What you need to know about the Berlinale: Berlin’s film festival

What you need to know about the Berlinale: Berlin’s film festival

by Jakob Straub

Updated March 3, 2023

In the world of cinema, there are three important and prestigious film festivals: the Venice film festival in Italy, Cannes in France—and the Berlin International Film Festival in Germany. Held annually in February, the Berlinale, as it’s usually called, might seem the least glamorous of the “Big Three”.

And yet, did you know the Berlinale Berlin is the largest annual film festival in the world? At least in terms of public audience attendance. The festival attracts around half a million theater visits every year. And at each event, filmmakers, stars, industry professionals, journalists and cinephiles flock to the German capital to follow the award ceremony and festival program which include hundreds of screenings at the Berlinale Palast and other venues all over the city.

To give you a feeling of what this event is all about, we’ve summed up everything you need to know about the Berlinale Berlin film festival!  

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What is the Berlinale Berlin film festival?

Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin is the German title of the Berlin International Film Festival. The Berlinale Berlin was founded in 1951 as a “showcase of the free world” and takes place annually in February. Though the winter month can be icy in the German capital, red carpet events for international silver screen stars attract press and fans alike at the Berlinale Palast, the main venue and epicenter of the film festival at Potsdamer Platz in Mitte. Our guide to the city’s neighborhoods will help you find your way around.

Though the post-war period of its inception has passed and Berlin is no longer a divided city, the Berlinale remains one of the most political film festivals. It aims to give critical cinema and intercultural exchange a platform, develop talents and careers across all genres and aspects of filmmaking, and to further establish Berlin’s place in international cinema.

Since 1956, a person of international acclaim has chaired the festival jury. Past presidents include celebrities such as French actress Juliette Binoche in 2019, US-American actress Meryl “G.O.A.T.” Streep in 2016, or Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai in 2013.

The Berlinale also brings the film industry at large to the German capital: the European Film Market EFM is an accompanying business fair drawing producers, distributors, agents and professionals. With lectures, workshops and networking events, the creative Berlinale Talents is often more important than the main event for young filmmakers and aspiring talents.

Berlinale: The procedure of the film festival

The Berlinale Berlin film festival stretches over 11 days. Unlike Cannes and other film festivals, which cater only to industry professionals and the press, the Berlinale Berlin is open to the public. Accreditation and ticketing may vary from event to event.

The principal attraction of the Berlinale Berlin film festival is the competition. This selection of around twenty titles aims to represent the best of the global cinema world and surprise at the same time. It’s not uncommon for titles to cause controversy and debate.

Each film in the Berlinale competition has its own red carpet event at the Berlinale Palast, the premiere venue. The Berlinale Artistic Director decides on the competition selection together with a committee. The award ceremony is the festival’s grand finale when the jury awards the Golden Bears and Silver Bears.

Berlinale Berlin program

Apart from the competition, the ever-changing Berlinale festival program includes around four hundred films of diverse genres and various formats. The screenings and presentations make use of cinematic venues all over the city. The Berlinale Special reserves space for an extraordinary selection of diverse cinema. Berlinale Series highlights international series productions, while short films compete in the Berlinale Shorts.

Panorama puts a spotlight on edgy, daring and queer cinema and has its own audience award. Generation targets young cinephiles especially, while Retrospective, Berlinale Classics and Homage bring cinematic history to light on the screen. Berlinale Goes Kiez highlights local art house cinemas with special presentations.

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Awards, highlights, records and controversy at the Berlinale Berlin

Get to know the Berlinale film festival with its award categories, history movie highlights and record numbers.

Golden Bear and more: Berlinale award categories

The Golden Bear is the highest prize at the Berlin film festival and is awarded for the Best Motion Picture and the Best Short Film. Since 1982, an Honorary Golden Bear constitutes a Lifetime Achievement award.

The Silver Bear honors individual achievements at the Berlinale and is an award for Best Short Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Leading Performance, Best Supporting Performance and Outstanding Artistic Contribution. The jury also awards the Grand Jury Prize and the Silver Bear Jury Prize.

