It’s not that the knives were out, exactly. It’s just that the faint whiff of lame duckishness has hung over the Berlin Film Festival since the announcement of longtime director Dieter Kosslick’s 2019 departure, an impression that intensified during the last two editions, which were generally regarded as among the weakest the festival has recently seen.
So the lineup for 2020, the first Berlinale under the stewardship of ex-Locarno chief Carlo Chatrian and ex-German Films head Mariette Rissenbeek was always going to be subject to the closest scrutiny, not only to assess if the perceived decline in relevance and profile could be reversed, but also for what the selection might tell us about the future direction of a festival in flux. It is not an exaggeration to say that the soul of the Berlinale hangs in the balance – so it’s no small deal that the initial reaction to the lineup from avid Berlin-watchers has been positive, if cautiously so.
One of the most interesting metrics we can apply – a key one, given Berlin’s adoption of the 5050×2020 pledge – is to look at the number of women directors selected for competition berths. With six of the 18 competing films directed or co-directed by women, representation is marginally down against last year’s seven films of 17. Still, Berlin’s record in this regard far outstrips that of its highest-profile European counterparts. Last year’s Venice was castigated for choosing only two female-helmed films, while Cannes 2019 congratulated itself for equaling its paltry record of four – and in both those cases the percentages go down even further as those competitions comprised 21 titles each. Further, Berlin’s recent record of awarding women’s films is much stronger: in the past three years the Golden Bear has gone to a film a woman directed twice; we are still waiting for Cannes to give a second Palme d’Or to a woman director in its history.
And here’s a further telling quirk: two of the six Berlin Competition films directed by women are not world premieres. It is in itself highly unusual to have more than one non-world premiere in Berlin’s competition, especially where one of those two – Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” – premiered all the way back in Telluride 2019. Most other recent examples (“Boyhood” and “Prince Avalanche” come to mind) came direct from Sundance, which is the route Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is taking. It suggests a slight but welcome shift in priority, by which the overall strength and balance of the slate is of more consideration than world premiere bragging rights.
Lastly, those two movies represent 100% of the competition’s U.S. film selection (American director Abel Ferrara will also compete but his film, “Siberia,” is an Italian/German/Mexican co-production). So while African cinema is still underrepresented, Berlin’s commitment to the “world” part of “World Cinema” remains strong, with three Central/South American productions in the lineup and three high-profile Asian auteurs (Taiwan’s Tsai Ming Liang, Cambodia’s Rithy Panh and South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo) also in the mix. At the very least, this represents a significant improvement on last year’s international mix which aside from a couple of Chinese titles, skewed heavily Euro-centric.
There are an unenviable number of variables at play here, so it’s probably unwise to draw too hasty a definitive conclusion, but in general the 2020 Berlinale competition selection signals a festival that is on track to re-establish its dominance over the broad space left between Cannes as the preeminent world arthouse festival and Venice as the European Oscar-launchpad it has recently become. To the more impatient observer, this new lineup might seem too small a shift from the prior regime to count for much. But while it suggests consolidation, it also marks evolution, which is slower and less sexy than revolution, but has one major advantage: it is not so easily reversed.