This article appeared in the February 20, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Stay up to date on all of our coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival here.

Dahomey (Mati Diop, 2024)

In Cannes, the rhetoric—critical and curatorial—often revolves around the idea of “revelation.” As it tends to be used, this term implies an epiphany about the possibilities of cinema, about the eventuality that one film or another might somehow shift the ecology of the international film scene. But in a historically political festival like Berlin, a more current and perhaps apposite word would be “document”—which is not necessarily to do with documentary as a form, but with the idea of showing, in granular detail, certain things about the world that we might already know about in vague outline, but need to discover in greater depth.

This year’s Berlinale has been low on revelation, for sure—but perhaps revelation, in the sometimes inward-looking, professionally cinephilic sense, is not what we most need at the moment. Of all recent editions of the Berlinale, this has been the one where global issues, unavoidably, have tended to overshadow the films themselves: issues that include the inviting, then disinviting, of far-right German politicians to the opening ceremony; the urgent tenor of the opening press conference with the international jury, where members were asked to comment more on the state of the world than on film; and, dominating everything, the intensifying situation in Gaza, with a major pro-Palestinian demonstration making its presence felt in the normally cozy microclimate of the Gropius Bau, home of the European Film Market.

Some eagerly awaited films, frustratingly, satisfied as neither documents nor revelations, but they are best passed over. A handful of competition titles, however, managed to be both. Mati Diop, director of 2019’s prodigious Atlantics, offered a succinct (67-minute) but immensely resonant poetic documentary, Dahomey, about the return of a collection of African artifacts, looted in the 19th century, from France to their original home in Benin. Among them are statues of kings, some in animal form, imagining the sovereign as shark or lion, and the film is narrated—in an electronically processed voiceover, periodically delivered against a black screen—as the dreamlike monologue of one of these ceremonial objects, musing on protracted exile and the question of long-awaited return. A key section of the film shows the excitement and cultural questioning raised in Benin by this significant homecoming, as young Beninese citizens at a colloquium debate the meaning and—some argue—inadequacy of this possibly token restitution. Music by French keyboard veteran Wally Badarou and U.K. cult artist Dean Blunt creates a similar sense of eerie urgency to that of Atlantics, in which Diop memorably merged Afrofuturism, the supernatural, and electro-global consciousness.

film that aimed for Revelation with a capital “R” was Architecton, by the Russian documentarist Victor Kossakovsky, last in Berlin with his extraordinary 2020 pig portrait Gunda. Where his 2018 Aquarela was a sort of epic visual oratorio for water in all its forms, Architecton attempts something comparable in stone. It begins with a flyover scanning ripped-apart, scorched cities in Ukraine. Then it studies ancient ruins, quarries, the machineries of modern construction (including machines piping out cement like toothpaste), and above all, the sheer weight of boulders and scree.

There is a sequence near the start, showing a rockfall in slow motion, that may be cinema’s most imposing use of that technique since the end of Zabriskie Point (1970)Shot in color and bleached-out black and white by Ben Bernhard, the film captures the textures of stone, from sheets of mountain surface to the crumbling of pebbles to dust, with a rare precision; the camerawork also amply vindicates the use of drones as a panoramic filming mechanism. The music by Evgueni Galperine is often magnificent, enhancing the monumentalism—although, in all honesty, there are some awful, overstated passages too. If you allow your critical caution to sneak in beneath the awe, you might be tempted to see the whole thing as bombastic, even kitschy, in an immersive, neo-Koyaanisqatsi mode. But Kossakovsky—who appears at the end, in discussion with architect Michele De Lucchi—has some simple and important questions to ask: why do we now only make buildings that last 40 or 50 years when they once lasted for millennia, and why are we addicted to the mundanity of concrete? Architecton muses on the miracle of construction and the squalor of collapse, and if it raises awkward questions about Kossakovsky’s intentions and artistic language, these are arguments worth having; this is a mightily imposing film.

At the other end of the spectrum is a work of absolute delicacy and simplicity, of enigmatic minimalism, by cinema’s most committed celebrant of those qualities, Hong Sangsoo. A Traveler’s Needs is his third collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, and their second Korean-set film together. Hong’s characteristic style gives the impression of such insouciance that you can imagine Huppert calling him up and saying, “Hey, I’m in Seoul next week and free on Wednesday morning—feel like shooting a feature?” In reality, Hong’s approach is as meticulously honed as the 20th-century Korean poems quoted in translation in the predominantly English-language A Traveler’s Needs.

Huppert plays Iris, a Frenchwoman in South Korea, making her living by providing French lessons according to a method of her own—which, she eventually reveals, may or may not be effective; she hasn’t found out yet. At any rate, it involves no textbooks and barely any French being spoken: it’s more about getting her clients to reveal their thoughts and emotions, writing them down in French on index cards, and getting the students to feel the phrases. The method, in other words, seems to be more like a form of psychoanalysis, or an acting technique. The cast, including some longtime Hong regulars, take turns being perplexed and charmed by a woman of whom, one points out at the end, they know absolutely nothing. Who, and what, is Iris, in fact? Well, she’s a nonchalant collection of whims and gestures in the form of Isabelle Huppert, and wearing a cardigan in a certain shade of green that is the film’s chromatic leitmotif. A Traveler’s Needs offers nothing as decisive as a revelation—indeed, it is the very fact that nothing is revealed that makes it so alluring, and such a sly, strange twist on the quintessential always-the-same-always-different Hong magic.

Jonathan Romney is a critic based in London. He writes for The ObserverSight and Sound, Screen Daily, and other publications, and teaches at the U.K.’s National Film and Television School.