Three years of biopolitics have taught us that crowds are dangerous, and so I entered the bustling Delphi Filmpalast for my first screening with a mixture of joy and trepidation. Mask mandates had been slowly lifted over the winter. I removed mine undecidedly; very few of the other attendees were wearing them. Before the lights dimmed, I looked around and took in their expressions. Any residual discomfort gave way to pleasure at being in a crowded cinema once again.
The context may well have indirectly guided my choice of films. Notre Corps, a documentary by Claire Simon, tracks the treatment of patients at a gynaecological clinic in Paris. We observe a series of consultations with patients whose issues range from breast cancer to infertility to navigating gender transitions. We also witness the birth of a child. Moments of hope (a successful course of IVF) are interposed with moments of sadness and defeat (an unsuccessful cancer treatment). Despite its intimate material, Simon’s use of a restrained verité style as well as her choice to include only fragments of each patient’s story – we never hear their histories, witnessing only the moment of the diagnosis, an operation, a treatment – prevents the film from descending into voyeurism.
Two thirds of the way through, the director herself faces a doctor. Simon is told she needs a double mastectomy to treat her breast cancer. The reality of the Berlinale – where the director greeted the audience before the screening – and that of the film suddenly clash. I’m made aware of the vulnerability of my body once again. All the same, part of me is momentarily troubled by the coincidence of the filmmaker’s illness arising during the shoot, as if she had contracted cancer for the benefit of the film. An irrational sentiment, born from the mistrust fostered by a world in which exploitation of one’s own experience for attention is omnipresent. I feel ashamed of the thought.
Leaving the theatre, it isn’t easy to shake off the suffering of the film’s subjects – the common experience suggested by its title is actualised by the screening. Only retrospectively do I consider the other story that Notre Corps tells. In many scenes we listen to the doctors describing their patients’ pathologies along with the patients. And while some of the doctors treat their patients with tender empathy, in other moments the gap between the doctors’ words and the meanings they hold for those they treat is glaring. Ultimately, the film reveals as much about the institution in which it is filmed as it does about the patients who are its supposed subject. But a critical reflection of how the institution forms their experiences, is beyond its scope.
The Berlinale has always been expansive, both in its programming and its relationship to the city. One follows the other – there are simply too many films for it to be hosted in one neighbourhood – and so the festival generates a city-wide atmosphere of excitement. Recently, a friend disclosed to me that the Berlinale was one of the reasons he decided to move here many years ago. He has nothing to do with film professionally, but the internationalism of the event appealed. In the era before Berlin’s transformation into a global cultural capital, there was always a notable uptick in the English, French and Spanish heard in Berlin’s bars in February.
Since 2000, its epicentre has been Potsdamer Platz. The Berlinale Palast – usually a musical theatre venue – hosts the premieres of films in the main competition. The nearby Filmhaus, meanwhile, is home to the Deutsche Kinemathek as well as its archive, the Film Museum, the Institut für Film und Videokunst and one of Berlin’s two film schools, the DFFB. Lack of charm is the defining feature of these spaces. Though its name evokes a European square, Potsdamer Platz is in fact an intersection, bordered by glass-fronted buildings strung with enormous billboards. An artificial, almost ghostly, place, historically charged and developed to death. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it functioned as a transit hub, through which a great number of the city’s streetcars passed. During the Weimar era, it developed as a cultural and commercial centre, fostering a vibrant nightlife and a red-light district. Bombing during the war destroyed most of its buildings and, in divided Berlin, the area became a wasteland between the zones – a no-man’s land, as captured in Wim Wenders’ Himmel über Berlin (1987).
Following reunification, Potsdamer Platz was then transformed into an ‘icon’ of the new German capital. The city, arguing that it lacked the resources to rebuild the area itself, sold large parts to Sony and Daimler-Benz, and half a dozen famous architects – from Helmut Jahn to Renzo Piano – designed buildings for the space, including the 500,000 square meter multi-purpose ‘Daimler City’. As part of the deal, the Stadtregierung insisted that Sony provide space for several film institutions. The new city was supposed to do it all – at once a headquarters for international capitalists and a hub of cultural capital. The relocation of the Berlinale from its locations on and around Kurfürstendamm in former West Berlin fit perfectly with this vision.
