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Berlinale Changes and Impressions
by Becky Tan

The 2020 Berlinale opened March 21 with a new director “duo.” Mariette Rissenbeek, from Holland, is recognized as the direct successor of Dieter Kosslick (who served as director for 18 years until 2019). Now Rissenbeek has the top responsibility; she is the first woman in this position at the Berlinale and looks back on a long career in the German film industry. Italian Carlo Chatrian, as artistic director, shares the management, more or less equally, with Rissenbeek. He has experience working in film festivals as a reporter and writer and was head of the International Film Festival Locarno in Switzerland.

This 70th anniversary of the Berlinale provided an opportunity to compare developments. Alfred Bauer was the director of the Berlinale for 25 years (1951-1976). At his death his family began sponsoring the Alfred Bauer prize for films which opened new perspectives. A study of his life showed that during World War II he was a member of the NSDAP (National Socialistic Workers Political Party), as well as the SA (Sturmabteilung – brown shirts) of the Nazis. The Alfred Bauer prize was cancelled this year.

On the other hand, artistic director Chatrian founded a new section called Encounters which featured 15 films competing for three prizes. Opinions during the festival were that Encounters distracted attention from the 18 films in the Competition Section or even in the other sections such as Panorama and Forum (which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year). Is a new section really necessary? We will see how this works.

Missing this year was Anke Engelke as moderator. She has a history of entertaining during the opening and final (prize) ceremonies, off and on for many years beginning in 2003. Her successor is Samuel Finzi, a successful actor on German-speaking stages in Vienna, Berlin and Hannover, as well as in films. In contrast to Engelke, he gave the spotlight to the stars on stage and was also more matter of fact. On the other hand, we missed Engelke, who livened the events with her comedic talent.   

There were 342 films from 71 countries with 330,000 tickets sold. The English language is beginning to play a major role. All films in the Competition section had English subtitles followed by German subtitles. Why not German first? Many of the films in the Panorama and Forum and other sections were in the original language with ONLY English subtitles. As a result, there was discussion about the importance of German, this being a German festival. Several reporters said that this would not happen in Cannes or Venice festivals where French or Italy would dominate. They even wondered that the new section “Encounters” was an English title. Interviews onstage with directors and actors after a film were often in English. Perhaps we should not be so surprised, considering that the “head” of the Berlinale Carlo Chatrian, speaks practically no German. When he appears together with his “better half,” Mariette Rissenbeek, she takes over the speaking and he smiles and nods. Naturally, for us, all this English makes it easier to participate.

There seemed to be few American films and film makers present during the 10 days. Also, this was the first time ever that the Berlinale ran AFTER the Oscar Awards had already taken place. Guests from the U.S. were Johnny Depp for his film MINAMATA, Willem Dafoe for SIBERIA, and Hillary Clinton for HILLARY, a documentary about her life. U.S. films in competition were FIRST COW by Kelly Reichardt and NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS by Eliza Hittman. In the section Berlinale Special there was ONWARDby Dan Scanion, THE AMERICAN SECTORa documentary by Courtney Stephens and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR from 1963. In the Encounters section there was FUNNY FACE by Tim Sutton and SHIRLEY by Josephine Decker. There were a few American films in the other sections but that was it. No real excitement over stars on the red carpet (which, by the way, is environmentally friendly). On the other hand, all the films in the Retrospective section were by American director King Vidor with 35 films made between 1918 and 1955.  

The winner this year was THERE IS NO EVIL (ES GIBT KEIN BÖSES/SHEYTAN VOJUD NADARAD) by Mohammed Rasoulof, who was unable to be present in Berlin to accept the prize. Rasoulof and his family set up a residence in Hamburg in 2012. Unluckily, he happened to have returned to Iran for work, where he has now been under house arrest since 2017. His daughter Baran Rasoulof, who was in the film and still lives in Hamburg, accepted the prize in his name. The Hamburg press was delighted and called it “a Golden Bear for Hamburg,” probably, because the film was partly financed by the Filmförderung Hamburg-Schleswig-Holstein, as well as Rasoulof’s connection to the city.

It will be interesting to see the development of Potsdamer Platz, also an ongoing topic. Potsdamer Platz was always the center of the festival, with journalists gathering at the Hyatt Hotel and important films opening in the Berlinale Palast next door. During this festival, the shopping center across from the hotel was entirely empty, except for Berlinale ticket counters. It was to be closed completely the end of February and totally renovated, even rebuilt. The rent for the Berlinale Palast expires in two years which will require new negotiations. My favorite cinema in the nearby Sony Center, Cinestar, has closed completely. Perhaps the festival will move to a new section of Berlin. 

The 70th Berlinale festival ended on March 1, and we all returned home a few days before the corona/covid-19 virus came to Germany, closing down all cinemas. With optimism we look forward to better times and the 71st Berlinale, February 11-21, 2021.