Out and a pout in the capital of bleak pictures

The full-lipped contempt of Léa Seydoux was given more than one airing in Berlin, but the film tipped for prizes is a stern study of the Stasi era

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The Independent Culture

Berlin is one of the world's great film festivals.

It must be, because the film festival community treks out here each year, braving the Arctic winds that whip across Potsdamer Platz, all in the hope of ... what? Revelations? Not really – we leave that to Cannes, but in Berlin, we've learned to hope that things will be edifying at least. And some were way better than that – but it took a lot of trudging through snow to get to them.

Berlin films can be the broccoli of the festival circuit – they won't necessarily be enjoyable, but might at least be good for you. The closest Berlin came to an event film this year was Angelina Jolie's directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, about the rape of Muslim women in the Bosnian conflict: it's a solidly well-constructed drama that starts commendably, then gets increasingly derailed by Jolie's fixation on a violent prisoner-jailer relationship that takes on increasingly perverse S&M tones.

Because last year's Berlinale yielded the much-adored Iranian drama A Separation, everyone was hoping for great things in 2012, but there wasn't much to thrill a jury headed by Mike Leigh. A patchy selection included Billy Bob Thornton's leaden Vietnam-era comedy Jayne Mansfield's Car – about an Alabama family of hawks and doves, starring Robert Duvall and Kevin Bacon, with John Hurt as a visiting Brit. Then there was Postcards From the Zoo, a gruellingly twee Indonesian offering about a woman who lives in a zoo and takes up with a cowboy magician. Hippos and giraffes look on with weary distaste.

Among the red carpet celebs, this year's Berlinale probably belonged to up-and-coming French starlet Léa Seydoux, who uses the same contemptuous pout whether she's playing a maidservant at Versailles (festival opener Farewell, My Queen), or a flighty inhabitant of a Swiss ski resort (in Ursula Meier's Sister) – or, for that matter, as an assassin in the recent Mission: Impossible. The odd thing is, her patented sullenness works every time – and worked especially well in Sister. Meier's film is about a neglected boy (Kacey Mottet Klein) who feeds himself by stealing food and ski equipment from an Alpine resort, with Seydoux as the older sister with whom he has a dysfunctional relationship. The film starts off realistic, then yields an unsettling twist, and proves very memorable in its icy way: 14-year-old Klein is a kid to watch, and then some.

Everyone expected great things of Captured, with Isabelle Huppert as a hostage of terrorists in the Philippines – but much of the time, she wears a startled look that says: "Let me go, I'm only here to secure French funding." But there were three films that made the competition worthwhile for me. One was a French-Senegalese title, Aujourd'hui, with US poet-musician Saul Williams in an enticingly free-form vignette about a man who wakes up knowing he must die by evening; he spends the next few hours wandering around Dakar shaking hands, saying his goodbyes, and coming to terms with his wife and his mistress. High on imagery and low on dialogue (Williams barely speaks for the first hour), Aujourd'hui is beautifully directed by Alain Gomis, who's made something that's at once dance film, city documentary and philosophical reverie.

The real wild card was Miguel Gomes's Tabu, from Portugal. A two-parter in black-and-white, it starts with a prologue about an African explorer and a "melancholic crocodile", becomes a deadpan comedy about a middle-aged woman living in Lisbon – and then, in a magnificent curveball twist, becomes an African-set cod-Hemingway romance between a femme fatale and an Italian adventurer who drums in the local beat group. Hypnotic voice-overs, non sequitur Phil Spector covers and yet more crocodiles make Tabu a rare pleasure, and an outright hoot in its lugubrious way.

But the film I'd bet on for Golden Bear is a German entry, Barbara, by Berlin director Christian Petzold. Barbara stars the director's regular muse Nina Hoss (who also starred in his enigmatic Yella). She plays a doctor in early 1980s East Germany, demoted from a Berlin hospital to a job in the sticks, apparently as punishment for applying to move to the West.

As Barbara faces suspicion from her new co-workers, and endures repeated visits from the local Stasi official, she gets close to a colleague who may be falling for her – but may just be watching her for the authorities. Among a mood of tension and subtle paranoia, writer-director Petzold builds up a closely-observed picture of a claustrophobic world and the tactics people used – not so long ago, we're reminded – to survive in it. Hoss gives a terrifically controlled performance as a woman who's learnt to give nothing away. Given the success of Stasi drama The Lives of Others, I'd bet on Barbara coming our way soon – and on acting laurels here for Hoss. Sometimes, it's the bleakest films that warm you up in Berlin.