Further Berlinale awards include categories such as the Berlinale Camera for festival services, Crystal Bears for Generation competition entries, the Teddy Award for LGBTQ films, the Shooting Stars Award for upcoming European acting talents and the Panorama Audience Award.

Berlinale movie highlights

The Berlinale Berlin is constantly raising the bar for A-list film festivals with over forty per cent of competition entries not being directed by men and close to fifty per cent of the program entries not being directed by men. Each year, the festival publishes a gender report based on voluntary disclosure by participants.

The longest film ever of 482 minutes screened in the Berlinale Berlin competition is “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery” (original title: “Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis”) by Lav Diaz. In 1970, director Michael Verhoeven’s film “o.k.” sparked such controversy, the jury resigned and the competition had to be canceled for the first and only time in the Berlinale’s history.

“Rebecca” by Alfred Hitchcock opened the first Berlinale Berlin festival in 1951. “Wild Strawberries”, an icon of Ingmar Bergman’s film career, won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 8th film festival. Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson won the Golden Bear at the 50th Berlinale for “Magnolia” and returned to collect the Silver Bear for Best Director in 2008.

The intimate “Taxi” by Jafar Panahi, banned from making movies in his home country Iran, was filmed entirely inside a cab and won the Golden Bear at the 65th Berlinale. The 52nd festival saw a tie for the Golden Bear for Best Film between “Spirited Away” by Hayao Miyazaki and “Blood Sunday” by Paul Greengrass. This happened before: in 1983, “Love Streams” by indie cinema darling John Cassavetes had to share the statue with “Funny Dirty Little War” (original title: “No habrá más penas no olvido”) by Héctor Olivera.

By the way, Berlin is the set for an ever-growing number of movies. Check out the best Berlin movies!

The Berlinale Berlin in numbers

For the past decade, the Berlinale Berlin has seen close to 500,000 theater visits each year. Ticket sales have increased from nearly 300,000 in 2010 to 330,000 in 2020. The number of films in the public program at the Berlin International Film Festival varies around an average of 360 films. The year 2020 saw 341 screenings, while 2015 constituted a high number of 405 screenings.

The number of film industry participants at the Berlinale Berlin has increased steadily and nearly doubled over the past ten years. While in 2010, 6,450 industry members were attending the renowned film festival, 11,423 industry participants came to the German capital in 2020.

Fun fact: One of the Golden Bear award statues weighs in at 3.2 kilograms—however, at around 3.8 kilograms, an Oscar is still heftier!  

Tips for a unique experience at the Berlinale

Be smart and experience the Berlinale film festival to the fullest with these tips! Whatever your priority may be, plan accordingly and show up early. The official Berlinale website is your one-stop-shop for accreditation, ticketing and reading up on news and regulations. As a ticket holder, you still have to show up early to get good seats.

If you want to go star spotting, it’s the same mantra: be at the Berlinale Palast early to rub elbows with other fans as you wait to catch celebrities on the red carpet. Layer up, the Berlin winter is freezing. Make sure to check what else you need to know about Berlin and German culture. Another great way to meet directors, cast and crew is at the Q&A session after many Berlinale screenings and at special events, so don’t always rush off to the next screening.

While the competition is star-studded and steals all the attention, the festival is a great place to watch the rest of the program full of unusual films you might be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. As a cinephile or filmmaker, you should also check out the Berlinale Talent Campus where A-list industry pros and aspiring artists meet.

Don’t miss out on this Berlin event!

The Berlinale typically doesn’t have an overall theme, though individual festival programs might have a certain focus. If we had to pick a motto for the Berlinale Berlin, it’d be: after the festival is before the festival. You cannot predict the next edition from one year’s event.

While the competition and the stars might be the talk of the town one year, the special programs might be the center of attention next time around. You’ll have to be there to experience it!

Speaking of German cinema, films can actually help you learn the language, and you don’t even need to attend the Berlinale: here are the top 10 movies for learning German!

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