Berlin Film Festival Hesitantly Embraces Glitz and Glamour

By Karen Krizanovich | March 3, 2023 3:31 am PST

The first of the year’s big European film festivals, the Berlinale attracts lovers of art house and European cinema as well as those enamoured with film history, politics and documentaries. Those with a taste for serious cinema – the kind that points to problems, highlights emotions and shines a light on global injustices – flock to Berlin to feast on cinema that isn’t readily available without seeking it out.

Berlin is a city of filmlovers overall and as the festival’s co-directors Mariëtte Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian summed up in a joint statement, “Full cinemas, moving moments, many prominent guests and a curious audience characterised the Berlinale 2023. We see this as living cinema culture in all its diversity. The focus was on enjoyment and shared experiences. We hope that this enthusiasm for cinema will continue after the festival.” Even graphic designer Claudia Schramke’s purple and red patterned festival poster which focussed on a diverse audience was snapped up by fans.

That said, as a commercial platform, Berlin could take a leaf from the other big European festivals. Whereas the winners of the Palme d’Or or the Golden Lion become internationally known films – think “Triangle of Sadness”, the winners and notable titles of in recent Berlinales have not made such an impression. Last year’s much heralded political comedy “Raniye Kurnaz vs George W Bush” disappeared from the radar after the festival. One of last year’s winners “Alcarras” is available on streaming services but isn’t getting the word of mouth it had at the festival.

With Cannes announcing a full frontal embrace of Hollywood for the International Festival du Film 2023, Berlin may feel some commercial pressure to the pattern of picking worthy winners that the wider global cinema audience has no interest in. This theme is proved by previous winners such as “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” (2021), “There Is No Evil” (2020), “Synonyms Synonymes” (2019) and “Touch Me Not” (2018).

One reviewer suggested that Berlin should give an award outright for best political film. (Maybe call it the Polar Bear.) Compare these choices to Venice’s world premieres which, only for example, have won five Golden Globes this year with eight of the competition films premiering on the Lido. Certainly the Golden Globes have yet to reclaim their reputation, but the heralding of more marketable fare might be something for Berlin to seriously consider without losing its unique POV.

Berlinale Film Makers and Audience Poster (photo: Berlinale)

Running from the 16th to the 26th of February 2023, the lineup of films screened this year at the Berlin International Film Festival – the Berlinale’s long English name – wasn’t a completely entertainment free zone. With the Sundance darling “Past Lives” showing in competition along with the opening gala “She Came To Me” – director Rebecca Miller’s rip-snorting rom com featuring Peter Dinklage as a blocked opera composer husband with Anne Hathaway as his OCD therapist wife – there were plenty of pacy and endearing crowdpleasers. Among them, “Blackberry”, a snappy look at the genesis of the fabled business handheld, was comparable to “The Social Network” in intrigue and laughs. One discussion in the plush seats of the Palast implied that Blackberry was too “multiplex” for this festival.

Yet Berliners and cineastes acted as if they were very nearly back to “normal” if anyone can use that word. With two pandemic years well behind it, the buttoned up and COVID cautious Berlinale of 2022 was a shadow of this year’s enthusiastic offering. Ticket sales were up over 100% from last year’s, admittedly capped with a 50% reduced COVID capacity screen seating which meant many empty seats between one audience member to another. But even last year’s 156,472 tickets compares well with this year’s 320,000 total: the extra 10,000 ticket shortfall could also be accounted by noting closures of some metropolitan multiplexes, including those in the Sony center near the festival’s hub: venue loss can severely effect screening numbers. With 20,000 accredited press in attendance, that’s a lot of seats.

Screening on the 21 February, “The Fabelmans” celebrated director Steven Spielberg’s honorary Golden Bear and brought what seemed to be a truly thrilled filmmaker to the Palast stage. By February 26th, the festival’s closing film “Sur L’Adamant”, director Nicolas Philibert’s gloriously insightful documentary which ended up winning the Golden Bear rounded out a fascinating and lively festival.

Now that the masks were off for the majority of attendees, the buzzing foyer of The Marriot and the absolutely heaving spaces at the Ritz Carlton gave the sense of everything happening everywhere all at once. There is a palpable sense too that this year’s Berlinale begrudgingly embraced glitz and glamour a bit more than previous years, knowing how much red carpet appearances get eyes on pages. Not the blingy platform of Cannes or the smooth catwalk of Venice, Berlin is still a minor magnet for celebrities whom the public genuinely like.

Finding her red carpt glitz and glamour: Golshifteh Farahani (photo: Berlinale)

Kristin Stewart, taking the role of jury president seriously, brought both a fashiony sincerity to the festival stage. She shared that responsibility with the Berlinale Competition section jury that included Golshifteh Farahani, Iranian-French actor, Valeska Grisebach, German director and screenwriter, Radu Jude, Romanian director and screenwriter, Francine Maisler, casting director and producer from America, Carla Simón, Spanish director and screenwriter and Johnnie To, Hong Kong director and producer.

If the mark of a good festival are awards that couldn’t be anticipated, Berlin scored high. Competition winners are typically surprising and this year’s winners were no exception. With a good number of sidebars celebrating queer cinema (The Teddy), short films, children’s cinema (Crystal Bear) and other cinematic segments, “Sur L’Adamant” – a documentary – went on to garner the top prize. Other notable winners are:

Roter Himmel (Afire) by Christian Petzold

Mal Viver (Bad Living) by João Canijo

Philippe Garrel for Le grand chariot (The Plough)

Sofía Otero in 20.000 especies de abejas (20,000 Species of Bees) by Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren

Thea Ehre in Bis ans Ende der Nacht (Till the End of the Night) by Christoph Hochhäusler

Angela Schanelec for Music by Angela Schanelec

Hélène Louvart for the cinematography in Disco Boy by Giacomo Abbruzzese

Karen Krizanovich