Richard Linklater's Boyhood leads the pack in Berlin

As the Berlinale draws to a close, Ryan Gilbey savours a couple of gems, while questioning how some films earned their spots at the festival.

This is Part 2 of Ryan Gilbey’s report from the Berlin Film Festival – Click here to read Part 1.

In Berlin for this year’s film festival, it was easy to marvel at the city’s architecture, its myriad bars and clubs apparently secreted in the brickwork and accessible by password, its diverse restaurant culture where you might at any moment happen upon serious contenders for the juiciest burgers or most succulent sushi you’ve ever tasted. As for the films that played in the Berlinale ... Well, did I mention the bars and clubs and restaurants?

Not that I didn’t see some fine work ranging across the different strands, from the Official Competition to the Panorama, Forum and youth-oriented Generation 14plus. Some of these I have written about in this week’s NS, in a round-up surveying my first five days at the festival. As for the final three days I spent there, this had a sprinkling of gems too, including my two favourite films from this year’s line-up: Boyhood and The Second Game. The former was more than a decade in production. While its writer-director Richard Linklater has been simultaneously adhering to a more orthodox filmmaking schedule—he shot other films in the interim including A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles and Before Midnight—he has also devoted time over the last 11 years to shooting pieces of Boyhood along the way. The result is the nearest that fiction cinema has ever come to the scope of Michael Apted’s ongoing Up television series (which began in 1964 with 7 Up.) This is what gives the film its intrinsic richness: when it starts, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is seven years old, but through the course of the movie we see him—and his family, including his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke)—age before our eyes. When the movie ends almost three hours later, he is 18 and we have witnessed the complete span of his childhood and adolescence.

This device alone is enough to provide Boyhood with a surfeit of poignancy and resonance, but Linklater doesn’t get complacent. Sculpting the picture as he went, he fused developments in his young actor’s life with scripted material; the result feels entirely organic, with the exception of the occasional bum note from peripheral characters. There is a layered richness to each scene that could not have been achieved with ageing make-up or flash-forwards. The musical cues are also expertly chosen. You might groan at the opening use of Coldplay’s “Yellow” or the appearance in the final scenes of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, but it would be hard to argue that they didn’t carbon-date the picture for now and all time every bit as effectively as the on-screen progression from Bush to Obama, Gameboys to smartphones. Sharpest of all was Linklater’s choice of lead performer. Intuition must have told him that Coltrane would continue to be as bewitching a presence once beer and dope and girls enter Mason’s life as he was at 7, when all he wanted to do was sharpen rocks into arrowheads or play on the trampoline. But Linklater’s judgement was sound. So too is the film. The temporal experiments he carried out in his Before trilogy, which returned to the same characters at nine-year intervals, have been taken a step further with the triumphant and uniquely attentive achievement of Boyhood.

The Second Game, which was in the Forum section, is also concerned with the tension between past, present and future, though even this fan of the picture would have to concede that ambition and scope are not high on its list of defining characteristics. The Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu (who made 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective) is the son of the soccer referee Adrian Porumboiu. The conceit of the film is that they settle down to watch a videotape of a match that Porumboiu Snr refereed in 1988 between Dinamo and Steaua on an increasingly snowy pitch that turns the colour of dirty tennis socks as the match progresses. All we see throughout is the original 1988 TV broadcast in its grainy, pre-digital splendour; at times it’s hard to tell whether the fuzzy visuals are down to the falling snow or the imperfect technology. With the sound turned down, father and son muse over the game as we watch it in real time, with no breaks, no edits, no camera movement: just the match. This sounds deathly dull, and it is only fair to say that some colleagues were of that opinion. But this viewer, no lover of either football or directors’ commentaries, was drawn in by the droll father-son banter, the glimpses of social history (the composition of the football teams at the time effectively meant that the police were playing against the army) and the underlying self-deprecation of the whole affair. “This match is like one of my films,” Porumboiu says during one lull. “It’s long and nothing happens.”

Those highlights aside, there were times when I sat in the Palast watching pictures competing for the Golden Bear and thought: This simply isn’t good enough for an international film festival. One of those, Jack, was a sketchy social-realist tale about a young German boy who escapes from care to try to find the mother whose caricatured fecklessness landed him there in the first place. Given the proper love and attention, Jack might have grown up to be a Dardenne brothers film. Under-powered and inchoate, and making unreasonable demands on a young cast unable to convey the necessary intensity, it would have felt mediocre even if this were not the year that the festival was screening a Ken Loach retrospective and awarding that director an honorary Golden Bear.

Praia do Futuro, a German-Brazilian co-production, also reached for a weight and significance that it hadn’t earned. It’s the story of a gay lifeguard falling into a relationship with a soldier whose partner he failed to save from drowning; when that affair ends, the lifeguard moves to Berlin to be with a new lover but discovers that—what do you know?—the past catches up with him. Praia do Futuro found greater favour with critics than Jack, but I didn’t spot much in it that wasn’t bogus; the groundwork hadn’t been laid to prepare us for its emotional crescendos. (A film also has to earn the right to use David Bowie’s “Heroes” over its end credits. This hadn’t.) Divided into three chapters, it featured a motorcycle motif and a character who appears as a child in the first third before reappearing as an adolescent in the last part: call it The Praia Beyond the Pines.

A pick-me-up arrived in the form of God Help the Girl, a bittersweet musical which marks the directing debut of Belle & Sebastian’s frontman Stuart Murdoch. Surprisingly, the songs were the weakest part of the film. More doodles than actual numbers, they felt too ethereal to have sprung from the lips and instruments of such forceful characters: a chirpy anorexic girl (Emily Browning), a buoyant but shambolic musician (Olly Alexander) and a piano student (Hannah Murray) whom they enlist for their band. For all its abundant charm and delicacy, the film could have withstood a touch more grit—if you’re giving one of your characters an eating disorder so advanced that it has put them in hospital, it’s a good idea not to pretend it can be waved away by pop songs, boating and snogs. But for the most part, I found God Help the Girl polished, poised and endearingly confident, driven by editing and performances every bit as precise as the wordplay in Murdoch’s lyrics. I wouldn’t advise him to give up the day job, but on this evidence moonlighting is to be recommended.

The Berlin film festival ends on Sunday.

A young Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times