How the Mighty Fall: Berlinale is No Longer an A-List Festival Anymore
by Alex Billington
March 7, 2023
This has been bothering me for the past few years, and it's finally time to get this off my chest. I have been attending the Berlin Film Festival (known as "Berlinale" locally) for 10 years, it's one of the oldest film festivals in the world, and I'm bummed out by how this fest has lost their way and . Berlinale is no longer an "A-list" festival, and should stop being considered one of "the most important film festivals in the world." They've lost that title. They've lost their relevance, they've lost their importance, and they need to wake up and realize this is happening instead of go on pretending nothing is different. The 2023 edition of Berlinale was its 73rd, the festival has been around for a long time, but that doesn't automatically make it A-list. Ever since they hired the most recent directors - executive director Mariette Rissenbeek & artistic director Carlo Chatrian starting with the 2020 edition - things have gotten much worse. The line-up has become extremely niche, more obscure, filled with mediocre-to-bad films (and a very limited selection of good ones), which is the key factor in their demise. If they wish to be relevant again, they need to completely rethink the festival.
I believe it is an important part of art analysis to criticize festivals - not just their line-up. However, this is considered a huge taboo within the film community - critics especially are afraid of being honest or critical about the festival experience. We can talk all day about the films, but don't dare say anything bad about the festival itself - unless their ticketing website doesn't work. I have been running FirstShowing for 17 years so far, and I have been attending festivals for 17 years as well. My first trip to Sundance was in January of 2007 (driving from Colorado / sleeping on my brother's couch), my first trip to Cannes was in 2009, my first trip to TIFF was in 2007. I have spent almost 20 years of my life dedicated to traveling around this planet to the world's greatest film festivals to watch world premieres of the world's best films. I have seen the industry change first hand; evolving with the times, with good & bad decisions. I have participated in conversations, I have spoken with others in the community, and most agree - Berlinale is no longer an important or relevant festival. They are – and I would like to emphasize this – still a very successful big city festival and should be compared more accurately to the Rome, Zurich, Vienna, and London Film Festivals - not Cannes or Venice.
I also have a deep personal connection with this city and this fest. In 2014, I was invited by Fox Searchlight (as they were once known) to fly to Berlin to cover the press junket & world premiere of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. We had to get a press badge to be able to attend the screening, so I also caught a few other screenings while I was in town. I wrote a glowing recap of my experience, raving about it so much that Berlinale invited me back again as a "guest" of the fest - offering me a comp hotel room. After returning for a few years, I fell in love with the city of Berlin. It was these trips to Berlin every February that convinced me to finally move to Berlin in 2016, leaving New York (I could not afford it on my blogger budget). Ever since, I've been attending Berlinale as a "local" and it's different. Not only do I go home to my own apartment and sleep in my own bed every night, I also don't have to spend any extra money to attend. Over the years, my excitement has faded watching so many bad or forgettable films. I keep wondering why they keep making bad picks. I see people spending money to come to Berlin and I want to tell them: don't, it's not worth it. But I always hold my tongue - many cinephiles do find good films at this festival and do enjoy coming here. I love Berlin and really, if they want to enjoy a trip to the city and catch some new films, by all means go for it.
Berlinale was struggling for years before the current leadership, too. German film critic Dieter Kosslick was running the festival from 2001 to 2019, and while they tried to bring some major films to the festival, they could never maintain any momentum. I remember being at Berlinale to cover the premieres of Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (2014), Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special (2016), James Mangold's Logan (2017), Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs (2018), Kelly Reichardt's First Cow (2020). Nearly everything else at the fest in the last ~10 years has not gone to any major prominence. This German festival used to be a place for major works of cinema to premiere. Did you know all these films were major premieres at the Berlin Film Festival: the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski (in 1998 - after first premiering at Sundance), Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (in 2014), Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (in 2000 - after it already opened in the US), Asghar Farhadi's A Separation (in 2011 - after originally premiering in Iran), Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (in 2002 - after it already opened in Japan), Barry Levinson's Rain Man (in 1989 - after it already opened in the US). This era is over, however, and Berlinale is now insistent on programming mostly bland, forgettable artsy films that rarely make an impact on cinema outside of their very small festival runs.
At the end of 2017, a powerful group of German filmmakers published an open letter in German newspaper Der Speigel (read it here) criticizing Kosslick and his leadership. They were worried the fest was losing its prominence and its reputation was dwindling. In their letter, they stated they wanted to find new leadership that could "lead the festival into the future on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice." Sadly, they failed to achieve this. Under the current leadership, the festival has faded even more, year after year burying itself with its selection of niche cinema rather than making ambitious picks. They hired the wrong directors. I would be very curious to talk to any of these German filmmakers (a list including Maren Ade, Fatih Akin, Ulrich Köhler, Volker Schlöndorff, Christian Petzold, Franz Müller, Margarethe von Trotta, Julia von Heinz, Christian Wagner) nowadays and ask if they feel if the festival has improved. The sad thing is that Berlinale was still somewhat meaningful and relevant when it was run by Kosslick, now they have drifted further from any importance. Among the many reasons they didn't gain any new ground is a refusal to change anything regarding the fundamental structure or timing of the film festival. The various categories at the fest make no sense, and hosting the festival in February is no longer a good idea - but I'll get into this issue more later on.
