Five to Watch from Berlinale 2023

Franz Rogowski in Giacomo Abbruzzese’s Disco Boy.
Franz Rogowski in Giacomo Abbruzzese’s Disco Boy.

Smartphone companies, trans documentaries, Sydney Sweeney and Franz Rogowksi are among Rafa Sales Ross’ highlights from the 2023 Berlinale.

After two years of online and hybrid editions, it was not only the weather that was warmer in Berlin this February. Walking through the Potsdamer Platz surroundings, where the festival home of Berlinale Palatz resides, one could hear the joyful exchanges of old industry friends reuniting, their debates on some of the buzziest films in the selection punctuated by remarks on how much they missed being together in the German capital for two wintery weeks every year.

The festival reunited some of its darlings, too, with last year’s Silver Bear winner Hong Sang-soo showcasing his experimental in water in the Encounters strand, while Christian Petzold and his Transit and Undine lead Paula Beer were back with another hypnotic stunner in the Competition line-up. Joining familiar faces were emerging voices such as Celine Song with her Sundance-hit Past Lives (currently the eighth highest rated film of all-time on Letterboxd from a woman director) and Lila Avilés’ moving exploration of familial ties, Tótem.

The festival’s main jury, led by Kristen Stewart—who hit the red carpets with characteristically striking looks—gave the prestigious Golden Bear to On the Adamant, Nicolas Philibert’s compassionate examination of a floating psychiatric center in the middle of the river Seine. The second highest award of the night, the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize, went to Petzold, whose latest tells the story of a group of friends spending a long weekend in a holiday home by the Baltic sea as forest fires ravage their surroundings. Other main prize-winners included João Canijo’s Bad Living, Philippe Garrel’s The Plough and Angela Shanelec’s Music. Performance awards were handed to nine-year-old Sofia Otero for 20,000 Species of Bees and Thea Ehre for Till the End of the Night.

Fresh out of this year’s Berlinale, where I was on the ground and in screening rooms, here are five standouts from the titles I caught at the fest, ranging from a group of Canadian geeks changing the course of history to an experimental documentary looking to the classics of the past to create a classic of the future.

Disco Boy

Directed and written by Giacomo Abbruzzese

Created in 1831, the French Foreign Legion was envisioned as a means to allow foreign nationals into the French Army, with members of the Legion entitled to apply for French nationality after three years of service. In Giacomo Abbruzzese’s Disco Boy, Aleksei (Franz Rogowski) is one such foreigner, a young man who escapes his native Bielorrussia and heads to France in the hopes of obtaining French citizenship by serving the Legion. Aleksei is one of the corners of a triangle, with two Nigerian siblings (played beautifully by Laetitia Ky and newcomer Morr Ndiaye) heading the triad at the center of Abbruzzese’s spellbinding feature debut, a clear ode to Claire Denis’ Beau Travail by way of Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

Hélène Louvart was awarded the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution for the film’s cinematography, a neon-drenched fever dream turned even more visceral through Vitalic’s synth score. It is “an 88-minute dive into neon sexiness while Vitalic tenderly penetrates your ear canal. More of a post-colonial allegory than the toxic masculinity discourse you were made to expect from the metatexts about the film in advance. A mystic journey and cinematic experience deluxe,” as Shookone aptly puts it on Letterboxd.

Disco Boy was released by KMBO in Italy on March 9 and will be out in France on April 5. It makes its US premiere at the New Directors/New Films festival on March 31.


Directed and written by Christian Petzold

Leon (Thomas Schubert) huffs and puffs upon realizing the creative retreat he carefully planned alongside best friend Felix (Langston Uibel) has been ruined by the unexpected presence of a young woman. Nadja (Paula Beer), it turns out, is an acquaintance of Felix’s mother, who owns the charming seaside cottage where the two men arrive to spend a few days—Leon planning to work on his second book, Felix on his first photography portfolio.

This being a Christian Petzold film, subtext is a character in itself, with Afire unraveling as a sinuous intertwining of cinematic and literary narratives—all while also being a belly-laughing hilarious, deliciously rewarding wit-fest. The cast excels, with an endearing performance by the heavy-footed Schubert, who proves the perfect opposite to Beer’s ethereal Nadja.

