Berlin filmfest turns focus on women, Netflix

Women directors and the rise of streaming services will take the spotlight at the Berlin film festival starting Thursday, with a star-studded lineup making the case for big-screen diversity.

Berlin filmfest turns focus on women, Netflix
Preparations at Potsdamer Platz for the Berlinale film festival. Photo: DPA

The Berlinale, now in its 69th year, figures with Cannes and Venice among Europe's top cinema showcases. It will be the last edition led by Dieter Kosslick, 70, who is handing over to a younger duo after 18 years at the helm.

Nearly 400 movies from around the world will be presented, with 17 vying for the prestigious Golden Bear top prize.

Among the contenders, seven of the pictures or 41 percent were made by women — a Berlinale record and a milestone for an A-list festival.

In comparison Cannes, which has been roiled by calls for more diversity, only managed 14 percent last year and Venice just under five percent.

“The debates of the last year opened our eyes and when your eyes are open, you make different decisions,” Kosslick told AFP, referring to the #MeToo controversy over sexual misconduct and the #TimesUp movement against gender discrimination in the entertainment industry.

“But we wouldn't have done it if the films had been bad, simply to boost the women's quota.”

French Oscar winner Juliette Binoche will lead the six-member jury selecting the main prizes.

'Top of the mountain'

The head of pressure group Women and Hollywood, Melissa Silverstein, said that, particularly in a year in which not a single female filmmaker was nominated for best picture or best director at the Oscars, festivals were essential to boost industry diversity.

“We need women to get to the top of the mountain in the same way that men can,” she told AFP.

“(A festival slot) means you get noticed, you get written about in papers across the world. People will be reviewing your film and buyers and other (event) programmers will be looking at it.”

Silverstein will attend the signing of a gender-parity pledge Saturday that Cannes, Venice and other major festivals have already inked, committing the Berlinale to striving for balance in the event's top management and transparency in the selection process.

In June, Kosslick will hand over the reins to Carlo Chatrian, the current head of the Locarno film festival, and Mariette Rissenbeek, the Dutch director of German Film, which promotes homegrown movies abroad.

Women have captured the Golden Bear the last two years — Romania's Adina Pintilie for her adventurous sex docudrama “Touch Me Not” and Hungary's Ildiko Enyedi for the political allegory “On Body and Soul”.

Denmark's Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) will open the event with the world premiere of “The Kindness of Strangers”, a drama set in New York and starring Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough and Bill Nighy.

Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland will unveil the Stalin-era thriller “Mr Jones” starring James Norton (“Happy Valley”) while France's Agnes Varda will premiere a new autobiographical documentary out of competition.

'Co-existence with Netflix'

After winning the Golden Lion top prize at the Venice film festival in September with “Roma”, Netflix will enter the fray in Berlin for the first time with “Elisa and Marcela” by Spain's Isabel Coixet.

Unlike Cannes, which has been at loggerheads with the streaming giant, the Berlinale sees scope for cooperation.

“It's important that big, A-list festivals keep fighting for cinema,” Kosslick said.

“Now it's about finding ways of co-existence, just like film and television did. But we have to find ways of protecting productions so that they can run in cinemas first and only then be streamed. I think that will work itself out in a big debate in Europe over the next three or four years.”

Other programme highlights include acclaimed French director Francois Ozon presenting the drama “By the Grace of God” based on real-life cases of sex abuse allegedly committed by a French priest.

A cardinal, Philippe Barbarin, is currently on trial in Lyon on charges he covered up the assaults.

German-born actress Diane Kruger and Britain's Martin Freeman are expected for the premiere of their Israeli spy thriller “The Operative” by director Yuval Adler.

And Indian superstars Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt are to commandeer the red carpet for the premiere of “Gully Boy” by Zoya Akhtar, one of the few big-budget woman directors in Bollywood. The movie is inspired by a true story about street rappers.

READ ALSO: Star-studded line-up unveiled for this year's Berlinale film fest

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7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)