Call and Response: The 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

When we expect the Berlinale to be political, what indeed do we expect?
Laura Staab

Favoriten (Ruth Beckermann, 2024).

Speaking at the press conference to inaugurate the 74th Berlinale, actor and competition jury president Lupita Nyong'o said that she had heard one remark repeated since she had arrived in the German capital: “how political the Berlinale is.” She was not alone in being “curious to learn what that meant.”

When we expect the Berlinale to be political, what indeed do we expect? Dependent on nation-states and multinational corporations for funding, major film festivals like the Berlinale are only politically outspoken, today, when it is convenient or uncontroversial. Given that the Berlinale is typically perceived as more political than Cannes and Venice, the hypocrisy of that reputation combined with the sad reality of the institution’s commitments under late capitalism can be—for cinephiles who are dedicated both to radical film and radical politics—a bitter pill to swallow. 

At the height of the festival, the United Nations estimated that 29,195 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis had been killed in Israel’s war on Gaza.1 While the Berlinale said of itself that it “remembers victims of war, destruction and oppression all over the world” in 2023, and extended its “sympathy… to all the victims of humanitarian crises in the Middle East and elsewhere” earlier this year, that sweeping gesture of commemoration in fact found a hard limit by the time the festival began. The Berlinale stood in explicit solidarity with an invaded Ukraine last year—in educational, financing, and merchandising initiatives, as well as through programming decisions. That response aligned with the German state and the festival sponsors (such as Armani Beauty and Uber), as well as the liberal consensus against Russia. When it came to a bombarded Palestine, however, solidarity proved more difficult. There were no such initiatives, and programming choices paled in comparison. Pro-Palestinian sentiments, when loud enough, were met by the Berlinale with alarm.

Two specific phenomena in Germany explain, but do not excuse, the failure of the festival to speak up for Palestine, whose people are now at risk of genocide. Both the Erinnerungskultur (“culture of remembrance”) and the Staatsräson (“reason of the state”) in Germany ally the country firmly to Israel, with serious legal implications. Under the Staatsräson, “from the river to the sea” is not only a controversial phrase but a criminalized one. In 2019, the German government also passed a resolution that deemed the movement to boycott Israel, to divest finance from it, and to sanction it (BDS) as anti-Semitic. By way of continued atonement for the Nazi Holocaust, Germany repeatedly positions and protects the Jewish people as “eternal victims,” to quote Jacqueline Rose.2 According to this logic, the militarized and powerful state of Israel cannot be considered an aggressor, and Palestine is therefore dispossessed of its claims to victimhood. In that fierce commitment to Israel—which holds even while it endangers the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians with a vicious war—“the German authorities risk,” writes Pankaj Mishra, “failing in their responsibility to the rest of the world: never again to become complicit in murderous ethnonationalism.”3

In the German arts and culture sector, individuals who were critical of a bellicose Zionism (Candice Breitz and Laurie Anderson, among others), faced cancellations and challenges to exhibitions, residencies, and talks. Claudia Roth, the Minister of State for Culture and Media, insisted that this was a last resort. “I would hope that we can move away from fear and toward dialogue and discourse,” she said in December. 

Come January, the Berlinale followed suit with a similarly vacuous announcement. Artistic director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariëtte Rissenbeek issued an official statement that obliquely addressed Israel’s war on Gaza and faintly promised that the festival would be an empathetic space for “open discussions.” That promise was complicated almost immediately. In early February, industry professionals wrote an open letter to the festival, in opposition to them sending out opening-night invitations to members of Alternative für Deutschland. AfD is a far-right party, representatives of which had, the previous month, met with neofascists to discuss mass deportation of asylum seekers from Germany. Rissenbeek stated the invitations were part of the festival’s commitment to free speech, while Roth claimed that they were part of a quota. After a short tussle between Chatrian, Rissenbeek, and Roth, they were rescinded.4

In an asinine example of outsourcing, the “open discussions” hinted at in January’s periphrastic statement were set to be tidied away into a little shack on wheels: an initiative called “Talking about Israel and Palestine: The TinyHouseProject.” The TinyHouse measures 250 x 390 x 610 centimeters and fits, as advertised on its website, “anywhere that would fit a van.” Mirroring the bothsidesism of a program with space enough for one film about Israel and one film about Palestine, this portable hut hosted one German with Israeli heritage and one Palestinian; the two would recursively talk about how to talk about Israel and Palestine in the German context. The TinyHouse had room for four other people at a time, in a festival that has hundreds of thousands of attendees and hundreds of workers, and was open for no more than four and a half hours a day for three days, in a festival that ran morning to night for ten days. Conversations were held in German in a festival fluent, generally, in globish. As Another Gaze commented, it was also “very convenient to privatise [them], both minimising their import and keeping them away from the main event and its mediatisation.” While the main screening venues of the festival, the Cinemaxx and the Palast, stand at the center of Potsdamer Platz, the TinyHouse was parked on the outer edge of it. Blending in with the corporate architecture of the leisure district, it was mostly noticeable to those who were on a burger detour to a nearby Five Guys before or after a screening. Meanwhile, an Armani Beauty booth emblazoned with Sydney Sweeney’s silken face was unmissable, placed cannily between two main entrances for Potsdamer Platz train station.

