This article appeared in the February 16, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Stay up to date on all of our coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival here.

exergue – on documenta 14 (Dimitris Athiridis, 2024)

On August 31, 2023, the day after the opening of the 80th Venice Film Festival, news about another major European festival made headlines. As reported by Screen Daily, the Berlin International Film Festival had decided to abandon its co-director model following its 2024 edition, whereupon a single official would be tasked with overseeing both business and creative matters. Two days later, artistic director Carlo Chatrian announced that he would be leaving his position at the conclusion of his fifth year at the helm—and this just months after it was announced that managing director Mariëtte Rissenbeek would be stepping down when her contract expires in 2024. Clearly something strange was afoot at the Berlinale. What makes this year’s edition, running February 15 to 25, especially bittersweet is that Chatrian and Rissenbeek finally seem to have struck an agreeable balance between commercial and artistic interests with a program of diverse and unconventional offerings that nonetheless should appeal to the festival’s large public following.

Chatrian was hired to take over the Berlinale in 2018, after six years as head of Locarno, during which time the Swiss festival offered one of the world’s most adventurous film showcases. The Berlinale’s previous director, Dieter Kosslick, essentially had been shamed out of the position following an open call for his departure by dozens of German filmmakers unhappy with the festival’s programming priorities, which had reflected corporate interests for nearly two decades. Like a lot of festivals, the Berlinale—which is overseen by the Kulturveranstaltungen des Bundes (KBB), an institution that governs a number of Berlin’s most prominent arts organizations—struggles with bureaucratic interference. It was the KBB, at the behest of the Federal Culture Ministry (which funds the festival to the tune of $12 million per year, according to The Hollywood Reporter), that called for the most recent round of organizational restructuring—a move that would have led to a new director taking over while Chatrian assumed a lesser role. As Chatrian told me over email, “It is not a matter of job title or hierarchy, but I believe that I can only do my job properly if I have the freedom to shape the program without referring to a third person.” He added: “the fact that this new structure was not discussed or presented to me beforehand played [an] important role in my decision to say that I was not available to continue.” (Adding to the controversy surrounding this year’s screenings, according to Deadline, the office of the Minister of Culture urged the Berlinale to invite members of the AfD, a German extremist right-wing party, to the opening-night ceremony—an invitation that Chatrian and Rissenbeek, the latter of whom openly defended the decision until the last minute, eventually rescinded after receiving significant public blowback.)

Unique among major festival directors, Chatrian puts significant emphasis on the composition and integrity, rather than the profile, of each edition’s selection of films, as well the artists who make them. According to Head of Programming Mark Peranson, whom Chatrian brought with him from Locarno, “What we’ve tried to do is propose a holistic programming model for a festival that has existed for most of its lifespan as a collection of separate small programs” (referring to the Berlinale’s many independently run sidebars, such as Panorama and Forum). Chatrian agrees, noting that he’s “particularly proud of the conversations we’ve had with the heads of Panorama, Generation, Berlinale Shorts, etc.”—efforts that have “led us to a festival that is as diverse as it is coherent.” As a result, attendees are just as likely to find an established name or one of the festival’s most talked-about titles in a less visible or publicized section, creating a more exciting on-the-ground dynamic for both the press and the public.

It’s in the Competition section that Chatrian and Peranson’s sensibilities have proven particularly refreshing after many years of mediocre programming. This year’s lineup features an eclectic mix of major auteurs (Bruno Dumont, Olivier Assayas, Hong Sangsoo, Abderrahmane Sissako) and rising talents (Mati Diop, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias), alongside a selection of genre films (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Devil’s Bath) and documentaries (Victor Kossakovsky’s Architecton) that typically don’t get to vie for prizes at major festivals. It’s also in the Berlinale Competition that such recent art-house favorites as Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman (2021) and Christian Petzold’s Afire (2023) have premiered—to say nothing of more challenging fare like Tsai Ming-liang’s Days (2020) and Angela Schanelec’s Music (2023). Then there’s Radu Jude’s sui generis, Golden Bear–winning Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn (2021), which launched the Romanian director from relatively niche concern to heights of critical esteem previously unthinkable for a filmmaker of such willful eccentricity. Speaking to me about the role this iteration of the Berlinale has played in his success, Jude said that he can barely begin to express his “gratitude, appreciation, admiration, and deep respect for the way in which this team ran the festival, counteracting many of the ills of our so-called industry,” which tends to prioritize glamor and goodwill over artistry and provocation. Unsurprisingly, Jude was one of over 400 filmmakers and talents to sign an open letter of support for Chatrian following the news of his resignation.

