Feature image: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (dir. Johnnie To)
“The Berlinale is not the problem, but only a symptom of German film culture,” announced Frédéric Jaeger, director of Berlin’s Critics’ Week (Woche der Kritik), at its inaugural event. Although insisting that the Critics’ Week, running parallel to the Berlinale, is no ‘anti-festival’, its founders nonetheless look at the Berlinale critically for having “contentedly attired itself in the belief of its own success, in the reassurances of market share, and the proportionally self-satisfied niches for documentaries, auteur films, and other established forms tamed by the medium of film. The possibilities seem endless, well-behaved, and predictable.”
The predictability of cinema seems to be at the heart of the matter for the critics who signed the Pamphlet for Activist Film Criticism at last year’s Oberhausen International Film Festival, in which they caution against the threat of filmmaking being submitted to “market logic, target audience orientation and political agendas.” Cinema, it seems, is being led astray, and the first edition of the Critics’ Week was a way for criticism to attempt “to overcome its passive pragmatism and reclaim an activist practice.” This seven-day event experimented with methods of presenting films in order to involve the public by going beyond the films themselves to relate them to broader concerns.
Yaron Dahan spoke with Frédéric Jaeger and Dennis Vetter, two of the five founders of Critics’ Week, about their motivations for instituting the event as well as the Pamphlet for Activist Film Criticism and the state of German cinema.
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How did the Critics’ Week Berlin start, and what were your motivations for creating a Critics’ Week the Berlinale?
DV: There’s been a shift in terms of generations in film criticism, which manifested in a new board in the German Film Critic’s Association. This sparked a very vivid atmosphere amongst our colleagues. There was already one edition of the Critics’ Week in the sixties which was the first initiative, and which led to the creation of the Forum [a section of the Berlinale]. This opposition became a part of the Berlinale, and I think it’s always a good question to ask why there is no opposition left. Ultimately we decided during the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen to write a pamphlet and announce this event.
FJ: Actually there are many different initiatives that lie behind the creation of a Critics’ Week. In our case the conflicts with the Berlinale were not very determining because we wanted to achieve something that has more to do with film culture in general. For us the Berlinale is an opportunity to get together with colleagues we don’t meet the rest of the year in Germany. Our main motivation in Oberhausen was that we were simply inspired by the festival. It was the moment we decided to put together all our perspectives on where cinema culture and film criticism are heading, and where we need to take a stand.
What are these new ideas? And what are your oppositions to the way things are being done?
FJ: There are many areas in which we see room for improvement and where we need to engage. The basic premise is that even though film criticism is always something that has a stake in cinema, it needs to have a certain distance to film culture. That might be fine as long as cinema culture has other advocates, but in a time where those advocates are leaving it be, critics need to step in.
The situation is linked to the digital taking over distribution, which plays a decisive role both for the media we publish in and the media we review. Obviously the “digital revolution” amplifies some of the developments that have already been there, especially in terms of the space films can claim in distribution or media, which got to be more dependent on marketing budget: the more you have, the more you get. As today there are more films being released, many of them look and feel alike. The so-called choice isn’t really one, at least not in the cinemas.
This is linked to our view of what cinema can offer. What kind of cinema do we get to see? What kind of cinema is produced, subsidised and distributed? What are festivals showing? In all these forms, there is a tendency towards proportionally correct niche representations, something that puts forward an idea of cinema as a vector of societal representation.
Do you mean that in the Berlinale that they need to see a few South African films, a few German films, a few Jewish films, a few gay films and cover all the bases?
FJ: That’s part of it too. They give niches a niche. There’s a problem with giving a space to each person so that everyone is content, which keeps everyone in their place. And this idea of “everybody in their place” stems from a very conservative position of art as a representational form and has nothing to do with the more radical possibilities of art.
DV: So a solution is to tweak the way we present films, and create a different way of balancing a program. We chose these terms to create a necessity to deal with the question of how this film is being created, presented or discussed.
So your approach is how the film is discussed rather than the films themselves?
DV: It’s the cultural approach to a certain aesthetic or to a certain form of presentation, which we are trying to irritate.
FJ: The debates were the reason for us to organise this program, but obviously as film critics we cannot watch movies without caring for the movies themselves. So we made a program in which we are very much interested in the specifics of the film, but we would have made different choices had the debates not been a part of the concept.
So how did you choose the program then? And what kind of debates did you wish to evoke?
FJ: We were five people who screened over 100 films based on recommendations, and we tried to select the films that sparked the most debate. Then it’s like curating any program: you have a couple of films you are very passionate about and then you try to see how they can form a program.