Dahomey (Mati Diop, 2024).

Presumably in response to the TinyHouse, anxious Berlinale contractors shared an open letter three days before the glitzy opening ceremony, concerned that this most political of major film festivals might not engage “actively and discursively” with the war in Gaza. Tens of programmers, moderators, and contractors called on Berlinale officials to use “these big houses we call cinemas” to facilitate discourse.

Across its programming, the festival accommodated such good-faith, engaged dialogue, but at a convenient remove. First- and second-generation immigrants at an Austrian school in Ruth Beckermann’s Favoriten (2024), college students at a Beninese university in Mati Diop’s Dahomey (2024), and the international group of curators in Dimitris Athiridis’s exergue – on documenta 14 (2024) modeled democracy in action. All of these polyphonic films, ironically, appeared in Chatrian’s programming strands. Chatrian’s head of programming, Mark Peranson, also founded and edited Cinema Scope, where he anointed exergue “one of the best films of 2024” ahead of its screening in the Berlinale Special strand, a kind of lucky mix where pet projects of programmers often drift. 

Across fourteen hours, exergue chronicles the making and breaking of documenta 14 between 2015 and 2017. Established, much like the Berlinale, in the postwar period with calculated financial backing from the United States, the quinquennial Kassel exhibition is as important in the art-world calendar as the Berlinale is in the film-world calendar (if not more so) and is also structurally dependent on the German state and external sponsors. exergue casts light on the difficulties of that specific position for documenta 14’s curators. Artistic director Adam Szymczyk made a concerted effort throughout the exhibition to hold wide-ranging, open discussions about art and culture in dark, disastrous times; writer Paul B. Preciado—more recently the director of Orlando: A Political Biography (2023)—curated a “Public Programs” strand that made tangible space for these discussions. Much of what Szymczyk and his international team did with documenta 14 angered the German state and its prosperous public. Although Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s performance about the migrant crisis, “Auschwitz on the Beach,” was canceled after German cultural leaders suggested that it relativized the Holocaust, for instance, the Marxist philosopher still had space to give a talk that critiqued that response. Szymczyk framed the new event as “a warning against historical amnesia, a moral wake-up call, a call to collective action.” Taking aim not just at the guilt of the German state but pinching at its pocket too, Szymczyk also added a second site in Athens to the traditional site in Kassel for this documenta, and in so doing ran up a multimillion-euro deficit rerouting taxpayer money from affluent Germany to debt-filled Greece. (This was a bitterly funny repetition: Germany had very reluctantly helped to bail out Greece during its financial crisis in 2010.)

Szymczyk and his team risked scandal, and they come across in exergue as rock stars who wanted to answer less to Germany than, with vocal urgency, to a wider world in turmoil. By programming the film, Chatrian and Peranson hint at the similar constraints of their own roles, but the pair looks quite tame in comparison, continuing to appease the state and the festival even after being booted out of it. Ousted from their respective roles by Roth last September, neither Chatrian nor Peranson will work for the Berlinale as of next month. And yet, the pair posted their own open letter to social media that limply parroted the festival line: “we want to remind you that sorrow is universal,” they wrote. Most festival workers who spoke out during the Berlinale did so from the festival’s margins; calls for a ceasefire came from programmers in the Panorama strand (which champions feminist and queer filmmaking) and the Forum Expanded strand (for artists’ and experimental film), but never from Chatrian’s programming team.

As Genevieve Yue has written, after an article by Abby Sun, the stability that institutions like film festivals seek frequently derives from programming subversive or oppositional work.5 In the case of film festivals like the Berlinale, the inclusion of such work can cooperate well with soft-power and cultural-capital interests of nation-states. If needed, Roth can point to the program of the Berlinale, and say, look here: state-sponsored, progressive dialogue. Celebrating different, divergent images that flourish in the mean old face of a regressive party line is rarely adequate: that face is either happy about it too, or it just doesn’t care. 

Come the closing ceremonies, several filmmakers’ acceptance speeches were punctuated with humanitarian appeals. When No Other Land (2024) was awarded Best Documentary, two of its directors—the Israeli Yuval Abraham and the Palestinian Basel Adra—used that stage to call for a ceasefire and for the German government to stop sending weapons to Israel. German media outlets were outraged (and so the kowtowing festival was too); the filmmakers and their families back in the West Bank received death threats. At the end of the festival, anonymous Berlinale workers also took to Instagram, hacking the official Berlinale account with pro-Palestinian material, including the slogan “from the river to the sea.” Berlinale officials are now pressing criminal charges against the Instagram hackers and inveighed, in a final statement, against these few displays of “one-sided” solidarity.

exergue – on documenta 14 (Dimitris Athiridis, 2024).

