The leadup to the 2022 Berlin Film Festival has been a veritable rollercoaster ride for co-directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian due to the global spread of the Omicron variant.
But while other top fests such as Sundance and Rotterdam went online again, Berlin has stayed the course due to the two chiefs’ determination to not go virtual and also to keep their February slot, albeit in its current reduced Feb. 10-16 form. The festival opens with Francois Ozon’s “Peter von Kant” (pictured above).
In order to hold the Berlinale as an in-person event, in early January they came up with a what they call a “new concept,” moving the European Film Market (EFM) online and cutting the in-person film festival down four days for attendees who will be arriving from outside Germany, with repeat screenings to follow, strictly for locals.
“We shortened what you can call the ‘activity’ part of the festival in order to make this meeting point — which, ultimately, is what a festival is — as brief as possible,” says Rissenbeek, the Berlinale’s executive director. That was done to ensure “that the mingling and meeting that goes on, with a lot of people traveling here, is as brief as possible.”
“After talking with authorities, we know that screening rooms per se are not that dangerous,” says Chatrian, the fest’s artistic director. “But all the other activities that take place at a festival — and even more so in a market — of course do pose a risk of infection. Reducing the days will reduce this risk.”
In addition to shortening the film premier component of the festival, Berlin’s new concept also means providing social distancing in Berlinale cinemas, which will be at a 50% seating capacity, even though distancing is not required by local health authorities. Rissenbeek and Chatrian say this will make everyone feel more comfortable.
And though there will be no parties, the stars of the films still have the opportunity to strut down the red carpet at the Berlinale Palast amid frenzied — albeit socially distanced — photographers’ flashes. There will also be in-person press conferences, all of which, as the fest puts it, “will help create a touch of the traditional festival atmosphere.”
The Berlinale co-chiefs, up until late December, had been doggedly pursuing holding a physical event with movie theaters at full capacity, and the EFM taking place in person. Exhibition space in its main venues, the Gropius Bau and Marriott Hotel, was almost fully booked up; however, “At a market lots of different people have different meetings all day long,” says Rissenbeek. “It’s very difficult to control how many meetings take place and how many people from different countries come together.” And as the Omicron spread rate soared in Germany and the rest of the world, this made the EFM “the kind of event which the Berlin health authorities could not approve.”
But while Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau won’t be hopping with the customary din of the EFM’s dealmaking, the international film industry hasn’t given up entirely on the opportunity to convene in-person during the festival.
Sales companies, especially those with a film at the fest, are largely planning to show up, as are numerous distributors.
Susan Wendt, managing director of Danish sales powerhouse TrustNordisk, says she will bring a smaller team than usual to the Berlinale, after being forced to skip Sundance where their chiller “Speak No Evil” premiered.
“I was sad and even furious when I got the news that Sundance and then the EFM were going virtual,” says Wendt, whose team is planning to set up camp in a conference room at a Berlin hotel for a hybrid EFM.
Wendt, and others, expect some buyers to make the trek, as well as festival reps and exec teams of the films premiering.
“[We want] to make the best of it because we need to start the year on a positive note, and we need to get out and get the feeling that we’re at a festival,” she says.
Cecile Gaget at U.K.-based Anton Capital production and financing is also attending. The company is representing Claire Denis’ “Both Sides of the Blade” (pictured above) starring Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. The film is world-premiering at the Berlinale, marking Denis’ first time in the Berlin competition after having been a Cannes regular.
“We’ll be on the ground to support the film’s team and the Berlinale,” notes Gaget, whose team will do the EFM online from a Paris apartment and then travel to Berlin for the film’s red carpet event on the weekend.
It remains to be seen whether the stars, creatives and others from such Sundance-to-Berlin films as “Call Jane” (pictured above) will make the in-person trek to Germany after a virtual Sundance.
As far as a U.S. industry presence goes, senior CAA and Neon executives are expected to attend for at least part of the festival, but companies such as IFC Films, Bleecker Street and Participant Media are sitting out an in-person Berlin, preferring to take the virtual route.
What’s clear is that the global film industry is supporting Berlin.
Despite the Omicron threat, “the willingness and desire to be part of the festival on the part of production companies, sellers, actors and directors is very strong,” says Chatrian. He recounts being moved when told that Italian auteur Paolo Taviani, who is 91 and competing for a second Golden Bear with surreal drama “Leonora Addio,” “really wants to come at any cost.”
“I think filmmakers are pining to be reconnected [with audiences],” Chatrian says. “And the Berlinale even more than other festivals gives that sense, because you are at the center of a city.”
Chatrian envisions the new concept Berlinale 2022 as full scale in terms of screenings and with most film delegations, albeit smaller, making the trip. He also has high hopes — “this is the big question here in Germany,” he says — that the audience will attend. But he is confident that Berliners will overcome their fear of Omicron because, as always, there is a lot of anticipation for the Berlinale.
After holding Berlin’s 2021 edition online in February, followed by a smaller in-person event in June, which was largely attended by the German public and local industry, Rissenbeek and Chatrian clearly felt the time had come to take a stand.
“The 2021 Berlinale taught us the value of flexibility and the extraordinary capacity to adapt that films, artists, the cinema and those like us who support them have,” Chatrian wrote in an editorial on his blog titled “Exercises in Resistance.”
“The year 2022 comes with a new set of challenges,” he went on to note. “We believe that flexibility must now be replaced by firmness in the context of a project that can no longer forsake its primary role.
“Seeing a film in a theater; being able to hear breathing, laughter or whispers next to you [even with correct social distancing], contributes in a vital way not only to the viewing pleasure, but also to strengthening the social function that cinema has, and must continue to have.
“If films claim and aspire to depict human beings and the world in which they live, they must address a community, an audience, and not a collection of users each with their own login.”