French Documentary ‘On the Adamant’ Wins Top Prize at Berlin Film Festival

Christian Petzold’s “Afire” took the runner-up award at this year’s Berlinale, where geopolitical crises in Europe and Iran loomed large.

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By Thomas Rogers

The top prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the Golden Bear, was awarded to “On the Adamant,” a French documentary about a floating barge in central Paris that offers care to people with mental disorders.

The immersive feature, filmed by the documentarian Nicolas Philibert over several months, follows the patients of the facility as they create music and artwork that often reflect their personal stories. The festival’s top award is rarely given to a documentary, and in his acceptance speech, a clearly surprised Philibert asked the jury members if they were “crazy.”

He said that he had made the film in part to reverse the “stigmatizing” views many have of people with mental health issues, and that his film aimed to erase the distinction between patients and caregivers. “What unites us is a feeling of common humanity,” he said.

This year’s jury was led by the American actress Kristen Stewart and included the Spanish director Carla Simón, whose “Alcarràs” took the top award last year, and the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani.

The runner-up prize went to “Afire” by the German director Christian Petzold, a fixture of the festival. The dry comedy centers on an acerbic novelist ensconced in a vacation home who is forced to reckon with his self-image amid an encroaching forest fire. A special jury prize was given to the Portuguese filmmaker João Canijo’s “Bad Living,” a drama about a group of women running a decaying hotel.

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The best director award went to Philippe Garrel, a veteran French filmmaker, for “The Plough,” a drama about a family of puppeteers that stars three of his real-life children. The gender-neutral award for best performance was given to Sofía Otero, a first-time actor, who played an 8-year-old grappling with gender identity in “20,000 Species of Bees.” The tearful speech by Otero, the youngest to win the award, left many in the audience crying.

The award for best screenplay was given to Angela Schanelec’s “Music,” an elliptical retelling of the myth of Oedipus, and the award for best supporting performance went to Thea Ehre, who played a transgender ex-convict working with a police investigator in Christoph Hochhäusler’s “Till the End of the Night.”

Although the Berlinale has long been the most political of the major international festivals, this year’s edition was especially touched by world events. Two previous winners of the Golden Bear — the Iranian directors Jafar Panahi, whose film “Taxi Tehran” won in 2015, and Mohammad Rasoulof, whose film “There Is No Evil” won in 2020 — were imprisoned in recent months for opposing the Iranian government. (Both were eventually released.) During the festival’s glossy opening gala, Farahani, who is herself exiled from Iran, drew a lengthy standing ovation for a rousing speech in which she called for Europe to stand on the “right side of history” by supporting Iranian protesters.

This year’s festival also featured several films about Ukraine, including “Iron Butterflies,” about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, and “Superpower,” a documentary by the actor and director Sean Penn that includes an interview with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, filmed the night of the Russian invasion. Appearing at the opening gala via video link, Zelensky praised the Berlinale for its “principle of openness, equality and dialogue without borders.” Although Russian filmmakers were allowed at this year’s festival, films that had been financed by the Russian government were banned.

After two years of pandemic disruptions and restrictions, this year’s festival — one of the largest in the world by audience numbers — was a return to sold-out theaters, industry parties and red-carpet glamour. The attendees included Anne Hathaway, whose absurdist comedy “She Came to Me” opened the festival, and Steven Spielberg, who was on hand to accept an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement.

This year’s competition lineup was heavy on German directors and notably broad in tone and scope. It included two animated features — “Suzume” from Japan and “Art College 1994” from China — as well as “BlackBerry,” a Canadian comedy about the inventors of the eponymous hand-held device, and “Manodrome,” a violent drama about one man’s crisis of masculinity starring Jesse Eisenberg.

Some of the buzzier titles screened outside of competition, such as “Passages,” an erotic drama featuring the German actor Franz Rogowski, a Berlinale favorite. Sydney Sweeney, who stars in the American TV series “Euphoria,” also drew acclaim for her performance in “Reality,” a drama about Reality Winner, the intelligence contractor who leaked classified reports to the press in 2017.

German critics have largely praised organizers this year for balancing a focus on global events with artistic ambition and glitz. Alongside screenings, the festival included several explicitly political events, including a protest on the red carpet on Friday to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Several of the award winners also acknowledged the political context in their speeches, including Canijo, who ended his with a Ukrainian rallying cry, “Slava Ukraini,” or “Glory to Ukraine.”

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