Interview: Christoph Terhechte

This week Berlin’s biggest film festival Berlinale is taking over the cinemas of the town screening more than 400 films in seven sections. To get a grip on the huge program we met the director of Forum, the section focussing on international young cinema, and talked to him about Berlin influencing the festival now and then, the selection process (2000 submissions each year!) and what films he’s interested in this year (e.g.: Mumblecore). Ticket sales start today, be sure to be quick, it sells out pretty fast.

Michael Hack: Berlin is the only major European festival – Venice, Locarno, Cannes – connected to a big city. Does this influence the character of the festival?

Christoph Terhechte: Yes, it does. It’s designed as a festival for the general public. The others were festivals started by the hotel industry: in Deauville or in Cannes the hotel owners were thinking about how to raise their sales, and thought a film festival wouldn’t be such a bad idea. In Berlin it was about upgrading this West-Berlin enclave, entertaining the Berliners, and demonstrating what the ‘front-line city’ could achieve. From the beginning it’s been designed with the audience rather than the film industry in mind, even if the two are no longer separated today . 

The Berlinale always had a political message: It was invented to be a part of the ‘showcase’ West Berlin. Would you still agree that the films shown at the Berlinale today, and specifically in the Forum, influence the urban community and become part of the discussion in the city?

They certainly do. Not only because of the Berlinale, but because the city itself works like that. This wouldn’t work in Munich, Dusseldorf, or Hamburg. But the festival didn’t understand itself as a showcase or only presented political works, in the beginning it was about entertainment, though it opened up quite quickly to present work from other continents, screening films from Asia and from what was then called the Eastern Bloc. In Berlin one could discover international films that weren’t shown in commercial cinemas. This actually contributed to a politicization of the festival, and made it possible to establish a space for discussion. Berlin is ideal for this since it’s a place where an educated public is less interested in money and more in the matter at hand. It’s still the cheapest and most livable city due to this intellectual atmosphere.

Today, the character of the Berlinale indeed lies somewhere between a festival for the public and a festival for professional audiences. With such a mass of films unleashed on people, how is it possible for a film to voice its message?

First, we make an extremely precise selection: of the about 2,000 films submitted for Forum we choose a very small selection of 40. These are the films that we think we can really present properly. We carefully design the program to give every film its space. Before I took over the direction of the Forum, far more films were shown, and since I had the impression that you just cannot take equal care of all those films, I reduced the number, even though all the cinemas were full and not one film was presented to an empty theater. I did this because I wanted to find the right place for each film and really support it with an invitation to the Forum. This isn’t possible with a huge number of films. 

For us it’s not about throwing a glamorous event, we want the films to have an influence, an echo. We want the audience to start talking, to want to see the film again or to recommend it to their friends. And that the films are even picked up within the film industry and are commercialized in new ways. This is an ugly word, but in the end that’s what the film business is about. Also, and I find this particularly great, to present our selection to other festivals, archives, and curators around the world who come to Berlin to determine their own program. It’s not unusual for a film to get 40 invitations to other festivals and programs after being shown in the Forum.

These days, you could get the impression that many films that run in Forum will only be shown at events like this and no longer find their way to the regular cinema. Would you agree?

The number of festivals is constantly growing and they are replacing regular cinemas more and more. This means that festivals, especially smaller ones, need to make their contribution to the economic process, e.g. paying to present films. Because they are a substitute for lending films from a distributor. 
On the other hand, since we also archive and preserve films, more films from the Forum are shown in cinemas than from the other sections. However, it’s not like the films in the Competition will run in a cinema next week, or already have a distributor. It’s not necessarily easier for them to be shown in a regular cinema than for our films, because their size implies a bigger economic risk. For our low-budget films it’s often worth it to make a deal with a small distributor who just offers one to five prints. In the end the spread might be even greater, as is the possibility that these films are seen. About half of our films get into cinemas, albeit in different ways, which is actually a big percentage. When the Forum was established in 1971, there was already a budget for subtitling film prints to keep them in the archive and to distribute them non-commercially. We are continuing this to this day, and it’s an important part of our work. 

