It’s February in Berlin and that means it’s time to go to the movies. With the number of film festivals happening this month, your options for venues are virtually limitless. Whether the attractively dinky Boddinale, the online VELOBerlin, or the respectable Berlin Independent Film Festival, any film buff or curious viewer can get their fill of moving pictures. Of course if one were to try and attend BIFF at its Babylon cinema location, they might find it eclipsed by the spectacle of the Berlinale which also utilizes Babylon for its screenings. Berlinale (known simply as the Berlin Film Festival to non-Germans) is the film festival to those in the industry, and this perception has spilled over into the general public. Founded in 1951, it has since built itself a reputation of importance in the world of movies. This comes from the festival showing a wide variety of movies, from animated shorts or independent movies to bigger main stream flicks. If a studio has a new movie, something maybe a bit more artsy than the average Hollywood block buster, than you can be sure they are going to try and show it at Berlinale.
This year’s festival saw premieres of both 50 Shades of Grey and Disney’s live action adaptation of Cinderella. I would not consider these particularly artistic or innovative movies, in fact everything I’ve read about them makes them out to be pretty standard Hollywood fare, yet they are the shining stars of Berlinale, big enough to get their own press releases via the festival. This is indicative of the problem with Berlinale––it is perceived as an event to celebrate film as an art but it really just serves to preserve the institution surrounding it.
Having the fortune to have attended both Boddinale and a Berlinale screening of Mr. Holmes, I was hit with a stark contrast. Mr. Holmes was shown at the regal Friedrichstadt-Palast which looked more like a church than a place to see a movie. The theater itself was huge, really an amphitheater, which makes sense since it is used for a variety of performances. But in this case it created a barrier that made it difficult to lose myself in the film. There were also attendants that helped people find seats, something I had never experienced at any screening or film event before. These same attendants informed my cohort, who just wanted to go to the bathroom, that the doors would be locked for the first twenty minutes of the movie. For what reason was beyond me, perhaps they were trying to maintain the facade of mystique and exclusivity that Berlinale has built itself on. The movie was enjoyable, a solid utilization of an iconic character to comment on the importance of fiction, a message that was lost on the majority of the audience. The man who sat next to me in the theater was asleep for the first twenty minutes of the movie, obviously very interested in the film he had paid to see. While I waited in the lobby after the show I overheard a few conversations, but none of them were about Mr. Holmes but rather about how excited they were to be there. I had to struggle through a crowd to exit, they had gathered around a single wall with the Berlinale logo patterned on it. Everyone was taking pictures of themselves standing in front of it, so that all their friends on Facebook and Instagram could know that they were one of those cultured types that attended film festivals.
Boddinale was another kind of event entirely. It took place in two bars, hidden down an unassuming side street in Kreuzberg. It’s free to enter the dimly lit buildings showing an hour and a half of short films on loop throughout the night. The first thing one sees is a giant, smiling drama mask hanging from the ceiling and looking right at the entrance. While others might find it tacky or even a bit creepy, to me it added to the mystique of the place. It fit with all the younger people, mostly native Germans, who sat on crates and couches (or stood if no seat could be found), drinking their Pilsners, casually observing interviews with the directors between movies, and occasionally stepping outside for a cigarette. When an actual movie was showing, everyone would go quiet and give the movie their undivided attention. These movies did not have the sleek or polish to be “worthy” of Berlinale, but they had heart. The people behind these films were not making them because they wanted awards or because it was their job, but because they had an intense love for the medium. There was one movie I particularly enjoyed in which a gang in Japan finds a device that lets them teleport, which is really just an excuse to have imaginative, non-stop kung fu fights. It was not thought provoking or even attempting to be, but I could see that the people who made it unabashedly loved kung-fu movies and wanted to add to the legacy.
Boddinale left me with a feeling of nostalgia for those nights of watching movies with friends in someone’s living room. One friend would provide a bounty of drinks and snacks, there was no need to turn off our cellphones, and jokes and commentary were plentiful throughout the night. If one took that movie-night essence, dressed it up a bit for the public, and placed it in a bar, then you would have Boddinale. Berlinale just reminded me of Hollywood and I felt like I could not really justify its existence. The big movies there would get press regardless because they have studio backing, and the smaller movies are over looked due to the blockbusters. One does not need to go to Berlinale if they want to see 50 Shades of Grey and have a little patience. Do not let yourself be sucked into the hype and fanfare that has surrounded “the movies” longer than most of us have been alive. You’ll end up paying the worth of a decent meal for something you can see on Netflix in a few months.
One should not feel guilty or think themselves less of a movie lover if to go to Berlinale, just as one should not feel guilty for seeing any of the fun and dumb blockbusters summer after summer. Ultimately film is a medium, one intended mostly for entertainment, and Berlinale can certainly provide one with entertainment. But should you find yourself looking for something a little meatier, perhaps a film experience that’s a bit more special, then ditch your overpriced tickets and take a seat at the bar.