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Looking for New Entry Points to the World: The Berlinale Forum at 50

In a roundtable discussion, the former and current heads of the Berlinale's adventurous sidebar discuss its purpose and evolution.
Notebook
Above: the former Arsenal Cinema. Photo by Marian Stefanowski.
In 1971, Erika and Ulrich Gregor and the other Friends of the German Film Archive (now Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art) founded the International Forum of New Cinema as a reaction to the crisis at the Berlin Film Festival in 1970. The Forum became “a parallel event on an equal footing” alongside the Berlinale Competition and placed a focus on films that “advance the development process of the medium of film and make new functions of film within society visible.” After Erika and Ulrich Gregor headed the Forum for 30 years, Christoph Terhechte took over the section from 2002 to 2018. Milena Gregor, Birgit Kohler, and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, who make up the Arsenal board of directors, took over the interim leadership for the 49th Forum in 2019. Since this year, Cristina Nord has been head of the Forum, which is taking place for the 50th time. Since 2006, Forum Expanded has extended the program to include video art as well as installation and performance works in the cinema and in exhibition spaces.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Forum, critic and journalist Bert Rebhandl, co-editor of the magazine Cargo, moderated a conversation between with Erika and Ulrich Gregor, Christoph Terhechte, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, Birgit Kohler, and Cristina Nord on the way the Forum was created and how it has evolved over the decades.

BERT REBHANDL: Every institution has to begin somewhere, how did the Forum get started? 
ULRICH GREGOR: Around Christmas 1970, the Berlinale held a press conference on the future of the festival following what had happened in June of the same year. Back then, the Berlinale was cut short following the turbulence set in motion by Michael Verhoeven’s experimental anti-war film O.K. The American jury president George Stevens demanded that it be removed from the competition, while others made declarations of solidarity for the film in turn, and the festival was unable to find a solution. Reform was needed. I went to the press conference just hoping to find out some news. And there was indeed some news: the administrative board had decided to ask the Friends of the German Film Archive [the institution which founded the Arsenal cinema and changed its name to Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in 2008] to put on its own section during the 1971 Berlinale. It came as a total bolt from the blue.
ERIKA GREGOR: I even remember you said straight afterwards in a radio interview that this was the first you’d heard of the offer.
ULRICH GREGOR: Slightly more formal discussions were then held in January with the board of trustees of the Berliner Festspiele, which included representatives from Berlin and Bonn. There they asked us again more directly: will you be able to do this? We offered to take on responsibility for “difficult, dangerous films,” which somehow had to form part of the Berlinale programme, although no one knew how to deal with them. We already had a degree of experience in such things and were seen as reasonably reliable. I said that our most important prerequisite was having total freedom in selecting the program. Then came the question: how much money will you need actually? It was the first time we’d ever had to engage with budgetary questions, so finding an answer was no easy task. But the board of trustees immediately started talking figures: could you do it for 300,000 DM? My first reaction was: they can’t mean that!
ERIKA GREGOR: We’d never had any money and everyone at Arsenal worked on a voluntary basis apart from the accountant and the projectionist. I then made some calculations, working out how many films we’d be showing over an eight-day festival, and figured that we could make do with 200,000 DM. Then I recalculated based on the idea that many of the films would be coming from less affluent countries. If we wanted to make prints with German subtitles and then hold on to them afterwards, maybe 300,000 DM would not be enough. The idea of collecting the films we showed at the Forum was important from the very start.  
ULRICH GREGOR: Back then, there was always a tacit expectation that the Forum would end in a fiasco. That’s why we only received funding for one year at a time.   
REBHANDL: You were just talking about “dangerous films.” Were there more “dangerous” films back then than there are now? 
ULRICH GREGOR: In 1970, we’d all really experienced what a single film can set in motion. Those responsible for the Berlinale weren’t so familiar with the international festival scene, while we’d been going to festivals for years. There were basically two alternatives: either the festival needed to be completely reformed (for example, some people were demanding that prizes should no longer be awarded) or left as it is, with something new added to it.  
ERIKA GREGOR: Berlin was hugely provincial back then. I don’t think that anyone at the festival had ever been to Venice or Cannes. We’d already put on our own program, which took place at the Akademie der Künste in ‘69 and at Arsenal in ‘70. 
