In this year’s Berlinale Shorts, cinema is distilled to its most essential features. Conventional narratives are very much eschewed in favour of complex ideas, bold left turns and bravura filmmaking gestures. This is my fifth time covering the programme for Directors Notes, and once again I am pleased by the aesthetic unity of the offerings as well as their unorthodox filmmaking techniques. You’d be hard-pressed to find another section at the festival with so much diversity. As usual, there may be some films that I found confounding, odd or interminable, but I can’t accuse them of peddling cliché or well-worn narratives. Most notably, while the feature competition at Berlinale contains no animated movies this year, the Shorts has plenty, putting them on an equal footing with their live-action and documentary counterparts. From the unclassifiable to classical filmmaking, strange 3D models to lo-fi romance, here are ten excellent films worth checking out from this year’s festival.

Goodbye First Love (Jing guo)- Shuli Huang

Goodbye First Love is a great example of the bravery of the short team’s programming instinct. At first glance, it looks rather amateurish. This is a film shot without any artificial light, without any colouring, and with simple and natural acting – yet it is an achingly touching love story, all the more powerful for its bracing, unadorned simplicity. Telling the story of two former Chinese lovers reuniting briefly in Frankfurt ten years after their Beijing romance, Shuli Huang’s digital cinematography – whether it’s the alienating city caught through a window, the two men gazing out from a rooftop, or an expertly blocked conversation scene – uses its evident low-budget as an advantage, exquisitely capturing the impossibility of recapturing the flame of first love. I found its use of restraint and poignant, subtle dialogue extremely moving.

Circle – Joung Yumi

Joung Yumi’s unique pencil drawings and existentially-tinged cartoons, playing with the simplicity of a stripped-back newspaper comic, earned her a spot in our Berlinale 2022 Top 10 with House of Existence. The South Korean animator returns once again with Circle, representing animation in its most austere yet satisfying form. Taking place entirely within one white frame, a small girl draws a circle on the ground. Soon a businessman comes to take his place within the circle, followed by a young woman eating a sandwich, then a man with a tree, then a schoolgirl. The circle slowly fills up with people, the original inhabitants making space for one another in silence. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for overpopulation, or the limits we arbitrarily subscribe to, yet Joung Yumi’s patient images are a delight to watch in and of themselves. I could watch this circle fill up and empty out over and over again.

Sojourn to Shangri-La (Shi ri fang gu)- Lin Yihan

Recalling Godard’s use of the sea in his modernist update of Odysseus, Le Mépris, Sojourn to Shangri-La is a similarly playful, yet abstract dissection of the infinite perils of movie-making. Concerning an art direction team for a fashion shoot that has lost its art installation to the waves, Lin Yihan’s Chinese movie, shot in artsy, boxy black-and-white, splits the difference between a behind-the-scenes documentary (with petty squabbling between the art crew and a haughty DOP and an aggressive American producer) and something far more inscrutable and dreamlike. The drone footage in particular, accompanied by moody synths and sound design, envelopes you in this meticulously-created world, rhyming the demands of modern life with the mysteriousness of myth.

Baldilocks (Kaalkapje) – Marthe Peters

The self-memorising experimental Belgian filmmaker Marthe Peters retains a small phalanx of doctors just to keep her alive. Barely surviving cancer as a child, and told her recovery was a modern miracle of science, she tells us that simply living in her sickened body is an immense source of difficulty. Interested in the burden her diagnosis had upon her parents, Baldilocks revisits home video footage taken by her father, contrasting it against poetic close-ups of her present-day body to pay unsentimental tribute to their efforts. Opening up with remarkable honesty about her current sex life and preference for tube-fed food, this is a remarkable portrait of disease that casts cliché aside in favour of unflinching truths.

An Odd Turn (Un movimiento extraño)- Francisco Lezama

The vagaries of romantic attraction and the rising price of the US dollar in debt-stricken Argentina are mysteriously intertwined in Francisco Lezama’s An Odd Turn, another case of the twisty genre-bending pleasures of the New Argentine Cinema. It shares similar themes with my best film of 2023, The Delinquents, most notably its cool aesthetic, naturalistic acting and willingness to find solutions outside of conventional capitalism. Laila Maltz stars as Lucrecia, a security guard who, after being laid off, clairvoyantly puts her severance package into the US dollar. This leads to a new connection with an exchange agent with bisexual tendencies. It’s hard to know what to make of it, its concerns very specific to the current Argentinian financial crisis, yet it shows a confidence in Lezama’s filmmaking and presents perhaps the best candidate of all the shorts to be developed into a feature.

