For all the A-listers hitting the Berlinale red carpet this week, Berlin continues to host the most public, and provocative, major film event in Europe.
As Berliners queue for hours - and sometimes camp overnight - for tickets to the more than 400 films showing at this year's Berlinale, one is reminded of the egalitarian approach to a film festival founded as a means to revive culture in a still-ruined city in 1951. "It's a populist, democratic delight," wrote Micah Bucey of his time in Berlin as an ecumenical jury member in 2016. "Unlike Cannes, which is a closed, private festival for the elite-and-invited, the Berlinale is public and attended by thousands, all clamoring to watch films and talk about them on every street corner."
French film critic Michel Ciment, who sat on the Berlinale jury in 1976, once described how he was struck by the German festival's "close relationship with the Berlin population." While the Cannes film festival - where he was also a jury member - "is a meeting for the professionals," the Berlinale "is a festival at the heart of a big city," he wrote of the only major European film festival that hosts packed public screenings across the entire metropolis.
"Cannes is very exclusive; I'd have to say their programming isn't nearly as adventurous as Berlin's," Canadian queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce told DW before the world premiere of his film, "The Misandrists" (which was shot in and around Berlin) on February 13. Speaking at a reception - located in the concert hall in Hansa Studios where David Bowie recorded "Heroes" - for the Panorama section of the festival, LaBruce said that when serving as president of Cannes' Queer Palm Jury in 2014, he realized the differences with Berlin. "They don't really program enough queer work at Cannes," he said. "Berlin is known for programming a lot of different kinds of films. It's more experimental, underground and political."
Even at the Sundance film festival, which has regularly screened LaBruce's work, he described "massive walkouts" from his outré films that industry figures deem to lack marketability. In Berlin, by contrast, "The Misandrists" - the story of a gang of far-left feminist terrorists based loosely on The Red Army Faction - is being embraced as a headlining act in the Panorama program.
If the Berlin film festival's civic openness sets it apart from more exclusive European film junkets, an ability to foster public discussion has also encouraged programmers to screen works with provocative and potent political messages. In 1976, Robert Altman's controversial film, "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," that skewered the myth of the Wild West in American popular culture, won the Golden Bear award and set the political tone of the festival for decades to come.
Yun-hua Chen, a Berlin-based Taiwanese film critic who writes for the Goethe Institute in Beijing, agreed that the Golden Bear winner is most often a political choice, citing last year's winner, "Fire at Sea," for its portrayal of the refugee crisis on the migrant "gateway" island of Lampudusa in Italy. "The year before, the choice of 'Taxi,' with a filmmaker that could not even leave his country to pick up the award (director Jafar Panahi was banned from leaving Iran) was a way for Berlinale to make a statement and to create a discussion. The film choices have been quite polemical."
"It has to do with the city, the historical background," said Chen. "But also the make-up of the audience here. It's a huge international city with people from different places and it has gone through a lot with the refugee crisis." She added that a number of Chinese films selected for this year's Berlinale explore China's own internal migrant crisis, including "Ghost in the Mountains" and "Almost Heaven."
Speaking one's mind
Meanwhile, Finnish director and festival favorite, Aki Kaurismäki, is back this year with "The Other Side of Hope," a film that explores the plight of a Syrian immigrant seeking asylum in Helsinki. Kaurismäki's politics are well-known, the filmmaker not turning up at the Oscars in 2003 - where "The Man Without a Past" was nominated for Best Foreign Film - to protest America's involvement in the Iraq War.
Chinese director Wang Quan'an, who sits on the international jury this year, also singled out the Berlinale's proactive support for emerging film cultures in general. "Being at the Berlinale is import for Chinese filmmakers," said the winner of the Golden Bear in 2007 for "Tuya's Marriage," the story of Mongolian herders being forced off their land. "Unlike other festivals, there's been consistent and ongoing support for Chinese film, beginning with [Zhang Yimou's] 'Red Sorghum' (the 1988 Golden Bear winner)."
On Sunday night, the Romanian film industry delegation turned up at the Berlinale red carpet with "Romanian Cinema #resist" signs and demanded its government resign in the face of a long-running corruption scandal. In response, the Berlinale sent out an official tweet stating that it "expresses solidarity to the Romanian protesters attending the festival." Perhaps expect to see more Romanian films at next year's festival. The Berlin public will be sure to turn up in force - and in solidarity.