The 72nd Berlin Film Festival got off to a promising if somewhat subdued start Feb. 10 amid strict restrictions due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which put a major damper on this year’s festivities and kept crowds to a minimum.
While only some 800 guests attended the opening night ceremony at the Berlinale Palast — less than half of the normal capacity of the festival’s grand main venue — the event was nevertheless a hopeful sign for the local film industry and for cinema in general.
The festival was uncompromising in its mask policy for the red carpet, rendering most high-profile guests unrecognizable — although many whipped them off for the phalanx of photographers. But the Berlinale Palast’s famous disco ball spun nonetheless and aside from the COVID of it all, the scene felt very much like old times, both on the red carpet and inside, where a number of local guests and some international industry congregated for the opening ceremony.
Long lines for entry — slowed down considerably by festival attendants fastidiously checking all vaccination and booster passes and negative COVID test results — delayed the proceedings. Variety understands a broken printer at one of the kiosks meant some guests didn’t have their seat numbers in time for the event, further delaying the ceremony.
One Los Angeles-based producer who had made the trek for business in Europe joked to Variety that he had actively avoided this year’s downsized Berlinale. He will instead be submitting his movie for next year’s event, when things are back to normal (with some luck).
Even he had to admit, however, that the opening vibe was upbeat and felt very much like years past, despite the noticeable lack of American and international movie stars on the red carpet.
The fact that the Berlinale is taking place as a physical event is seen as a hopeful sign for the local film industry.
Claudia Roth, Germany’s new minister of state for culture and media, drew loud applause as she made the point: “Yes, it’s a festival under pandemic conditions, with restrictions that you can criticize, with deficiencies that you might want to flag up … but the really, really important thing is that the Berlinale is happening.
“I am perhaps more grateful than a culture minister has ever been on a February evening. I am happy that this Berlinale can take place as a real Berlinale — the international film festival that it has always been.
“Today we are making a statement for cinema, the culture of cinema, for everybody who loves culture and cinema,” Roth added. “We are sending a signal for democracy too, because without culture, without theater, without concerts, without cinema, life is silent.
“This Berlinale is a beacon of encouragement, a beacon of hope, a strong signal far beyond the boundaries of Berlin. We’re not going to let COVID beat us. We need cinema; we need film.
“Film knows no boundaries — it builds bridges where others build walls; it connects all of us, where others threaten war. It opens to us a vista onto the world, our world, so shaken, so wounded … our world.”
Roth also welcomed a group of nurses and doctors to the opening ceremony, praising them as a representatives for “so many, so many who in the last few hard years have given everything to preserve life.” The group received a rousing standing ovation.
Berlinale executive director Mariette Rissenbeek likewise praised the communal experience that cinema offers, while artistic director Carlo Chatrian noted the vital role that film had played in helping people survive the pandemic of the past two years.
The ceremony was followed by the premiere of François Ozon’s “Peter von Kant,” an adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 drama “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.”
“For this year’s opening, we were looking for a film that could bring lightness and verve into our somber daily lives,” Chatrian said in an earlier statement. “‘Peter von Kant’ is a theatrical tour de force around the concept of lockdown.”
Over the next 10 days the festival will unspool 18 competition films, with many tackling serious issues, including Andreas Dresen’s German production “Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush,” the true story of a woman from Bremen whose efforts to get her son freed from the U.S. prison camp on Guantanamo takes her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
From the U.S., Sundance premiere “Call Jane,” by Phyllis Nagy and starring Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver and Kate Mara, examines the activities of the Jane Collective women’s liberation group in 1960s Chicago.
Also vying for the Golden Bear is Nicolette Krebitz’s German love story “A E I O U – A Quick Alphabet of Love”; Mexican helmer Natalia López Gallardo’s debut feature “Robe of Gems”;‘s Spanish work “Alcarràs”; Denis Côté’s Canadian drama “That Kind of Summer”; Claire Denis’ French pic “Both Sides of the Blade”; Chinese filmmaker Li Ruijun’s “Return to Dust”; and Ulrich Seidl’s Austrian pic “Rimini,” about a washed-up Austrian singer in Italy.
They are among the 256 feature-length and short films screening in all festival sections, including Competition, Berlinale Special, Encounters, Panorama, Forum, Generation, Perspektive Deutsches Kino and Retrospective, Berlinale Classics & Homage.
The Berlinale jury, headed by M. Night Shyamalan, will hand out awards on Feb. 16.
Like the opening ceremony, movie theaters during this year’s festival are limited to 50% capacity as part of the event’s strict COVID-19 restrictions. In addition, festgoers are required for all events to show proof of vaccination or recovery from a COVID-19 infection, a negative test within the last 24 hours or a booster vaccination, and wear an FFP2 mask.
With tickets only available online and the European Film Market again taking place virtually, the once bustling Potsdamer Platz — where crowds of film fans used to camp out in front of the festival ticket stands at the shuttered Arkaden shopping mall — is all but desolate.
Manori Ravindran contributed to this report.