Last June, the Berlin Film Festival made a double departure from tradition. With longtime chief Dieter Kosslick slated to step down this year, it decided to split the top job in two after his exit: an artistic director responsible for curation and an executive director to run the commercial side. Then it picked Mariette Rissenbeek for the latter position, making her the first woman to be chosen to co-lead a top-tier film festival. (Toronto named Joana Vincente to a similar post two months later.)
Rissenbeek, formerly managing director of promotional organization German Films, and co-chief Carlo Chatrian, who previously programmed the Locarno festival, formally start their new jobs June 1. But the pair have already been spending time at Berlinale headquarters in order to hit the ground running when they take charge of an event that is beloved by moviegoers but that some critics say has become too big — the 2019 edition screened 400 films — and has slipped behind Cannes and Venice in prestige.
In her first interview with an English-language news outlet, Rissenbeek tells Variety about the challenges and priorities ahead, and her working relationship with Chatrian.
As the first woman chosen to head a major film festival, do you feel any greater responsibility or level of scrutiny, and do you bring a different sensibility to the job?
Of course having a big job like being the head of the Berlinale gives me more responsibility to perform well, but Toronto [has] a female co-head now, Joana Vincente, and SXSW has Janet Pierson.…The first woman I worked for, in the late ’90s, [producer] Regina Ziegler, took care to ensure I got good development possibilities. I hope I can play this kind of role to support other women. At the same time, maybe I work differently from other women. It’s so difficult to talk about these clichés — that women like more harmony, or that they’re more caring of other people. It’s not always the case. You have different kinds of women and different kinds of men.
The Berlinale has done a good job in terms of the number of women on staff. Is there still room for improvement?
The [gender] balance of the Berlinale is very, very good. A lot of heads of sections are female: Maryanne Redpath, Linda Soeffker, Paz Lazaro. It’s maybe too early for me to say whether I would really improve things. I need to see how things work in order to understand how you can change them.
What about ethnic diversity?
There is a working group on this issue. Many people not of German origin are part of the Berlinale staff. I am not German myself. I was born in the Netherlands, which of course is only next door, but it still makes me very aware of the fact that it’s always a win-win situation if you have input from [people from] other countries. I would definitely be very keen on making sure that diversity is reflected in the staff. At the same time, it’s also about finding the right people for the job you have to fill.
What are your top one or two priorities going in?
The next Berlinale will be a jubilee year. Carlo and I have been meeting with a lot of potential partners to see what extra activities we can do to make sure it’s going to be a special, exciting, very good Berlinale 2020, because we’re celebrating 70 [years]. The Berlinale was always called one of the best-organized festivals worldwide, and I definitely want to keep it that way.
What about the criticism that the festival screens too many films?
We don’t intend [to make] any drastic change to the number of films. In Berlin there is a very large audience; it’s almost 4 million people, and it’s a diverse audience. Everyone is still keen on going to the cinema. Cannes and Venice are very small towns, and there is no big local audience. That makes a difference in the programming. You need to be aware that there is a potential audience in the city waiting to see the films they want to discover.
Will you have any input on the artistic side and Chatrian on the business side, or will there be a wall between the two functions?
If there are any major issues, like the opening film or specific questions concerning strategy, I should be included in the discussion. But I see it as an exception and not something I expect to be included in all the time. It would not be right to exclude [Chatrian] from the commercial side. Of course, he doesn’t want to deal with it on an everyday basis.
How is the working relationship between the two of you?
Carlo is a very open person. Sometimes maybe we start off with a different point of view, but so far we’ve always found a common way. We’re of a different temperament. He’s more lively, very enthusiastic about things, very emotional, and I’m maybe more rational. That’s a good, complementary [combination].
Is Potsdamer Platz, which the Berlinale has booked through 2022, still the best location for the festival, or is that up for discussion?
It’s very central. It’s easy for people to reach, and we have this great Berlinale Palast here, which is very important for the festival. We have two different multiplexes as well as the Martin-Gropius-Bau for the European Film Market. It might be very difficult to find a similar setting in any other part of town, so I feel it’s quite an ideal situation.