to "Wonder What's Real"

Berlin Film Festival
Courtesy Photos

Clockwise from upper left: 'Copilot,' 'Memory Box,' 'Next Door,' 'Anamnesis', 'A Cop Movie'

In films like Netflix's 'A Cop Movie' and the Daniel Brühl-directed 'Next Door,' there is no easy division between drama and documentary: "It's fiction, but a lot of it is true."

Netflix film A Cop Movie, from Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios, which premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival last week, starts off like any fly-on-the-wall documentary.

We meet Teresa, a cop in Mexico City, and follow her through her daily routine as she narrates her life via voice-over. Why she joined the force (her dad was a cop). How the police are underfunded. Why corruption is endemic. We meet Montoya, her partner — professional and personal — a cop who was nearly suicidal before he met Teresa.

The two sit cuddled on the couch in their apartment, telling the story of how they met, when something goes wrong. The lights cut out. The two stop talking. But Teresa's voiceover continues. Off-screen. The picture tilts and we see a camera crew. Someone says: "Let's clear the set while we get this sorted."

"The fourth wall breaks and we realize these are actually actors playing policemen," says Ruizpalacios, who planned A Cop Movie as a straight-up documentary before taking the film in a different, more complicated direction. "When we reveal these are actors, we go into a flashback and show, documentary-style, how these actors went undercover in police academies to train to be real cops."

What looked like a documentary is shown to be a fiction. Then the fiction is shown to be documented fact.

The boundary between fact and faction is similarly slippery in Next Door, another 2021 Berlin festival film.

We meet Daniel, a rich, obviously famous German-Spanish actor. He's played by the rich, famous German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl (who also directs). Daniel, like Brühl, lives in a luxury penthouse apartment in a hip neighborhood in East Berlin. Daniel, like Brühl, is an actor from Cologne who came to Berlin 20 years ago to make a movie about communist East Germany that was a huge, international hit (in Brühl's case, it was 2003's Goodbye, Lenin!). Daniel, also like Brühl it turns out, still feels like an intruder in his neighborhood, even as he tries to fit in with working-class locals at the pub. One of those locals, played by Babylon Berlin star Peter Kurth, has it out for Daniel and, in the course of the film, proceeds to take his life apart.

"It's fiction, but a lot of it is true. We put a lot of real-life situations in there," says Brühl. "But I don't want to reveal all of them. I'd like the viewer to wonder what's real and what's not. But I have to say — my wife was very uncomfortable watching the movie."

For Brühl, blurring the lines between reality and make-believe plays to his movie's central themes about the dark side of fame and the struggle for authenticity.

For other films at the Berlin Film Festival this year, mixing fact and fiction is a means of questioning assumptions.

"In Mexico, everyone has an opinion of the police, and we've had a lot of films that show them in one specific way or in another," says Ruizpalacios. "By doing the movie the way I did, by showing the actors as actors talking about what they really think about the police, the issues they have with them, I'm hoping to show how the cops are part of our society. [The film] could be a basis for both sides to listen and understand each other, to maybe build a bridge in the fractured relationship between citizens and the police force."

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, the Lebanese directors of Berlin competition title Memory Box, drew from the evidence of their own lives to build a bridge to their own daughter.

The plot of the movie — in which the teenage daughter of a Lebanese immigrant discovers a box of letters her mother wrote during Lebanon's civil war of the 1980s, when she was the same age her daughter is now — was sparked by Hadjithomas' own "memory box."

"From '82 to '88, six years, I sent letters and tapes to my best friend, who had to leave Lebanon, writing to her every day," Hadjithomas recalls. "We lost contact but then, after 25 years, we met again, and we exchanged our boxes of correspondence. Suddenly I had all this material again, all this correspondence."

When Hadjithomas' and Joreige's daughter read the letters, she found a very different picture of her mother, and a very different story of her life in Lebanon during the war.

"There was a gap between the stories her mother told from that time and the documentation that we were finding in these notebooks," says Joreige. "That's how the story of this film started: with this idea of a daughter, a teenager, digging and reading through a memory box to reimagine the story of her mother."

While Memory Box is "totally fictional," Hadjithomas says, the directors used the letters, photos, and documents from the "real" box in the film. "Then we added some fake notebooks and some fake photography," she says. "We're playing with this fiction/documentary idea, basing everyone on real events but take them somewhere else."

The daughter in Memory Box, played by Manal Issa, adds her own framing to her mother's story by filming the photographs with her phone and animating them. She is both witnessing and re-writing history by turning it into cinema. It's a theme that runs through Hadjithomas and Joreige's previous films, like A Perfect Day and Je Veux Voir.

