Best of Berlinale 2019
“A Berlin, personne n’a peur de fouler le tapis rouge.”
Festival Director Dieter Kosslick in an interview with Le Monde, February 8, 2019
2019 – a year of goodbyes. The final edition of the festival under the leadership of Dieter Kosslick who has shaped the Berlinale for almost two decades and, as Daniel Haas wrote in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, raised it to a whole new level: “When he took over the film festival from his predecessor Moritz de Hadeln in 2001, visitor numbers were flat and the programme was considered too American by many. […] At the Kosslick Berlinale, you could discover Asia and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Muslim world. An audience numbed over the years by Hollywood kitsch and Til Schweiger comedies couldn’t believe their eyes” (February 7, 2019). 18 years for cinema, 18 years for Berlin and Germany as cultural centres. The world has changed significantly during this period. In 2001, the internet was still in its infancy; digitalisation was scarcely mentioned; and Kosslick wrote his first foreword for the Berlinale programme affected by the events of September 11 and the TV images of two collapsing towers.
To have turned the Berlinale into one of the biggest public film festivals in the world, closely linked with the city and being capable of whipping it into a frenzy for eleven days once every year; to have positioned German film on the world cinema map once again and, with many new initiatives, to have made the Berlinale fit for the future – these are achievements that will endure. Kosslick has grounded the festival. Access, accessibility and the dismantling of barriers are merits connected to its open nature, as Ed Mesa wrote in Variety: “After succeeding former festival director Moritz de Hadeln 18 years ago, Kosslick sought to make the festival more accessible to the public. His folksy humor and cheerfulness lightened the event and charmed festgoers and celebrity guests alike. He also oversaw major changes, expansions and additions, many of which have been adopted by other leading festivals around the world” (February 4, 2019).
At the end of May, Kosslick will hand over the direction of the Berlinale to his two successors, whose names were already revealed in June 2018: Carlo Chatrian has left his post at the Locarno Festival and, in 2020, will serve as the Berlinale’s artistic director while Mariette Rissenbeek will take over the management. The long-standing call for a dual leadership has thus been implemented.
A Final Kosslick Competition
During his directorship, German film lay particularly close to Kosslick’s heart. As Andreas Busche summed up in Der Tagesspiegel after the presentation of the Competition awards: “A better ending for the screenplay of the Dieter Kosslick era can scarcely be imagined. With Angela Schanelec and Nora Fingscheidt, two German female directors took part in the competition of the 69th Berlinale and the jury honoured them both […] at the Bear Gala in the Berlinale Palast” (February 17, 2019). Angela Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director with Ich war zuhause, aber (I Was at Home, But). An uncomfortable film that demanded a lot from its audience and flared tempers. “There was booing at the screening – yet German director Angela Schanelec has delivered by far the most beautiful and artistic film of the competition” (Hannah Pilarczyk, Spiegel Online, February 13, 2019). Ultimately, enthusiasm prevailed for the courage with which the director disregarded the rules of “successful storytelling” and consistently went her own way without worrying about the opinions of others.
Ich war zuhause, aber tells of the death of a father and the brief disappearance of a son – a family structure. The topic of family was to be found in many of the films in the 69th Competition. It was also present in Nora Fingscheidt’s highly praised Systemsprenger (System Crasher) which depicts the uncontrollable rage of nine-year-old Benni against every type of rule. The girl is at odds with her family setting and, likewise, with every social institution: a cinematic tour-de-force that brought its director the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize. In addition, Systemsprenger reveals the successful course the Berlinale has taken, both in paving the way for directors and as their companion: as a participant in Berlinale Talents, which Dieter Kosslick had brought into being when taking office in 2002, Nora Fingscheidt was awarded the Kompagnon Fellowship for her treatment for Systemsprenger in 2017. In 2019, she returned with the finished film and was able to convince everyone that the jury back then was right to place their trust in her and her story. To hone and support talents – a strategy that did not exist in such a form before Dieter Kosslick.
The winner of the Golden Bear also provided proof of the logic of the festival’s development: “Synonyms is one of those disturbing, startling and – one could also say – productively neurotic films to which the Berlinale has consistently been providing a home in recent years” (Katja Nicodemus, Die Zeit, February 21, 2019). A courageous selection was encountered by a courageous International Jury – as in 2018, when Adina Pintilie’s highly controversial Touch Me Not won the main prize. In Synonymes (Synonyms), Nadav Lapid depicts the life in Paris of the Israeli Yoav who uses all available means to try and eradicate his roots. What is, at first glance, a very private story is interwoven with the conditions of existing within a much larger political context: national origin, language, family. Just how strongly the political, in the form of the state, is connected with the most private details was also made apparent by the Chinese drama Di jiu tian chang (So Long, My Son), which won both the Best Actor and Best Actress prizes – for Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun. Director and co-writer Wang Xiaoshuai tells the story of a couple who have lost their son, and in dealing with this individual case, reflects upon China’s one-child policy of the last 30 years.
