Berlinale Enters a New Era Kicking Off the 70th Edition of the Festival
by Alex Billington
February 21, 2020
Willkommen in Berlin! The 70th Berlin Film Festival, also known as Berlinale, has kicked off this week in Berlin, Germany in the center of the city at Potsdamer Platz. This year's festival takes place a few weeks later than usual (instead of back-to-back with Sundance), so they can put some distance between the festival and the Academy Awards yet still sneak in before February ends. This is my seventh year in a row covering this festival, and now that I live in Berlin, it's my "hometown" festival that I get to attend while going home to my own apartment every evening. It's also a pivotal year for Berlinale - not only is it the 70th edition, it's the first festival with a brand new set of co-directors running things - Mariette Rissenbeek & Carlo Chatrian.
Many film critics and cinephiles have been critical of the festival in the last few years. But I am optimistic, and I love this festival, and I am hopeful they'll get things back on track - most importantly by programming better films. I am quoted in an ExBerliner article this month saying: "I feel that it has completely lost its relevance on the film festival circuit. It’s no longer an 'A-festival'. I would say that Rotterdam and Sundance have taken the spotlight away from them in a big way. That’s because the Berlinale takes place in February, which is right after Sundance and before Cannes and South By South West, but they also really need to fit better films into their line-up. The last few years have been a bit disappointing. The new leadership either has to go big and bold, or take a step back and focus less on numbers and more on quality." I am glad the festival still gave me a press badge and let me attend after that! I just want to be honest, and enjoy the films.
This goes for every festival all over the world: I prefer to let the films and the festival experience speak for itself – and hopefully they've done their best to make it worthwhile. Berlinale this year decided to include a few films in the competition line-up that have already premiered at other festivals - mainly Kelly Reichardt's First Cow (from Telluride/NYFF last year) and Eliza Hittman's Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (from Sundance this year). They're also showing Josephine Decker's Shirley, Visar Morina's Exil, Kitty Green's The Assistant, Zoé Wittock's Jumbo, and a number of acclaimed docs from this year's Sundance, including David France's Welcome to Chechnya, the Ross Brothers' Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Susanne Regina Meures' Saudi Runaway, and Iryna Tsilyk's The Earth Is Blue as an Orange. These are worth mentioning because they're all great films and they're great selections at any fest no matter what.
From the selection of world premieres and other discoveries - what am I most excited about seeing? Well, my top two are both German films, which makes sense: Burhan Qurbani's Berlin Alexanderplatz (watch the trailer), and Christian Petzold's Undine (watch the trailer), along with Swiss drama My Little Sister starring Nina Hoss. I have high hopes for these, not just because they've been waiting to premiere here, but because they look/sound like they might be exceptional works of cinema art. And encountering that always excites me. A Berlinale regular, Polish director Agnieszka Holland, is back again with another project titled Charlatan, set in 1950s Czechoslovakia. There's also Jóhann Jóhannsson's B&W experimental film Last and First Men (watch the trailer), and Anne Fontaine's Police (aka Night Shift) premiering here. The full Berlinale selection for 2020 can be found on their website. There is always more to uncover in each section.
It's tough for a festival to follow Sundance (and Rotterdam), and run just a few months before Cannes (and SXSW), but Berlinale does its best to own this time slot. The festival has premiered many iconic films over the years, including The Big Lebowski and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and as long as they can reestablish their prominence, they'll regain the trust and respect they certainly deserve. At the end of the day it really is all about the films, and I've discovered so many unforgettable gems over the years: the documentary about Beuys, the documentary Shut Up and Play the Piano, Katharina Mückstein's L'Animale, Wolfgang Fischer's Styx, and Christian Petzold's Transit. So here's hoping. And here's hoping that Berlinale continues to focus on bringing in good films, not the red carpet or world premieres or anything else flashy like that. This is also a fun festival to attend as a member of the public - you may end up watching something you never expected.
As usual, you can follow my updates from Berlinale on Twitter @firstshowing throughout the festival. I'll be posting reviews and other blog recaps on the site as the festival continues on. I'm also keeping track of the films I see on my Letterboxd page /firstshowing with thoughts. I'm just going to keep seeing films and if there's any real gems or anything that really stands out, I'll try and bring attention to it and write about it. The rest of them, well, maybe you'll catch a few at another film festival near you. Not everything can be a masterpiece, and sometimes you might end up seeing a batch of bad films. But as always, I love film festivals and I love being back in the mix of people and cinema and all the excitement about what's on the big screen.