The film school moved onto the ninth floor of a building in a complex called ‘Sony Center’: a circle of blocks covered by a large shining umbrella whose colours change from blue to pink. As a student there years ago, I would spend hours staring at screens or gazing through the window at the purplish canopy outside, gradually losing my sense of time and space. Not a great precondition for contextualizing one’s work. Being in the Filmhaus had its perks, including free access to the Kinemathek in the basement, as well as the film library and archive. But any venture outside the building was bound to be a disappointment. One mostly encountered tourists who often seemed not to know what to make of this space either (while the Kollhoff high-rise imitates the charm of one of the classic skyscrapers in New York or Chicago, it can hardly impress anyone familiar with the originals). If you were hungry, your choices were fast food chains, a supermarket and some overpriced restaurants with mediocre food. Uh, it’s great here, a 2011 film by then-film student Jan Bachmann, captures the sad absurdity of the location perfectly. It stars Franz Rogowski, today one of Germany’s most prominent actors, in his very first role. Stranded under the shimmering awning of Potsdamer Platz, Rogowski encounters a shaman, and decides to go shopping.
Who, then, would have predicted the nostalgia I felt as I returned to Potsdamer Platz this February, after two pandemic years during which the festival was reduced to a skeleton? Despite the inhospitable atmosphere of the Platz, which offers few opportunities to sojourn without consuming, during the Berlinale it has always been filled with activity and excitement. People ran back and forth between screening venues, they waited with thermoses for the appearance of some Hollywood star or stopped in the middle of the street to chat with an acquaintance from last year. Walking by the Sony Center umbrella a few weeks ago, however, I noticed a construction fence surrounding a site that houses one of the main cinemas used for the Berlinale. Later, a friend showed me an aerial photograph. Where once a cinema had been, there was now a gaping wound in the concrete. The theatre was never particularly beautiful, charming, or unique – just a regular multiplex showing mostly big-budget films, but it will be sorely missed. Serious festival goers may now spend as much time on the subway as at the movies.
When it comes to the number of films shown – approximately 400 a year – the Berlinale is the biggest of the Western A-festivals. Assuming an average length of 90 minutes (many are longer, but the program also includes shorts), this would amount to 600 hours of film. Obviously, seeing all of them is an impossibility. But when I first gained access to the screenings, ‘volunteering’ in exchange for a festival pass, I dove into the programme with abandon, focusing my viewing around Potsdamer Platz which, though always a strange and inadequate home for the Berlinale, was at least a home. Now the festival, with its never-ending series of films but no real-world centre seems to inch closer and closer to the viewing conditions of streaming services like Netflix: allowing you to ‘curate’ your own programme with an algorithm and bore yourself with your own taste.
This year, I found myself mostly choosing films based on their location and the likelihood of being able to watch them in theatres later. The division of the films into thirteen sections is supposed to help you navigate, but they are far too numerous and their criteria too indistinct for this to be of much use. The choice, for example, to screen two parts of a double feature in different sections this year, was mystifying. In Waters by Hong Sangsoo was shown in ‘Encounters’, a competition-adjacent section dedicated to ‘aesthetically and structurally more daring films’. Described in the programme as ‘his most personal’, the film is shot almost completely out of focus. While some told me they found it unbearable, other viewers thought it was a way of teaching them to see differently. Denying the pleasure of seeing clearly not only challenges the viewer’s willingness to engage, but could also be read as a refusal to produce a film for streaming, its blurriness mocking the razor-sharp images produced by every device. A festival seems to be one of very few occasions that might motivate an audience to take an experience like that upon themselves. In any case, no newcomer would get away with it. Festival darling Hong Sangsoo does.