Another film also bore the hallmarks of Kosslick’s individual style: with Grâce à Dieu (By the Grace of God) the 2019 Competition had a close connection to current world events. The film by François Ozon, who was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, gives an account of the abuses in the Catholic Church from the point of view of its victims, using the example of the case of Father Bernard Preynat who, in 2016, was charged with sexually assaulting around 70 boys. Preynat’s case was dismissed due to the statute of limitations but, in early March, just two weeks after the festival ended, the Archbishop of Lyon, who had covered up Preynat’s assaults, was convicted.
Roberto Saviano, who for decades has made it his life’s work to record the wrongs of the Mafia, was awarded Best Screenplay along with his co-writers Maurizio Braucci and Claudio Giovannesi – the latter of whom also directed La paranza dei bambini (Piranhas). And thus the conclusion of the Award Ceremony was clear: cinema possesses an existential dimension in the social sphere – the power to criticise, accuse and effect change.
The festival was life-changing on a very practical level for the young German-Turkish director Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay and his two producers, Bastian Klügel and Claus Reichel, who won the GWFF Best First Feature Award for Oray. During their acceptance speech they revealed that the prize money would first and foremost be used to get their office heating repaired. The three’s joy was indescribable. Together with Florian Fischer and Johannes Krell – whose Umbrawon the Golden Bear for Best Short Film – they rounded off the triumph of German cinema at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival.
A Missing Competitor
The final film in the 2019 Competition, Yi miao zhong (One Second) by Zhang Yimou, was pulled at the last moment, officially due to “technical problems during post-production”. Because it was a Chinese film, there was a flurry of speculation during the following days and calls for the freedom of art. “March 2017 saw the introduction of a statutory supervision of films; a special permit requirement was added for films to be exploited abroad, including at festivals. This is now under the purview of the Communist Party’s propaganda department. Anyone infringing the rules is threatened with fines and occupational bans” explained Katja Nicodemus and Xifan Yang (Die Zeit, February 13, 2019). The festival refrained from making combative statements and for good reasons: “The Berlinale must exercise diplomacy; it can only initiate campaigns for the freedom of art when it doesn’t put the filmmakers at risk” (Christiane Peitz, Der Tagesspiegel, February 16, 2019).
The Future is Female
2019 was also, above all, the year of women. Their proportion in the Competitionwas extremely high in comparison to international rates – seven of the 17 films competiting for the Golden Bear were directed by women. International Jury member Rajendra Roy appeared at the press conference in a t-shirt bearing the slogan “THE FUTURE OF FILM IS FEMALE”. Isabelle Coixet and her cast spread their message at the Photo Call with fans inscribed with ”#MÁSMUJERES” – more women. The festival’s commitment to a stronger role for women was welcomed with euphoria. The Berlinale was the first big film festival to complete a comprehensive gender evaluation of its public programme as well as the composition of its management positions and committees. “The single biggest takeaway from Berlin 2019 – and perhaps Kosslick’s most lasting legacy as festival director – is that gender equality in the film industry is achievable. While Cannes and Venice equivocated and fumed – blaming society or structures beyond their control for the shocking lack of female representation in their competition lineups – Berlin, with typical German efficiency, just got things done” (Scott Roxborough, The Hollywood Reporter, February 17, 2019). The International Jury was also headed by a woman – Juliette Binoche. And, by signing the 5050×2020 pledge, Dieter Kosslick also formally confirmed to strive for more gender equality. By 2019 the Berlinale had already achieved gender parity in its management and selection committees.
Sandra Hüller, Rajendra Roy, Juliette Binoche and Trudie Styler in the Berlinale VIP Club; Natalia de Molina, Greta Fernández and Isabel Coixet at the Photo Call
Meanwhile, the Retrospective boasted a female participation rate of 100 percent. With the title ”Self-Determined – Perspectives of Women Filmmakers”, it was dedicated to the artistic work of women in Germany on both sides of the Wall between 1969 and 1999. The importance of such retrospection was made clear by Susan Vahabzadeh: “It can of course be argued that, in an ideal world, there should be no difference between whether a film is directed by a woman or a man; however, in the world in which we live, men have unquestionably cultivated a male gaze throughout the 123 years of film history – and it rarely turns its attention to topics like abortion or the problems of single parents; it frequently looks at cleavages but never at the psychological effects of breast cancer” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 15, 2019). The question of women’s role in the film industry and in film was explored in detail throughout the different sections. The Forum, for example, focused on feminist video activism of the 1970s. The significance of this tradition for the present day was explored in depth during a workshop discussion in the silent green Cupola.