ULRICH GREGOR: In the program, it said “on the occasion of the Berlin Film Festival.” 
REBHANDL: Can you use two examples from the 1971 programme to explain what was important for the Forum back then?  
ERIKA GREGOR: We owed a great deal to our international connections. Communication still took place via letters at that time. The head of the Goethe-Institut in Athens, for example, wrote us a letter saying that he’d heard we were doing a festival and that he had a film by a young director he could send us via diplomatic bag. The Regime of the Colonels was still in power in Greece at the time. And that was Reconstitution [1970), the first film by Theo Angelopoulos —which for me is still his most beautiful.
ULRICH GREGOR: W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism by Dušan Makavejev was also important. He was in the jury in 1970 and a driving force behind all the turbulence. The film was a co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk and so we went to Munich to watch it. Or The Ceremony by Nagisa Oshima. Back then, we had an expert in Paris, Madame Govaers, who used to keep us abreast of Japanese films. 
ERIKA GREGOR: We did everything by hand. It was really difficult to call Italy, for example. Alfred Bauer [head of the Berlinale from 1951 to 1976] had a Telex machine outside his office, we had to go there and show suitable humility in order to use it.
Above: the former Arsenal Cinema. Photo by Marian Stefanowski.
REBHANDL: Let’s look at some other programming choices from 1983 that also highlight the full spectrum of the Forum’s interests: Heaven’s Gate by Michael Cimino, a grand-scale American western, was screened alongside Heaven and Earth by Michael Pilz, a very personal film about how the Austrian provinces can function as a model for the world.
ERIKA GREGOR: Heaven’s Gate wasn’t on our radar at first, but when we saw the director’s cut in Venice, we thought that it would be the ideal closing film for the Forum. We didn’t just see the Forum as a place for “small” films, but also really big ones. 
ULRICH GREGOR: Heaven’s Gate expanded the range of what we usually showed, while Michael Pilz’s film is an avant-garde film which was more in line with our usual focus. We screened it on 16mm. Heaven’s Gate came in 70mm film rolls, the tins were huge. 
ERIKA GREGOR: And it was indescribably beautiful to see Heaven’s Gate on the big screen at Delphi.
REBHANDL: One lasting theme of the Berlinale is persistent criticism of how the Competition is programmed. Were you aware of this or did that not concern the Forum at all? 
ERIKA GREGOR: To a large degree, it was the participating countries who determined what was shown in the Competition. The Soviet Union is a good example here. We wanted to show The Red Snowball Tree [1974] and had to go and make our case at Sovexport on Kurfürstendamm. No one knew who Vasily Shukshin was, we even had to spell his name for the journalists. 
REBHANDL: The Soviet authorities didn’t want to show this director’s work, even though he was fairly popular in his own country? 
ULRICH GREGOR: They didn’t want to see their country presented in such a way. We always argued with the Soviet film bigwigs, even about Tarkovsky. We always asked them to explain to us why it was so difficult to show Tarkovsky. The answer was always the same: these films are not representative of Soviet cinema. We did at least manage to get Tarkovsky’s Stalker with the help of Sergio Gambaroff and his company Pegasus Film, which used to import Soviet films. 
Above: The Forum at the Delphi Filmapalast. Photograph by Dario Lehner.
CHRISTOPH TERHECHTE: When did that stop, that the countries were de facto the ones to supply the festivals with films? 
ULRICH GREGOR: There was already a selection committee for the Competition when we started in 1971, but they worked on the basis of what was suggested by the countries or national organisations. As far as I know, they didn’t go looking for individual films in a targeted way. 
REBHANDL: The 20th Forum took place in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Maybe we can use that date to move on to the rest of the group: where were all of you that year, in relation to the Forum?  
STEFANIE SCHULTE STRATHAUS: In 1990, I’d just arrived in Berlin. In the early 90s, I used to work on cinema and exhibition projects alongside studying film. Karl Winter, who used to take care of distribution at the Friends of the German Film Archive, set me up with a temping job in 1991, that’s how I came to Arsenal. And in 1994, I was offered the job running the cinema.  
