Berlinale blues Berlin’s left-leaning festival fears growing right-wing pressure

Historically the Berlinale is a celebration of political movie-making. Nowadays, the curators who select the films feel the influence of powerful right-wing forces in Europe.
Quelle: dpa
This year's opening film, "The Kindness of Strangers," is by Lone Scherfig of Denmark.

The Berlinale is Europe’s biggest public film festival, deeply political and proud of its breadth – attributes that distinguish it from Venice and Cannes, its more exclusive, better-financed European rivals.

Berlin’s festival shows movies in sections from the competition, where the famous movies and red-carpet actors and actresses appear, to the documentary and experimental sections of the Forum and Panorama. In Berlin, a team of doughty curators sifts through thousands of movies to identify the best offerings, as well as the weird and wonderful and the deeply alternative.

Quelle: BrauerPhotos / Walterscheid
Lone Scherfig, of Denmark, sought to foster community with this year's opening movie about luxury and poverty in the US.
(Source: BrauerPhotos / Walterscheid)

A record number of women directors will present movies at this year’s festival, and the jury is headed by French actress Juliette Binoche. The six-member committee will select the winners of the prestigious Golden and Silver Bear prizes, and of 17 films nominated, seven are made by women.

The festival opens with “The Kindness of Strangers,” by Lone Scherfig, a Danish director. “Italian for Beginners,” one of her earlier films, took a Silver Bear in 2001. Her latest piece contrasts the wealthiest aspects of New York with its soup kitchens, following characters who are down and out. Starring Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, and Bill Nighy, the film seeks to address the darkening political climate without being overtly political, Scherfig told Variety, a trade publication.

Furthermore, movies in every section of the festival address the lives of women, from “Elisa and Marcela,” a Spanish love story by Isabel Coixet, based on the true story of the first marriage between women in the early twentieth century. Then there’s “The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution,” a Canadian documentary that follows seven professional women chefs in kitchens ranging from grassroots to haute cuisine, rejecting the brutal norms that have shaped the masculine world of professional cuisine.

Quelle: imago/STPP
Juliette Binoche heads the Berlinale's jury which awards the prizes this year.
(Source: imago/STPP)

This year, female directors are also behind nearly half the projects selected to pitch for financing at the Berlinale Co-Production market.

However, the work of maintaining the festival’s political focus, from racism to homosexuality, is growing harder as rightist forces gain power in Europe, according to Wieland Speck, head of the Panorama section, home to films that have taken on hierarchy, patriarchy and violence in the past.

“There are endless enquiries from the Right that seek to paralyze initiatives and institutions,” he said. “There were always voices in the press that railed from the edges of the right wing. But they were remarkably few in number,” he added, as the political mainstream was more left wing. Now that the Right is becoming stronger, more criticism is to be expected, he said. “In politics, that’s already happening,” he said, citing questions like, “Why are queer projects being financed?”

He said that as the Right gains power, talking becomes more important than ever, so people are not isolated and fearful. Looking ahead, he said, more security may be needed at movie theaters and events; this is already the case at gatherings about Jewish issues, or Israeli-Palestinian discussions. Nor does Speck want to see hard-won rights and mores rolled back in a newly conservative environment. He identified a growing atmosphere of intimidation and said, "We cannot just be surprised and say we didn't see it coming, we must be on guard."

In this spirit, Dieter Kosslick, the festival’s departing boss, is making a last political stand. He invited leaders from the Alternative for Germany, a party of the populist far right, to attend free of charge a screening of a movie about the Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. AfD leaders have questioned Germany’s memorial culture, while anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. Anxiety is growing that remembrance of the Holocaust is fading in Germany and across the continent.

“Who Will Write Our History?” is a documentary written, produced and directed by Roberta Grossman and produced by Nancy Spielberg, a sister of Hollywood legend Steven. It portrays the Jewish diarists of the assault on Warsaw and the people, their hopes and fears and dreams amid the Nazi brutality.

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