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Meet the new Berlinale! The inside scoop on this year’s festival

Fresh from yesterday's press conference, we've got the lowdown on the 70th Berlinale! From Feb 20, expect 10 days of the usual movie galore, glamour, gossips and polemics, and a few novelties this year as a new leadership duo takes the helm.

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Photo by Alexander Janetzko. The 70th Berlinale starts on Feb 20, here’s what to expect as Carlo Chatrian takes over as the festival’s new artistic head and Mariette Rissenbeek executive director.

It’s a fresh start for the 70-year-old Berlin Film Festival – with former Locarno boss Carlo Chatrian at the artistic helm, and high expectations to boot. Kicking off later this year on February 20, expect 10 days of the usual movie galore, glamour, gossips and polemics, and a few novelties this year.

Here’s the lowdown on what is shaping up to be a vintage year for the festival, with fresh Competition information from this week’s press conference…

A new dual leadership

Last year’s edition marked the end of an era as director Dieter Kosslick hung up his red scarf and rakish hat. His 18-year tenure had its highs and lows, but the general feeling was that the festival was ripe for change. After all, nearly two decades in charge is a long time. Somewhat inspired by the male-female Toronto Film Festival set-up (Tiff is headed by Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente), the leadership at Berlin is now also bicephalic with ex-Locarno boss Carlo Chatrian appointed as new artistic head and Mariette Rissenbeek executive director. The way this Italian-Dutch duo breaks down is that Chatrian will be responsible for the festival’s “artistic profile” (essentially the programming) and Rissenbeek will knuckle down on the business side (financing and organisational matters). Chatrian has already proven himself as a curator – a criticism frequently aimed at Kosslick over the years was that he was more a host than a real cinephile; as for Rissenbeek, she’s not only the first woman to lead the festival, but also something of an authority regarding German industry players, having served for years as a managing director for German Films, the company in charge of promoting German releases abroad.  

With up to 400 films screening over 20 locations and a little over 330,000 tickets sold to the Berlin public last year, the Berlinale has made a name for itself among A-listers as a ‘festival for the people’ – and from the get-go the directorial duo presented themselves as “bridge-makers”, stating that they’d be maintaining the Berlinale’s democratic profile.

Fresh faces and more women on top

This year also marks new beginnings for the Panorama section as Michael Stütz, a protégé of historical section helmer Weiland Speck, takes over the Berlinale arthouse section. Meanwhile three women, Cristina Nord, Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck and Julia Fidel are the fresh new heads of Forum, Berlinale Shorts and Series respectively, a move welcomed by most observers as a decisive step in what some have been referring to as the gradual “feminisation” of the festival – with Perspektive Deutsches Kino’s Linda Söffker, Generation’s Maryanne Redpath, Talents co-lead Christine Tröstrum, it’s six women on the curatorial top. Chatrian’s new selection committee also boasts an interesting mix of local and international faces, such as former director of the Panorama section Paz Lázaro, indie cinema Wolf Kino boss Verena von Stackelberg, as well as some familiars from Chatrian’s Locarno days, such as head of programming Mark Peranson and former member of Locarno’s selection committee Aurélie Godet.

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Photo by Pablo Ocqueteau. The Golden and Silver Bear shortly before completion.

This year’s Golden Bear candidates

As announced during this week’s press conference, the 2020 Competition selection comprises of 18 films, which will focus on “the dark side of the human being” according to Chatrian, who hastened to add that the films are “not without hope”. The dark tones do not include, despite rumours, Wes Anderson’s latest film, the American-German dramedy The French Dispatch. Dry your eyes though, as the selection this year is one of the most promising we’ve seen in a while. Among the most exciting are: Kelly Reichardt’s much-anticipated First Cow; previous Silver Bear-winner Tsai Ming-liang’s Days; Abel Ferrara’s “non-narrative” Siberia; British director Sally Potter’s fourth film in Competition The Roads Not Taken; Hong Sang-soo’s third Competition entry The Woman Who Ran; Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never Really Sometimes Always, which “aims to go beyond the ‘issue movie’”; and Caetano Gotardo & Marco Dutra’s All The Dead Ones, which deals with the legacy and heritage of slavery. German cinema is also quite prominent in the Competition, with Christian Petzold’s Undine, starring Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, as well as the remake of Alfred D ö blin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, by German-Afghan filmmaker Burhan Qurbani. Only one documentary is included, with French/Cambodian co-production Irradiated, by Rithy Panh.