Both Chatrian and Peranson agree that the initiative they are most proud of is Encounters, a competitive section introduced in 2020 that, according to the festival, “aim[s] to foster aesthetically and structurally daring works from independent, innovative filmmakers.” In its four years of existence, Encounters has premiered new works by such mavericks as Cristi Puiu, Heinz Emigholz, and Matías Piñeiro, with its top prize going to Bas Devos (Here, 2023), Ruth Beckermann (Mutzenbacher, 2022), Alice Diop (We, 2021), and C.W. Winter and Anders Edström, whose eight-hour portrait of a female farmer, 2020’s The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin), exemplifies the section’s uncompromising ethos. Despite Encounters’s impressive track record, Peranson is quick to point out that it occupies a vulnerable position. “Because it’s part of the same internal organization that deals with the Competition and Berlinale Special,” and not an independent program like Panorama and Forum, it is “very easy to get rid of,” he says. If Encounters is eliminated, that would reflect more than just a reconfiguration of the Berlinale. “No major festival was going to show The Works and Days,” Winter tells me. “Encounters created a space for filmmakers like us to get a foothold and a platform. Almost any discipline requires innovation for its health and its survival. If we don’t maintain such spaces, cinema itself will wane.”

Indeed, it’s a commitment to the art of cinema and the filmmakers devoted to furthering that art that’s most at stake. “Carlo’s taste was too effete for the government folks who run [the festival],” an anonymous studio awards executive was quoted as saying in The Wrap following Chatrian’s resignation announcement. “They want[ed] him to report to someone in government. They wanted bigger, broader. He wasn’t beloved. [He was] too artistic. He cares too much about filmmakers.” Québécois director Denis Côté, a member of this year’s Encounters jury whose films have played in both that section (Social Hygiene, 2021) and the Competition (That Kind of Summer, 2022), echoed this depressing assessment of the current festival landscape: “Political pressures have become the norm [at festivals] and boards of directors want quick results. Carlo and his team could not dream of a reign [the length of which] Kosslick enjoyed. I’m not sure what the authorities expected from them or are dreaming of, but I felt something was definitely blossoming: A haven? A safe space for cinephilia? Whatever you want to call it, Carlo and company made sure that strong signature cinema could find asylum in Berlin.”

If one film in this year’s Berlinale feels symbolic of the festival’s state of affairs, it’s Dimitris Athiridis’s exergue – on documenta 14, a remarkable 840-minute documentary about the organization of what’s been called the world’s most historically significant art exhibition. Premiering in Berlinale Special, exergue follows Polish curator Adam Szymczyk as he plans documenta’s 2017 edition, which took place in two locations (Kassel and Athens) and ran at a reported 5.4 million–euro deficit, nearly bankrupting the institution—at least according to the press. Despite drawing a record number of visitors, documenta 14 was the subject of intense criticism in the media, including charges of cultural tourism, overindulgence, and geopolitical condescension between what were, at the time, the strongest (Germany) and weakest (Greece) countries in the European Union. Across its imposing running time, exergue—which is being billed by the festival as the second-longest film ever made for theatrical distribution—charts Szymczyk’s battles, both private and public, with institutional and bureaucratic forces over budgetary and organizational concerns. The correlation with current circumstances is not lost on Peranson, who notes that, while the presence of the film in this year’s lineup is “entirely coincidental,” it nonetheless offers “insight into the specific German problems regarding the operations of large artistic organizations.” It’s an observation that just as likely can be applied to the festival’s so-far-quiet stance on Strike Germany, an organization fighting anti-Palestinian racism and censorship, and an open letter published just this week by over two dozen Berlinale workers calling for the festival to support a plea for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

What all this reveals is that festivals and institutions like the Berlinale are part of a complex mechanism of stakeholders where art is, at best, a minor concern. As Szymczyk says in the film, aptly summarizing the matter: “The supposed artistic freedom you have as an artistic director is relative.”

Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. In addition to Film Comment, he is a regular contributor to Artforum, MUBI Notebook, Reverse Shot, Sight and Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.