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What to Expect from the Berlin Film Festival

The Indy’s Gordon Glasgow is in Germany for the fest and will be providing regular coverage. Here’s the lay of the land.

Gordon Glasgow Feb 8

And it’s as if not enough photographs have been taken, red carpets walked, cocktail parties thrown. The film industry’s capacity to celebrate itself cannot be underestimated. So it goes that the 68th Berlin Film Festival, one of international cinema’s marquee events, will begin Thursday, Feb. 15.

I’ll be in Berlin providing regular coverage of the festival’s films, press conferences, events, atmosphere and so on. This year’s jury is led by acclaimed West-German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas), and includes New York-based Stephanie Zacharek of Time, formerly the chief film critic of the Village Voice and Salon. Other members of the jury include the Belgian actress Cecile de France (The Young Pope), Oscar-winning American producer Adele Romanski (Moonlight), esteemed Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Spanish film historian Chema Prado, who has previously served as a Jury member of the Cannes, Sundance, Venice, and Locarno film festivals.

American films in the competition’s lineup include Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and Gus Van Sant’s lugubriously titled dramedy, Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot, starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill and Jack Black. There’s also David Zellner’s Damsel with Robert Pattinson, which has already gained acclaim during its run at Sundance, and then Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, Claire Foy playing the lead.

It can seem hypocritical, this combination of art and commercialism, but it’s worth pondering if one could exist without the other.

Eva, A French production from director Benoit Jacquot about a young writer’s encounter with a prostitute, has sparked general interest. Nine of the films in competition were either produced or co-produced in Germany, among them Christian Petzold’s Transit and Berlin-based director Emily Atef’s 3 Days in Quiberon. There’s a Russian film named Dovlatov and an Iranian film titled Pig. Willem Dafoe will be given a lifetime achievement award. Whatever the case, if the screenings are good or bad, ebullient or abhorrent, I’ll be here.

While the focus of a film festival is ostensibly the films themselves, politics has a way of making more than a weighty appearance at these things. Berlinale festival organizers issued a press release expressing solidarity with the #MeToo movement. It always feels a little dubious when social causes are used for marketing purposes, but although #MeToo started in America, sexual harassment and assault are very much European problems as well — this despite 100 high-profile French women recently coming out to condemn the movement.

The noise of the film industry, which usually has trouble distinguishing appearance from substance, the red carpets from the screenings, can distract from the raison d’être of the festival itself: the films. Festivals like Berlinale are integral to independent filmmakers, giving them a space to showcase their latest work on the international stage and it is the smaller screens of the festival that allow this to happen. Though, with only one week and so many films, it’s easy for a low-budget masterpiece to get lost amongst the bigger films competing. I’ll do my best to let nothing slip under the radar.

Founded in postwar West Berlin to showcase new German cinema and promote international film in a country in the process of rebuilding its image, stature and infrastructure, the Berlinale is now recognized as one of the movie world’s most reputable media events. It also coincides with the European Film Market, a film trade fair where both acquisitions managers and sales agents come from around the world to buy and sell distribution rights to their latest projects. Films sold during the market often tend to have nothing to do with what’s being screened at the festival, though sometimes they do and when they do there can be a bidding war, which is well, ugly, and can cause the price of a film to be inflated way above its potential for profit. At Sundance in 2016, Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation sold for $17.5 million, the richest in Sundance history. After sexual harassment allegations against Nate Parker caused a campaign to boycott the release, the film grossed just $16 million domestically and it was as if all of the festival hype hadn’t existed in the first place.  

Berlin is bracing itself for a week of pageantry, staged interviews, Armani suits, Chanel gowns and a hectic film market that has been called the industry’s version of the Wall Street stock exchange. It can seem hypocritical, this combination of art and commercialism directly in contention with one another, but it’s worth pondering, in this instance, if one could exist without the other. The glamour-driven attention cinema garners is an essential aspect of this public art form. It can’t be underestimated or ignored. If hypocrisy is the name of the spectacle, then my only certainty is that we will enjoy the show.  

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Photo: Image from Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion film ‘Isle of Dogs.’ Credit: FoxNext.