Chatrian said that all the directors would present their films in person, and he hoped that Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof will also be in attendance, presenting his Competition-selected film There Is No Evil. This is still in doubt, as Tehran has previously refused to allow filmmakers to travel to major festivals.

The Out Of Competition section is no more and has been replaced by Berlinale Special screenings, described by Chatrian as a “forum for debate and discussion (which) builds bridges between audiences and cinema”, and which this year will include the opening film My Salinger Years, starring Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley, Ulrike Ottinger’s Paris Calligramme, and the new Pixar animation, Onward, featuring Tom Holland and Chris Pratt.

Gender balance

Six out of the 18 films in Competition this year are directed by women. That’s 33 percent and doesn’t quite fulfill the 50/50 by 2020 pledge to achieve gender equality signed last year by Kosslick. This was addressed during the press conference, during which Chatrian described the “process” as ongoing, adding that “the most important thing is to create awareness of all the differences that still exist, not just in cinema, but in life. It’s not just about male-female. Film is always a collective process, and focusing just on a director is a bit tricky. It’s no 50/50, but we are on the right path.” It is true that the Berlinale remains at the forefront when it comes to diversity and gender parity – especially when taking in consideration the other festival sections – and puts its European sibling festivals to shame in this regard: in 2019, Cannes’ Competition stats stood at 19 percent and Venice’s at a pithy nine percent.

Jury & red-carpet A-listers

The full list of guests and the Jury has yet to be named… We’ll have to wait until the launch of the programme on February 11 for the full details. However, it has to be said that the Berlinale has fallen prey to a canny bit of one-upmanship this year: the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals have already announced their next Jury Presidents in the respective shapes of Cate Blanchett and Spike Lee – making the latter the first African American to hold the position. In comparison, the choice of Jeremy Irons as head of the International Jury for this year’s Berlinale seems a little uninspired, and is even proving to be controversial. Indeed, past comments on same-sex marriage and sexual harassment have come back to haunt the British thesp.

Star-wise, Sigourney Weaver, Willem Dafoe, Javier Bardem, Paula Beer and Elle Fanning are some of the big names that have been announced. Also expect Tilda Swinton to show up for the sci-fi project Last And First Men from the late Oscar-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson… And let’s not forget an appearance from Hillary Clinton for the Special Gala screening of Nanette Burstein’s docuseries Hillary.

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Photo by Alexander Janetzko. A view into the Berlinale Palast at Potsdamer Platz which traditionally housed the Competition premieres.

A new section and not quite as many films

The main novelty compared to previous years is the creation of an additional competitive section called Encounters, which will stand alongside the traditional Competition and Berlinale Shorts competitions. The official spiel announces that it’s a platform “aiming to foster aesthetically and structurally daring works from independent, innovative filmmakers”. This sounds a lot like the mission of the independently funded and curated Forum so far – will the sections be hunting on the same curatorial turf? According to new Forum head Cristina Nord, this new section is aiming for young filmmakers that are starting a career and need a steppingstone – in short, a more pragmatic industry-oriented section, in opposition to the purely artistic approach of the Forum. Judging by its inaugural line-up – 15 world premieres and debuts, ranging from globe-hopping features to documentaries and animation – Encounters looks very promising. Of particular interest are Tim Sutton’s Funny Face, starring Cosmo Jarvis and Johnny Lee Miller, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela documentary follow-up Gunda and Josephine Decker’s psycho-drama Shirley, featuring Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg. Despite the new section, this year’s film tally should more or less remain the same – as both Panorama and Forum have trimmed and tightened their selection (both are this year down from 50-ish to 35 films). Meanwhile, two Kosslick-era categories NATIVe, the Indigenous Cinema section, and Culinary Cinema have been given the deathblow (a shame for the first, a minor blessing when it comes to the second). Tighter section programmes reflect sharper curative decisions, and if anything, Encounters seems to have been something of a catalyst for sidebars to redefine their profiles. Carlo Chatrian stated during the press conference that each section’s distinctions will feel more evident, and that there would be around 60 fewer films this year. A whittled-down selection with a more unique identity? Music to our ears. 