TERHECHTE: While I was still working in Hamburg as a film journalist, I also had a lot to do with the Metropolis cinema there, which was run by Heiner Ross, one of the founding members of the Forum. Prints from the collection of the Friends of the German Film Archive also used to be screened at Metropolis back then, which was more or less the Forum programme. From 1988 onwards, Helma Schleif and I used to edit the Forum film sheets, which were handed out before each screening. In 1988/89, I was living in Paris, so I didn’t find out about the fall of the Wall directly. I remember calling the Forum office from a telephone box in Paris on November 10, 1989 to talk about the deadlines for the editorial work. And they answered me by saying: Christoph, do you have any idea what’s going on here? Breitscheidplatz is full of Trabis! I then came back to Berlin pretty quickly. The 20th Forum took place in 1990 and the anniversary programme was made up of films from the first twenty years. That’s where I saw Winter Soldier [1972] by the Winterfilm Collective for the first time, for example.
BIRGIT KOHLER: I came to Berlin in 1986. At that point, I wasn’t working in cinema and was more concerned with activism, alongside studying Theatre Studies. Then I saw Farewell Winter by Helke Misselwitz at the Forum in 1989, a film that became extremely important for me. It inspired me to write an essay about women and culture in East Germany, which led in turn to my programming a first film series about feminist filmmaking at the Regenbogenkino. It was possible to put on self-organized project tutorials at the university back then, you could teach yourself, as it were, and we worked a lot on film, feminism and theory, that was a very important context for me. I sometimes used to translate French subtitles at Arsenal and then do live dubbing during film screenings, we used to put on the feminist film projects organised by our “Blick-pilotin” initiative there too. I can also remember a screening of The Black Box [1991] by Tamara Trampe and Johann Feindt at Delphi, which remains unforgettable to me to this day, also because of the intensive Q&A. Basically, it was political matters that led me to cinema and the Forum back then. 
CRISTINA NORD: I was in Barcelona in 1990 and then came to Berlin in summer to study Literature and Latin American Studies. The Berlinale wasn’t so straightforward for me, the advance box office was at the Europacenter back then and I sometimes had to stand in line for a very long time. A screening of Imitation of Life [1959] by Douglas Sirk at Arsenal became really important to me, because I saw just how much can be done with the genre of the melodrama and how it’s possible to work with emotionality. My first Forum film was Warheads [1992] by Romuald Karmakar. I saw myself as a true pacifist and didn’t want anything to do with the military. And in that film, everything you see has to do with soldiers. My resistance quickly evaporated and I understood that a patiently observed documentary could open up a whole world that was totally alien to me. Warheads started a very lively discussion, because many people back then were still very marked by the peace movement, and then there was suddenly this film showing us militiamen and members of the Foreign Legion and recalling colonial war experiences. The idea that a film can go against my convictions and get me to change my position nonetheless became an experience that I linked with the Forum and, as it turned out, afterwards it was indeed always a place that made such encounters possible.  
ULRICH GREGOR: Karmakar was recommended to us by Enno Patalas. With respect to The Himmler Project [1997], in which Manfred Zapatka delivers the full Posen speeches originally addressed to the SS in 1943, there was a huge amount of discussion, because we didn’t know how we should deal with the film. 
TERHECHTE: We said that we’d have to create a special discussion setting for the film. Karmakar was annoyed that we applied our own criteria to The Himmler Project.
REBHANDL: One of the most important years must have been 2001, when the Berlinale moved to Potsdamer Platz, where Arsenal has also been located since 2000. And Dieter Kosslick’s tenure as director of the festival started, just as Christoph Terhechte became the new head of the Forum. 
STRATHAUS: 2001 was obviously important, but the period of change actually lasted until 2004, when the Federal Government took over responsibility for Arsenal from the Berlin Senate.
ULRICH GREGOR: After Kosslick replaced Moritz de Hadeln, the climate totally changed. Before that, there was a rivalry between the Berlinale and the Forum. Everyone was watching each other like a hawk, but it was a productive atmosphere and a big motivation for everyone we worked with. The energy we employed looking for films doubled as a result.
TERHECHTE: Another part of the story is that there were already plans for a Filmhaus before 1989, which was supposed to be located right next to the wall. That then had to be integrated into the new plans. In 1998, de Hadeln’s contract was extended unexpectedly. I was already the designated head of the Forum, I was actually supposed to start in 1999. Ulrich and Erika Gregor, who’d asked me to take over, then decided: ok, then we’ll also stay on for another three years. When I finally started working, Ulrich Gregor had already stepped down from his position as co-director of the Berlinale, and I had to come to some new arrangement with Kosslick. 