And the 2019 Honorary Golden Bear also went to a woman, one of the true greats in her field: the actress Charlotte Rampling. When asked what this honour meant to her, she replied with her own cool irony: “Festivals need stars, and the somewhat older ones like me are lured with such prizes. I don’t like lifetime achievement awards at all. But in this case, I feel very honoured. And my Silver Bear [which she won in 2016 as Best Actress in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years] has already asked: can we not have a golden one, too? Now he’s getting one and I will put them snout to snout” (in an interview with Peter Zander, Berliner Morgenpost, February 15, 2019).
Charlotte Rampling during the Q&A for Angelina Maccarone’s portrait film Charlotte Rampling – The Look
The End of Cinema?
As in previous years, the egalitarian nature of the festival and the sheer variety of films on offer also drew criticism in 2019 from the press which, as before, failed to take into account the actual conditions of supply and demand. “The lamented excess of choice was not perceived as such by the general public. Quite the opposite, in fact: the hunger for films appeared insatiable. As justifiable as it is to criticise the breadth of the Berlinale films on offer for a lack of selectivity and an arbitrariness, it is also clear how much this very same abundance will be missed as soon as it no longer exists” (Barbara Schweizerhof, der Freitag, 06/2019 edition).
Apropos the “hunger for films”: it was no surprise that, in 2019, as in previous years, record numbers were reported. The end of the Kosslick era saw the mind-boggling figure of almost five million tickets sold during these 18 years. And this during a period in which the media infrastructure has completely changed throughout the world. In 2002, video and social media platforms and streaming services were unknown. If you wanted to watch a film you had to go to the cinema, wait for it to be broadcast on television or head off to the video store – an institution that in 2019, due to the availability of films online, has almost completely disappeared from the world.
In this regard, the imminent change at the Berlinale is happening at the same time as a structural earthquake is being experienced throughout the film industry. John Hopewell and Elsa Keslassy got to the heart of the matter: “When the history of this decade’s movie history is written, 2019 could go down as a tipping point in the power balance between the traditional international industry and the rampant building of new OTT platforms” (Variety, January 29, 2019). For years, the big players like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and Facebook have been investing in their own content that can be individually accessed at any time and in any place. In the face of the pressure from the streaming services, many people considered nothing less than the future of cinema to be at stake. Because the trend towards personalised content and consumption from the domestic sofa is contrary to the idea of cinema as a public and social space, which is obviously also linked to tangible economic interests and livelihoods.
Forum Expanded 2019
Thus, Netflix was one of the big bones of contention. A catalyst for the conflict to be played out in public was Isabel Coixet’s Elisa y Marcela, a film that was produced by Netflix and selected for the Competition. The AG Kino (Guild of German Art-House Cinemas) reacted by appealing to the festival management to only show the film out of competition. But in keeping with the big festivals, the Berlinale took a clear position: Elisa y Marcela was screened in the Competition because Netflix had pledged to bring the film to cinemas in Spain. Nevertheless, the purists saw the survival of cinema as being under threat. It was about the safeguarding of existing standards versus accessibility. The positions were discussed quite ambivalently. Verena Lueken asked: “Should festivals, of all places, fetishise a mode of presentation which, outside of festivals, is restricted to a niche existence?” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 16, 2019), something she wrote not without noting previous years and the development of the Berlinale. Under Kosslick’s aegis, the festival had already reacted, in 2006 at the latest, to the fact that screening practices would eventually change and had taken into account what the future might look like with the introduction of Forum Expanded. The section has always operated in the border areas between film and installation, cinema and museum, searching for the possibilities of different, alternative modes of reception in which special spaces beyond the cinema have always played a central role. In 2019, with the Betonhalle of the silent green Kulturquartier, Forum Expanded took over another one of these special locations that break open the idea of cinema as a rigidly defined architectural space and instead enquire about the nature of the images, the cinematographic, of which the big screen is only one manifestation among others. “Kosslick opened up the festival to the changes that film and cinema are experiencing. And he has made sure that there is an audience for what he is showing,” wrote Verena Lueken (ibid.).