With digital distribution this will, of course, be different. It’s much easier to work with an HD tape or a DCP, a hard drive, than with a film print that comes in a large box and must be shipped. A small cassette or a secure download opens completely new possibilities. 

The Forum is now a perfect part of the Berlinale, which was different in the beginning, how did this develop?

The Forum was established in 1971 in response to the disruption of the Berlinale due to the scandal surrounding Michael Verhoeven’s film “o.k.”, when the Competition committee resigned over a dispute about this film. Something similar previously happened in Cannes, so the model for the Forum was surely the “Quinzaine des Réalisateurs“. Ulrich and Erika Gregor quickly got the support from the senate and could realize the Forum with a proper budget. People literally turned away from the Berlinale Competition and visited the Forum instead. This meant they didn’t get along well with the former Berlinale director Alfred Bauer, who was from the old school and had run the festival for ages, understandably so, since they had stolen his show. The Forum positioned itself completely independent from the festival and, in my view, in later years made the mistake to more or less ignore the rest of the festival. We’ve actually been reconsidering this position. I’ve never seen the sense of those struggles: the Forum is an important part of the festival, and the Berlinale wouldn’t want to abandon it, and I know we couldn’t realize the Forum if it wasn’t part of the Berlinale. So why not use our synergy? That doesn’t mean we suddenly start to just scatter the films between the sections, this is another rumor. There’s a creative competition between the sections, but also a collaboration, because the heads of the sections are also members of the Competition selection committee. 

Overall we complement each other. This year there is only one East Asian film in Competition, and so we all can be happy that we have twelve of them in the Forum.

How does that work? At first glance it’s not clearly identifiable, which film would „belong“ in the Forum which in the Competition. Many directors show some of their films in the Competition and others in the Forum.

The Competition has priority for the filmmakers, of course. Aki Kaurismäki, who instead chose to be shown at the Forum, is a famous exception, but there’s hardly anyone who’d turn down the Competition. However, for some films it wouldn’t be right to run in the Competition, they’d get lost, there’s a different kind of pressure there. They know very well that they’ve got the right place in the Forum. Of course, most of them try for both.

You started as a critic. How does the view of the critic relate to that of the curator?

I’ve never felt it would be a change of sides, it’s almost the same as being a critic. You evaluate films, not only by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down. Even as a critic I’m trying to write a sophisticated critique, I try to classify the films. As a curator I arrange, I try to create a relationship between the films. Both perform acts of sorting, critics as well as program directors. The big difference is that critics are essentially powerless when it comes to the question of who’s going to see a film. I don’t believe that a review has much of an effect on the audience’s preferences. I personally believe in reading about a film after watching it, to learn more, to find associations, to think about a film, not to answer the question whether I want to see a film or not. A critic can provide only a little guidance on that. So that’s a difference: The films that I don’t choose as a curator aren’t shown in the festival.

You’ve mentioned a large number of films being submitted, but I’m assuming you’re also looking out for films yourselves. What’s the ratio of found and submitted films?

This varies from year to year, but one can say that more than half of the Forum program is actively sought out. The percentage can even be more than two-thirds. The submission process is very important because there should be democratic access to the festival. But the work that I do all year round, in the period where no films are submitted, is just as important. The issue here is to find out what’s happening in the world, where new developments are emerging, where people are showing new directions, where to put your emphasis next year. It’s like being a kind of a bloodhound and following your intuition. Travelling to the same places each year, just because you like them, and then, to justify this, presenting the films of a certain style or provenance is the death of an interesting program.

Where do you go? Do you have contact with film schools? Where do you stretch out your sensors?

Of course we are in touch with film schools, but because there are so many, we rely more on local delegates in order to keep up those contacts. A few weeks ago I travelled to Buenos Aires to visit the Universidad del Cine, and there I even found a film that we’ll show in the program: “Ausente” by Marco Berger. We also have contacts with producers, critics, and other connections we have built up over the years. Quite important are the filmmakers who were here and give us new recommendations. Two years ago we had Andrew Bujalski and his film “Beeswax”, he’s one of the proponents of the mumblecore movement in the U.S., and this year he drew my attention to two new films by Joe Swanberg. Whereupon I discovered all of Swanberg’s other work, which I was still relatively unfamiliar with. But at 29 he’s already made eight films, one was just presented at Sundance, we will present two more at the Forum.

