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The 74th Berlin International Film Festival will take place from Feb 15 - 25, 2024 / EFM : Feb 15-21
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Play it again

For the 60th anniversary of the Berlin International Film Festival, the Retrospective takes a look back at the long history of the festival with a programme curated by David Thomson. Retrospective
section head Rainer Rother explains why the respected film critic was
his favourite candidate for the job, what fascinated him about
Thomson's selection of films and how cinema has become freer and richer
over the years.

Janus Dissing Rathke in Niels Arden Oplev's Drømmen: this year's motif for the poster of the Retrospective (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek)

As the director of the Retrospective,
your decision to delegate the programme selection to the film critic
David Thomson was at first glance a rather unusual one. Leaving the
creation of the film programme to another takes a certain courage, and
especially great faith in the instinct and compositional capabilities
of the programmer. Could tell us more about what motivated you to
outsource the retrospective on the history of the Berlinale?
When you're looking back at your own festival for
an anniversary, you always run the risk of following an all too
official line. There’s just simply too much to consider when you look
back at your own history: The selection must be representative, it has
to include the great films and the most significant discoveries, all
geographical regions should be represented and every decade must be
considered. The diverse needs of such a retrospective can really only
be properly met by putting together a thoroughly comprehensive
programme. For the Retrospective
2010, however, it was clear from the start that such an exhaustive
selection simply wouldn't be possible. And from my point of view it
made sense that, instead of striving for an official festival
retrospective, we would allow for a subjective perspective on the
history of the festival. That's how we arrived at the idea of combining
a personal selection with a view from the outside.

The subjective view from outside 

And how did you end up working with David Thomson?
We noticed David Thomson first and foremost
through his extraordinary work as a critic and writer. Worldwide he is
considered to be one of the most respected film critics, not only among
cinephile readers, but also amongst his fellow critics, a fact that was
confirmed by a 2008 survey by "Sight & Sound" magazine, where he
was named by many respondents as the most influential and distinguished
representatives of his trade. Beyond that, he adequately demonstrated
his decidedly personal viewpoint through the publication of a lexicon
of 1,000 films in 2008. Therefore we knew that he was up to the task
and would still make unique decisions.

Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti in La Notte (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek)
David Thompson, in your opinion, managed to create a selection that
reflects the festival and its history or was a balanced representation
not even the goal of the project?
David Thomson included several significant
cinematic signposts of the Berlinale, and I find that his selection
absolutely reflects the festival in its many facets, even if this
wasn't a clearly defined goal. Dieter Kosslick, David Thomson and
myself agreed from the beginning that the selection wasn't just about
including the supposedly best and "most prestigious" films that were
ever shown at the Berlinale or those that everyone remembers. David
Thomson let himself be guided far more by a light-hearted curiosity and
asked himself the question, “Which films would I like to see again, for
whatever reason? Or which films should a young audience, who didn't
live through the entire period of festival history, still definitely
know about?” I have a good feeling about his selection, that the
curiosity of the curator easily carries over to the audience.
Can one identify a central thread that links
the films together, for example in their contextualisation beyond
contemporary mainstream cinema as stylistically unique works or perhaps
in the way they forged new cinematic ways?
He definitely focused on that a great deal. Jean-Luc Godard is represented with À bout de souffle (Breathless), Michelangelo Antonioni is there with La notte (The Night).
I think it was important for David Thomson, over everything, to look
back at certain films from the perspective of today, to see if their
impact is still as strong. One such film is definitely Michael Cimino's
The Deer Hunter, which was enormously significant for the history of the festival. Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear)
by Henri-Georges Clouzot is another good example, a film that could
almost be called entertainment cinema from today's perspective, but
which played a totally different role in 1953 and wasn't considered to
be conventional in the least, but rather downright destructive.
I believe David Thomson also selected films, he
thought film history passed by somewhat, films that have wrongly been
downgraded and ended up in the wrong category. He wanted to give these
films another chance. I find that very credible.
Naturally he also selected several filmmakers,
whom he simply treasures personally. He wanted to show the Indian
director Satyajit Ray's Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder),
which was awarded the Golden Bear in 1973. Unfortunately we couldn't
find a playable print. Therefore Satyajit Ray will be represented with Charulata (The Lonely Wife). This is, by the way, one of the few cases this year whereby the condition of the material influenced the selection.

