Big business dominates the Berlinale on and off screen

The Berlin International Film Festival might have several entries tackling the foibles of the corporate world this year, but as Daniel Miller reports, the Berlinale itself is also all about business.

Big business dominates the Berlinale on and off screen
But will you at least read my script? Photo: DPA

If the first sign of commerce is large piles of rubbish, business would appear to be booming at the Berlinale.

Two weeks ago, just as for the Berlin International Film Festival’s director Dieter Kosslick announced that “The International” – Tom Twyker’s high-budget thriller about corporate corruption – would be this year’s opener, his underlings were carefully placing glossy brochures for the main corporate sponsors out front at the same press conference.

Meanwhile, abandoned leaflets and discarded promotional materials stack-up in piles at the European Film Market at the Martin Gropius Bau, the commercial heart of the festival as whole.

Dozens of film production and distribution companies from scores of different countries are here, apparently banded together into national camps for security. Despite the economic downturn, deals are being made, but the industry’s money men are saying that things are quieter than last year.

According to the insider trade mags Variety, Screen International, and Hollywood Reporter, which are issuing daily editions over the course of the festival from temporary Berlin headquarters, some higher-profile, but weaker competition entries are looking especially vulnerable.

“Rage is unlikely to be seen by many real audiences, even on home territory,” reported the critic Lee Marshall for Screen International in a devastating one-star review of British director Sally Potter’s clunky fashion industry satire. “After its misguided Berlin competition premier it seems destined to tour a few more festivals but theatrical sales, especially in these straightened times, are difficult to envisage.”

None of the critics seem especially impressed with the main films in competition. As of yesterday, the best received film to have been shown, based on Screen International’s statistical tables, was Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian social drama “About Elly,” averaging a 2.6 rating. But the poor performance of top-tier films may have opened doors to some smaller flicks this year.

One man trying to get his foot in those doors in enterprising ways is the Canadian filmmaker Judd Saal. A burly, affable man whom I meet distributing plastic grenades in the European Film Market’s lobby. The incendiary give-away is part of a gonzo marketing strategy for his movie “Frag,” a documentary film focussed on professional gamers.

It is hard to know how the professional gaming industry has been affected by current economic conditions. But Saal’s super-confident agent, Dan Shannon claims that business for him is going stupendously well. “I’m screening four films at the festival, and there is huge interest in all of them,” Shannon says, handing me a Frag DVD screener. “Now if you excuse me, I’m right in the middle of a negotiation.”

The kinds of negotiations Shannon conducts is only the final piece in the puzzle of the production jigsaw. Two men in Berlin at an earlier stage of development are the Londoners Mark Doyle and Hugh Gurney, two of three principles of the neophyte production company Fecund.

Doyle and Gurney are in Berlin under the sheltering umbrella of a UK Film Council program for promising film makers. “This is crucial,” Doyle admits. “Because it encourages people to talk to us, in a way that they probably wouldn’t do if we were here on our own.”

The pair is looking for international production partners for their project “So Frankie, So Matthew” – a movie they describe as “a love story, murder mystery, a drama – what Mike Leigh would make if he made a murder mystery.” Visibly exhausted, if still good-humoured, Doyle notes that he has unfurled that pitch ten times that day and that both he and his partner have run out of business cards.

“A lot of networking is going on in the bars,” says Doyle, “It’s a major place for card-exchange. But the big struggle is really trying to remember who you are giving cards to and why.”

But they still seem fairly happy with their own experiences so far. “This is our first time in Berlin, and so we have nothing to compare it to,” Doyle admits. “Also, because at this point we are dealing with a script, we don’t have a lot of package attached at this time. So basically, we’re just asking people whether they would be interested in reading this type of material. And so far, everyone has been.”

Doyle and Gurney went into the festival with a fairly conventional plan. One filmmaker with a more eccentric mission is the German artist Stefan Zeven, an intense guy with blonde hair who orders a glass of Sekt at ten minutes to noon when I interview him in a café far away from the festival bustle in downtown Berlin.

Zeven has an entry this year in Form Expanded, the art wing of the Berlinale programme, a short and moving piece called “Farewell.” The film shows a woman looking back at the camera she leaves as a passenger in a car. Zeven fixes a tight zoom on her profile, so woman never seems to get further away. Instead, the picture slowly degrades in quality as the real distances increases, until the image decomposes entirely.

“I’m interested in other things than stories and character – more technical things to do with the medium itself,” Zeyen says. He worked for a long time in the film industry, and so most of his productions are relatively cheap. “I have the contacts already so I know where to get stuff.” But “Farewell” was more expensive. He had to shoot on film, he explains, because the picture is also a farewell to film, and the romance of film, in a world that is moving to video.

For his next project, Zeven’s wants to make an experimental film called “The Red Carpet” consisting of the shots taken of him and a companion as he arrives at a film festival. “The problem is that the Forum Expanded doesn’t have a red carpet, it has an opening. So what I’m hoping to do is meet someone who will let me walk down the Red Carpet next year, even though I haven’t made a film.” It’s a pretty good metaphor for an industry dependent on expectations, and who people think you are, as much as anything else.


What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”