What else did you discover this year?

Interestingly we’ll be showing – though we had great difficulties finding enough interesting films from there in recent years– five films from Latin America. Another focus is the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with several co-productions, as creative artists often connect countries which used to belong together. This also happens in former Yugoslavia. While politicians are still practicing some kind of cold war, the filmmakers and artists keep in touch with each other, or re-establish contact. We’ll be showing three films from the Czech Republic and Slovakia; they represent different directions, but work complementarily nonetheless. I prefer it like that: we’ll show three films from the same area instead of seeking a deliberate balance. You can’t design a balanced program, you must consciously create certain distortions to guide attention.

You’re now categorizing by country first of all, which is understandable. However, the films of the Forum especially show a strong international dimension: they’re presented at international festivals, travel through the world, and I suppose that the filmmakers, who attend a lot of these festivals, are influenced by the international film experience. Inspite of this, is there still something of a national identity in the films of the Forum?

It exists, though it’s not based on a kind of “Volksseele” or such nonsense, it has to do with the intellectual atmosphere in a country at a particular time. There are always movements like that, because artists are connected, they compare, and learn from each other, perhaps because a country has a certain creative feel. One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that, it’s why regional clusters recur. If one takes for example the so-called “Berlin school”, whether it existed as an official group or not, it’s quite clear that there were people who were connected, at least for a certain period of time, who worked together on publications like Revolver magazine, who debated certain issues. Additionally, if there’s a creative engagement with outsiders, like the exchange between Christopher Hochhäusler, Christian Petzold, and Dominik Graf, which in the end resulted in the project “Dreileben“, whose premiere we’ll host, then that’s great. On the other hand, there are also contexts that exceed the national one, these are particularly visible in the experimental film scene, which establishes itself on international events.

What aesthetic or thematic focus do you observe in this year’s program?

The trends we show are not the trends of world cinema, but those which we ourselves focus on. When we start selecting films we act more or less randomly on what we like or are inspired by, but the deeper we get into the programming, the more we’re oriented on the films already selected, so that they all correspond with each other or contradict each other completely. We’re therefore trying to find lines in the program. Two-thirds of the program is selected purely intuitively, because we still don’t really know where to go, but after a while you have an idea of how to develop the overall program. 

For me it’s always important not to view a film individually, but in the context of what I’ve already selected. When completing the program, we ask ourselves: what do we already have, what do we need, what fits, how will the films correspond? 
This year many films actually deal with the human psyche: relationships, family, and a lot of private things, which most of the times are then positioned in a wider social context. One of the films that I would describe as a discovery, which was actually found through a normal submission, is called “Utopians” by Zbigniew Bzymek. It’s about a yoga teacher who’s a bit on edge, his daughter, who just returned as a soldier from the Iraq war, and her lesbian girlfriend, diagnosed as schizophrenic, all three of them move into a house to renovate it. The schizophrenic character is the most normal of them. All are on the last reserves of their mental powers and they form a therapeutic community. This is something very private, yet it does point to a broader social context: be it the Iraq war or, more generally understood, a metaphor for America; the title already suggests that it’s not just about a small family. Formally it’s also made in a rather unusual way, how Bzymek treats the sound, creates the atmosphere, expands some of the scenes in a way and compresses others leaves a rather uncomfortable feeling in my stomach and the audience intuitively understands what the film is dealing with. It’s one of the most exciting discoveries, representing many other ideas and themes that appear in the program: desperation about the world, its impact on private relationships, how you define yourself against the outside world. 

Another highlight of a very different nature is “Day Is Done” by the Swiss filmmaker Thomas Imbach. For a long time, more than a decade, he placed a 35mm camera on the window sill of his studio, filmed the city and simultaneously archived the messages on his answering machine. He uses these messages to create a narrative structure in the film, while showing what happened outside his window: wide-angle shots of Zurich, the weather, aircrafts, close-ups of distant buildings or chimneys, and what happens right in front of his house. The same woman walks from left to right and returns with her mail and the NZZ, every day, giving the film its structure. Or there are individual events, a bad motorcycle accident, burning cars, etc. The most interesting is the story, told at the same time, of the private messages on the answering machine. At the beginning it’s still quite vague, and almost ridiculous when a woman flirtily says: Oh Thomas, you’re giving me butterflies. But time passes and many crazy stories evolve, some are tragic, like that of his father dying of cancer.

