Plans are underway for the Berlin Film Festival to take place in February as a physical event with movie theaters at full capacity, the same number of films as in pre-pandemic times, and a red carpet visible to fans.

Yet given the highly transmissible nature of the Omicron COVID variant, Berlinale executive director Mariette Rissenbeek and artistic director Carlo Chatrian are realistic that major changes will need to be enforced in order for the fest’s 72nd edition and European Film Market, scheduled to run Feb. 10-20, to go ahead amid the pandemic. 

For one, there will be no parties. And in terms of international talent and guests making the trek, the ongoing spread of Omicron is likely to take its toll, though it’s unclear to what extent. Also, masks will be mandatory not only in cinemas, but also in outside areas where festival goers congregate, such as the red carpet. Meanwhile, ticketing will be fully digital, with physical ticket offices scrapped to avoid queues and groups, and replaced by an online system where tickets can be reserved and/or purchased from anywhere in the world.

All precautions will be taken, but Rissenbeek underlines the importance of a first-quarter event for the festival. “It’s really essential that we can take place in February here in Berlin and be part of the whole motor of the [global] film industry.” Asked about any contingency plan for later in the year, Rissenbeek merely says, “At no point was I told by anyone that it might be unlikely that we could take place” in February.

On Sunday, German health authorities added Britain to its list of countries from which Germany requires a mandatory 14-day quarantine after entry regardless of their vaccination status. The U.K. faced a similar situation around both the Cannes and Venice film festivals, with both events ultimately securing special exemptions for U.K. delegates. In Germany, the quarantine requirements could conceivably change in time for the festival.

What’s make-or-break for Berlinale is the situation with movie theaters.

“At the moment, in Germany, cinemas are all open,” says Rissenbeek, noting that movie theaters are operating at full capacity and apply Germany’s so-called 2G rules, meaning that “only cured or vaccinated people are allowed entry.”

The 2G rule will apply to all festival venues, not only cinemas, meaning that “everyone who comes to the festival will have to be vaccinated,” adds Rissenbeek, who notes there are no current lockdown plans in Germany, where authorities believe that speeding up the booster vaccination program will “improve the situation.” At present, Germany has fully vaccinated more than 70% of its population and more than 30% have received a booster shot.

Regarding the fest’s overall seating capacity, although Berlin’s Colosseum Kino has been shuttered, the fest will begin using the glamorous Titania-Palast Cineplex in its place. (By doing so, Berlin is going back to its roots, as the historic 1920s venue is where the first Berlinale took place in 1951.)

Movie prospects for Berlin

As for the movies, following the shrunken lineup of last year’s mostly online Berlin edition, Chatrian teases roughly 200 features unspooling across the various sections in 2022, a similar number to 2020. There’s allegedly no shortage of movies being submitted, even despite the uncertain COVID situation. According to Chatrian, people in the industry “are confident that the first quarter of the year remains a good time to release films” following a Berlin launch.

Compared with 2020, the difference “is having the commitment from talent to come with the film; this is more complicated now,” Chatrian says. Most companies told the festival they’re willing to bring talent and guests, but the artistic director admits that “things might change.”

Last week, Berlin announced its first batch of titles as well as an Honorary Golden Bear for French actor Isabelle Huppert, which gave some indication of the types of films Chatrian and his team are going for.

Though considerations about the flavor of Berlin’s 2022 lineup are premature, Chatrian says one of his team’s goals is to be “geographically wider in our selection.” He cites Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Gangubai Kathiawadi,” toplining A-lister Alia Bhatt and screening as a Special Gala, as an example.

Another strong international proposition, he says, is a rare film from the Central African Republic. “We, Students!,” a look at the life of economics students in overcrowded classrooms in its capital, Bangui, directed by Rafiki Fariala, is screening in Panorama. Chatrian also pointed out the collectively directed doc “Myanmar Diaries,” which he called “very politically relevant.” More titles from Asia, including China and Japan, will be announced in due course.

Although 70% of the films screening at Berlin were shot during the pandemic, Chatrian says his team has tried to select films “that do not represent lockdown life” on screen. “We feel that people want to see different kinds of stories and films that don’t give the sense of being trapped,” he explains.

Berlin’s main competition will be announced in a Jan. 19 press conference, prior to which a second batch of titles from different sections will be revealed.

Regarding the EFM, on Friday it was revealed that the market is on track for a largely in-person edition with exhibition space in its main venues, the Gropius Bau and Marriott Hotel, almost fully booked up.

“Under current conditions we can have 2,000 people in the Gropius Bau, which is slightly less than we had in the past, because of course we need to take care of the sanitary measures and distancing,” said Rissenbeek, who added that due to distancing there may be some changes in the way stands in the market are built.

“There is a lot of interest in in-person participation,” she says, “I think a lot of people will use this opportunity in February to do their networking and to take part in the different aspects of the EFM.”