What is the link between the pamphlet and the program? There seemed to have been a kind of discrepancy. The pamphlet came out against the fact that arthouse cinema, once an alternative, has been assimilated by film festivals or have been made into niche mainstreams. However, many of the films in the Critics’ Week program could have been in the Berlinale’s programs. So how did this selection match with the program?
DV: Well I would say that the first article of the Pamphlet for Activist Criticism is the idea of criticism as an active practice besides writing itself. Setting up an event that would represent a gesture of criticism was our main imperative. It’s not about content but about the form. I agree that the selection could’ve been a bit more extravagant, but it didn’t need to be. We didn’t have the imperative to show something that would never appear on the festival circuit just for the sake of showing it. So it was much more interesting for us to show films that would spark a certain discussion.
FJ: Also I don’t agree with the premise that the films we selected could have been in the Berlinale. Because they’re open to everything and anything. Everything is imaginable within the Berlinale. You’ll have to show me a film which is impossible for the Berlinale to show. I don’t think this film has been made yet.
There’s a good possibility to misunderstand our activist pamphlet as one which wants to put forward an idea of cinema as being one kind of cinema – cinema that isn’t shown enough. But this is only one aspect of cinema that interests us. It’s not about showing one specific kind of cinema and it shouldn’t be.
The most important thing for us in selecting the films was that the films do represent some idea we have of cinema in its multitude of forms. For example, Johnnie To is a well-known director but those romantic comedies [Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and its sequel] are not very well known to Western audiences. The two films we showed haven’t been shown in Germany till today, and the first film is from 2011! So it’s actually exactly there where you have the feeling of seeing something. “Oh yeah that’s not very radical.” But even if it’s not radical, it isn’t visible in Germany.
For the creation of the Critics’ Week, did you take inspiration from the other Critics’ Weeks, and how did you conceive of it differently?
FJ: Well, I’ve worked in the Critics’ Week at Cannes, and I’ve seen the Critics’ Week at Locarno and Venice. But they started in a very different time and in a different perspective of discoveries. In Cannes and Venice it is about discovering emerging talent through first and second features, and, at Locarno, documentaries. Today cinema is so open to discovery that you don’t need anyone doing any more of that. The term of the Critics’ Week is about having an independent program curated by critics while incorporating some kind of idea activism within the realm of film criticism.
What about the program’s form? Each evening you presented flyers with a single word with the topic for debate. What debates did you want to open up and how did you want them to be different?
DV: We wanted to not talk about content. We tried to set the films in relation to the idea that would comment on the films, or a commentary to how the films are created. For example, Im Kwon-taek, the director of Revivre, who appeared in the West through the influence of the Forum, and who has received an honorary award at the Berlinale. So it was very exciting to talk in relation to the subject we selected – Status. And we discussed how filmmakers are made visible in the festival circuit and how they receive a status that allows them to spread their art.
FJ: We chose two films under the term “Provocation” where you need a very big stretch of the imagination to actually understand how they fit. It got to be a meta-discourse about how we can frame films, and how we get ourselves in a relationship of the reaction and action within a cinema context. Obviously it’s always linked to who the guests are.
We tried to do this is by inviting guests not directly linked to the film – for example the director of the Viennale or critics. That was one way where we tried to go beyond the expected discussion. We have a big problem with the usual Q&A culture, and I wasn’t satisfied with the first night where the discussion was the closest to a typical Q&A. I’d say the discussions worked best when the directors weren’t there. But then again, we had good discussions too.
And what about you Dennis? What were the most and least successful projections?
DV: The most successful nights were when people left their territories. The “Provocation” night was the most successful one. When I moderated the first night, “Activism”, which was the least successful one, I learned the most – that it is very important to make a point, and whatever measures are necessary to do that will be fine. Even with a very classical Q&A. If people are willing or brave enough to step out of their roles, it will work out. At the same time, it may have been good to be more aggressive.
In your second night, you had a guest from Arte who said something to the effect that the box office was an indicator of the value of a film…
FJ: That was very infuriating. Actually we did want someone to position himself this way. That can be helpful to spark a debate, but it didn’t work, but maybe because the debate was about a different type of thing – genre cinema. But maybe he would have been a great guest to have when the topic was “Resistance”, and where we had no one tell us why resistance was useless.
DV: Yeah, absolutely.
In your speech, Frédéric, you mentioned the problems of German film culture and how the Berlinale is a symptom of this problem. To what extent is the Critics’ Week created to be relevant to a German public? How much does it target German, as opposed to the international, festival public?