During the festival, a grassroots group took a mournful stand against the war in Gaza, and activists tried to disrupt business as usual. Film Workers 4 Palestine held four separate vigils at the center of Potsdamer Platz, in front of the multiplex and out in the open. Artists, filmmakers, and writers who had been killed since the start of the war were named and grieved in a crowd. Over at Gropius Bau, a center for contemporary and modern art used for market purposes during the festival, activists staged a die-in at the main entrance and unfurled banners—“Lights, Camera, Genocide”—from balconies in the main hall. These isolated if commendable actions were the extent of activist efforts on location at the Berlinale.

The Berlinale took place amid an international campaign to boycott the German arts sector. The ongoing movement Strike Germany calls for cultural workers to withhold presence and labor from institutions in that country until three separate demands are met: the protection of artistic freedom (a separation of artistic expression from the policies of the state), a more focused fight against anti-Semitism (in which that term is no longer conflated with criticism of the state of Israel), and a dissolution of the tendentious resolution around BDS. Beyond a withdrawal of work from Forum Expanded (by Suneil Sanzgiri, Ayo Tsalithaba, and John Greyson) and the Berlinale Talents Lab (by Lawrence Lek, Maryam Takafory, Monica Sorelle, and Advik Beni), as well as a refusal to participate in coverage by less established publications (In Review Online, Tone Glow, and Ultra Dogme), Strike Germany did not gain traction, however, in most film circles ahead of the Berlinale.

Accounting for a lack of momentum around Strike Germany on the Film Comment podcast, Erika Balsom briefly mentioned the generality of the call to action. Whether that was meant to imply that the Strike Germany demands are too vague or, rather, that they were not effectively articulated in and for the film community, it is important here, I think, to take a politics of refusal seriously and to be self-reflexive about why the film community was unresponsive to strike action. If “the film community” exists, then it is not a coherent whole. Even if there is a cohort of left-leaning critics, it is dispersed and globalized, and we come together through words more often than we convene as bodies: via magazines, as writers and readers of criticism, and on the fraught fora of social media. In person, we gather at film festivals. Each one of these venues are afflicted by either bad politics or precarity. (Artforum, over. Cinema Scope, over.) For a keenly felt lack of somewhere else to go, we keep gathering on compromised sites like Elon Musk’s X and, this February, at the Berlinale. Attendance at the festival was not necessarily an expression of cynical careerism; it was often a desire for embodied community.

I want at least to be able to speak of “the leftist film community,” its needs and its aims. If filmmakers and critics depend on film festivals for financial, social, and even quasi-spiritual reasons (André Bazin was right to describe film festivals as belonging to “a religious order” in 19556), then it is essential for us to create and nurture support systems on these respective fronts—especially if we want to take strike action in the future. And that is a big if. We little critics, in particular, must recognize how low we are on the hierarchical rungs of film festivals: the difference between the impact of a critics’ strike and one in which, say, competition filmmakers pull works is sizable. Whether we are speaking as critics alone or as a broader coalition, it is also important to ascertain what we can expect from the Berlinale and other major film festivals—to go into these situations with our hopes for change calibrated and lucid. Surely there is little scope to barnacling activism to major film festivals, decadent as they are and dying as they might be. Perhaps we want to steal what we can from them. Perhaps power resides elsewhere. 

Cinephilia might be, as Serge Daney argued, “a relationship to the world through cinema.”7 Yet a positive relationship is not a given; it is a continual process of negotiation. If the Berlinale is beyond redemption, beyond reform, fit only to play the part of the retrograde father, then the role of the rebellious children would fall to us. Anyone misty-eyed about the radical history of the Berlinale, with an anachronistic belief in the transformative power of progressive programming alone—they would be on the side of the father. And the rest of us would need to decide, next time, whether to withdraw our labor or to seize that platform to congregate and make mutinous noise. Either way, that absence or that cacophony would need to be felt. Beyond that, we need to gather in alternative spaces—other film festivals, other places than film festivals—and from there, get going with conceiving of a better relationship to the world.

  1.  Statistics retrieved from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, February 21, 2024. 
  2. Jacqueline Rose, “You made me do it: Jacqueline Rose on violence and its origins,” London Review of Books 45, no. 23 (November 30, 2023).  
  3.  Pankaj Mishra, “Memory Failure,” London Review of Books 46, no. 1 (January 4, 2024).  
  4.  As Shane Danielsen observes, this panicked development “allowed the far-right to claim a moral victory: they were being ‘cancelled’, were they not, by the very people who supposedly espoused tolerance and the free exchange of ideas?” See “At the Berlin Film Festival,” London Review of Books blog, March 1, 2024. 
  5.  Genevieve Yue, “The Accidental Outside,” World Records 6 (2022).  
  6.  André Bazin, “The Festival Viewed as Religious Order” [1955], trans. Emilie Bickerton, in dekalog 3: On Film Festivals (London: Wallflower, 2009), 13-19. 
  7.  Serge Daney, The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinéma Years 1962-1981 [2001], trans. Christine Pichini (South Pasadena, CA: semiotext(e), 2022), 19. 

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