Berlinale 2024 Highlights the Divide Between Art and Commerce at International Film Festivals

By Christer Emanuelsson | March 5, 2024 5:18 pm PST
Berlinale - Mariëtte Rissenbeek, Executive Director and Carlo Chatrian, Artistic Director

The 74th Berlinale ended last month, and what remains is to look back and ruminate about what the future might bring. It is the first significant European festival of 2024, but this edition was the last one led by its Artistic Director, Carlo Chatrian, and Executive Director, Mariëtte Rissenbeek, the latter announcing in March that she would step down after this year’s festival. Chatrian’s exit was somewhat more dramatic. According to several sources, he was never accepted either by the Kulturveranstaltungen des Bundes (KBB) or the German Culture Ministry. When the minister of culture, Claudia Roth, announced that “a new structure was necessary” and stated that the dual leadership would end, that was practically a cue for Chatrian to leave. Politics loom large over the Berlin Film Festival, as opposed to its Anglo-Saxon counterparts. After all, that’s where a substantial part of the funding comes from.

Chatrian’s exit prompted a petition, signed by more than 200 directors, including Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, asking for Chatrian’s reinstatement. Nevertheless, it was announced in December that Tricia Tuttle would take over as the sole director of the Berlinale, like Dieter Kosslick was for 18 editions from 2002-2019. The American-born Tuttle has spent most of her life in the United Kingdom and might be known mostly for heading the London Film Festival.

Tricia Tuttle - Berlin Film Festival - Berlinale
Tricia Tuttle will take over as the head of the Berlin Film Festival in 2025 (Photo: Berlinale)

The fact that the petition came from filmmakers is an indicator of the division between art and commerce in the festival community. During Kosslick’s reign, the emphasis seemed to be on politics and movie stars, and from 2007, his particular interest in cooking resulted in a section of the festival being named Culinary Cinema. This section was swiftly removed when Chatrian took over. That wasn’t the only aspect that changed. Since the new artistic director came from Locarno, well-known for its emphasis on arthouse cinema, it was evident that the programming would change, as well. The changes were not that obvious in the primary competition section, but Chatrian immediately added a second competitive strand, called Encounters, where he stated that “Every film should be unique.” Already from his first edition in 2020, that came true with highlights such as Cristi Puiu’s “Malmkrog” and Sandra Wollner’s “The Trouble With Being Born,” but also less challenging fare like Josephine Decker’s “Shirley.”

Two weeks after that year’s edition closed, so did society due to COVID-19. The 2021 edition became a virtual event, and the following year, one a minor affair with compulsory masks. Thus, when judging Chatrian and Rissenbeek’s achievements, one should take into account that they entered during a difficult period and only had three proper editions to make a mark. For a cinephile like myself, Chatrian’s entrance was a major revitalization of the Berlinale. Aided by head programmer Mark Peranson (who was with Chatrian in Locarno as well), he managed to shape a diverse and stimulating programme. Meanwhile, the competition was still relatively mainstream, though not on the level that Cannes delivered in more recent years.

Cineuropa critic, Fabian Lemercier, commented that Chatrian is a very good artistic director, but he’s a very artsy one. He added, “That is good for film lovers, but for the big stars coming, it’s not so great.” One of the issues with Berlinale is that it has always been too large. During Kosslick’s last year in 2019, around 400 features were screened. One of Chatrian’s main goals was to reduce the numbers, and in 2023, there were 281 films, and in 2024, the numbers were reduced to 237 films. Still, twice as many as at the Cannes Film Festival.

While Kosslick had deep ties with German politicians and knew the ropes, Chatrian was an outsider. The German government was not too happy with some changes the pair undertook and seemed to wish for more stars and films that would stand out for their public success rather than their inherent artistic qualities. In such a large festival as the Berlinale, it shouldn’t be impossible to host different kinds of films. The Berlinale Special remained with gala screenings of more mainstream movies. One specific target pointed out in some quarters is the lack of Oscar-nominated films. In 2017, Ildikó Enyedi’s Golden Bear winner “On Body and Soul” made it to the shortlist in the International Films category, but typically, there has not been much Oscar fare at the Berlinale. One of the reasons is the timing. FiIms that have their first screenings in February are not prone to be rewarded a year later.

