At the Berlin Film Festival, Tension Onscreen and Behind the Scenes

When Mariëtte Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian took over the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019, many hoped it would mark a new beginning for the festival, one of the most important in world cinema and the largest by audience numbers.

Under its previous leadership, some argued, the event had grown bloated and unglamorous compared with competitors like Cannes and Venice. They hoped the pair would reinvigorate the Berlinale, as the festival is known, by streamlining its offerings and attracting more high-profile movies.

Five years later, the directors are departing under a cloud of controversy, and many will be debating their legacy at this year’s edition, which begins on Thursday.

Rissenbeek, who oversees the Berlinale’s finances, announced last March that she would be retiring after this year’s festival. And in the summer, Germany’s culture minister, Claudia Roth, said that the festival would return to the leadership of a single figure, eliminating Chatrian’s position as artistic director.

That decision spurred pushback: Over 400 filmmakers and artists, including the directors Martin Scorsese and Claire Denis, signed an open letter in September praising Chatrian and calling his dismissal “harmful, unprofessional and immoral.” Others have argued that Chatrian’s removal was justified, and that the pair never fulfilled their early promise.

In December, Roth announced that Tricia Tuttle, an American who has previously helmed the London Film Festival, would take over the Berlinale after this year’s edition. She will inherit a sprawling program as well as financial challenges and a perilous political backdrop.

The behind-the-scenes turmoil will likely be a hot topic at this year’s event, which opens with a gala screening of “Small Things Like These,” a drama about the institutional abuse of women in Ireland, starring Cillian Murphy. Further films in this year’s competition include new works by the French filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Mati Diop, whose “Atlantics” won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2019, and the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, a Berlinale mainstay.

Other movies will feature the actors Rooney Mara, Isabelle Huppert and Adam Sandler, whose Netflix film “Spaceman” will premiere in an out-of-competition slot. Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan Mexican actress best known for “12 Years a Slave” and “Black Panther,” will lead the jury, and this year’s Honorary Golden Bear, the festival’s equivalent to a lifetime achievement award, will go to Scorsese.

Yet the starry program came together under unsettled conditions, and in a recent joint interview with the outgoing directors, Chatrian chafed at questions about his departure. He said that the announcement had come as a surprise, because Roth had indicated that his contract would be extended. Maybe there had been a “misunderstanding,” he said — in any case, his focus was now on bringing attention to the films in this year’s selection.

Under the leadership of Chatrian and Rissenbeek, the festival cut several sidebar programs and introduced a new competition called Encounters for more experimental features. But they said it had been difficult to put their stamp on the festival because of disruptions caused by the pandemic. Germany’s first lockdowns were imposed weeks after their first edition, in 2020, and ensuing events were held online, outdoors or under strict Covid protocols, requiring constant reinvention.

“It made it much more difficult to think about a continuous line for where we want to go with the festival,” Rissenbeek said.

She noted that the festival had also faced tough financial headwinds, including inflation and the loss of some long-term sponsors. Although Germany’s federal government recently announced a cut in financing, she said that Berlin’s local government had stepped in to fill in the gap.

Some have also interpreted the duo’s decision to cut a program dedicated to up-and-coming German filmmakers as a lack of interest in fostering local cinema. In an email, Linda Söffker, who ran the program from 2010 until 2022, described it as a crucial “building block” for German cinema and for smaller production companies with less access to stars and money. Chatrian said the program had been cut for financial reasons and had attracted insufficient interest from industry festivalgoers.

In an emailed statement, Roth declined to comment on her reasons for ousting Chatrian, but said that her long-term goal was to strengthen the Berlinale among the “top-level film festivals.” She added that the “the grand task of the Berlinale is to combine its artistic goals with a commercially successful cinema that also relies on stars and familiar names.”

The Berlinale is the most political of the major film festivals, and this year’s program is once again shaped by global developments. Several films on the program deal with the war in Ukraine, including a documentary by the American director Abel Ferrara.

The war in Gaza is creating rumblings, too.

Some artists have complained that Germany’s overzealous implementation of a 2019 parliamentary resolution means that they face being shut out by state-funded institutions if they speak publicly against Israel’s attacks on Gaza or show solidarity with the Palestinians. This gave rise to a movement called Strike Germany that, in the name of fighting censorship, urges artists to boycott cultural events.

Many of the movement’s followers hoped that sympathetic filmmakers would join in. But so far, only three films in a sidebar program have been withdrawn by their creators from among the Berlinale’s 239 movies.

The Berlinale has also been at the center of an uproar over its decision to invite two lawmakers from the far-right Alternative for Germany party to Thursday’s opening gala.

After 200 film professionals signed an open letter protesting the invitations, Rissenbeek defended the decision by emphasizing that the tickets had been distributed among lawmakers from all elected parties in Berlin’s legislature. But the festival later backpedaled and disinvited the party’s representatives, maintaining in a statement that they “hold views that are deeply contrary to the fundamental values of democracy.”

Kristin Brinker, the Alternative for Germany leader in the Berlin legislature, said in a statement that the Berlinale had acted undemocratically by “refusing to engage in dialogue and shutting out representatives of other political views.”

Political debates like these are among the challenges that Tuttle will face when she takes over the reins in April.

She is a longtime film festival programmer who oversaw B.F.I. Flare, a London festival of L.G.B.T. movies, and the London Film Festival, where audience numbers nearly doubled during her tenure. Roth said that she had been selected for her “clear idea of the Berlinale’s artistic perspective, team-oriented festival management” and “contemporary sponsorship concepts.”

Tuttle declined to be interviewed for this article, but, in a video interview, Clare Stewart, the managing director of the Rotterdam Film Festival and Tuttle’s former boss in London, described her as particularly adept at bridging the gaps between the art-house and mainstream film worlds, and noted that she had a particular understanding of L.G.B.T. cinema, which always has a strong showing at the Berlinale.

“Tricia has an extremely broad-ranging taste,” Stewart said.

Stewart also said that Tuttle’s experience managing a large event’s finances would prove especially useful in a festival landscape shaped by inflation and state funding cuts.

“We’re not through the challenges of the pandemic yet,” she said, “and these really have to do with certainty around resources.” That wasn’t just true of the Berlinale, she said — “it’s worldwide.”

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