Hearing the City, Too, at an Outdoor Berlin Film Festival

BERLIN — On Thursday night, the mood at the Hasenheide open-air movie theater was buoyant. An audience of about 200 people had assembled for a screening of “The Seed,” a German drama about a construction worker struggling to take care of his daughter in a rural part of the country. Despite the grim subject matter, audience members chatted and drank beer, and a faint smell of pot smoke drifted through the air.

The screening was part of the Berlinale Summer Special, a one-time outdoor edition of the annual Berlin International Film Festival, one of Europe’s most important and the world’s largest in terms of audience. Unlike the continent’s other top movie events — Cannes and Venice — the Berlinale, as it is known here, prides itself on catering to locals and is a cherished entry on Berlin’s cultural calendar.

After the cancellation of its regular edition this February because of the pandemic, and an online version in March for industry professionals, the festival is now screening much of its selection to the public at 16 outdoor locations across the city. About 60,000 tickets are available for the event, which runs through June 20.

It is also doubling as a kind of coming-out party for the city as it emerges from months of lockdown — a broader revival whose euphoria was impossible to ignore. During a tense fight scene in “The Seed” on Thursday, audience concentration was a little impaired by pulsing house music coming from the nearby woods, which have become a popular site for illicit raves.

This year’s two-part Berlinale is also a bold experiment in how to structure a film festival. By holding its industry-oriented events — press screenings, jury prizes, a film market for distributors — online and separately from those for the broader public, it has raised the question of whether such a two-pronged strategy might allow film festivals to not only preserve but expand their overall impact, even beyond the pandemic.

Tobias Goltz, 34, who was attending the screening with friends, said that the summer festival was an improvement over the regular edition. “It feels more Berlin, less commercial. There aren’t 150 camera teams.” He added that, for better or worse, the lack of international visitors had made it into a more local affair. “You feel like you are among Berliners.”

The Berlinale’s two directors, Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek, settled on the two-part structure last November in order to prevent the festival from being canceled entirely. At that point, Rissenbeek recalled recently by phone, it had become clear that the rapidly spreading coronavirus would prohibit a regular Berlinale. They decided to delay all in-person events until the summer in the hope that vaccinations and other measures would drive down infections and allow the event to proceed.

Rissenbeek said that there had been some advantages to holding a digital edition for the film industry in March. She said the online version of the European Film Market, generally one of the largest trade fairs for films and television shows, had more participants this year, and the online screenings for critics had allowed “the festival to be covered by media that it isn’t usually covered by.”

But she emphasized that the experience had not been ideal, and that it had reinforced her belief that no large festival can function without concurrent events for the industry and filmgoers at large.

“The film market thrives on films being simultaneously shown to audiences,” she said. “Buyers notice how films resonate with audiences and think, ‘This might work in my home country.’ And journalists notice if audiences like a film more than they did, and it can affect their view.”

The outdoor edition, she explained, was especially important because it fulfilled the festival’s longstanding mandate of appealing to regular Berliners. “It is a very diverse city, and in the Berlinale, we raise social subjects that people can engage with,” she said. “This festival is a kind of milestone.”

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Organizing the outdoor edition was made challenging by the shifting dynamics of the pandemic in Germany. After a lull, infection numbers began rising again in March, raising fears of a severe third wave of the virus. In recent weeks, however, numbers have once again plummeted, and city officials allowed the festival to move forward. Nevertheless, attendees are required to show a same-day negative coronavirus test to gain access to events — a requirement made possible by Germany’s expansive free testing strategy — and wear masks when not at their seats.

The task was also made easier by the fact that, because of Berlin’s glut of open spaces and parks, many of the city’s districts have at least one large outdoor cinema. “Berliners are very experienced with open air,” Rissenbeek said. “They know they should bring a rain jacket.”

The festival’s outdoor setting has transformed the Berlinale into a more relaxed and freewheeling affair. Instead of the usual formal gala, this year’s opening event — a screening of “The Mauritanian,” a drama about a Guantánamo prisoner starring Jodie Foster — involved prominent German actors and politicians, some dressed in sandals and shorts, eating complementary hummus out of picnic boxes balanced on their knees.

About 30 minutes into another screening on Thursday — of “Introduction,” a serene movie by the Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo — loud music (buskers?) began playing from a nearby bridge. The music came as the film’s protagonist, a lovelorn young man, engaged in an awkward conversation with his girlfriend, and it provoked titters of laughter in the audience. But the experience felt oddly thrilling: As with the rattling sound of a nearby subway, it was often hard to distinguish if the soundtrack was the movie’s or the city’s.

The outdoor edition also offered a kind of catharsis for filmmakers who had been accepted into the festival, but were unable to show their film on a big screen in March. Barbara Kronenberg, 40, said the filming of her first feature, a children’s film called “Mission Ulja Funk,” was interrupted for months by the pandemic, and she had been saddened that she couldn’t show it at a theater once it was completed.

On Wednesday afternoon, she stood behind the projection booth at an outdoor screen in the city’s Neukölln district, nervously listening to the reactions of an audience of mostly children. The film, a clever comedy about a girl who chases a meteorite across Eastern Europe while running away from her religious family, sent the children and their parents into fits of laughter.

“It was nice to see where people were laughing,” she said, looking relieved behind a black mask. “You don’t make movies so you can watch them by yourself.”

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