At the 70th Berlin Film Festival, the most surprising sight was the weather — the wind, the rain, and even a little snow. Rookies gawked at the frigid conditions, but veterans didn’t blink an eye. For those who had attended the festival for years, they knew that it was the warmest Berlinale since climate change.
Berlinale attendees are conditioned to fight cold winds and huge crowds. This time, only the wind remained, and the temperature was mild. With new festival directors and a revised schedule, 2020 represented a Berlinale in transition, accurately reflected in the atmosphere. In welcoming the new decade, Berlinale introduced two new directors, Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian. The festival was further postponed to later in the month, hoping to avoid any conflicts with a budding awards season.
The European Film Market, or EFM, is where all films are bought and sold. Although it runs in tandem with the festival circuit, the EFM was uniquely quiet this year. The rise of streaming, and the general evolution of the industry away from festival buys, granted Berlinale a mellow stage. Less crowds to fight, but the same great cocktail parties continued, making it even easier to land meetings. The antiquated model of EFM itself has drawn questions towards the relevancy and inner workings of film sales.
In a rapidly shifting industry, uncertainty loomed over discussions about adjusting to the new market. Major topics included how to tailor distribution pipelines to fit new streaming platforms, and how world-wide streaming deals affect smaller distributor’s ability to garner essential pre-sales for their projects.
Plenty of people came to see movies this year! But seeing films was a little more difficult. First, due to the date change, deals with local cinemas during the festival period were renegotiated; screening venues were much sparse amid an already sprawling city. Traveling around Berlin proved to be the biggest obstacle for the stubborn festival goer. If it wasn’t around Potsdamer Plaza, it was a trek.
The second obstacle was online ticketing. It used to be only the faithful festival badge holders staking their spot in the line early every morning, ensuring they could get tickets to the films they were dying to see. Now, the faithful must compete with cyberspace, where tickets can be purchased as soon as they become available. Plus, Badge holders pay handsomely for full festival access. Who would ever want to pay twice?
So, even while the hot tickets were hard to score, by mid-week, films that had not been so well-received were easy to obtain. Like Matteo Garrones’ out of competition live-action “Pinocchio,” or Sally Potter’s in competition “The Roads Not Taken.”
Hot tickets in the competition this year included Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” and an NYC-set American indie about abortion called “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”, directed by Eliza Hittman, my choice for the Golden Bear. Other hot competition titles included “Siberia”, a film as typically divisive as Ferrara films tend to be, a Brazilian film called “All The Dead Ones”, “Undine”, Christian Petzolds’ follow-up to his 2018 competition entry “Transit”, and finally, “Delete History”, a cutting French satire surrounding the impetus of social media.
Of course, the competition isn’t the only place to see buzzed about films or under the radar gems. In the “Encounters” section I saw “Funny Face”, directed by Tim Sutton, for which the early morning press screening was nearly empty. The film depicts a brilliant meditation on NYC gentrification set in Brooklyn. It revolves around a young Muslim woman and a young man of an unidentified minority and their struggles against a morally bankrupt developer. Through reflective monologues, the film strives to explore the issue from all sides, intersecting with both the past and present in its approach.
In the Berlinale Special out of competition section, I saw the German film “Curveball”, directed by Johannes Naber. I’d describe it as a sort of German “Dr. Strangelove”. It’s the true story of the Iraqi source the US used to justify WMDS and the invasion of Iraq, whom the Germans knew was bluffing. Yes, a lot of it is in English. Oh, and it’s a comedy. Both are unfortunate – as the filmmakers themselves acknowledge.
One film from the Special section I missed that was getting great buzz was the Russian film “Persian Lessons.” The film chronicles a Nazi guard who forces a prisoner to teach him Farsi, which the prisoner doesn’t know, so he makes it up. Directed by Vadim Perelman, who directed 2002’s indie gem “House Of Sand and Fog”, this film was one of the best-reviewed of the festival. It sounds brilliant!
Other hot tickets in the Encounters and Panorama sections included: “Shirley”, a sort of Shirley Jackson biopic starring Elizabeth Moss; Sandra Wollner’s “The Trouble With Being Born”, a German film; “The Assistant”, which made its European premiere; American film “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” about a crazy night in Vegas; “No Hard Feelings”, a German film about the mutual exclusion of being a migrant and being gay; And “Mogul Mowgli” about a Pakistani rapper in the UK. Also generating a strange buzz was Romanian entry “Malmkrog”, directed by Cristi Puiu.
In the Generation 14plus section, standouts included “Palazzo De Justitie”, an Italian film about two opposing families’ children meeting outside the courtroom as a trial rages inside, “Paradise Drifters” a Dutch-French-Spanish film about homeless drifter teenagers in Southern Europe, and “Alice Junior”, a Portuguese film directed by Gil Baroni.
Women were very well-represented in the festival this year, and diversity and inclusion was everywhere in the selected films. International European festivals like Berlinale are very important to me. As an American living in Europe, it feels like one of the few places I can see foreign (to me) films in the cinemas with English subtitles. It even allows me to view a lot of films that would have never made it into American cinemas.
Overall, it was pretty low-key for a 70th anniversary. Usually, there’s at least one juicy controversy, but this year we only got an apology from Jury President Jeremy Irons for past controversies. The jury also included Berenice Bejo, Luca Marinelli, Bettina Brokemper, Kleber Filho, Annemarie Jacher and Kenneth Lonergan.
They finally chose to award the Golden Bear to “There Is No Evil”, an Iranian film from “Banned in Iran” Director Mohammad Rasoulof. A strong choice from what, in my humble opinion, was an exceptionally strong line up of compelling films.
I wrote most of this article before they announced the award winners, and I am happy to add that I made a close call – The Silver Bear went to “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”!