Berlinale Film Festival A Moving Feast

The culinary cinema section of Berlin's film festival is a hymn to slow food. It serves up documentaries about the industry and alternative culinary visions that viewers discuss over meals made by Michelin-starred chefs.
Quelle: Pressebild
A still from “Hand. Line. Cod” by director Justin Simms.
(Source: Pressebild)

With celebrity chefs, Instagram and more movies than ever about food, it’s a paradox that people’s eating habits seem to be getting worse, not better.

That was the view of the foodies gathered for an evening meal after watching a Berlinale movie. It's a ritual celebrated in the annual German film festival’s Culinary Cinema section.

There was plenty to talk about.

“People don’t cook anymore, they don’t know how to make food and some students can’t even recognize an eggplant,” said Madeleine Jakits. She is the editor in chief of Feinschmecker, a gourmet magazine. Ms. Jakits sees it as her mission to bring back the joy of eating to a generation alienated from food, slurping coffees from throw-away cups and living off hamburgers.

Thomas Struck, founder and head of Culinary Cinema, shares her dismay at what he sees as a general lack of respect for food. He worries about the size of the food industry, dominated by manufacturers more powerful than states and the poor conditions of food producers. He hopes the combination of fine dining and documentaries about the food industry will help people gain a new connection to what they eat.

Which is why for five nights at Culinary Cinema, Michelin-starred chefs cook meals for cineastes based on the movies they have just seen.

Apart from sex, there is nothing more intimate than eating. Madeleine Jakits, editor in chief of Feinschmecker

This year opened with “Soul,” a portrait of Michelin-starred, Basque chef Eneko Atxa.

Mr. Atxa traveled to Berlin seeking to bring the taste of the ocean and traditions of his fiercely independent region of Spain to 200 curious diners. In a bare industrial kitchen, he conjured up cans filled with mussels floating in paprika jelly, placed in holders styled to look like film canisters. This was followed by oysters, tartar and seaweed traces, and then mushrooms and noodles.

“You have to create something about where you come from so people know who you are,” he told Handelsblatt Global after putting the finishing touches to plates of chocolate, black tea and spices with the care of a surgeon.

“Soul,” like many of the other documentary films in the Culinary Cinema section, is about returning to the traditions and local habits of a region – a knowledge people are hungry for. Tickets to events are sold out seconds after they become available. The topics this year run the gamut from a bartender’s reflections to gardening, cooking and food sharing.

Despite the high cost and high demand for tickets – to watch a movie and eat a dinner costs €95 – the founder Mr. Struck is eager to stick to the scale of his festival within a festival. “If you want quality, it has to stay small,” he said.

Like the dinners themselves, the quality of the movies is high. According to Mr. Struck, food films as a genre have been around for 20 years and peaked six or seven years ago with movies like “Julie and Julia” or “Ratatouille.” Now, Hollywood doesn’t care about food, Mr. Struck said. But he still welcomes that there are more and more documentaries whose directors have adopted new methods of storytelling, borrowing styles and approaches from feature films.

Indeed, there appears to be a growing appetite to learn about food – especially where it comes from and how to recreate special meals at home, he said. Ms. Jakits added that when millennials aren’t busy gazing at their smartphones or ordering pizza from their couches, they are interested in travel and are eager to find new flavors.

She and Mr. Struck share the fear that younger generations were becoming alienated from an essential part of life by being glued to their laptops and computer screens. “This screen fixation separates people from something important. Apart from sex, there is nothing more intimate than eating,” Ms. Jakits told Handelsblatt Global. “People are alienated from this sharing – they don’t teach their children how to cook and eat. But it’s so important to sit together for dinner and talk; it is an intimate, age-old human exchange.”

Mr. Struck pointed out that while food is a great pleasure, it is often produced under difficult political, economic and social conditions. In a culture of ready-made dishes and discount supermarkets, he worries about the trivialization of food. “But even if it is organic, I don’t want to drink wine picked by illegal immigrants,” he said. "We need to be aware of where the food comes from, and the people and animals involved."

In Germany, people don’t talk enough about food, though appreciation is growing in Berlin, which has increasingly become a city for foodies. For Ms. Jakits, trends in the capital will travel to other German cities, and Berlin now hosts many more Michelin-starred restaurants than it did 10 years ago. This also goes along with an improvement in the quality of food in markets.

However, Ms. Jakits believes that the stereotypical modesty of the protestant ethic also still applies to food culture in many parts of Germany. This stands in stark contrast to the more celebratory culinary tendencies of Catholic countries like France, Spain and Italy.

Ms. Jakits expressed hope that making food can function as a bridge into the "real" world for those addicted to touch-pads, phones and tablets. “There is nothing more real than food,” she said.

Paradoxically, Mr. Struck added, people are keen on watching cooking shows, learning about lives of chefs and tuning into cooking programs, but they rarely cook any more. He mused that perhaps worshiping something and then doing the opposite is the most human of habits.

Although he hosts an event that draws people into movie theaters and then to dine out, his radical vision is to send them home to cook. “You create something, you share something, even if it’s noodles and olive oil,” he said. “When they break bread together, people share their thoughts and their hearts.”

Ms. Jakits likewise suggested people head home and make what they can from the best ingredients they find.

"A further paradox is when we eat, we take something into our mouths and something important comes out as we talk." Mr. Struck said. "It is a deeply important exchange.”


Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]