As Berlin experiences its coldest time of the year, people look forward to the Berlinale for two reasons: it means spring is near and they can watch non-dubbed world cinema. The Berlin International Film Festival or Berlinale, is first of the three big European festivals (Cannes and Venice being the other two) that sets the agenda for the year’s festival circuit. It is possibly the only time when Berlin’s artists and hipsters huddle to its commercial centre, Potsdamer Platz, normally reserved for capitalists, suits and tourists.
Now in its landmark 70th year, the Berlinale (February 20 to March 1) has, over the decades, built a reputation for taking risks and pushing the boundaries in both narrative and form. In 2018, Touch Me Not, the Romanian film on the fear of intimacy, won the Golden Bear, garnering a lot of rebukes. But the 2019 winner, Synonyms, a semi-autobiographical French-Israeli refugee rager, became a festival darling. At first glance, it seems the 2020 line-up could go either way but the appetite for risk-taking is evident.
Among the 18 films competing for the Golden Bear this year, is an offspring of Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s bizarre Soviet experiment, DAU, which began in 2005. What started off as a biopic of Russian theoretical physicist Lev Landau, who won the Nobel Prize in 1962, became a social experiment. The filmmaker built a gargantuan set, modelled after a secret Soviet research institute, to recreate three decades of Soviet history. A cast of over 400 non-actors lived on set for over two years, wearing costumes even off-camera. With over 700 hours of footage and a lot of controversies akin to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, the much-anticipated experimental project was eventually showcased last year. The series of films and visual installations played non-stop for over three weeks in Paris. At the festival, one feature film from this project, DAU. Natasha, is in competition while the another DAU. Degeneratsia (DAU. Degeneration) is in Berlinale Special.
Changes at the helm
The festival this year has had an overhaul. After heading the Berlinale for 18 years, festival director Dieter Kosslick, has passed the baton to artistic director Carlo Chatrian, who previously helmed Locarno, and executive director, Mariette Rissenbeek. But the 2020 competition lineup does not indicate a radical departure from the festival’s curatorial mix of European art-house, indie titles and a nose for politically-responsive and potentially-controversial films. For Berliners, Burhan Qurbani’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, hits home by following the story of an African refugee from Guinea-Bissau who comes to the German capital on a boat without identity papers. Todos os mortos (All the Dead Ones), the Brazilian-French drama by Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra, casts an eye on post-slavery in Brazil. In Abel Ferrara’s, Siberia, actor Willem Dafoe traverses across a frozen landscape in search of meaning. “If there is a predominance of dark tones, this may be because the films we have selected tend to look at the present without illusion — not to cause fear, but because they want to open our eyes,” says Chatrian.
Berlinale’s beloved German auteur, Christian Petzold returns to the festival two years after the critically-loved Transit, to compete with his latest, Undine. While Undine is set in dream-like modern-day Berlin, Transit stripped a World War II story off its period setting, in tandem with his penchant for ghostly figures. “When you have the past and contemporary moment in the same place, you start thinking about what is happening to Europe and why racists are everywhere,” he had said after the première of Transit at the 2018 Berlinale. His earlier works Barbara, Yella and Ghosts had also competed for the Golden Bear.
No Indian entry
It is interesting to note that amidst smaller changes brought in by the new leadership, there is a conspicuous absence of Netflix films in competition. The American streaming giant has often found itself at loggerheads with top-league European film festivals like Cannes and Berlinale. But among the big American studios, Pixar’s Onward, will have its world première at the festival.
Although, there’s no Indian film in competition, Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo!, Pushpendra Singh’s Laila Aur Saat Geet and Akshay Indikar’s Sthalpuran — Chronicle of Space are part of sections like Panorama and Encounters. Hong Sangsoo’s Domangchin yeoja (The Woman Who Ran) from the Republic of Korea and Tsai Ming-Liang’s Rizi (Days) from Taiwan are representing Asian cinema in competition.
A still from The Assistant
To be more gender-inclusive, the festival had pledged 5050×2020 last year, a gender-parity movement which aims to foster better gender ratio at film festivals. Among the competing films, six are directed or co-directed by women, a step down from seven last year. Interestingly, two of these six films, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, are not world premières, an unusual scenario for Berlinale. Beyond competition films, sexuality and gender have been an integral part of the festival’s Panorama section, often highlighting the various intersections of identity politics. This year, migration, the idea of home, exploitation of our planet and queer identities are the dominant themes. “The programme is emblematic of the urgency for political action and civil disobedience,” observes Panorama head, Michael Stütz. Kitty Green’s The Assistant, for instance, delves into the #MeToo movement in the entertainment industry and David France’s bold documentary, Welcome to Chechnya chronicles the systemic persecution of queer people by the Chechen authorities, in homophobic present-day Russia.
The 70th edition will open with Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year, which stars Margaret Qualley as an aspiring poet Joanna, who works as an assistant to a literary agent. “Philippe Falardeau depicts the small NYC literary world of the 1990s with humour and a sweet note, but he never forgets the 21st century we are living in or the unifying role that art plays in all of our lives,” shares Chatrian. The international jury will be headed by acclaimed British actor Jeremy Irons and actor Helen Mirren will be awarded an honorary Golden Bear for her lifetime achievement. Politician Hillary Clinton and actors Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp, Elle Fanning, Javier Bardem and Salma Hayek are expected to walk the red carpet, lending star power to a festival that is striving to find a renewed relevance this year.