The 69th Berlinale Farewell, controversies, and some amazing films

Award ceremony 2019: Festival Director Dieter Kosslick with award winners and jury members
Award ceremony 2019: Festival Director Dieter Kosslick with award winners and jury members | Photo (detail): © Alexander Janetzko/Berlinale 2019

The last Berlinale under Dieter Kosslick has come to an end: with an unusually meticulously-conceived competition – and heated debates.

Dieter Kosslick couldn’t resist a few tears at the end: The guests at the Bear awards gala celebrated the retiring director of the Berlinale with minutes of applause. He might have wished for this year's competition to be a little more glamorous: international stars such as Christian Bale, Diane Kruger or Catherine Deneuve were to be seen, but only in films that did not compete for the Bears. Otherwise, it was a festival in the typical “Kosslick style” of the past 18 years: with a massive number of around 400 films, self-dramatisation on the part of the host – and heated controversies.

The jury’s wise decisions

At the 69th Berlinale, a total of 16 films with a remarkable aesthetic and content range competed for the Silver and Golden Bears: from lesbian love dramas to portrait studies, an epic family saga to horror films. Qualitatively, there was a consensus in the end, it was a rather unremarkable year in which the jury under Juliette Binoche made the right decisions.
Golden Bear for Best Film: „Synonymes“ by Nadav Lapid – Director Nadav Lapid and producer Saïd Ben Saïd Golden Bear for Best Film: „Synonymes“ by Nadav Lapid – Director Nadav Lapid and producer Saïd Ben Saïd | Photo (detail): © Richard Hübner/Berlinale 2019
Nadav Lapid's Synonymes took home the main prize of the Golden Bear. With a nervous energy, this French-Israeli co-production tells of the young Israeli Yoav's radical attempt to leave his past behind in Paris. The story revolves around uprooting and the search for meaning, and raises central questions about finding identity in a world shaped by migration and change.

Two Bears for unusual German films

Two German directors got a Silver Bear. Nora Fingscheidt's brilliant feature film debut Systemsprenger, about a traumatised, aggressive child received the Alfred Bauer Prize for competition entries that “open up new perspectives in film art”.

The Silver Bear for Best Director went to Angela Schanelec, one of the directors of the so-called Berlin School:  Ich war zuhause, aber (i.e. I was at home, but) is a puzzle-like film about a 13-year-old who returns to his family after days of absence.Schanelec’s social drama with fragmentary Shakespeare sequences, framed by wildlife observation, provoked controversy in the audience: Some viewers could not make any sense at all of the mysterious narration, others were enthusiastic.

A horror film is hotly debated

The most heated debates, however, were triggered by the third German competition entry, Der Goldene Handschuh by Fatih Akin. Akin, who won the Golden Bear for his expressive love story Against the Wall in 2004, is one of the directors who have risen through the Berlinale. The Golden Glove, a novel adaptation of Heinz Strunk's milieu study of the same name, takes up the true story of the infamous Hamburg serial killer Fritz Honka. The production consistently relies on horror effects – splatter and revulsion – and still dominated conversations days after the premiere. The film was not up for consideration at the award ceremony.

Silver Bears for China – and suspected censorship

There was overall consensus about the wonderful Chinese competition entry So Long, My Son by Wang Xiaoshuai, who was the Bear competition favourite. Like many directors in this year's competition, Xiaoshuai was not a new face: He had already received a Silver Bear for Beijing Bicycle in 2001. His current drama about a couple who lose their only son in an accident tells of the consequences of China's family policy over three decades.
 Silver Bear for Best Actress: Yong Mei for her role in „So Long, My Son“ by Wang Xiaoshuai Silver Bear for Best Actress: Yong Mei for her role in „So Long, My Son“ by Wang Xiaoshuai | Photo (detail): © Richard Hübner/Berlinale 2019

For their sensitive performance Wang Jingchun and his colleague Yong Mei were awarded Silver Bears for best performers. The fact that the jury honoured this Chinese film got right to the heart of another festival discourse: Zhang Yimou's eagerly-awaited competition film One Second had to be withdrawn on short notice – allegedly because of production difficulties. It was assumed, however, that Chinese censorship played a role. The era of the Cultural Revolution, which is the subject of Yimou's film, is still a complicated issue in China today.

The future of cinema – and of the Berlinale

The fact that Isabel Coixet's Spanish competition film Elisa y Marcela was produced by Netflix led to protests by cinema proprietors even before the festival. Is a film that is not primarily intended for cinema release allowed to compete at a major festival? There is no question that streaming services will influence more than the future of cinema.

Since Dieter Kosslick took over the direction of the Berlinale in 2001, the film industry has changed fundamentally – and with it the importance of the film festival. According to Kosslick, the audiovisual world is “undergoing a major change”. He has accomplished many things in the 18 years of his era: promoting German cinema, taking thought for film talents, developing the Berlinale into the world's largest audience festival. Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek will succeed him in May 2019. The reorientation of the Berlinale – also in view of a constantly changing media world – will probably be the greatest challenge they will have to face.