Another factor concerning the Oscars is that since the Academy Awards ceremony was moved to early March, movie stars became busy promoting their nominated films and had less time to add star power to the Berlinale red carpet. Thus, several factors were beyond the organizer’s control. Yet another obstacle is the logistical problem concerning the number of screens around Potsdamer Platz. Not far from the Berlinale Palast, where the major premieres take place, there used to be a CinemaxX and a huge Cinestar venue. The latter was connected to the Arsenal cinema, where many Forum section screenings take place.

The Cinestar theatre closed at the end of 2019. Meanwhile, CinemaxX installed new reclining seats, further reducing the venue’s capacity. Now, only press and market screenings are held there. Furthermore, Arsenal will soon move to Silent Green Kulturquartier in Wedding in the northern part of the city. To add insult to injury, the contract for the Berlinale Palast expires in 2027. However, there are hopes that the lease could be renewed until 2030.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the specific problem with the Berlinale since different people will tell disparate stories depending on their interests and perspectives. The distributors and publicists blame the lack of commercial films; the German filmmakers were unhappy when the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section was cut, as were the TV companies when the TV section was disbanded this year.

European Film Market - Gropius Bau
The atrium of the Gropius Bau at the European Film Market (Photo: European Film Market)

Like many festivals, the Berlinale has a market section, in this case, called the European Film Market, and according to their press release, this year’s EFM set a new record with 12,000 visitors from 143 countries. One source claims that if one digs deeper, one would find a 14% drop in buyers this year. It could be argued that it is related to inflation and the overall weaker economy. Several film institutes cancelled their events this year to cut costs. What Tricia Tuttle can accomplish with the festival, financially and otherwise, remains to be seen. According to Roth, the grand task of the Berlinale is “to combine its artistic goals with a commercially successful cinema that also relies on stars and familiar names.” Film industry people I discussed the matter with were worried about a decisive slant towards the latter.

From an artistic point of view, this year’s edition might have been the boldest yet. The International jury, headed by Lupita Nyong’o, was presented with competition films, which – during past editions – might have been featured in side sections. One such example is my personal competition favorite, “Pepe.” This Dominican film about one of Pablo Escobar’s hippos, telling the story of the drug lord’s death and how his older relatives were brought to Colombia, was undoubtedly more experimental than the average competition movie. Interestingly, its director, Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias, walked away with an amply deserved Best Director’s Award.

Another surprising Berlinale winner was Bruno Dumont’s polarising “L’Empire.” This sci-fi drama, or whatever its label might be, won the Silver Bear Jury Prize. The idea to award these two films might have come from jury member Albert Serra, known for making audacious films and his taste for the adventurous.

Director Mati Diop at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival - Berlinale
Mati Diop, the director of the documentary “Dahomey” which won the Golden Bear at the 74th edition of the Berlin Film Festival (Photo: Dirk Michael Deckbar – Berlinale)

For the second year in a row, the Golden Bear was given to a documentary. Last year’s winner was “On the Adamant” by Nicolas Philibert, with this year’s going to “Dahomey” by Mati Diop, which revolves around the theme of the journey of 26 plundered royal treasures from the Kingdom of Dahomey exhibited in Paris, now being returned to Benin. Thematically, it is not too dissimilar to “Pepe,” but its style is more conventional. It was the first time a black director won the Golden Bear, which, in turn, was handed to her by the first black jury president. The Grand Jury Prize went to Hong Sang-Soo for “The Traveler’s Need,” starring Isabelle Huppert.

At a time when cinemas face significant challenges, festivals could play a pivotal role. While the Berlin Film Festival has been accused of being too elitist and exclusive in recent years, the fact is that half a million tickets were sold by the event in 2023, and a similar amount was sold this year. Hopefully, the festival will continue to juggle cinematic art with more commercial movies. A fact often forgotten is that today’s avant-garde is tomorrow’s mainstream, and too much of the same thing could bore potential audiences. The question remains: where will tomorrow’s ideas come from that will help renew the beloved medium of cinema and save it from stale repetition?

Christer Emanuelsson