FJ: Very much so. One of the things we tried to do is to create links or solidarity between other people in the field. Because the solidarity that exists today is mostly a market solidarity of “whatever works”. And we did realise that that what we are doing resonates with our international colleagues, but obviously we’re very much rooted in what happens in Germany. In film culture in Germany, our government is today more than ever very keen on developing the industrial aspect of film, which is a joke. They believe cinema and media is a question of marketing or of using labor resources or of gaining visibility on an international scale, and what they believe has very little to do with art.
Would it be correct to say that the Critics’ Week is an attempt to address these problems?
FJ: Not in the way that we are directly addressing the way films are financed, but we are hoping to shift the perspectives that are dominant in German film indust-… well it’s not really an industry: community. A community that is very content with itself. And this self-contentment is maybe the biggest problem because it leads to accepting the status quo.
DV: You could also talk about the reactions we received towards initiating this Critics’ Week. We received very different reactions from within Germany as compared to the international reactions. Usually the international reactions were much more open towards the cultural questions we raised while the German reactions are much more obsessed with the market politics within the country.
Can you elaborate?
DV: Like cinema owners who were personally offended by our pamphlet, and who would call us to justify their programming principles. The initiative itself seeks to join these two dimensions – to let the wider, more theoretical, more international thoughts flow together with the German microscopic perspective, so that they enrich each other.
FJ: I think it’s very gratifying to see people getting upset about our initiative. I would never have expected it to be so vivid, because on a grander scale what are we doing? I mean who cares? We have a small cinema space where we have seven evenings, and a couple of people come and talk and we put some stuff online, so what does this matter on the grander scale? But interestingly enough there are quite a few people getting really angry at what we’re doing, and I think that’s actually very helpful to understand where German film culture could be heading.
And why do you think there’s so much resistance if it’s such a small thing?
FJ: My impression is that the German film culture is very anti-intellectual. There is a circle of mutual affirmation of them not questioning the principles on which cinema is defended. And we tried to question even those points. It’s linked to a question of where the money is. And there’s this niche market or not-that-niche market of arthouse cinema within which there’s a lot of funding going to cinemas and distributors. And it’s not that much money, just enough for them to survive. And in the moment where you question the ways these institutions can survive, they become very afraid of losing this legitimacy that is obviously built on lies.
Do you mean that they become beholden through their funding?
FJ: No. I mean that the money coming from the German states comes because of an idea of promoting cultural diversity, and in the moment where we criticise these players as actually doing the opposite they become more afraid than those players in the markets, where everything works through public attendance figures.
This is a good point to take a broader look at Germany. What are the practical differences in the way funding is structured in Germany that makes this model less artistically successful? What are the German conditions?
FJ: The main problem we have is that the federal government is not responsible for culture, but each state. And each state is interested mostly in getting the money to be spent in their own state. You have similar programs in the US in which the individual states try to lure productions and most of the funding is linked to just getting jobs. It has very little to do with the specifics of this art form.
Because the question of who is actually funding greatly affects the possibility of supporting cinema that is less rooted in the middle ground. In Germany the television system plays a big role in cinema, like other countries too, but here the consequences of television funding is that you cannot make cinema movies without having money from television first. If you want to make a film, you go first to a television station and get them to agree to fund your film. And after they have agreed on your film, you can go and find other money.
Does that mean that the final film has to be interesting for television as well?
FJ: Yes. And television has increasingly given up on specific forms of cinema. This is especially very true of documentary cinema and it is true also of auteur cinema. The only cinema that can still work within this framework is that which has as its theme a very strong relationship to history or current affairs: neo-Nazis or whatever.
Television stations do not decide purely on entertainment values or whatever will get the highest ratings but they decide on a mixture of audience understanding and expected reputation. If you support film based on expected reputation you always try to play it safe. Which means having big names attached, so that the films will get to specific festivals to win some awards.
So you would say the funding system is relatively risk-adverse?
FJ: Yeah, but everything is risk adverse in Germany
DV: [laughs] Conceptually, you could say that Germany is a system in which people enjoy a relative state of wealth. We don’t have major conflicts going on within our society. So the status quo is getting stronger. People are facing a lot of conventional aesthetic choices and risk-averse cultural policies. I don’t see clear oppositions being articulated anywhere in Germany against established patterns of cultural production. And because of that, there’s no solidarity of a group opposing the system.
How does the Critics’ Week relate to this? What can it change?
DV: It’s about making clear points and reaching people who will step back from the routines of cultural production. And by taking that distance, you can spark new dynamics or surprising developments, and create a possibility for surprise again.