City of Poets – Sara Rajaei

In City of Poets – told through still images, archive footage and English/Farsi narration – Dutch-Iranian artist Sara Rajaei takes us back to a time when every street in one city was named after a famous poet. Yet, as time goes by, the poets are soon forgotten, with all the street names replaced by martyrs of war. In both theme (world ravaged and transformed by war) and form (elegiac still images), it recalls Chris Marker’s La Jetée, concerned with the impossibility of returning to the past, yet still looking back with an intense and haunting nostalgia. The patient construction and fable-like narration create a powerful elegy to a world forever lost.

Kawauso – Akihito Izuhara

Another black-and-white pencil animation from East Asia, but while Circle was a beacon of simplicity, always finding more and more space for mankind, Studio Magosteen’s Kawauso depicts the apocalyptic risk of excess. The first warning sign is the lateral camera movement; instead of moving from left to right like in video games or hero quests, we watch a young girl walk from right to left. Followed by a curious otter, she stops at various stalls in the countryside, filled with finely rendered details, from old magazines and posters to faded awnings and lonely bicycles. We never hear a word from her as she conducts weird rituals – the sound even cuts out when she opens her mouth. But her actions invite a bizarre armageddon, Izuhara gloriously filling the frame with more and more chaotic things, all the while skillfully finding small yet satisfying details in each single, carefully thought-through stroke of his pencil.

Bye Bye Turtle (Adieu tortue) – Selin Öksüzoğlu

In the misty, dreamlike mountains of Northern Turkey, the young Inci and the 30-year-old Zeynep strike up an unlikely partnership. One has escaped from home; the other returns to it. With baroque-electronic musical choices and stunning landscape shots, Bye Bye Turtle is a rare classically constructed and framed short film in the Berlinale selection. Öksüzoğlu’s spare yet melancholic screenplay, aided by simple acting flourishes and a warm aesthetic, finds those all-important jolts of connection between the two very different characters. Inci’s naivety deepens Zeynep’s reluctance to face her father. At the same time, the former’s relative maturity forces Inci to come to terms with her mother’s sickness. Together they test the bonds of family and the difficulty of facing up to the inevitability of the future and one’s life choices. It’s all the more impressive for being the Turkish director’s first short film, written during a residency in France.

That’s All from Me (So viel von mir) – Eva Könnemann

A disarmingly simple video correspondence that reveals the discursive pleasures of the epistolary form, That’s All From Me plays with documentary aesthetics to create a wholly original and unique narrative. It tells the story of a struggling German filmmaker and mother writing to an acclaimed Scottish novelist for advice on how to create a new film, contrasting images of Berlin and the British seaside with their thoughts and feelings about creating art as women. On the face of it, the film feels like simple documentation, yet Könnemann’s script, and eye-level images, are rich with meaning and contemplation. And if you think the first five minutes – just voiceover on a black background – is bold, wait for the switch-up in the last act, which at first feels rather random, before looping back for astute commentary on the filmmaking process. Perhaps my favourite film of the bunch.

Lick a Wound (Les animaux vont mieux) – Nathan Ghali

Try as I may, when I stare into the eyes of my beloved dog, I cannot know what she is thinking. Lick a Wound, concerning itself with a self-sustaining world entirely populated by felines, canines and rodents, attempts to answer that question. Set in the disused basement of a church that gives off a Tarkovsky-esque vibe, with stagnant pools of water and flickering lights caught in slow camera pans, Nathan Ghali lets us into this mysterious inner world of animals, their thoughts captured via text projected on the wall. Featuring impressive handmade 3D-modelled creations made in Blender, this odd yet poignant French film reflects back onto the human world, with the animals explaining their memories of living with humans and brushes with morality, before a slow, enigmatic turn to poetic wordlessness. It made me think: perhaps it’s better not knowing the pain our pets might be carrying.

Find more unmissable films, like the ones playing Berlinale, in our Best of Fest collections.

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