Dirtylaundri sings the film’s praises in a five-star review: “We’re just incredibly lucky that there is a director out there, working right now, working straight-faced in madcap romanticism mode and pulling it off, again and again. I mean, who else would even try to pull off a scene in a naturalistic setting in which a Heine poem is quoted from beginning to end—twice?”

The Match Factory will release Afire in German theaters April 20, with more countries to come.

Orlando, My Political Biography

Directed and written by Paul B. Preciado

Filmmaker, philosopher and curator Paul B. Preciado begins his first-ever documentary by telling the viewer that he sees no need to write an autobiography. This is because his has already been written, almost a century ago, by English writer Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928, Orlando: A Biography is a vital part of the queer literary canon. Described by author Jeanette Winterson as “the first trans novel in English,” the book is a semi-biographical tale loosely based on the life of Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West and follows the adventures of a poet who mysteriously changes from a man to a woman upon reaching the age of 30.

Springing from the trans notions within the novel, Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography weaves a sublime examination of gender, breaking the fourth wall time and time again as his varied subjects stare right into the voyeuristic lenses of a camera, all taking on the identity of Orlando to tell their own stories. “I really loved how Preciado linked the idea of transition to the adaptation and filmmaking practices. Adapting a book versus adapting your real self to the world. Building narratives versus constructing your identity. Can we go as far as to say that the art itself is trans?” ponders Letterboxd member Öykü Sofuoğlu.

Sideshow and Janus Films picked up North American rights for Orlando, My Political Biography out of Berlinale, with The Party Film Sales handling worldwide rights.


Directed by Matt Johnson, written by Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller

Kevin Jagernauth writes that “it’s genuinely exciting to experience Matt Johnson’s much-deserved breakout moment with the funny, energetic Blackberry. Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton deliver revelatory performances in a film that makes the familiar rise and fall tech giant genre feel fresh.” Johnson’s third feature is only a breakout in the sense that his two first films, The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, felt like precious secrets despite their successful festival runs. With BlackBerry, the Canadian maverick is all set to at last make his way into the loving arms of wide acclaim, his guerilla filmmaking enhanced by his meatiest budget to date.

The Social Network meets Uncut Gems starring Dennis Reynolds as directed by Matt Johnson,” is how Andrew describes BlackBerry, which tells the little-known story behind the rise and fall of Kim Kardashian’s favorite smartphone. We are embedded within the group of Canadian geeks who go from working with toys out of a shabby office in Waterloo to the prestigious ranks of history-making companies. Shot in Johnson’s customary mockumentary style, the film is enlightening without being alienating and greatly benefits from having two skilled comedic actors—Howerton and Baruchel—deliver some of their most interesting dramatic work to date.

BlackBerry is in the SXSW Film Festival, and in Canadian theaters now via Elevation Pictures. IFC Films will release it in the US at a later date.


Directed by Tina Satter, written by Tina Satter and James Paul Dallas

If you’ve ever spent more time than is healthy scrolling through Twitter, chances are high that you have stumbled upon a frame of Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney grinning against a high-school mirror, smudged make-up threatening to stain her frilly pastel blue dress. The HBO hit show turned Sweeney into a worldwide sensation, her performance as high-schooler Cassie Howard earning her wide praise and an array of award nominations. In Reality, Tina Satter’s adaptation of her own play “Is This a Room,” Sweeney delivers her best turn to date as whistleblower Reality Winner, who was given the longest sentence for the unauthorized release of government information to the media when she shared classified information about the Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.

As Bakin Tran puts it, Reality is “a double simulacrum—the real audio recording was made into written text, which was then re-made into audio again. Makes one think about how far the documentality can reach, and when does it dissolve fully into fiction.” Satter bends and expands documentary tropes as she threads the line between factual and fictional, with Sweeney’s star-making performance alone as gripping as any FBI thriller.

HBO Films picked Reality up for release soon after its Berlinale premiere, keeping Sweeney in the family.

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