One oft-repeated recent critique of the Berlinale is that it lacks a clearly defined curatorial profile. Hopes that this would change following the appointment of its new artistic director Carlo Chatrian (formerly in the same role at Locarno) have been disappointed up till now. It seems that besides the celebrity of the filmmakers, the selection of a film is often based on whether its subject is deemed politically ‘relevant’. As part of the cinematic machinery of consensus, the festival is, unsurprisingly, a mirror of the problems of the German film financing system. Symbolic gestures, such as inviting President Zelensky to speak at the opening, can make it easy to forget the many other levels on which politics operates in such events: in the funding of individual films, in the choices over the festival’s curation, the selection of star guests, and, not least, in the way a festival acts as marketing for a city and a nation. All of this distracts from its core cultural responsibility: to create a space in which viewing patterns and established meanings are challenged, in which an audience is confronted with images that affect their view of the world, and where a discourse about film as an art form can take place.
Între revoluții is a documentary-fiction film by Vlad Petro. Its voiceover, written by Romanian writer Lavinia Braniște, presents an imagined correspondence between Maria from Bucharest and Zahra from Tehran, whose friendship began when they studied medicine in the Romanian capital together in the 1970s. Zahra returned to Iran in 1978, at the beginning of a period of political upheaval. In her letters she describes her experiences during the Iranian Revolution, as well as the disappointment and fear that ensued when Khomeini took power. They exchange letters throughout the next decade until, ten years later, Ceausescu’s regime in Bucharest is overthrown. Once more euphoria gives way to disappointment and existential anxieties.
Through their correspondence, the two women search for the universal thread that unites their distinct experiences. Many students did travel from Iran to Romania in the period, but despite the historical nature of the film, it has a contemporary feel. Both talk about their isolation and the impossibility, for various reasons, of communicating with their immediate family. Their stories, drawn in very broad strokes, are brought to life through a montage of archival footage. We can’t always guess whether it stems from newsreels, from narrative films, from commercial ads or propaganda. The focus is on people, particularly women, whose appearance, expressions and bodies at a particular moment, age or state of mind are preserved. There is something consoling about watching people from previous periods on film, seeing them alive. That there is an audience watching them means they are not, in fact, so alone. And we, the audience ourselves, feel connected to each other through the experience of watching them – a connection strengthened by the intimacy of the Q&A. Then, we leave the cinema for Alexanderplatz – the second ugliest of the city’s famous Plätze – heading into the cold February drizzle, atomizing into different directions.
The spatial disintegration of the festival will only accelerate. Daimler and Sony sold their properties on Potsdamer Platz years ago, the latter at a huge loss. The present owners include corporations and funds from Canada, Qatar and Norway. Now that Berlin has attained the cultural prestige to which it once aspired, investing in film doesn’t appear to have the same priority. In 2024 the lease for the Filmhaus, home to the film schools, the museum and the Kinemathek, will expire, and part of the institution will move to Wedding, a neighbourhood in Berlin’s north. The film school will splinter off to a different location. This means that the films from the experimental ‘Forum’ section of the festival will no longer be screened on Potsdamer Platz. There will be even fewer opportunities for encounters between different participants – apart from exclusive industry receptions. If ten different people see ten different films in ten different places, they almost might as well stay at home and watch them there.
As rents continue to rise and spaces for cultural experimentation continue to shrink, the numerous independent cinemas are still one thing that speaks for Berlin. You can see almost any given recent arthouse film at any given night somewhere in the city. Chances are high that you can watch it within a twenty-minute radius of your home. This is still true even after the pandemic intensified the economic pressure placed on movie theatres. There are also a number of institutions curating programs of historical films, and numerous more or less official screenings in bars, galleries and elsewhere. And it’s not just the quantity that matters. Many of these beautiful spaces celebrate cinema as an art form as well as a social occasion. This is a consolation. It should not be taken for granted.
Read on: Julia Hertäg, ‘Germany’s Counter-Cinemas’, NLR 135.