Film Artists Reflect on the Movies that Left a Mark
At this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, nostalgia has taken center stage in a retrospective series of coming-of-age movies chosen by actors and filmmakers from all over the world.
The organizers of this sidebar program seem to have taken cues from Steven Spielberg, the recipient this year of the festival’s Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement. His most recent film, “The Fabelmans” — in the running for seven Oscars next month — is as much a tribute to the way cinema can shape a young person’s understanding of the world as it is a portrait of the filmmaker’s childhood. Think back to the opening scene in which the Spielberg surrogate, Sammy Fabelman, goes to the movies for the first time. Nestled between his mom and dad, young Sammy is dazzled by Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” particularly its iconic train crash scene, which goes on to inspire his early filmmaking experiments with an 8-millimeter camera. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see how DeMille’s effects-driven spectacle has left a mark on the American director who went on to invent the movie blockbuster.
Similarly illuminating connections between the cinematic past and the present can be found in the 26-film series in Berlin, called “Young at Heart: Coming of Age at the Movies,” which pairs living film artists with their favorite formative works. Among the illustrious group is a handful of Hollywood talent: The actor Ethan Hawke, a symbol of restless Generation X Americana, chose Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish,” a portrait of youthful small-town rebellion that Coppola once called “an art film for kids.” M. Night Shyamalan, who served as the president of the festival’s jury in 2022, taps Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” a staple of auteur-driven American cinema that revolves around the closure of the local movie theater — a fitting choice for “The Sixth Sense” and “Knock at the Cabin” director, who has spoken repeatedly about the importance of the theatrical experience.
The actress Kristen Stewart, head of this year’s festival jury, picked Lesli Linka Glatter’s “Now and Then,” a film dismissed as a knockoff of the boyhood drama “Stand by Me” on its release in 1995. Since then, this ode to female friendship — directed, produced, and written by many of the same women responsible for the TV series “Pretty Little Liars” — has been reclaimed, particularly by those, like Stewart, who grew up in the ’90s and perhaps saw themselves in the film’s subtle queerness and pent-up rage.
The reconsideration of “Now and Then” is one of many recent shifts in the official history of film, which has long been oversaturated by the work of men. Though Linka Glatter isn’t a household name, she has found success as a television director with shows like “Mad Men” and “Homeland,” and she is currently the president of the Directors Guild of America. The first woman to hold this position was Martha Coolidge (“Valley Girl”) in 2002. Coolidge’s directorial debut, “Not a Pretty Picture,” is the French director Céline Sciamma’s coming-of-age selection for Berlin, though Sciamma says that she was only recently introduced to the film.
In a statement published by the festival, Sciamma writes that the film transmits “both knowledge about a culture of abuse, and about the resistance to that culture through the innovative use of the language of cinema.” A hybrid fiction-documentary narrative that grapples with the events surrounding Coolidge’s rape at 16, “Not a Pretty Picture” is a key work from the feminist, personal narrative-driven filmmaking of the 1970s.
A similar spirit took hold in France at the same time, with directors like Chantal Akerman — whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Bruxelles” was recently crowned the best film of all time in a poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine — shining a light on women’s everyday struggles. Sciamma, known for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Girlhood,” is in many ways an inheritor of this legacy, offering realistic, unsensational images of female sexuality and the feminine body — and the way it can so casually be subjected to violence — in step with the struggles articulated in Coolidge’s film. The screening in Berlin of “Not a Pretty Picture,” for decades a largely inaccessible film, doubles as the premiere of a digital restoration.
Other rarities are on show as well: The Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa has chosen “The Beauty,” a classic of Lithuanian cinema by Arunas Zebriunas, a small-scale but universally resonant drama that portrays the steady dismantling of one girl’s solipsistic worldview. And the actress Tilda Swinton has picked the Iranian director Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s “Bag of Rice,” a humanistic slice-of-life movie that unfolds epically on the streets of ’90s Tehran.
Some guests have singled out pioneering works within their home countries. The Filipino director Lav Diaz salutes Lino Brocka’s “Manila in the Claws of Light,” a film he encountered and wrote about in college that awakened him to cinema’s political power. The “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi picks Shinji Somai’s “Typhoon Club,” set in a high school, that follows a group of young Japanese people stranded with each other during an intense storm.
Perusing the program, I was particularly struck by the number of non-American filmmakers who chose American films: Kateryna Gornostai of Ukraine — whose sensitive debut, “Stop-Zemlia,” is a coming-of-age story itself — looks to Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides.” The German director Nora Fingscheidt took “Groundhog Day,” while Nadine Labaki of Lebanon chose “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” describing it on the festival website as the representation of “freedom, breaking all the rules, living and thinking outside the box.”
That is a testament to Hollywood’s once-hegemonic status and transnational appeal, the kind that Spielberg’s work embodied during its box office heyday. Yet those times are now behind us. As the Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic writes of her selection, Vera Chytilova’s madcap feminist odyssey “Daisies”: “These days, when the dictatorship of virtual algorithms dictates how to tell stories and what movies should look like, ‘Daisies’ offers us a free territory.” It’s a stinging insight into how the profit motive shapes movies in the age of streaming, a distribution method at odds with the communal atmosphere and big-screen love championed by film festivals like Berlin.
Perhaps programs like this coming-of-age retrospective remind us that visions of the past are central to the imagination of the future.