No one quite knows how it happened. But it’s become common knowledge by now, especially within the critical circles: Germany’s prestigious film festival has fallen by the wayside. Compared to its European counterparts, the Berlinale seems to have been relegated to the underachieving runt of the litter.
Late last week, a group of leading German directors – including Maren Ade, Fatih Akin, Doris Dörrie and Volker Schlöndorff – confirmed that even the artistic body weren’t too chuffed with the state of the festival either. In an open letter published by Spiegel, they called for “a new beginning” for the Berlinale, demanding that the 66-year-old festival be course-corrected and once again put “on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice”.
The Berlinale lacks Cannes’ big-name films. And it doesn’t have Venice’s picturesque surroundings. Another main issue at play here is timing. The Berlinale is unceremoniously wedged in between Sundance, the awards season leading up to the Oscars, and Cannes rearing its star-studded head around the corner. You even hear critics making their Cannes plans while the Berlinale is still going on… That is, if they haven’t scarpered halfway through the festival, once the European Film Market (EFM) closes its doors.
But enough moaning. The Berlinale has a problem and it’s not only its calendar. Here’s my three-point plan for a successful and much-needed revamp of Germany’s A-list film Festival:
1. Curate, damn it! Between all the pre-festival press screenings in January and the festival itself, I saw 107 Berlinale films in total this year. To realise that I’d only seen about one-quarter of the selected films after a solid month-and-a-bit is sheer lunacy. It’s plain to see that sections like Forum, Panorama and Perspektive Deutsches Kino need to be streamlined. Curation also means getting the best names, and this year’s competition lineup was one of the weakest in recent memory. Come to think about it, it’s hard to think of a breakout competition film from the past few years. The last one to receive any big international acclaim was Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014. It’s not that the films are bad, but outside the Berlinale bubble, there’s just far too much filler.
2. Don’t be obvious. Celebrating homegrown talent is great, but naming Tom Tykwer as next year’s jury president? Let’s be frank: his last decent film was Perfume and the only reason he’s been given the big job is that Run Lola Run turns 20 in 2018 and he’s directing Babylon Berlin, the most expensive non-English language series ever produced. Congrats, and by all means hire him for jury duty, but compared to Meryl Streep last year and this year’s Paul Verhoeven, Tykwer doesn’t exactly get many excited. Add it to the fact that next year’s edition will feature “Weimar Cinema” as its Retrospective theme, and it all seems embarrassingly on-the-nose.
3. A leadership change. The fly in the ointment for the filmmakers seems to be head honcho Dieter Kosslick. The Spiegel letter stated that the next festival head had to be “an exemplary curator who has a passion for cinema and connections across the globe.” To be fair to Herr Kosslick, his address book is chock-a-block with A-list actors, but when you infamously pass on Son Of Saul for the Competition, ominous-sounding alarm bells should be ringing. László Nemes’ 2015 film went on to bag the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes, as well as both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, which only fuels the fire of those who think Kosslick has become something of a joke. And how does one justify that Toni Erdmann – Germany’s biggest critical success in years – ended up to be a Cannes revelation, not a Berlinale one (although to be honest the jury there missed its chance too).
It may be easy to scapegoat, but after 16 years of good and loyal service, it’s time for some fresh blood. This doesn’t mean promoting a Berlinale regular but drafting in a fresh face to take things in a new direction. The Berlinale needs to retain the winning teams that make Panorama and Generations the highlights they are, but also requires a leader who creates tight bonds with filmmakers as opposed to A-listers. This would ensure that the right films are selected and that not all the best names are syphoned off by Sundance – which happened with this year’s strongest films, all of which had already premiered in Park City. Call Me By Your Name, I Am Not Your Negro, God’s Own Country, The Wound… All these should have been locked in by the Berlinale, especially Raoul Peck’s stunning documentary, which was a major oversight for a festival which prides itself on its politically charged discourses.
So, Dieter, with your contract ending in 2019, it’s time to pour yourself an absolutely monumental belt of hooch and ensure that your victory laps count. And if next year’s competition doesn’t wow by including Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs or Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, expect to hear a slew of derogatory expletives and for the letters calling for your early resignation to pile up faster than you can don your scarf and position that hat of yours at a rakish angle.
Oh, and while we’re at it, more chairs and electrical plugs for the shoddy press centre would be grand. Herzlichen Dank.