The 69th International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg (IFFMH) promises to be an ambitious celebration of cinema despite its move online due to the ongoing pandemic, with new sections showcasing visionary and innovative works from around the globe as well as classic titles from yesteryear.

Sascha Keilholz, the fest’s new artistic and commercial director, and his team, including new head of program Frédéric Jaeger, had well thought out plans for this year’s edition that would have seen screenings in all theaters and multiplexes across the cities of Mannheim and Heidelberg before rising coronavirus cases in Germany led to a second lockdown in November.

“In this very peculiar year we have all had to change plans, adapt and improvise most of the time,” says Keilholz, who previously headed the Heimspiel Film Festival in Regensburg from 2009 to 2019. “One cannot rely on established structures, processes and reflexes. As a result, planning an event of this magnitude seems quite paradoxical. While making the necessary adaptions during these times of uncertainty, one can embrace the opportunities that come along with such permanent changes.

“In the end, we had to embrace a year that felt a lot like free jazz – with improvisation being an important parameter. That’s how we managed to find our own path.”

Along the way, Keilholz adds, the new team established new sections, found new partnerships and developed a new corporate identity with a revised brand image. “Most importantly, we succeeded in curating a very rich and diverse program. Our team is burning to present our film selection to the audience.”

The fest, which runs Nov. 12-22, opens with Dani Rosenberg’s Israeli drama “The Death of Cinema and My Father Too” and includes works by returning filmmakers like Hong Sangsoo (“The Woman Who Ran”), Frederick Wiseman (“City Hall”) and Jacques Doillon, whose drama “The Hussy” screened at Mannheim-Heidelberg in 1979.

Keilholz’s aim was to strike a balance, maintaining the tradition of Germany’s longest-running film festival after the Berlinale while fulfilling an “aspiration to discover talent and be innovative. We have both brought back elements from the past, such as the Retrospective, and introduced new sections, like Facing New Challenges, which presents installations and other moving image-based works beyond the cinema.”

It was also very important to once again have a competition with monetary prizes, he adds. The fest now includes five juries that will award six prizes to filmmakers competing in the main On the Rise section. “The International Newcomer Award is now endowed with €25,000 [$29,686], and we have also introduced the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Award for an outstanding script, worth €10,000 [$11,874].”

While comparing Mannheim-Heidelberg with the smaller scale of his former festival is difficult, Keilholz did bring some of Heimspiel’s spirit to his new gig. “Heimspiel is a kind of laboratory: film freaks putting together a line-up with complete autonomy. I guess I injected some of this DNA into the IFFMH. Or, to be more precise, I assembled a team with that kind of passion and thinking. They are all cinephiles, first and foremost, not event managers who happen to organize film screenings.”

On the challenges of organizing the festival during the intensifying pandemic, Keilholz says safety measures were in place that would have made it possible to screen films in theaters and also “foster public and cultural life in doing so. In the end, that’s why we’re doing this: to offer cultural activities, to promote artists and their works, and to support theaters. However, the new political guidelines no longer allow for physical screenings. Luckily, we can fall back on our online festival extension at expanded.iffmh.de that will now take place across the full 11 days and with higher capacity.”

Instead of a centralized location like in the past, the festival this year would have taken place in all theaters and multiplexes in Mannheim and Heidelberg. In addition to a great opportunity for people to experience the festival across both cities, the plan also had a logistical dimension in view of the coronavirus crisis, Keilholz adds. “We now have to wait a while before we can return to a cinema. In the meantime, from every ticket we sell in 2020, we will donate €1 [$1.19] to our partner theaters.”

More than two-thirds of the festival program will be available online, including 12 of the 14 competition titles. The fest will also accompany online screenings with introductions from the directors and Q&A sessions. The Cutting Edge Talent Camp, a new networking initiative that brings together young filmmakers and industry representatives, will also take place entirely online this year.