Satyajit Ray's Charulata: Soumitra Chatterjee with Madhabi Mukherjee (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek)

In your opinion, will the choice of films create or promote a particular image of the Berlinale?
I wouldn't go that far. Then one could insinuate
that the programme was designed to give a very prestigious impression.
When I saw David Thomson's selection, I thought immediately: I'm
looking forward to seeing these films in the cinema again, to
rediscovering them. I think for David Thomson it's about this effect.
You shouldn't just check off a list along the lines of "now I've seen
60 years of film history at the Berlinale". It's not possible to do
that in such a Retrospective. But
one can let oneself be seduced by David Thomson, go to watch a film,
perceive it with open eyes, see it anew. Herein lies the specific
quality of this programme, for me.

Creating opportunities for (re)discoveries 

Does the series also express the potential of
the Berlinale to draw attention to certain films, that wouldn't have
received it in purely commercial distribution? In other words: Would
some of these films have had a much harder time without the Berlinale?
Yes, I think so. Films such as Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano or Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle (Breathless) experienced a huge boost in attention and significance. This also applies to films from other sections: La ley del deseo (Law of Desire) by Pedro Almodóvar which ran in the Panorama
in 1987 and won the first Teddy Award, and launched a global career. In
the same way, the success story of Wong Kar Wai originated in the Forum.
These aspects, that also underline the special role that the Berlinale
has played for many directors, can also be found again in the
programme. At a festival like this one, it's not only about collecting
the big films of the year, but also about creating opportunities for
discoveries. I think the Berlinale was always relatively strong on this
Especially when looking back at aesthetic and thematic flashpoints in the festival's history, such as Nagisa Oshimas Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses) or Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter,
it sometimes seems that the observable proximity of cinematic practices
to social-political discourse has since vanished. Is the possibility of
confrontation, that was easier to have in the past, simply lacking

Eusebio Poncela close to Antonio Banderas in La Ley del Deseo (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek)

may be. It should be clear that there have been less political scandals
since Berlin lost its status as "front city" and since the festival is
no longer the place where the Eastern and Western blocs collide. This
historical context of course intensified this confrontation a lot with The Deer Hunter.
When politically controversial films run today, the intensity of the
confrontation can vary a lot, but the dissatisfactions and various
assessments aren't discharged against the backdrop of a dominantly
bipolar world stage. From the more recent history of the festival,
Christopher Roth's Baader, for example,
was a highly controversial, much discussed film, because not everyone
could accept the portrayal of the figure Andreas Baader. Or Michael
Winterbottom's Road to Guantanomo will
not be to the liking of every American festival guest, nor of every
German. Nonetheless, today we have a very different form of
confrontation. Which isn't necessarily less tense, but which,
thankfully, usually rejects this simple black and white confrontation.
If you think about the big scandals in the history of the festival,
such as Ai no corrida, one has to
consider the uproar surrounding the film together with the era in which
it was made. Those sort of agitated reactions to films are more seldom
today. On the other hand, cinema has become freer and richer.
Are audiences already aware of the extent of
aesthetic breakthroughs and new beginnings when they happen? Or does
history show rather that such categorisation happens retrospectively?
There's no single answer to the question whether,
in history, new discoveries are immediately recognised for what they
are. If you consider Fassbinder's first film that ran at the Berlinale,
Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death),
a violent discussion broke out, because the audience and the
journalists didn't like it. The same thing happened to Romuald Karmakar
with Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder (Nightsong).
To me it still always seems that the unapproachable, or something that
doesn't necessarily meet the expectations of the audience, continues to
have difficulties with audiences and critics alike. In fact you only
have to think about recent years, when films weren't just received
positively if they presented a challenge due to their form.

Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji in Ai no corrida by Nagisa Oshima (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek)

such a rare opportunity to see the highpoints of the festival or
perhaps even a favourite film again in the cinema, one can easily
imagine a deluge of viewers.
We are certain that the Retrospective
will be well-attended and are thrilled that David Thomson is coming to
Berlin and will personally present many of the films in the Retrospective.
We're looking forward to many stimulating discussions about individual
films and the programme as a whole. It's not for nothing that our
Retrospective is called PLAY IT AGAIN…!


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Chatelin Bruno

Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
Ambiance, film reviews, trailers and podcasts, EFM insider information, and much more.
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