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Dane DeHaan & Robert Pattinson in "Life"
Dane DeHaan & Robert Pattinson in "Life"Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

What to watch: Berlin edition

Terrence Malick returns and Dane DeHaan tries his hand at James Dean for the 65th Berlinale

Potsdamer Platz becomes a hub for the film-mad this week as the Berlin Film Festival kicks off its 65th edition. Aside from the best of the old revived (a restored print of 70s neo-noir The American Friend will close the festival as part of a Wim Wenders career retrospective) and the first chance to see Sam Taylor-Johnson’s screen take on Fifty Shades of Grey (the trailer has raised expectations of off-the-charts trashiness, and who can resist that?) here’s just a fraction of the new films at Berlin we’re excited about.


Intensely private auteur Terrence Malick always shrouds his projects in secrecy, and details on his latest are as tantalisingly scant as ever. We do know that Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett will star in what we can see from the trailer is set among the decadence and delusions of the world of LA celebrity. All with a mystical, whispery Malick bent if the soul-searching voiceover is anything to go by – which could divide audiences when it premieres in the main competition as much as his boldly ambitious Tree of Life (which was either laughably pretentious or dazzlingly sublime, depending on who you ask).


Starring in one of the biggest flops of last year (Grace of Monaco) hasn’t dampened Nicole Kidman’s enthusiasm for ambitious biopics. She plays historian, novelist, and secret service member Gertrude Bell – billed the “female Lawrence of Arabia” – in this epic, which co-stars Robert Pattinson, James Franco and Homeland’s Damian Lewis. It’s big on swooning emotional melodrama if the teaser clip doesn’t lie, but with German adventure fanatic and master of madness Werner Herzog at the directing helm in a break from making documentaries about the dark recesses of the soul, we can hope for more spark than your average buttoned-up period epic about plucky colonial types.


Also premiering in the main competition is Malgorzata Szumowska’s latest, about a coroner’s daughter who is battling anorexia and has barricaded herself in her apartment, intent on communicating with departed relatives in the spirit world. Billed as a black comedy, it should have humour to buoy up the dark emotional currents but just as much intensity as her prior arthouse success In the Name Of, which was about a closeted gay Catholic priest and won a Teddy Award (for a film with an LGBT theme) at the Berlinale two years ago.


Photographer Dennis Stock was assigned to shoot rising Hollywood star James Dean and formed a close, mutually advantageous working relationship with him that produced one of the most iconic images of the last century, of the ill-fated young actor in Times Square. This process of myth-making is the focus of Control director Anton Corbijn’s new biopic, and what better person to capture its intricacies than the Dutchman, who as Joy Division’s band photographer took an iconic picture of fast-burning talent Ian Curtis. This year the Berlinale can’t get enough of Robert Pattinson, who also stars in this alongside Dane DeHaan.

Read our interview with Anton Corbijn here


Searingly honest and boldly explicit, Andrew Haigh’s 2011 debut feature Weekend about a gay bar hook-up that sparks something more was a break-out hit from the SXSW film festival and one of the most impressive indie romances in recent memory. The Brit director’s hotly awaited second feature, premiering in Berlin’s main competition, plays out in the lead-up to a party and sees a middle-aged couple’s marriage thrown into jeopardy when a past relationship unexpectedly rears its head in the form of a frozen body discovered after many decades in the Swiss Alps.


Matt Porterfield’s beautiful low-budget indies Hamilton, Putty Hill and I Used to Be Darker have met with huge acclaim for their quiet, understated melancholy and navigation of loss and uncertainty. They’ve all been shot in Baltimore, so there’s anticipation around what shooting in Berlin will have brought to the US director’s sensibility. He filmed Take What You Can Carry, which premieres in the Berlinale’s shorts competition, last summer in the city, casting Hannah Gross as an ex-pat artist and enlisting British-German performance-art group Gob Squad.


Pop-culture talismans and the magical power of the secret languages of adolescence feed the colour-drenched, surreal atmosphere of Jennifer Reeder’s music-driven films. Blood Below the Skin, the latest from the US filmmaker whose A Million Miles Away cleaned up awards on the short film circuit last year and who is now developing a feature, will also premiere in the shorts competition at Berlin and dips into the lives of three teenage girls from different social circles at high school over a week as prom night looms.


Peter Greenaway made his name with visually extravagant, transgressive spectacles of opulent precision such as Gaultier-costumed 80s masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, so we can expect special things from the Brit auteur’s biopic on pioneering filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Premiering in Berlin’s main competition, it depicts the director’s visit to Mexico in the 30s, where he’s inspired by rituals and falls out with his financier over unbridled impulses. It’s the first of two films Greenaway is making about Eisenstein, though the second, set to begin shooting this year, has reportedly come up against opposition from Russia’s state film foundation for referencing the Soviet director’s homosexuality.


Debates about lack of diversity in the film industry and who is responsible have been raging in past weeks, with perceived snubs of Selma, its director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo at the Oscars and Baftas having become a focal point. DuVernay will be in town for the international premiere of the feature – her third – at the Berlinale. Searingly topical, it depicts Martin Luther King’s fight in the 60s for the freedom for blacks to exercise voting rights in a climate of continued racism and police brutality. There has been much speculation over whether the film’s none-too-rosy depiction of former US president Lyndon Johnson didn’t play nice enough for the Academy.


Sundance audiences have been rapturous about the level of intimacy achieved by the first family-authorised version of Kurt Cobain from director Brett Morgen. The film, which shows for the first time outside the US at Berlin, mines unfettered access granted by Courtney Love to a storage unit containing the Nirvana frontman’s diaries and drawings, audio tapes and home movies, which animated sequences help bring to life (the title comes from the name of an unreleased tape used to score the film). It’s said to provide new insight into the relationship between Kurt and Courtney - a topic of endless speculation for obsessive fans, demonising tabloids and conspiracy theorists – as well as rehumanising Kurt as a person aside from the icon and myth. The couple’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain was exec producer on the film.

The Berlin International Film Festival runs from 5-15 February