Most of the problems that Berlinale had, still exist with its current directors - Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian. They are wrong for this festival and it was a mistake to hire them. I sincerely hope that they do not extend their contracts, as it will only doom this festival further into irrelevance. Get them out… jetzt! Carlo Chatrian comes from the Locarno Film Festival, located in Switzerland - I've been once before in 2014. The Locarno and Rotterdam Film Festivals are both outstanding festivals within the world of cinema, but they're not right for most people. They show extremely artsy, super strange, very weird, mostly experimental films. They are niche festivals for niche cinema lovers. They are minor in the grand scheme of things. It just so happens that the film critics that love these niche films also work for mainstream outlets, so they rave about these extremely niche films in a way that makes it seem like they're important. But most people won't ever watch these films, and that's totally fine. Let them run as these niche fests, let the films play to niche audiences, but it isn't worth trying to argue and defend Locarno and Rotterdam as if they're that important. Letting Chatrian run Berlinale the same as he ran Berlinale is turning it into an unimportant, niche festival.
The best film at the 2023 edition of Berlinale was Past Lives, which already world premiered at Sundance a month before. The festival's position in February is becoming a hindrance. They're right behind Sundance, which is an A-list fest that gets all of the best films; and they're just a few months before Cannes, with most filmmakers choosing to wait until Cannes (or later until TIFF / Telluride / Venice) rather than premiering too early in February. None of the Golden Bear winners from the last 5 years have gone to become a success outside of the film festival circuit. Stop referring to the Golden Bear as one of the big three prizes - it's not that major. The top festivals in the world are: Sundance, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Toronto, Telluride, Venice, New York, Busan (in Korea). These are the only fests that can truly be considered A-list in 2023. There are tons of other great festivals that run each year – SXSW, AFI Fest, Sitges, Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, Tromso, Tallinn Black Nights, Melbourne, San Sebastian, Santa Barbara, Seattle, Tokyo, IDFA, CPH:DOX, True/False, Marrakech – but none of them are as prominent as the A-listers. Neither is Berlinale anymore.
"Berlinale is a festival where films go to die," one friend remarked. Another colleague who has covered the festival for more than 20 years and studies German cinema is also tired of the lack of quality and worthwhile films year-after-year. This review of a film in the competition this year includes a line that sums up the fest: "a glum piece which feels like a relic of a European cinema that is no longer really attuned to the times." Perfectly said. While there are always a few good films that can be found at any festival, much of the line-up from 2020 onward has been annoyingly mediocre, if not downright bad. Why do they choose these films? Where do they even find them? And why are they so opposed to playing better films instead of trying to highlight so much "artsy" trash? Most film critics agree – I spoke to many during the festival this year and they all feel the selection is consistently lackluster, nothing really stands out, save for one or two gems. It has become disheartening to talk about Berlinale without addressing the elephant in the room: it's just not a top festival anymore. Yes, I adore "foreign films", innovative indies, and artsy cinema - but I also want to watch good films, no matter where they're from. Experimental cinema isn't as good as it used to be.
My main suggestion on how to make Berlinale "A-list" again: move the festival to June or July. And most importantly, get rid of Chatrian as soon as possible. Replace him with an ambitious leader who can focus on more than obscure, niche films that a few people will ever watch or enjoy. All film festivals go through good times and bad times, and Berlinale needs to admit: they are going through a bad time… The best Berlinale experience I've ever had was in 2021 during the pandemic. They canceled their in-person event in February, and only let critics and jury members watch online screeners. Then waited until the summer and hosted a series of screenings at a number of gorgeous, outdoor venues around Berlin. I bought tickets to see a few of my favorites again, and a few others I missed, and it was wonderful. (Here is my full recap of that summer event.) It would be so much better if Berlinale moved out of the snowy, cold February timeframe and instead played the best of Sundance & Cannes in June, showing better films that aren't world premieres, because that is what is most important - getting all the great films. This is why the Around the World in 14 Films event in December is now Berlin's best festival. They are the ones who show all the best films, not Berlinale.
I certainly expect some critic colleagues to get angry and tear me down for saying this. I also expect the fest to get upset. Though I do think it's important that the festival reflect on their prominence. If cinephiles want to fly in and see some experimental films, that's great. However, Berlinale needs to step back and recognize that they aren't an A-list fest and instead position themselves next to Locarno and Rotterdam. The European Film Market ("EFM") drives a lot of the buzz during Berlinale - many industry members fly in to schmooze, take meetings, go clubbing, sell films, and maybe catch one or two of the main festival's selection. Beyond that, I don't think it's worth coming to the Berlin Film Festival - there is not much worth seeing there, most of it truly is uninspired and insignificant. Even the best films won't be talked about outside of Berlinale. Did anyone see Alcarràs? What about Synonyms? Everyone knows showing Tar months after it opened in every other country and celebrating Steven Spielberg with a German premiere of The Fabelmans even though it's already out on Blu-ray in the US was an obviously desperate attempt to feign some relevance. It won't help. Until the fest improves, there is a German word that nicely describes the relevance of Berlinale now: egal.
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