In view of the upheavals, the creation of Berlinale Series in 2015 was far-sighted. Series were exactly the format that dissolved both the aesthetic and economic boundaries between film and television and had carved a space for themselves in the gap between supposedly firmly entrenched distribution channels. By 2019, they were already established as the vanguard of new, innovative forms of storytelling – not least because of productions like Netflix’s House of Cardswhich was screened in Berlinale Special in 2014. The distinctions between cinema and television, big screen and small screen, art and supposed trash have long been dissolved on both the production and storytelling levels. And with the exploitation of new markets and target audiences, new presentation practices are constantly pushing into the field of supply and demand. Since 2017, the “Berlinale Africa Hub” has been tracing such new developments: “Half the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under 30 years old and watches audiovisual content on their smartphones and tablets,” stated EFM Director Mattijs Wouter Knol (Filmecho, February 9, 2019). Being fit for the future requires engaging with the altered conditions of consumption.
Netflix et al advanced into a vacuum left by the film studios and traditional industry: “The other truth is, however, that increasingly more and even renowned directors are complaining that they cannot get their projects financed because the distributors are becoming ever more risk-averse. Even someone like Martin Scorsese has decided to make a passion project with Netflix” (Peter Zander, Berliner Morgenpost, 13 February 13, 2019). The festival approached this issue with an open mind: Tendo Nagenda, the vice president of original films at Netflix, was invited to speak on a Berlinale Talents panel. But whether Netflix represents a great opportunity or a great danger for the future of filmmaking could not conclusively be settled there. Hopes and fears combined with each other in equal measure.
Like Dieter Kosslick, Wieland Speck – Panorama head from 1992 to 2017 and subsequently consultant of the official programme – bid a last goodbye to the Berlinale in 2019. His final act was to curate, with his long-term colleague Andreas Struck, the Panorama 40 anniversary programme which brought the section’s spirit – or “soul”, as Speck put it – to the big screen. For Speck, the focus has always been on diversity: “I can move from entertainment to radical taboo-breakers, from experimental films to quite pleasing ones. We have exactly what the press, at times, call randomness; that is, diversity. To give diversity a distinct character is something which I believe we succeeded in over the years” (in conversation with Eckhard Roelcke, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, February 10, 2019). In retrospect, some of the core topics of the section became clear: the rupture caused by the spread of HIV in the 1980s; the cinematographic imagination and its power to change social realities; and, of course, the LGBT community that was close to the Panorama’s heart from the start. “The gay and lesbian community […] has a lot to thank Wieland Speck for, not only because he retrieved queer film art from its niche but also because he recognised that cinema cannot be underestimated as a trigger of emancipation,” wrote Marcus Weingärtner in appreciation of Speck’s achievements (Der Tagesspiegel, February 7, 2019).
Yet there are still more farewells: along with Dieter Kosslick, Thomas Hailer also left the Berlinale in 2019. Before he became Berlinale curator, Hailer led Generation from 2002 to 2008 and, with the introduction of the 14pluscompetition, developed the section into an extremely successful component of the festival. Maike Mia Höhne also celebrated her final year as curator of Berlinale Shorts. And, already in the summer of 2018, Christoph Terhechte handed over the leadership of the Forum – on an interim basis to the management board of the Arsenal — Institute for Film and Video Art: Milena Gregor, Birgit Kohler and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus. Without the aggregated experience and knowledge of these three, the festival would be obliged to start entirely anew next year.
The Festival’s Future
The Berlinale, however, had nothing to worry about regarding its own raison d’être. As Wieland Speck emphasised in an interview: “The more difficult it has become to navigate the ocean of moving images, the more important the work of programmers has become. […] Today we need film festivals like the Berlinale, in which so much knowledge, taste and political understanding is incorporated, more than ever. Online, everything is jumbled together and, meanwhile, robots are deciding what should be seen.” Besides, a Golden Bear has always been the launch pad for a sustained career, as Adina Pintilie who in 2018 won not only the Golden Bear but also the GWFF Best First Feature Award with Touch Me Not, explained: “The Berlinale had a major impact on the film’s life. […] The awards gave us extensive international exposure, which ultimately allowed us to share the film with a wide audience. We were invited to over 50 subsequent major festivals, and secured further distribution in over 35 countries” (in an interview with Paul O’Callaghan, Exberliner, February 6, 2019).
As his directorship comes to a close, Dieter Kosslick is handing over a healthy, flourishing enterprise with an immense pulling power. The look ahead to the future is already mixed with faint nostalgia. Scott Roxborough wrote in the Hollywood Reporter: “Even criticism of Kosslick – which has become something of an annual sporting event in recent years at the Berlinale – was more muted, with most journalists grudgingly acknowledging his success in transforming Berlin from a sleepy regional event to one of the world’s top five festivals with a film market second in size only to Cannes” ( February 17, 2019). And when Dieter Kosslick himself was asked what advice he would pass on to his successors, he replied: “To keep your eye firmly on the audience. Everything else can be changed, but the audience has been shaping the Berlinale since 1951” (in an interview with Birgit Heidsiek, Filmecho 06/2019).