Impressions from Berlinale 2020

By Randall Halle, Klaus W. Jonas Professor of German Film and Cultural Studies

“Film ab” or “roll the film”, is how most moderators end their introductions at the Berlin Film Festival. Thereafter, the festival trailer appears on screen -  a firework of golden stars out of which the Berlin bear appears. This year’s Berlinale trailer had a new addition; it ended with a celebratory 70th anniversary logo. The festival began in 1951 in a West Berlin that was still cleaning up from the disastrous war. The festival was to serve as a new beacon of freedom and openness to culture after 12 years of Nazi-propaganda and censorship. And it was to offer an antidote to the Stalinism taking hold in the Eastern part of the city and the surrounding country. The Berlinale grew to become one of the three world giants on the film festival circuit, differing however from other festivals because it has always oriented itself to the local audience. As opposed to the French film festival in Cannes, the Berliners can and do get tickets to the Berlinale. This year broke new records with almost a half million people attending 340 films over ten days. And among those people 21,000 had festival accreditation. I was one of those people running around with a festival badge with an additional European Film Market badge that gave me access to a further 751 non-public screenings, many of which are films that have not yet found a buyer. (That’s right, I know what might be coming into the theaters and on your streaming feed for the next three years!)

This year’s festival had a new buzz. The director who had led the festival for the last twenty years stepped down and the new co-directors sought to set some new accents. The Berlinale is always a mix of glamour and politics, of popular and critical. Many directors leave the festival aghast because the crowds in the theater take their viewing seriously and will tell the directors and actors quite explicitly what is wrong with their film. You better be prepared for a good bit of German directness if you submit your film to this festival.

For me this year was marked by two things: long films and discussions about streaming. I attended six films over two hours, four over three hours, and one that went from 5pm until midnight. The new Berlin Alexanderplatz went for three hours and fifteen minutes. Burhan Qurbani, one of my favorite directors, a German whose parents came from Afghanistan, adapted the famous novel of world literature setting it in the present and occupying the role of Franz Biberkopf with Francis from Guinea-Bissau. Like Franz, Francis wants to do the right thing, but keeps getting pulled down into the muck. That film, along with Christian Petzold’s Undine, an update of the story of the water Nymph, were highlights of the hundreds of German language films at the Berlinale. My favorite German films were both documentaries: Paris Calligrammes and Walchensee Forever. Paris (only 129 minutes) showed us a decade of Paris in the turbulent 60s from the archive of one of the great German filmmakers, Ulrike Ottinger. As a young girl Ottinger hitchhiked her way from Bodensee to Paris to live an artist’s life, and that she did. Walchensee told the story of six generations of women who have run a café on the Walchensee in Bavaria. A friend developed the scenario for the film so the premier proved especially exciting. Part of that story includes the two sisters who in the 70s, dressed in Bavarian Dirndl, with accordion and dulcimer, hitch hiked through Mexico into the deep interior. It turns out that Bavarian Dirndl and indigenous needlework have some similarities. A fantastic story about the great wide world in the small local place.

Long films may have a special place this year in part because of the success of streaming and long form series films. Along with film screenings, the European Film Market offers lectures, roundtables, and strategy sessions that offer insights into all the aspects of the market. The Oscar to Parasite made everyone at the Berlinale hopeful that US audiences were prepared for complex storytelling from faraway places with subtitles. And because of that success this year many market analysts described the next five years as a golden age for storytelling. ‘Tell me something true. Tell me something I don’t know,’ were the lines that impressed me the most about market trends. With a 23% increase in moving image production in the last five years and another 34% to come, the competition for audience requires films that offer new truths to the spectator. My Berlinale at 70 showed me many new truths and I hope they will show up on a screen near you, so that you can say “Film ab!”