It’s not staged?

No, his personal stories are as spread out: his girlfriend who feels misunderstood, at some point becomes pregnant, then he has a child he doesn’t really take care of, she complains to him, at some point the child then calls itself. It goes on for a long time and is more exciting than any fiction. The film plays with the layers of the interior and exterior in an exemplary manner, and thus represents a kind of programmatic definition of this year’s program.

Intimate observations also were a part of the “Berlin School”, which was always prominently represented at the Forum. Which brings us to the topic discussed every year, the German films at the Berlinale. “Dreileben” is a project shown at Forum, which has in some way emerged from the “Berlin school”, but in this case the director Dominik Graf is involved, whose position to this group has always been rather skeptical.

What I find interesting about the “Berlin school”, except from liking the tendency in principle, is their theoretical debate of film. I don’t think you can create good films if you are not interested in watching and discussing films by other filmmakers. And as long as this group is not closed off, defending its own ideas and acting as if theirs is the only truth, but it instead enables a dialogue with others like in this case Dominik Graf, it’s a great thing. The exciting thing about these three films, which are a result from a letter exchange in “Revolver” four years ago, is the specific experiment: three different people create three different films about one and the same event. And then seeing how these three directors responded to each other, without knowing the other’s work.

Apart from that, which other German films will you show?

We have two more German fiction films in the program. One is “Auf der Suche” by Jan Krüger, who previously presented his films in the Perspektive and in Panorama. He’s telling a story that echoes some motifs of the “Berlin school”. It’s also about the city of Marseille, but Krüger tells it very differently, in his own way, it’s his most mature film. It’s about a mother looking for her lost son, who lived in Marseille and suddenly no longer reacted. She sets off with his gay ex-boyfriend to find out what actually happened. She of course finds out, as befits such a story, that she didn’t know everything about him. There’s an interesting correspondence with a German film, which runs in the Panorama, “Über uns das All” by Jan Schomburg: also set in Marseille, and also about the search for someone who turns out to be different from what he was to be like.
The other German film is called “Swans” by a director from Portugal, Hugo Vieira da Silva, who lived in Berlin for a while and is now based in Vienna. He tells the story of a German family that was destroyed long ago. The mother stayed in Berlin, father and son went to Portugal. The mother is now in a coma in Berlin, and the two come to visit her. You expect that the dysfunctional communication between father and son will somehow be resolved, but the opposite is happening: they actually drift apart. It’s a very exciting film, a film about fetishes, spaces, about speechlessness, I consider it one of the best German films of the moment.

As a last question, a forecast. The Forum created a space, the “Forum Expanded”, reflecting the blurring borders between auteurs’ films and video art. With the new technical tools new forms of audiovisual expression emerge, which can be seen as a kind of counter-cinema. How can this be integrated into film festivals?

Some festivals are already paying attention to this development, and “Forum Expanded” is in its sixth year now because we tried to adjust to the increase of those forms and at the same time to offer a label to draw more attention to it, to unite the interest from the art world and from the film world. Relatively few art lovers came to the Berlinale before there was this label. But it’s not entirely new of course, this desire of filmmakers to get out of the cinema, to overcome their boundaries has long existed, and the so-called Expanded Cinema of the seventies and its echoes have also previously been represented in the Forum. Today film artists often find their funding in the art world. If Chantal Akerman gets financing for an installation and a film is the result, that’s something different from twenty years ago, when someone wanted to make a film and then said: oh, that could even be used quite well in an installation. Festivals pick up these changes and Forum Expanded is, I believe, almost ideally integrated in the festival. When you put a nice label on it and change the form of presentation you can support the filmmakers and provide a new value.

Michael Hack, based in Berlin and Frankfurt, is a writer, translator and organizer of a wide range of events from cinema to politics. He is responsible for the programming of LICHTER Filmtage in Frankfurt.

Interview: Michael Hack
Photo: Mary Scherpe