Above: The current Arsenal. Photograph by Dario Lehner.
REBHANDL: Did it become more difficult for the Forum to differentiate itself from the rest of the festival? Panorama had also been founded in 1986 as a new section of the festival by Manfred Salzgeber, who also originally came from the Forum.
TERHECHTE: As far as content was concerned, I didn’t have any problems with the new set-up under Kosslick, who expressly wanted to bury the hatchet with me—we’d previously fallen out in a different context, back in Hamburg. Moritz de Hadeln and Ulrich Gregor still very much knew how to swing the hatchet. Les amants du Pont-Neuf [1991] by Leos Carax could have also been shown in the Competition, as it was one of the most expensive films of the 80s, but it screened at the Forum and that was the right decision, as it’s not about external criteria, but rather the stance of a film and its cinematic qualities. We first showed Hong Kong films in a midnight program and later Bollywood films too. The Forum was the first section of an international festival to bring the Indian mainstream to Europe. That was down to Dorothee Wenner. Back then, we used to buy video cassettes on Second Avenue in New York and watch them in the hotel in the evening. 
ULRICH GREGOR: That was a huge shift for us, as alternative Indian auteurs like Mrinal Sen had total contempt for Indian commercial cinema. Dorothee Wenner made a breakthrough there by also getting us interested in those films.
TERHECHTE: It was also about recognizing other qualities in those films rather than their sheer popularity. My first real intervention at the Forum was a quantitative one though: I reduced the size of the program. Far too many films were being shown. I thought we should show fewer films, with each film screening more frequently. 
KOHLER: A very decisive change was the moment when the rule about premieres was introduced at the Forum. It’s a symptom of how the industry functions and creates competition between festivals. Since then, the Forum’s selection has also taken place in a world where the power of the world sales companies gets bigger all the time and the influence of the many pitching sessions and talent markets is constantly growing. That’s the environment in which the Forum and its specific profile must hold its ground these days. And then there’s also the question of how and where films that aren’t pre-formatted can even be found, which is what our focus is, of course.
REBHANDL: So world cinema has become a highly integrated part of an entire wider system where it’s difficult to still find aesthetic and political innovations? 
NORD: We’re now at a point where the Forum has to re-examine the story of its success, as success can easily gallop off again. The Forum was extremely important in establishing Bollywood abroad, but that trend has gone so far in the meantime that Bollywood films are now shown on mainstream television here in Germany. Putting on midnight screenings hardly makes any sense today, as that type of rare, culturally charged cinema doesn’t exist anymore. How and where films are seen and thought about has changed massively. Back in 1971, representatives of the Third Cinema were still very much appearing, expressing radical criticism of the status quo from the perspectives of countries on the periphery of the hegemonic West. This sort of criticism is only seen seldom today, for example, in the work of Lav Diaz or Wang Bing. The zeitgeist is no longer so keyed into this stance of radical criticism. There was a time when such animosity played a bigger role. Today, criticism immediately feeds back into the system so that (and I’m saying this in deliberately broad terms) capitalism works better. Minority positions rapidly become part of the mainstream.
TERHECHTE: In the meantime, there’s not just the film industry mainstream, there’s also the mainstream among festivals and in the world of film funding bodies. Lav Diaz and Wang Bing work pretty comfortably in their way. I don’t know when the moment came when it hardly became possible to make discoveries anymore because commercial mechanisms were picking up on everything so quickly. De Hadeln rejected one of Aki Kaurismäki’s films and afterwards he only came to the Forum, before returning to the Competition under Kosslick. That was also indicative.  
ULRICH GREGOR: A big director like Hirokazu Kore-eda has no say in how his films are marketed in festivals. His world sales company agrees on everything for him. 
REBHANDL: The Forum used to be on the fringe of the Berlinale, later Forum Expanded was on the “fringe of the fringe” as it were, but now it’s hardly possible to find such fringe areas any more. 
