The Berlin International Film Festival remains the "most political" of Europe's three major festivals. Nevertheless, a change could be felt under the Berlinale's new direction, says DW's Jochen Kürten.
The two US films in this year's Berlin International Film Festival competition perhaps best summarize the change of guard at the film festival: Both First Cow by Kelly Reichardt and Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman are independent films that stand for the type of cinema that Carlo Chatrian, the Italian who replaced Dieter Kosslick as artistic director (accompanied by Mariette Rissenbeek as executive director), wants to promote through Germany's largest film festival.
Humble, authentic films with social aspirations
Reichardt and Hittman do not tell their stories through pompous staging and stars; First Cow and Never Rarely Sometimes Always rather focus on narrative authenticity and aesthetic minimalism. They stand for a cinema beyond glamor. A bit of patience is needed to connect with these films, but then they unfold their charm and force, and leave a lasting impression.
Do they also stand for political cinema? Yes, but it is a different kind of political cinema than the one that established the Berlinale's reputation as Europe's "most political" major film festival.
First Cow, which looks into the birth of entrepreneurship in the old west through the tender story of a friendship between two men, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a teen abortion drama, both comment on society without catchphrases. Insight comes through pictures and understated emotions, through atmosphere and authenticity based on subtle interactions.
In this respect, they represent well Carlo Chatrian's understanding of cinema. For the former director of the Locarno film festival, cinema is primarily an expression of art. The texts he wrote as a former film critic, as well as those he also prepared for the 70th Berlinale, demonstrate well that Chatrian is a true cinephile. The Berlinale got an extra intellectual touch in 2020.
That doesn't mean Hollywood stars weren't part of the show: Sigourney Weaver and Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe and Cate Blanchett, Elle Fanning and Salma Hayek… That's not a bad choice. They were celebrated and admired; the red carpet gave them a stage. But the Hollywood stars were not the focus of the 10-day festival.
Still drawing crowds
There is no single formula for a film festival as big as the Berlinale. There were stars, but they weren't the focus. There was political cinema, but it felt more subtle than in the festival's past editions. The selection was once again overwhelming — reducing the number of works in the program from 400 in 2019 to 340 this year didn't change much to that fact.
The festival drew more movie-goers than ever. Midway through this year's edition, organizers reported that 272,000 tickets — around 20,000 more than in the previous year — had already been sold.
The final awards ceremony was also representative of the new style of the Berlinale. There was a remarkably large number of artists on stage who were visibly not looking for the big spotlight; filmmakers who preferred to let their works speak rather than make great, perfectly rehearsed speeches.
A decidedly political film prevailed
Admittedly, the level of the competition was not outstanding. And yet the new direction's concept, with a focus on art instead of glamor and big political messages, does give hope for the future of the festival.
In the end, the winner of the Golden Bear, the Iranian film There Is No Evil by dissident director Mohammad Rasoulof, is a political film that would have certainly have obtained the same top award under Kosslick's direction. In this respect, Rasoulof serves as a bridge between the "old" and the "new" Berlinale.