Two anniversaries

Chatrian is celebrating the Berlinale 70, with ‘On Transmission’, a special programme by which he’s invited notable directors to Akademie der Künste on Hanseatenweg to discuss cinematic art, bringing along a guest of their choice. Conversations will be bookended by two film screenings: the film by the contributing director and a contemporary work they have chosen. Ang Lee, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Claire Denis have been confirmed as directors, so you might want to book your tickets quickly (Berlinale tickets go on sale on Monday, February 17 at 10:00). The second comes from the envelope-pushing section Forum, which celebrates the big 5-0. Their anniversary programme, complete with panels and keynotes, will look back to the past to better reflect on the present, as they’ve decided to screen the first ever ++Forum programme from 1971 in its entirety at Arsenal (until the end of the festival and with extra dates post-March 1). These are films that have and continue to provoke and surprise in their daringness, from Ostia by Sergio Citti to The Woman’s Film by The Newsreel Group; they provide food for thought on how society has evolved – progressed, or in some cases alarmingly stuck to the status quo.

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Photo by Alexander Janetzko. The promising Series and TV productions sections will take place at Zoo Palast on Feb 24 through Feb 27.

Series and Talents

Series and TV productions will be given center stage at Zoo Palast (Feb 24-27). Chatrian has appointed Julia Fidel, formerly of the Panorama section, to head Berlinale Series, which was pioneering in 2015 as the first A-list festival section to address changing viewing habits and serial storytelling. Chatrian noted during the press conference that Series is a section “we believe in”, and Fidel’s line-up is eye-wateringly promising: Athina Tsangari’s Trigonometry, Jason Segel’s Dispatches From Elsewhere, starring Sally Field and Richard E. Grant, Australian drama Stateless, created and co-starring Cate Blanchett, and last but certainly most alluring, the world premiere of Netflix’s The Eddy, co-directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash and La La Land).

Not to be outdone, the Talents section has invited 255 film professionals from 86 countries to participate in a week-long summit at HAU this year, comprising of masterclasses and panel discussions open to the public. True to their reputation of being at the forefront of reflecting on changing times and opening new perspectives, they’ll explore the digital world of web series. Julia Penner and Sandra Stöckmann, the writers behind Druck, the German version of Skam, will headline a series panel on youth and youth language, while Finnish filmmaker and launcher of the world’s first Instragram Stories drama series (Karma) Ronja Salmi will address topics of millennials, mental health, sexuality, as well as the changing landscape of online viewing. Other special guests include Claire Dio, editor-in-chief of African film magazine Awotele and Oscar-winner Helen Mirren, the recipient of this year’s Honorary Golden Bear for her lifetime achievement.

Moving off the Sony Center

An almighty headache for the festival has been the closing of multiplex CineStar at the Sony Center, which shut its doors after 20 years on December 31, 2019. This is a blow, as the nucleus of the festival has been centralized around Potsdamer Platz, with the Competition premieres taking place at the Berlinale Palast, and the rest of the main sidebars divided up between CinemaXx, Arsenal and the late CineStar. Mariette Rissenbeek announced during the press conference that a new cinema will be built in CineStar Potsdamer’s spot next year. Until then, the Berlinale will branch out into other parts of the city, more by necessity than by choice. The main alternative has been confirmed as Cubix cinema, another CineStar multiplex on Alexanderplatz. Meanwhile, Zoo Palast will be busy with Special Gala screenings, as well as the Berlinale Series selection.

It’s gradually shaping up to be a vintage year for the Berlinale. As Chatrian stated in a recent interview, the most effective revolutions happen silently and without fireworks. The trick is to maintain the legacy and innovate, and from what we’re hearing so far, the first innovations seem invigorating and spirits are high.

One rather prominent bum note though: never judge a book by its cover and all that, but the slapdash design of this year’s poster is, frankly, offensively bland. Hopefully it isn’t an indication of things to come. We doubt it. Our spirits are high!

As always, keep an eye out for our extensive online coverage of the Berlinale, with our exclusive interviews and our Big Berlinale Preview – which will give you the bear necessities on the films worth queuing for – and much more. And like every year, we’ll be blogging and vlogging on a daily basis during the festival, giving you film reviews, scoops and interviews.