STRATHAUS: The Forum showed very radical experimental films from the very beginning. Yet in later years, the field underwent a period of considerable canonization. Many works started resembling one another. In 2012, during our Think:Film conference, Michael Snow commented that, in retrospect, he felt that several films were derivative of one another. In parallel, film started popping up in the art world more and more, where different contexts and ways of presenting work were pointing to new possibilities. At times, I found that too much of an encroachment, but I also had the impression that something was happening there that I’d been missing in the world of film. A lot of what suddenly arrived from the art world was also submitted to the Forum, but it didn’t really fit the cinema or festival format. We once showed a three-hour video diary by artist Gina Kim, who got really nervous before the premiere because she wasn’t used to showing her work at a cinema and asked me to tell the audience that they could go in and out as they pleased. She was then totally amazed that they didn’t just stay, but also received her work very positively in that cinema context. 
TERHECHTE: That’s an important clarification, as it wasn’t as if avant-garde cinema was supposed to be farmed out somewhere else. Forum Expanded was never supposed to relieve the Forum of the responsibility of showing experimental work. It was also about tapping into new audiences who were familiar with exhibitions and galleries.  
KOHLER: Finding the experimental where it’s not already clearly labelled as such—that’s an ambition of the Forum.  
STRATHAUS: I see it all as a research project, carried by an understanding of our cultural mission to take part in public discourses and initiate them. With the exhibitions that form part of Forum Expanded, it was also about looking at cinema from the outside and challenging the immutability of institutional boundaries.
ULRICH GREGOR: Teatro Amazonas [1999] by Sharon Lockhardt caused a veritable explosion of feeling in the audience, we found that really interesting, that so much emotion could be generated by an experimental film. 
TERHECHTE: Seeing films without any accompanying labels—that’s the essence of the Forum for me, the idea of having no pre-formulated concept for what you’re going to see. That’s how I experienced the Forum back in the 80s already as a cinemagoer. It went without saying that we entered the auditorium with a totally open mind and only used to read the Forum film notes afterwards.
NORD: Back then, I was the film editor at the taz newspaper and experienced again and again that the cinema could be a space terribly lacking in discourse, while the art world is positively brimming with it. There was a big difference there. In Germany, cinema is closely linked to entertainment, you’re not supposed to be made to think.  
STRATHAUS: In addition, it was always a balancing act for us in that we deal with two very different economies. Just one example: in exhibition catalogues, the names of the artists are listed first, while in festival ones, it’s the film titles. 
REBHANDL: Today more than ever, the Forum stands in the context of the many different activities being carried out by Arsenal. The Living Archive project is important to mention here, which is about grasping the present in complex fashion by way of its respective historical and territorial components. 
STRATHAUS: At the start of my time at Arsenal, I was also responsible for distribution and print traffic. The films shown at the Forum circulated for years and you could see what was important at any one time based on what the German arthouse circuit was requesting. Our film collection provides a great representation of this story, the Forum didn’t end with each individual edition of the Berlinale. 
NORD: This year, we’re showing the entire 1971 edition of the Forum on the occasion of this big birthday. We’re doing it because we think it’s important to make the degree of transfer between 1971 and 2020 clear. It’s a particularly rich exchange because so many things were in vogue back then that are still very acute today. Films that functioned as agents of the anti-colonial struggle back then can enrich current debates about racism and post-colonialism. The same thing applies to feminist films. For example, A Bonus for Irene by Helke Sander is astonishing because it seems like light years away on the one hand and extremely close to us on the other. There will continue to be film history at the Forum, that’s important for the program. I recently re-watched an early film by Angela Schanelec: I Stayed in Berlin All Summer showed at the Forum in 1994. Suddenly you see a Berlin telephone box, with this dirty yellow color. That is a Berlin that I used to know, it was there at one point, and today it no longer exists. This detail, this image of a telephone box, shows that each status quo always carries an openness within it. A thing is not identical to its image. I understand the political in a similar way. When grappling with film history, you can grasp a fundamental changeability, which also concerns the very medium itself. Watching analogue film can also be about experiencing something different for today’s 18-year-olds. This also applies to the map of world cinema. In the past, people used to scour the world for unknown territories where cinematographic treasures could be picked up and taken home, which had something of a colonialist logic. That’s now over and it’s a good thing, but it doesn’t mean that the search for new entry points to the world should be given up. 
The interview was conducted in December 2019, before the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit revealed Alfred Bauer's involvement in the Nazi regime. It also appears in the Forum brochure, which includes a selection of texts and images to accompany each year’s program.

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