"That's what cinema is about for us, the transmission or history of memory, and rewriting of history," says Joreige. "The problem we have in Lebanon, with our generation of immigrants born outside the country, is how do you build a community when you don't have a shared history?"

Building a community, and forming an identity, in another country is also at the core of Copilot, the Berlin Panorama title from German director Anne Zohra Berrached (24 Weeks). It starts as a love story, set in the optimistic mid-90s, between Asli (Canan Kir) and Saeed (Roger Azar): she's German with Turkish roots, he's a Lebanese exchange student.

What starts fuzzy and romantic — long walks on beaches, passionate discussions of their future life together — takes a turn as Saeed starts keeping secrets from Asli and begins spending more and more time with a new group of friends at his Hamburg mosque. We suspect we know where this is going. It becomes crystal clear when, in early 2001, Saeed travels to Florida to do flight training.

Berrached's fictional story of Asli and Saeed maps closely over that of 9/11 hijacker Ziad Jarrah and his German partner Aysel Sengün. In preparing Copilot, Berrached did exhaustive research into their story. But instead of focusing on the terrorist, on his radicalization or his violent ideology, in Copilot, Berrached frames everything from Asli's point of view. We see Saeed as she sees him: a charming, relatable and ultimately loving husband.

"I knew this was going to be controversial, just the idea of making the audience feel empathy for a terrorist, for this horrible person who so transformed our world," says Berrached. "But I wasn't really interested in finding out how he came to do this terrible act. Others have done that already. I wanted to look at the people close to him, his partner, his family. The people who loved him. The ones who must have thought, afterward, 'was he a monster? Did I love a monster?'"

Despite her research and the clear parallels between documented history and her movie, Berrached is careful to point out that Copilot is no biopic.

"To tell the story I wanted to tell, to explore the subjective nature of Asli, his doubt and feelings of guilt, I had to let go of the real story, let go of the research, and trust my artistic instincts," she says. "In the film, I steer between the two. I stay very close to the real story but then I put my own, fictional, interpretation on it."

"Many people, when they see a documentary, they think it's reality when in fact it's just another subjective form of filmmaking," adds Chris Wright, the co-director, with Stefan Kolbe, of Anamnesis, a non-fiction film that premiered in Berlin's Forum sidebar. "It's particularly the case with true crime documentaries, which are often framed as a whodunit, about finding the murderer, reducing the crime to something like a puzzle or entertainment."

There's plenty to puzzle over in Anamnesis, but Wright and Kolbe's look at a German man —identified only as Stefan S., who was convicted of a brutal sex murder and is now trying to re-enter society — isn't about cheap entertainment. There's a clue in the title, a psychological term referring to "process of reproduction in memory" or, more simply, the story a patient tells themselves about their own lives.

From the start, the directors frame their investigation not as a pursuit of "the truth" but rather to question whether finding an objective "truth" is even possible.

"We wanted to show that basically there are problems with the whole idea of a justice system that requires knowing why a murderer did it, that requires proving motive," says Wright. "In this particular case, in the court's ruling, there's a line that says: 'and at this moment, the accused decided to kill this woman.'  Just reading that, it seems crazy. Because, as we discovered, as all the psychologists will tell you, you can never really know what goes through someone's mind in a moment like that."

To prevent the audience, and themselves, from jumping to conclusions, Wright and Kolbe take the unusual step of never showing Stefan S.'s face. Instead, we have a puppet, with a life-like visage, manipulated by two female puppeteers who act out scenes from Stefan's story.

"You'll react very differently to Stefan when you see him for the first time, and then when you learn more details of his life and of what he did," says Wright. "We first met him at a therapy session in the prison and we thought he was a polite, shy man. When we told that to one of the guards, he laughed and said: 'Stefan is an ice-cold woman killer.'"

The puppet Stefan, child-like one moment, looks evil and threatening the next. As Anamnesis unfolds, we learn more and more about Stefan's past and, eventually, the gruesome details of his crime. But we come no closer to "the truth."

Throughout, the directors show us how they are framing his story, questioning their own methods, and refusing to come to any conclusions.

"For us, making documentaries has never been about being objective, about presenting one reality," says Wright. "For us, documentaries are very much about our subjective experience, about our subjective view of the world. More than an investigation, it's an emotional journey."

Filmmakers took audiences on a series of emotional journeys at the 2021 Berlinale but left us with few answers. Instead, by refusing to accept a hard boundary between fact and fiction, between subjective drama and objective reality, the best movies at this year's festival had us questioning our assumptions about what we think we know is true.