Berlin film festive goes live as Omicron wave peaks

The Berlinale, Europe's first major international film festival of the year, returns as a live event on Thursday just as Germany faces record daily coronavirus infections.

Berlinale Film Festival
A man cleans the cordoned-off zone of the Berlinale Film Festival overnight on February 10th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Organisers of the event, which started in 1951 as a Cold War culture showcase for the divided German capital, say a raft of precautions will keep audiences safe as they take in the latest movies from around the globe.

Artistic director Carlo Chatrian defended the decision against accusations it was irresponsible at this stage of the pandemic, saying the communal movie experience was crucial for the battered industry, as well as for society at large.

“Seeing a film in a theatre, being able to hear breathing, laughter or whispers next to you — even with correct social distancing — contributes in a vital way not only to the viewing pleasure, but also to strengthening the social function that cinema has,” he said.

Huppert honours

The Berlinale will open with “Peter von Kant”, a gender-flipped adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”.

The film by acclaimed French director Francois Ozon stars Denis Menochet, Isabelle Adjani and Hanna Schygulla, now 78, who played the cruel young seductress in the original.

It is among 18 contenders for the festival’s Golden and Silver Bear top prizes, to be handed out on February 16th.

Indian-born American director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) is leading the jury, which includes Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose “Drive My Car” is now nominated for four Oscars.

Seven of the filmmakers in competition are women.

The festival will also award an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement to French screen legend Isabelle Huppert.

Berlin ranks with Cannes and Venice among Europe’s biggest film festivals and prides itself on being most welcoming to the general public, selling thousands of tickets to red-carpet premieres and screenings across the city.

Last year, the Berlinale competition was staged strictly online, just as the first vaccines were rolling out across Europe.

It awarded the top prize to a Romanian satire about pandemic-era hypocrisy, “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”, about a teacher whose sex tape winds up on the internet.

‘Irresponsible’, ‘backward’? 

This time the event will screen around 250 films, a quarter fewer than in previous years, with limited cinema capacity as well as vaccine, testing and mask requirements and a shorter competition run, as Germany posts more than 150,000 new coronavirus cases per day.

Local media have savaged the decision to go forward.

The Berliner Morgenpost warned of a “catastrophe” if the festival turned into a “superspreader event”, while weekly Die Zeit called it “irresponsible” and “backward” not to have an online programme.

Scott Roxborough, Europe bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter, also questioned the festival’s choice, saying it arose from deep anxiety about the future of movie-going.

“People are still very uncertain what the industry will look like after corona,” he told AFP.

Berlinale Palast

A young woman gets tested for Covid outside of the Berlinale Palast. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Britta Pedersen

“Most theatres will have reopened or partially reopened but we still haven’t seen a real bounce back of arthouse movies, of independent movies in the way that a lot of people had hoped.”

Big-name filmmakers and stars are awaited in the German capital, with France’s Claire Denis premiering “Both Sides of the Blade” with Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon of last year’s Cannes winner, the feminist shocker “Titane”.

“Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy will present her abortion rights drama “Call Jane” starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver.

Paolo Taviani, 90, who won the Golden Bear a decade ago with his late brother Vittorio with “Caesar Must Die”, will unveil “Leonora Addio” about the murder of a Sicilian immigrant boy in Brooklyn.

And Indonesia’s Kamila Andini will be the first Southeast Asian woman in competition, with “Before, Now and Then” about a war refugee who befriends her husband’s mistress. 

By Deborah Cole

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How Germans are rethinking their way of death

Traditionally a very religious country, Germany is rethinking its way of death. One start-up is even claiming to have found a way of prolonging life - digitally at least - beyond the grave.

How Germans are rethinking their way of death

Youlo – a cheery contraction of “You Only Live Once” – allows people to record personal messages and videos for their loved ones, which are then secured for several years in a “digital tombstone”.

Unveiled at “Life And Death 2022” funeral fair in the northern city of Bremen this month, its creators claim it allows users to have their final word before they slip gently into the good night.

Traditionally, Lutheran northern Germany has long had a rather stiff and stern approach to death.

But as religion and ritual loosened their hold, the crowds at the fair show people are looking for alternative ways of marking their end – a trend some say has been helped by the coronavirus pandemic.

“With globalisation, more and more people live their lives far from where they were born,” said Corinna During, the woman behind Youlo.

When you live hundreds of kilometres from relatives, visiting a memorial can “demand a huge amount of effort”, she said.

And the Covid-19 pandemic has only “increased the necessity” to address the problem, she insisted.

READ ALSO: What to do when a foreigner dies in Germany

No longer taboo

During lockdowns, many families could only attend funerals by video link, while the existential threat coronavirus posed – some 136,000 people died in Germany – also seems to have challenged longtime taboos about death.

All this has been helped by the success of the German-made Netflix series “The Last Word” – a mould-breaking “dramedy” hailed for walking the fine line between comedy and tragedy when it comes to death and bereavement.

An angel figure stands on a grave at the Westfriedhof in Munich.

An angel figure stands on a grave at the Westfriedhof in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Much like British comedian Ricky Gervais’ hit series “After Life”, which turns on a husband grieving the loss of his wife, the heroine of “The Last Word” embraces death and becomes a eulogist at funerals as her way of coping with the sudden death of her husband.

“Death shouldn’t be a taboo or shocking; we shouldn’t be taken unawares by it, and we certainly shouldn’t talk about it in veiled terms,” Bianca Hauda, the presenter of the popular podcast “Buried, Hauda”, told AFP.

It aims to “help people be less afraid and accept death,” she said.

“The coronavirus crisis will almost certainly leave a trace” on how Germans view death, said sociologist Frank Thieme, author of “Dying and Death in Germany”. He argued that there has been a change in the culture around death for “the last 20 to 25 years”.

These days, there are classes to teach you how to make your own coffin and even people who make a living writing personalised funeral speeches. Digital technology which was “barely acceptable not so long ago” was also beginning to make its mark, he said.


Historian Norbert Fischer of Hamburg University said they have been a shift toward individualism in the “culture of burials and grief since the beginning of the 21st century.

“The traditional social institutions of family, neighbourhood and church are losing their importance faced with a funeral culture marked by a much greater freedom of choice,” he said.

However, the change has been slower in Germany because “legal rules around funerals are much stricter than most other European countries,” said sociologist Thorsten Benkel, which is at odds with “what individuals aspire to”.

Some political parties like the Greens also want to loosen this legislative “straitjacket”, particularly the law known as the “Friedhofszwang”.

The 200-year-old rule bans coffins and urns being buried anywhere, but in a cemetery. Originally passed to prevent outbreaks of disease, it has been largely surpassed as a public health measure, particularly since cremation became popular.

Germany also had a very particular relationship with death in the aftermath of World War II.

Back in 1967, the celebrated psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich put Germany on the couch with their book “The Inability to Mourn”.

One of the most influential of the post-war era, the book argued that Germans had collectively swept the horrors committed by the Nazis in their name — and their own huge losses and suffering during the war –under the carpet.

Thankfully, said Benkel, mentalities have “changed an awful lot since”.